Inclusivity Stuff

For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity, about identity politics, and about my role as a creative person. I feel like I’m in the middle of a slow and at times painful process of coming into my own as a game designer, and I’m at a point in my life where “game designer” is about the only label I kinda’ sorta’ feel like making a part of my identity. I am big on gaming and anime, but there are a plethora of reasons why I have a hard time thinking of myself as a “gamer” or “otaku.” Some of it is that there are elements in those fandoms that don’t make them feel like the most complimentary labels to wear, but there’s also the fact that in the areas where I have respect for gamerdom and otakudom, I feel a bit inadequate, as I watch anime sporadically and with odd preferences in recent years, and my gaming habits are pretty out there. (The last video game I played really seriously was Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 2, which for those keeping score at home was originally released for PC Engine in 1995.) My creative works express who I am a lot better than my media consumption, so you can see a lot more of who I am as a person from I Want to be an Awesome Robot or even Channel A than from looking at my DVD shelf.

That in turn means that for issues like diversity, there are arenas where I have very direct control and the responsibility falls primarily on me. Although I’m finding I love when artists I hire for game art surprise me (as James Workman and Clove have done many times working on art for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies), whether there is, say, a brown-skinned character on the cover of one of my books is something I determine when I write up art specs for the cover illustration. That isn’t to say that people who don’t create games don’t have a voice–far from it, and I’m very grateful for those who have spoken up–but simply that these are decisions that are getting up in my face, and they’re doing so for something that defines me, so I want to get it right.

I would not have imagined that my air nymph character would've wound up looking like this, but I love it.
I would not have imagined that my air nymph character would’ve wound up looking like this, but I love it.

A while back I posted about my thoughts on and commitment to inclusivity on Google+, and S. John Ross replied saying that to him that was rather like someone saying they were committed to not punching people in the face: laudable but also blindingly obvious. He’s one of my gaming heroes, and I envy how easy and natural it apparently is for him, because despite growing up in a place as diverse as Silicon Valley (and growing up Unitarian Universalist and hearing social justice stuff most Sundays) I feel I have to consciously work to avoid cliches and stereotypes. My friends are pretty diverse in some ways (white guys are usually outnumbered when we get together, but then we’re in the Bay Area), and pretty homogeneous in others (almost entirely nerdy guys in their 30s), so I find it disappointing but not totally shocking when I catch myself, say, writing stories where all of the characters are white.

Diversity is Reality

Critics of media introducing diversity often talk about it being forced, making it sound as though they’re imagining Politically Correct quotas mandated by Marketing People Who Hate Fun. It’s true that diversity shouldn’t be “forced,” in that it should be the most natural thing in the world. Real life is staggeringly diverse, and it’s because of pernicious and decidedly unnatural blinders that we sometimes don’t see it. If anything is “forced,” it’s a lack of diversity, which is a lie that directly contradicts the truth of the world, and which takes great (though often unconscious) effort to maintain. All good art is informed by a spark of truth.

Diversity is a Creative Challenge

Making my works diverse is a challenge, in a good way. It forces me to step away from tired cliches and try new things. I know I’ll stumble sometimes, but that means I should try harder and learn from my mistakes. Commitment to being a creative person requires seeking new challenges and constantly trying to improve. People will talk about artistic integrity, but I think artists owe it to themselves, to their art, to the Muse, to want to take on these kinds of challenges. It’s not about diversity quotas or marketing data, it’s about an artist’s need to constantly push their comfort zone, to connect with the audience, to draw out some of the truth of the human experience. Artists who don’t push themselves inevitably stagnate.

Over the course of my life I’ve accumulated words that help me make sense of the world. “Life is meetings and partings,” for example. Some are things I made up, some are quotes from anime or songs, a few are things that came to me in dreams. The one that comes to mind here is, “I would rather try than not try.” A whole lot of the good things in my life have come from simply being willing to just sit down and try. One of the objections that sometimes gets raised to increased diversity is, “If I screw it up people are going to be pissed at me, so why bother?” The thing is, screwing up isn’t the end. It’s a test. The test is how you react to being called out, and you pass by being graceful and doing your best to learn from the experience and do better next time. That holds true even if you disagree with the criticisms being leveled. It’s surprisingly common for creators or businesses to zero in on ways to make such situations worse for themselves rather than better. When all is said and done, a creator has to be taking criticism and striving to be better on countless fronts all the time anyway.

