I did an interview with Stacy Dellorfano of ConTessa after their recent victory at the Ennies. ConTessa won Best Blog and has become an important organization in gaming for women. You can check out the ConTessa blog here: http://www.contessa.rocks
BD: How was Gen Con? How are the people behind ConTessa reacting to receiving the award for Best Blog?
SD: Gen Con was nothing short of incredible. I haven’t done a whole lot of public speaking in my life, so for me it was like one of those foreign language immersion courses, or one of those therapy sessions where you’re covered in spiders to make you no longer afraid of spider.
ConTessa ran a seminar, two panels, a workshop, a LARP, and 20+ RPGs all on Thursday. It was an incredible day, and one I won’t soon forget. It was also just the beginning. That’s what we were able to do with three months of planning. Now, we’ve got an entire year to plan, and we’ve broken out of our main circles into a demographic of women we hadn’t yet touched. We have a whole new group of women excited to work with us on additional events.
Then, there was the ENnies. I’d convinced myself by the time we walked into the hall we wouldn’t win. The blog’s only really been putting out great content since the middle of December last year when we re-launched. Usually, it takes things like blogs a bit longer than eight months to gain the kind of following necessary to win an award like an ENnie. Winning the gold gives me hope we’ll just keep putting out awesome content.
All of us on the ConTessa staff are pretty much still in shock, but it’s a jubilant, gleeful, hopeful kind of shock. :)
BD: When you set up the ConTessa blog what were your objectives and guiding principles?
SD: As a whole, I’ve been trying to make ConTessa something that isn’t already out there in the world. It’s taken the past three years to really refine what that means, and we still have conversations about it from time to time. This is important to me because how we present ourselves here makes a big difference in how others perceive us as a whole.
It all comes down to this: Our target audience should be people just like us.
Feminist critique blogs aren’t really there for the women except as a sort of release valve, and a way to share our misery so we don’t feel so alone. It may help explain to us how society views us and why some ideas are perpetuated throughout our culture over and over again, but it doesn’t often tell women anything new. It gives us a framework through which to look at the things we experience, but the framework isn’t anywhere near complete, and the people creating the framework aren’t necessarily qualified to make definitive statements one way or the other. Most of it comes down to the opinion and criticism of the individual feminist. No two frameworks are quite the same.
The audience intended for feminist critique are often people who need to be convinced that feminist critique is a necessary and valuable thing. Anti-feminists, or men who are desperately trying to ‘get’ women. If you ask the average woman gamer what sorts of things make her feel marginalized, you’ll seldom come up with someone who doesn’t know. We know. All opinion blogs do is verify we’re not the only ones who know.
In thinking about this, I realized there was a gap there that could be filled. Instead of starting the conversation assuming the audience doesn’t know what makes women feel marginalized, we started with the assumption that our audience is predominately composed of both men and women who already know these things and want to get on to the next step. It’s kind of like skipping the ‘Intro to Roleplaying’ chapter in most RPG books. After you’ve read the same thing about fifteen times, it no longer holds any value.
This isn’t a value judgment on feminist critique. Like everything else in the world feminist critique can be good, bad, mediocre, interesting, boring, harmful, helpful, or any other adjective. Some of our writers write feminist critique at their own and other blogs. It’s just not something we do at ConTessa.
This concept of our target audience being ourselves can be a difficult one to relate to other people, which is one of the reasons why we have an editorial process. In the beginning, I suggested articles to our staff members based on what I’d seen of her writing before, and what she seemed to be passionate about. It didn’t take long before staff members were then coming up with their own ideas, and now that the editorial staff has a pretty firm grip on what fits our audience and what doesn’t, they mainly handle approving pitches, building and scheduling blog posts, asking people we know for articles on things we want to hear them talk about, editing the writing, and collaborating on group-writing projects.
We love to talk to people about their pet projects and gaming passions. We have an extensive set of interviews as a result. We talk to our favorite game designers about their current and upcoming projects, our GMs about their experiences GMing, and to passionate gamers who game as couples or with their children.
