On GenCon, Visibility, and Being Welcome

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In response to the announcement that the Gen Con committee achieved gender parity for the 2016 Industry Insider guest list, there’s been a brouhaha about the panelists (which includes me). Boing Boing reported that GenCon attains gender parity, for example, as have other news outlets. Apparently, the fact that the list of panelists is over half women is such a shock to some, however, that while there are cheers, there are also jeers from Trolls Who Shall Remain NamelessTM and a few that are supposedly knowledgeable about the gaming industry claiming the list is mostly comprised of “indie gaming” folks which, according to the bios, is flatly not true. (Subtext, here, is that “indie” is meant as a slight as it is inconsequential to the opiners. Much like small press or self-published to some, in fiction.)

This reaction brings up a common misconception about the gaming industry (similar to SF&F, horror, etc.), and that is that a balanced list of panelists is “pandering” and being “political” because either women don’t already exist in gaming or we don’t deserve to be there, either because we haven’t done enough, know enough, or our work isn’t quality. These claims hurt two kinds of women in addition to my contemporaries on the list. First and foremost, I feel it is a big “F U” to the industry pioneers who have been around for decades, because it makes it seem as if those women are invisible. Some of these outstanding women, in fact, own/co-own their own gaming companies (Nicole Lindroos, Lisa Stevens, Kristin Looney, Shanna Germain, Margaret Weis, Michelle Nephew, etc. as well as guests Emily Care Boss and Marie Poole) that produce many of the games fans continue to enjoy–and several of the panelists, including myself, work for/with these companies. The second type of women this absurd claim targets are fans and aspiring writers who wish to work on games. Why? Because these bold, uneducated statements imply women do not deserve representation.

It is true that a precious few vocal individuals believes inclusivity is a threat to them. Aspiring game pro, let me tell you a secret about the gaming industry: it is made up of many, many gaming communities, and many, many gaming companies, and many, many game stores worldwide. The gaming industry is not monolithic, nor is it a citadel guarded by a tiny group of dudes who hung up a sign saying “no wimmin allowed.” There is room for you. Though a few out-of-touch individuals think you don’t belong at their table, I can guarantee you that there are 100 times more who not only do, but who will help you succeed. One of the consequences of being loud, of course, is that all other voices are drowned out. Those hushed voices include plenty of wonderful people in gaming who not only do not agree with a vocal minority, but who have been actively working on making gaming a better space for everybody, regardless of who you are and how you identify, for many years.

In 10+ years, in fact, this is the first time that anything I’ve done in gaming has been met with this level of animosity. I was welcome when I was a panelist at the GenCon Writer’s Symposium, I was welcome when I was guest lecturer for Origins University, and I do feel welcome at the Industry Insider panels, too. I’m going to tell you another secret why, though, some folks are baffled by the panelist selection. Most gaming professionals work as freelancers or on the trade side, and we do not get paid to market ourselves in our spare time. I, for example, get paid to write and hit deadlines. I don’t get paid to do interviews or seek out ways to boast about how awesome I am or invite myself as a guest to a con without being compensated in some fashion. In order to make a living as a full-time writer, I have to manage my schedule carefully. Much of the issues we face has to do with the fact that our visibility is low and, to some, popularity or name recognition automagically equates to worthiness–which is not a 1:1 guarantee. Too, post-GamerGate, I feel that negatively impacted promotional opportunities for women and minorities in particular, because the emphasis seemed to be on proving women and minorities exist in gaming, instead of highlighting the games that we’ve actually produced or worked on. Speaking for myself, I would much rather talk about the games I’ve worked on, than justify my existence.

Personally, I think the Gen Con committee has the right approach, in part because I feel talking about diversity or gender balance on panels (which have seen an uptick in recent years) is the start of a much longer conversation. There are so many people who are answering the question of diversity and gender balance by hiring diverse voices, by ensuring games are playable by all kinds of fans, by rolling out the welcome mat for entire families as Gen Con does every Sunday, by doing so much more–reaching out to panelists, ensuring art is representative, finding consultants, etc. Like I said earlier, it’s true that the “industry” isn’t monolithic and thus, it will have its problems. This list of panelists is a corrective push, for example, and I’m sure that in the future more, diverse game designers will be encouraged to apply knowing that they are welcome. Gaming, however, is not the Gollum-infested mountain that a few soapbox-stepping individuals have made it out to be, for more and more people are actively working to make gaming more inclusive and will continue to do so in their unique ways. This seems like a threat to some, because they believe they are no longer welcome. They perceive that their spaces are being “taken away”, and they assume that panels are automatically occupied by white men by default. They’re not seeing the changes as corrective or additive, to ensure those of us who have already been here share the spotlight, too.

Tribalism, in some form, will always exist in gaming, because some fans like their particular game, system, etc. and play that the most. You see this attitude on forums; you see this on blogs. Recent comments, outside of the trolls who think anything attached to diversity is a political agenda, tap into tribalism on some levels. Game pros and convention managers cannot afford to be tribal, however, not if we want to sell and play games, either as a hobby or for a living. What we share in common is a love of gaming–not just “that one” game. What’s more, many of us have worked for multiple companies, too, due to the nature of being a freelancer in today’s market. This is why taking steps to be more inclusive sends a strong and clear message; balancing panel selection is a smart and simple way to accurately reflect who’s already in the industry. Though I feel this initiative does require feedback, I have every confidence that this is the start as opposed to the finish of a directive. So, if you have suggestions please speak up to the companies, conventions, or game stores you’re interacting with.

I want to close this post by saying how I can see how naysayers might be discouraging to you, regardless of how you identify–especially if you’re new to gaming, are on the outside looking in, or know someone impacted by trolls. Here’s how I get on with my day: the people who don’t think I deserve to be on a panel track to share industry knowledge are not my fans, and they probably won’t be yours, either. Thus, there is nothing I can say that will change their minds, nor is there a solution to what they’re saying. They won’t look at my bio, or my resume, or know all of the places I’ve worked, because their angst isn’t really about me or the other panelists, it’s about how they feel they are no longer as prominently represented as they have been in the past. Instead of being excited to hear more voices, to see more stellar people, they are hurt by it. That’s their problem, really, because the GenCon 2016 Industry Insider panels will be awesome. The people I want to focus on, are those who will listen, learn, and be inspired–those are the folks worthy of my time. And, I hope, that is you.

Happy gaming!

Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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