People Appreciate Inclusivity

In video games that let you make your own avatar, people want to be able to make it look like themselves. I want to be able to give my video game self glasses, and it’s the most natural thing in the world for a brown-skinned person to want a brown-skinned character (as Nintendo learned the hard way from Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where getting a brown-skinned character requires an inordinate amount of effort at tanning). Characters like Speedy Gonzales from Looney Tunes and Blanka from Street Fighter have followings in Mexico and Brazil partly because they’re rare characters that represent those countries, even if they do so in problematic ways. (Reminder that liking problematic stuff is fine, provided you can recognize why someone might find it problematic and, you know, be an adult about it.) We can certainly do better than Warner Brothers circa 1953, or even Capcom from 1991, but it shows just how much people appreciate seeing some of themselves on the screen, even if it’s in the guise of a green-skinned electric mutant from the Amazon.

I am a white guy, but although I don’t like to talk about it all that much, there are a few important ways in which I don’t at all identify with the typical white male protagonist, or the portrait of an average man that society presents. As a result there are a bunch of things in mainstream culture that I find alienating. One more benign example is that I’m alcohol intolerant. My body doesn’t process alcohol properly, so I have a legitimate medical need to not drink. Add to that the fact that very few people in my life actually do drink, and the entire cultural institution of drinking alcohol (which is massive) is largely outside of my experience. I’ve never been to a proper bar, bought someone a drink, or gotten drunk in a way that was remotely pleasant. When Serenity Rose (protagonist of the comic of the same name) mentioned that she doesn’t drink (with the footnote “Some people are actually capable of becoming enraged about this. I know! Wild, huh?”), I felt a little less alone in the world. That’s a minor example (I can easily go for months without having to seriously think about alcohol), especially compared to potentially pervasive stuff like race or sexuality, but the feeling is important, and I think well worth the effort to give to other people. I want to make things that make people happy, and I won’t pass up such a good means of doing so.

Diversity Sells Anyway

The past few years have seen a lot of kerfuffles over geeks dealing badly with women and minorities coming into “their” spaces. One of the things that’s exacerbated this is that it’s pretty clear that companies are starting to figure out that if done right, works that appeal to “unconventional” audiences can still do very well. Superhero comics have traditionally been about as male-dominated of a genre as you can get, but Marvel has been successful with Ms. Marvel and other titles that wreak havoc on traditional notions of how superhero comics address race and gender and such, and is seriously considering a Black Widow movie. When someone complained that Bioware was “wasting” resources on material for gay relationships, one of the devs schooled him, saying that they have data on what people actually play, and they know exactly what they’re doing. In the RPG world the likes of Wizards of the Coast and Paizo have shown a major commitment to diversity in artwork and such, and while there have been a few people complaining, two of the biggest publishers in the industry have been content to ignore them and push to do more and better.

I have to imagine that that must be the scariest thing of all to the people who feel threatened by diversity, since once capitalism latches onto something as profitable, it will roll over human lives, much less fans’ tastes, to get it. If seeing female protagonists bothers you for some reason, the future is looking like it’s going to bother you a lot more. If you’re a creator, injecting some sincere diversity into your works is looking to not only be socially and creatively fulfilling, but a good way to not throw money into the garbage for no reason. The kind of people who will genuinely pass on a product they’d have otherwise bought because it features characters of neglected demographics are turning out to be well worth firing as customers, since they’re both few in number and make things less pleasant for everyone else.

Sincerity

One of the major themes in conversations about these kinds of topics is sincerity, in the sense that critics of diversity can’t seem to comprehend the idea that someone might be trying to make their creations more inclusive for sincere reasons. I’m sure there are people who do such things for cynical reasons (though cynicism seems to more often serve the status quo), but there are plenty of sincere reasons to be more inclusive, for yourself and for your audience, before money ever even comes into the picture. All I can really say for certain is this: I’m going to try.

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5 thoughts on “Inclusivity Stuff

  1. I like your logic. I already subscribe to your newspaper, obviously. I too feel the same about alcohol, and it does make me feel a little less alone to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t drink. I don’t think I get sick physically from it, but I do feel… well, i feel sick. Unwell. The experience of being drunk is the experience of having been mildly poisoned to me. So yes, “I don’t drink”.

    I also like your goals of being inclusive… I’m very poor at thinking about that myself, and having artists remind me by giving them a freer hand is a major goal of mine.