We also love to talk game design and campaign design, like Ethel’s recent article ‘Losing the Plot’, where she talks about her foray into designing an adventure, and Liz C’s four-part series ‘Mixing Culture In Games’, which contains some fantastic ideas on making interesting (and diverse) worlds by mixing together cultures.
Soon, we’ll be adding another dimension by giving you more gaming material you can use in games. I’m actually pretty excited because now that Gen Con’s over, I can actually start writing again, myself.
BD: ConTessa appears to have had a lot of success in very quick period of time. Why do you think it has been so successful? Why did you think it was important to do?
SD: We’ve been successful largely by not trying to be *too* successful. When I first started ConTessa, I kept wanting to go with getting as many numbers as possible into each of our events. I quickly learned that I much preferred quality to quantity. We tried automating a whole bunch of stuff and making things bigger, better, and badder, but then we took a step back and realized it worked much better if we kept plugging away at the things we really like to do and make more personal connections with the people who run games and panels at our events.
It’s worked wonderfully, and all of our networks of women we know in gaming have grown exponentially. This is great for a ton of reasons. Not too long ago, I read a story about a woman who always kept a list of women qualified in her field in her purse so that whenever someone said ‘It’s so hard to find a qualified woman in this field’, she could whip out her list of candidates and hand it over. We’ve all essentially now got a list of qualified women in our gaming bags, and we’re not afraid to whip it out.
Need a woman to sit on a panel about X? We probably know one! Or we know someone who does! Looking for some people to game with online? We can fulfill that, too! Illustrator? Writer? Yup, yup! One of the things we want to do is give that list a physical place to sit with profiles that users can update, and a searchable database. This falls under work I want us to do on self-promotion. Women are almost notoriously bad at it… and those of us who aren’t bad are usually uncomfortable. This can exacerbate the ‘I’m having a hard time finding women to collaborate with’ problem that already exists because in this industry self-promotion and managing a social presence are crucial to success.
That leads to ConTessa’s importance. Why I thought it was important to do, and why I keep thinking it’s important to do. One of the biggest things that pushes up flagging confidence is having a support network of people around you who can be empathetic (not sympathetic) towards the troubles you’re facing. Problems seem bigger in our heads when we leave them there. When we share them with others—especially people who have had the same or similar problems—the burden is shared and lessened for both people. That often lifts just enough stress off a person’s shoulders to allow them forward momentum instead of falling back into self-doubt.
Especially when you’re in an environment that fosters a ‘can-do’ attitude. Because we’re an organization with a blog rather than a blog with an organization, we can and do frequently ask the question ‘What can we do about that problem?’, then actually do that thing.
For example, women speak between 75-80% less when in a group with men than they do in groups of all women. I mention this statistic a lot because most of our events are co-ed, and we want to make sure the women are participating as much as or more than the men. So, we’ve been thinking about ways we can short-circuit that. Sarah brought us an idea to use index cards to ask questions at con panels instead of requiring someone to stand up and become the center of attention or ask questions via interrupting. I built a system design workshop that was women-only (and led by a woman). When we’re running events, we’re more aware of the women in the room and will often invite them into the discussion even if they don’t raise their hands or jump in, and so on… one problem has spawned a whole lot of events to look for the right solution.
That’s just one example of a problem that has spawned several ideas for events and event organization. We have dozens more. Right now, we have more ideas than staff members to execute them. We’re hoping to add to our staff, and empower our members to build their own ConTessa-supported events. We want to be the organization that looks at the problem, looks at the ideas for fixing it, then throws all its resources behind making that idea happen.
Women who meet each other at ConTessa events keep talking after the events and throughout the year. They hire each other, collaborate with each other, game with each other, and have great conversations on all sorts of subjects. It can be really lonely being a woman into tabletop RPGs, it’s very comforting to find people who are just like you. Some of my best memories from Gen Con came in the downtime between events or while I was keeping an eye on the game room. These were just all of the casual conversations about projects women are working on, work they do, their families, what they’re most passionate about, how many times they’ve been to Gen Con, what their favorite things at the con are and so on and so forth. It’s amazing how talking to someone can really change one’s level of confidence.
BD: Can you tell me about the history of ConTessa and the team involved?
SD: In late 2012, I’d somehow waded into so many arguments on gender politics that I looked up and realized I was constantly stressed out, raging about something or another, or trying to deal with some nasty comment that was just thrown my way. I was close to walking out on gaming all together. It seriously became a question of, “Do I get enough out of this to be worth the cost of admission?” The cost was becoming heavy.
I was being +1’d into discussions on both sides of the fence, sometimes just so I could get told how wrong I was. I was frustrated, depressed, and constantly raging about something or another. It wasn’t a great way to live, and I was already dealing with other health issues—all of which would ‘improve with less stress’.
When I really analyzed what was happening, I realized I spent 40 hours a week at my day job, and nearly every other hour of the day fighting some fight on the internet. I’d wanted to write a game, and that wasn’t getting done. I’d wanted to play and run several games, and those weren’t getting done. My involvement in the hobby literally came down to arguing about my right to experience it however I so chose, but I wasn’t actually getting to experience much of anything.
It dawned on me, then, that there were probably other women who felt the same thing. So, I wrote up a quick document suggesting a convention run exclusively by women, with all genders invited to the table. That covers another observation I had about both myself and the outside world. When I’m presented with something new I want to do, but I’m unsure about, I like watching someone else do it, first. I thought that, perhaps, if we had video out there of women running games, they could serve as an example for others who were just thinking about it.
I remember going to dinner with my friends and coming back to find I’d been nearly slaughtered by social media for the idea. Both sides of the discussion with both barrels. Admittedly, the first draft of the document came from a place of anger and it read like it did… but, over time I refined it down to the ideas without the anger while still retaining that original core philosophy.
Our first annual convention was in 2013. I say ‘our’, but it was really ‘my’. At the time, I was the only person running ConTessa. I made up all the images, built the website, wrote the blog posts, ran the contests, added 40+ events to Google+, handled any questions, even did some training on how to use G+ Hangouts. During the convention, I asked for volunteers to help me do some of the paperwork and make sure everything went off. Sarah Richardson stepped up to do some of that work, and then just kept doing more and more.
She ran her first game ever at the first ConTessa. Now, along with being staff member #1, she’s also doing freelance industry graphic design and illustration, writes for Women Who Write About Comics, regularly runs games at conventions, and she’s finishing off her first game as we speak. She’s always been super eager to do anything we need to get things rolling, and she keeps the content on the blog solid by managing the editorial process.
After Sarah, I pulled in Ethel Buster, who was on my Tuesday night team as well. Sarah, Ethel, and I ran our second annual convention in 2014. We utterly exhausted ourselves in the process, and realized we needed to make some changes so we don’t all go insane. That’s where our new format came into play in 2015 where we picked up both Ariana Ramos and Elizabeth Chaipraditkul. The new format involves us doing more frequent, but smaller events. Already this year, we’ve had a game weekend, a panel night, and what we did at Gen Con. We’ll probably have two more events before the end of the year.
BD: It seems like ConTessa is more than just a convention now. How would you characterize ConTessa today?
I tend to call us an organization when I’m explaining ConTessa to other people, or an ‘Always-On’ convention. We’ve expanded so much it’s hard to put a label on us. In short, though, we run events led by women wherever and however we can. We can’t always do everything we want to, but we make the effort to do so as much as possible.
This year, so far we’ve had two virtual gaming weekends, one virtual panel day, 20+ games, 1 workshop, 1 seminar, and 2 panels at Gen Con, and before the end of the year is through, we’ll be having one more gaming weekend and a virtual panel day. Then, we’ve been invited to OrcaCon in early January, and Gen Con has already asked us back. On top of that, we’ve been getting offers and queries from cons all over the country that we just don’t currently have the staff (or cash) to handle. Frankly, it’s a great problem to have.
BD: Can you tell me about your experience working in the video game industry?