  2. Interesting. I’m gearing up to GM a Maid game with some friends, and I was just reflecting on how Maid is written (source-material-wise), how you localized it, and what you went on to say about it. There are some definite inclusiveness issues there. Some were firmly with the source material, but some where with the way you handled some aspects of it and spoke about them outside of the game (on this blog and in your 120% supplement). Your approach assumed that players would be (straight) men and reinforced that Maid was written for the straight male gaze *only*. It really frustrated me, and I could probably write an essay on how and why. I’m not sure if you’re interested in that, and I know it was years ago… but I saw this and thought it was worth a mention. I’m glad you’re thinking about it now, at least.

    I do feel, especially in the past couple of years, that things are looking up a little regarding mainstream media creators taking women more seriously as an audience and as protagonist material. I always wondered if our money just wasn’t good enough for them. In fact, much of the reason I love anime and video games as much as I do today is because there were girls there, important ones. No one can pretend that Japanese media is perfect (it’s rife with issues of its own), but as a 9 year old girl, discovering Sailor Moon was revolutionary. I felt wounded when I discovered that Cardcaptor Sakura had been gutted in an attempt to make it appeal more to boys on American TV. I was confused about the censorship of gay couples in both CCS and Sailor Moon (I’m also bi/pan/whatever you like to call it, but I didn’t know that at the time). The tiny handful of games that had female characters or allowed a gender choice made me feel included. I was a 9 year old girl playing King of Fighters and loving it because I had never seen so many different kinds of girls in a game before.

    Now, industries which have spent an awful lot of time ignoring and objectifying us in order to attract and protect the almighty fanboy dollar is starting to do that sliiiightly less. While that never stopped us from being geeks, it certainly helped alienate us. The fanboys did the rest. Plenty of horror stories up my sleeve. In all spheres of geek culture, we just carve out a space or ourselves and try to make use of the things we do like, while ignoring or altering the things that aren’t good for us. Maid entails a lot of that for me.

    1. My relationship with Maid RPG has always been complicated, and I think you just made it a little more so (in a good way). I don’t want to try to speak to Kamiya’s motivations, but although the Japanese TRPG scene has a bit better of a gender balance than in the West, Maid and many other games do seem to fit in alongside a lot of otaku media in general in terms of any potential female audience being an afterthought at best. The translation was something I did for the most part in a huge rush to have it ready in time for Gen Con, so it was kind of a thoughtless mess in a lot of ways, even setting aside how much I’ve learned in the years since. I’m pretty sure I never stopped to think, “What would a woman reading this think?” (or really any variation on that theme for other groups). Admittedly part of me doesn’t want to hear about all the ways I screwed up, but it would be pretty dumb on my part to preach about how a True Artist needs to accept criticism gracefully and then not, you know, do exactly that, so I would welcome whatever you want to write about it. I want to do better in the future, especially since it looks like my future is going to include multiple projects that build on Maid RPG in various ways.

      The term “privilege” is contentious to say the least, but I know I have some White Dude privilege because I’ve seen other people saying and doing about the same stuff as me get harassed and in a few cases hounded out of an industry. When you say you’ve got plenty of horror stories I certainly believe you, especially because that’s been the all too consistent pattern. I try hard to be someone I can live with seeing in the mirror, but a big part of that is asking myself whether I’m screwing up, even if I have no intention of doing anything bad. I’m glad that you were able to find enough in Maid RPG to make it worth your while, but I’m hoping that in my future games you won’t have to push a bunch of stuff aside to get there.

      1. Thanks for the response! I appreciate it, and your hope for more inclusive games is entirely why I felt the need to give this feedback. It is difficult to face these things sometimes, and really, my point here is not to say “you screwed up! banish yourself from the face of the earth!” I can tell you genuinely want to improve. I just got the sense that this probably never even occurred to you, and it’s really easy to overlook things that don’t impact your own experiences. This is true for me, too; it’s true for everyone.

        I think the thing that gets to me most is the attitude that it’s somehow not keeping in the spirit of Maid to want to include male characters in similar roles as maids (well, excluding the Actually a Boy maids, which are of course squarely within the domain of straight male otaku-geared fetishes).