Heh. The dark years of my career. Okay, not entirely dark. :)
I’ve been into games since I was a toddler. Tabletop RPGs didn’t hit me until the early 90s when I was in High School, but the Atari 2600 and its competitors came out and became affordable when I was right around 5 or 6. There was always some sort of gaming going on in my house, whether it was board games or video games. When BBSs started coming around, I ran one of those part-time off my own phone line in the house, and I helped my dad with his. When I was 17, I ran a service of my own where I’d go to people’s houses and fix their computer problems or show them how to use their computers.
At 19, I didn’t have enough money to go to college, so I moved south to San Francisco with some friends of mine in search of hitting the tech boom. I think I was in part smart and in part lucky because I was in the heart of Silicon Valley just as it was getting its start. I worked at an ISP and a software company in technical support all the while learning everything I could about web development *as* web development was just beginning to get fleshed out. After getting moved to Knoxville, Tennessee and getting laid off by the software company I was working for, I decided to head home to Washington and help my dad run an ISP and web development company out of the house.
That’s where I first got into EverQuest. My mom had introduced me to MMOs through a Sierra Online game she played called The Realm, but I didn’t really truly get sucked into the world of MMOs until I sat down with EverQuest. It didn’t take long to get me totally addicted, and not long after that before I volunteered for EQ’s Guide program—volunteer players who would answer other player’s petitions and help them with things like getting stuck or other glitches that happened in the game.
When the ISP market started to take a dive, I leveraged the people I knew who worked at Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) to get a job and move down to San Diego. That was, I believe, in late 2000. I got a job as a Systems Engineer in the Network Operations Center tending to the server farms, putting new ones up, and patching the EverQuest servers. I stuck around there for about four years working graveyard. I made name for myself with the producers, developers, and executives as the person they could trust to handle server patching without it becoming a mess. I developed a patching process that took what started out taking 8+ hours to taking less than three with exponentially more servers. In that capacity, I also set up EverQuest servers in South Korea and trained their technicians how to handle patching and maintaining the farms.
Eventually, though, Systems Engineering became dull to me. I’d been doing web development on the side and really wanted to spread my developer wings a bit more than writing programs to handle patches. The Internationalization team needed a liaison to handle patching all the many servers in other countries, so I took on that job. Eventually, I moved from liaison to software developer where I wrote or contributed to a number of tools. My biggest accomplishment from those days, though, was writing the Russian version of our text translation engine.
I stayed there for nearly a decade before I finally couldn’t take any more. The video game industry suffers from a whole lot of gender-related issues, which are all exacerbated because a majority of the people working in the video game industry are fanboys who have never learned how to exist in a professional environment. That made it stupid hard to figure out if someone was just being a jerk or if they were being a sexist jerk, and more than once I had to deal with an issue where a male coworker attempted to get me to file discrimination charges against another male coworker as a means of using me to get out someone they didn’t like.
I had a lot of fun in the video game industry, but I also had a lot of pain. The stress and depression caused by going through that experience have forever tainted the way I look at the workplace, and I’m pretty sure some of the stress-related health problems I’ve had in the years since leaving SOE were caused by my time there. There were men who wouldn’t make eye contact with me, men who would ignore me when I spoke, men who would talk down to me, men who hit on me… I didn’t have some of the truly awful experiences I’ve heard from other women, but there was definitely a lot of dudes not behaving well.
When I left, I vowed I’d never return, and I’m stuck with that. As much fun as it was to be part of the teams creating cool things, it wasn’t worth the price I paid. I often hope that women like me paved the way for other women, but based on the things I’ve been reading coming out of the video game industry in the past few years, the situation has actually gotten *worse* because more and more women like me just can’t stay in that kind of hostile workforce for very long before we have to leave for our health.
BD: Looking at the RPG community right now what do you think of the current state of women in Table Top Roleplaying? Any trends that you find particularly positive or negative?
Right now, the current state of women in tabletop roleplaying is really interesting. We're seeing some real, meaningful change, which is causing political agitation and polarization of opinions. With all of this happening, it can be really difficult to tell friend from foe or positive action from negative action. As someone who considers herself a rather liberal moderate, it's a disconcerting and often depressing position to be in. Both sides have some good points, but both sides have taken such an extreme position it's hard to hear anything but the emotion and outrage. I should point out I use the term 'both sides' pretty loosely, here. There are definitely more than two sides to this conversation, but another bi-product of the extremism unfortunately happens to be polarization so extreme it's nearly impossible to see there are any opinions other than the two most extreme.
One of the most personally disturbing trends I've been aware of lately are events marked 'women only', but then led by men. Some of these are new, some of these have existed for a long while.
First, if a man is leading the event it isn't a 'women only' event, and those events need to stop billing themselves as such. It's important for the women going in to understand they won't actually be in an all-woman environment. If there are any men in the room at all, events have no place calling themselves 'women only'.
Second, it enforces a whole slew of stereotypes and implicit bias. Even the reasons I've heard as to why this even happens enforce stereotypes and implicit bias. "We couldn't find a qualified woman" is the most common reason I hear for this happening. I know this isn't true because I've spent nearly three years searching under every rock and following every networking lead to find the qualified women.
However, the phrase is still being repeated. When I hear that phrase, I instantly think, 'That's bullshit, this guy's just lazy'. However, when women who are new to the hobby hear this, they don't know any better. They see largely the stereotype that women are wives or girlfriends sometimes jumping into gaming so they can spend time with their husbands. They see a hobby where they're being invited in, but where they're not allowed or expected to have and grow their own space. They see a space where they're largely the visitors, and it will never entirely belong to them.
You don't get investment by anyone into a hobby by treating them like they're just visitors.
Thirdly, and certainly not lastly, but all I'm going to cover in this particular interview... it robs women of the opportunity to see someone like them fully engaging in the hobby. One of the easiest ways to counter implicit bias is to provide frequent imaging and interactive experiences with counter-bias examples. For example, if you want to counter the bias that women don't lead, you show plenty of examples of women leading in both action and image. ConTessa, with our public on-air games and sessions does exactly that as our primary form of empowerment.
...and it works, I promise.
If you can't find a woman to lead your woman-only event, don't have one. "I couldn't find a qualified woman" isn't an excuse. If anyone reading this wants to have women-only events, please contact us. We're here to help. We know it's hard to find qualified women, but we also know it isn't impossible. My personal email address is email@example.com, and the staff email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
We have the volunteers, resources, and network necessary to lead events designed to engage and empower women within the hobby. Our methods are known to work, and our events are top shelf. We run games, workshops, panels, and anything else we can get our hands on, and our events are beginning to show up all over the United States (and hopefully into Europe soon).
Be prepared to pay for our travel expenses, though. We are an all-volunteer organization, and we all have day jobs on top of the full-time job that becomes ConTessa.
BD: What can men in their own group do to make sure women feel welcome and comfortable at the gaming table?
SD: Well, every woman is different, so there's no real standard here. That said, the easiest, most reasonable thing to do is to become familiar with all the different ways that human beings communicate with each other, and particularly the ways women communicate.
The easiest, simplest, quickest thing to do is to make sure the women at the table aren't getting run over by the men. Men are raised with the idea that interrupting people might be rude, but it's a small rudeness that other men defend themselves against without trouble. Women are raised with the idea that interrupting people is extraordinarily rude, and if we do it we're failing at being 'good' and 'nice', two of the most praised attributes in women.
Women are interrupted more often than men by both genders, but women who are interrupted often respond much differently than men who are interrupted. Men will continue to fight to be heard, whereas women will get more and more quiet until they're hardly contributing at all.
As a GM, countering this is as simple as being aware of it and stopping it when it happens. Because of who I am and what I do, I'm so aware of this I'll stop gameplay as a player and make sure the voice that's being silenced gets heard. You don't have to do anything special, just say, "Hey, Bob, let's let Lisa finish... go ahead, Lisa."
It's also important to note that in mixed-gender problem-solving groups, women speak up to 75% less than men. This important is directly relevant to tabletop roleplaying games because the study was conducted on groups making problem-solving decisions together—exactly what you do as a group in a tabletop roleplaying game.