        You describe your steward rules as being “for when your players are just too wussy to play a female character.” First, this assumes the players are male (I mean, women aren’t going to be afraid to play their own gender). Second, regardless of the player’s gender, it reads to me like the only motivation for wanting “stewards” would be a guy’s “girls have cooties!” mentality, the fear of stepping outside of his own box, or trying to avoid the fanservicey bits, perhaps.

        But in my experience, many guys are more than willing to indulge their fantasies and ignore things that don’t appeal to them (e.g. dudes) by playing female characters. The people I play with, on the other hand, tend to be a lot more even-handed and just explore different roles for the sake of it. Some guys do avoid playing female characters because they can’t empathize with them, find them alien, won’t take it seriously if they do, etc. That should be discouraged. In the context of Maid, though, this is the least of my worries. It doesn’t come up in my gaming circle at all. And without a lot of thought, even if it seems like making all characters female increases representation… it can lead to troubling implications about women, especially in media that is heavily targeted at straight men. For example, I could dissect Madoka (which I do love, buuut…).

        The other part of it kind of assumes that if you’re playing a male character, you’ll be trying to avoid the fanservicey elements of Maid by default. When discussing stewards in 120%, you warn, “it’s not difficult to get every bit as weird and perveted with stewards as you customarily do with maids.” Well, no, it’s not… and that’s precisely the point for us. You can do anything with a steward you can with a maid. I don’t actually hate all forms of fanservice and fantasy fulfillment. Rather, I want an even playing field, where girls aren’t defaulted to a fanservice role and guys aren’t automatically exempt.

        Unfortunately, you go on to include actual favor penalties for seduction attempts. This reinforces the “bunch of *female* servants clustered around one usually male master (but maybe female, for male gaze fanservice)” harem fantasy. I guess it could also be used to alleviate the potential discomfort in a group at IC homosexual advances. Frankly, that should be a matter addressed within the gaming group, not via rules. I really don’t know if that was part of your intent or something you even considered at all. There just aren’t a lot of reasons I can think of for ensuring that the female characters are still the sexy ones, the ones for whom seduction is viable, and that the male characters are punished for trying to be.

        As written, Maid is more or less gunning for one thing, of the Hanaukyo Maid Team variety. I recognize this. Harem stuff can be fun! But “reverse harems” function in the exact same way, you know? What of characters attracted to multiple genders? Gay/bi male players and female BL fans? My gaming groups include a lot of women and a lot of gay and bi men (I don’t think *any* of us are straight). We all like the idea of Maid, and the mechanical side of the rules are sooooo good. It’s fun and smooth to play, and it has the potential to tell so many more stories than that.

        Consider Tokyo Mew Mew, which would make an awesome Maid game with entirely different motivations. There are tons and TONS of shoujo series structured around a protagonist (either male or female) and a faithful (or coerced) male servant as either an outright love interest or a source of considerable “hoyay” — Hayate no Gotoku!, Black Butler, Count Cain/Godchild, Tactics, etc. And all of this is modeled very well with Maid’s rules.

        To end on a positive note, I am really glad to hear that you may do more Maid-based work in the future! Regardless of my caveats, there are still a lot of things I like about Maid. It has a lot of potential, and the rules just *work*. My never-ending goal has been to find a more generic light ruleset that flows as well as Maid does.

      2. Thanks for taking the time to write all that. One of the big things that’s changed in the time since we published Maid RPG was that I’ve gotten a much clearer view of what women’s fandom is like, at least insofar as a zillion Tumblr posts about things like Captain America and Free! convey that. I think I’ve probably loosened up a bit myself, and don’t mind a show with good-looking dudes in it even if I’m not the main target audience (and besides, that would mean missing out on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure!). It’s become really interesting and at times downright refreshing to see things like fan comics exploring how Captain America and Bucky reconnect as friends after their long separation. I’ve definitely come to share your view that if there’s going to be fanservice it should at least be equal-opportunity, and I think I wrote the steward rules with more the standard male otaku media in mind (insofar as I thought about it at all). I don’t know when I’ll finish it, but I already started on a revised version of the steward rules (to be part of an eventual “Hand Maid Edition” mini Maid RPG rulebook) with all of this in mind.

        And in case you’re wondering, I’m also working on a game that’s kind of a reskin of Maid called “Retail Magic,” which aims to set aside the fanservice stuff entirely and do zany stories about employees at a magic item shop in a fantasy world. (Also the thing that just about every RPG I make now has some Maid RPG influence, which shows most obviously in how my games now almost always have at least one or two d66 tables.)

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