So, chances are the women at tables with men are speaking up 75% less than they would if the men weren't there. Just knowing this is a powerful tool for the GM. Interrupting is part of the reason why this happens, but it's only part. The whole reasons differ depending upon the woman, but being aware of how she's feeling based on her body language, how she's reacting, and how much she's engaging can all help determine whether or not she's having fun and truly comfortable.
The other side to knowing is, then, being willing to do something about it. Again, the simplest and most effective thing a GM can do is simply to stop the bad behavior when it starts. You likely know what it looks and sounds like when a man is behaving in a way that makes a woman feel uncomfortable. If not, you need to spend more time getting to know women.
It's pretty easy, though, to tell when a woman's being talked down to, talked over, ignored, or constantly interrupted. When you see that behavior occur at your table, stop it. Point out the behavior, ask for it to stop, then give the table to the person being denied a voice. Players can—and should—do this as well. The worst thing you can do is nothing.
BD: In your articles Women at the Table you discuss the role of communication style and how that impacts women players and GMs. In particular you describe the problem of the ‘lovable dick”. I think most folks have an idea of the type of person who you mean by this, but a lot of folks may have trouble finding the line. How would you describe this sort of person in the context of gaming; how do we recognize an LD at the table and why are they an issue for women gamers?
There are several kinds of dicks, but for the purpose of answering this question, let's separate them into Lovable Dicks and Convenient Dicks. LDs are people who have some sort of redeeming quality about them outside of their dickishness. They may lack any semblance of self-awareness or just be totally socially inept, but they have enough awareness to know they need to work on that in order to work better within groups. CDs are those people we make excuses for because they always show up to the game, always engage, and ultimately because we're afraid to ask them to leave.
LDs are worth having around because they are—in general—good people who have some challenges they're trying to overcome. Having these people in a mixed gender group is a fantastic way for them to work on their lack of awareness and social ineptitude. I've personally seen several LDs become better people overall because their gaming groups didn't give up on them.
While LDs genuinely want to improve their social skills, CDs don't see anything wrong with their social skills. They don't see anything wrong with the way they behave, aren't likely to change, and probably have a looooong history of embarrassing you around mixed company. They might adjust their attitude during certain games, but usually begrudgingly, and they often don't get it. For example, rather than seeing interrupting people as a rude thing the interrupter does, they see their need to not interrupt women as a sign the women are weak.
The line is hard to find, and it's one each GM has to work out for themselves, but by and large the line rests on whether or not the dick in question is trying to be a better person, or if they just don't get it and don't care.
Dicks are an issue at the table whether or not there are women sitting at the table. In my experience, men get annoyed with dicks, too. Just like with interrupting, though, men tend to respond differently to that annoyance than women do. Men are less likely to be the target of the Dick's dickishness, and when they are they aren't held back by a societal expectation to be 'good' or 'nice'.
Women won't put up with that for very long before they just stop engaging, stop talking, and eventually just drop out of your group. They may keep coming for the sake of a friend or a significant other, but that Dick in your group has effectively shut her down, silenced her, and made her feel invisible. That means she'll be much, much less likely to ever want to game again because of another thing common amongst more women than men... women are less likely to give something multiple chances before giving up on it.
If you're the GM in a group with a Dick in it, and you do nothing, you're just as responsible for how he makes that woman feel as he is... in fact, everyone at the table is, but the GM perhaps the most. If you don't say or do anything about the problem, you're sending a message to the women in the group that this is just the way things are, and she either has to decide to deal with it or get out of the hobby.
BD: Why are people still debating and having flamewars online on the topic of women gamers?
SD: If you look at the big picture of feminism, it tends to go in waves. The wave analogy isn't entirely accurate, but it's a pretty good way to look at how things have worked. We're currently riding a pretty big wave. A lot of things have happened recently to galvanize women and make it really clear feminism is not only still alive and well, but it's still very much needed. This has happened before.
In the 80s, we saw a backlash against feminism as well as a co-opting of Second Wave feminist attitudes and ideas by commercial entities. The political gains our parents and grandparents made lulled our generation into believing feminism was over, which then allowed an array of conservative interests the opportunity to change the narrative. Mainstream media at the time reflected a push towards the belief that feminists were cold, empty women who led lives without meaning. Movies and television shows depicting the cold, heartless career woman returning to her roots so she could have babies and make pies were the norm. Newspaper and magazine articles painted dire images of the things feminism had supposedly wrought: shortages of men, infertility epidemics, and a continued attack on our reproductive rights.
I remember very much feeling in my teen years like feminism's work was done. It was great work, necessary work, but now we just had to take advantage of the opportunities laid out before us. I, along with many women of my generation got a pretty rude wake-up call when we started coming of age and the world proved to us feminism was not, in fact, over. It was in this environment that feminism evolved from the Second Wave to the Third Wave, and that environment happened to be the counterculture punk scene.
A similar thing is happening right now. The Third Wave largely went quiet towards the end of the 90s. Riot Grrrl fell out of favor or was corrupted by commercialism, and many declared the Third Wave dead. Feminist again became a bad word, and feminists were again seen as archaic and unnecessary.
Recently, however, the rise of the social justice warrior has seen the wave upswell again. The rise of MRAs, Gamergate, public examples of tech companies treating their female employees poorly, unequal pay, a relentless attack on reproductive rights, transphobia, and a whole slew of other high profile issues have made it really obvious feminism is still not over. The Fourth Wave is just gaining its feet, just finding its way.
While women of the Third Wave found our voices in zines, writing groups, BBSs, and blogs, the women of the Fourth Wave are using most of those resources plus the power of social media. Social media is more direct, more in-the-moment, more interactive than anything else we've used to communicate in the past. Couple that with how polarized our post-9/11 world is, and you've got a veritable powder keg waiting to explode... and it has exploded over and over again.
Gaming is just seeing a small-scale version of that same set of explosions. It indicates there are more women involved in gaming than ever before, and they're passionate about staying involved, but it also indicates we're at a precarious place in history. This is the moment where gaming either proves itself to be incapable of change and always inhospitable to women, or where it proves it can evolve and grow into a stronger, more diverse hobby.
BD: Who are some prominent women in gaming that you admire?
SD: Margaret Weis was one of the first fantasy authors I ever read. Prior to that, my fantasy was primarily limited to historical novels and the occasional dystopian literature. I was overjoyed when she said she'd give our keynote speech at the first ConTess@Gen Con, and deeply touched when she devoted that speech to four other women from the early days of tabletop gaming who otherwise wouldn't have been heard about. She's a fantastic storyteller in more way than one, and she has an amazing perspective on the gaming industry we don't get to hear enough about.
Meguey Baker because she is her own woman, and doesn't let popularity sway her in one direction or another. Her opinions on gender and gaming are complex, nuanced, and interesting to read. She also never sounds like she's repeating someone else's lines. She owns her space and is clearly very comfortable in it, which is an excellent positive example for other women. So often, I see women pulling back from owning their space out of fear. Most of the language employed to talk about gender politics in the current climate speaks as though the men in the industry need to allow us to use their space, or give some of their space to us. We need more people like Meg who aren't afraid to say: This is my space. You didn't let me borrow it or give it to me. I carved it out myself, and I'll do with it whatever I please. She sets a fantastic example.
Shanna Germain because she's a relative newcomer to the gaming industry, but she still can stand toe-to-toe with the industry veterans that make up Monte Cook Games, and she never looks like she's standing on the sidelines. Like Meguey, she's an example of a woman who carved out her own space, and she's done some thoroughly great things with that space. Shanna has a passion for gaming that I rarely see in anyone. She's still largely at the beginning of her journey, and I'm excited I get to watch that journey and that she lets me ask her ridiculous questions about it on panels all the time. :)
BD: Is there anything you would like to see companies in the industry do differently or do more/less of?
SD: I'd like to see companies finding women and hiring them instead of waiting for women to come to them. It's extraordinarily intimidating to answer an open call for artwork, even if that open call is anonymous. Only a small subset of women will follow through with something like that. At ConTessa, we're working hard to encourage and support women so it's not such a terribly intimidating thing to do, but in the meantime it'd be great if companies helped out and met us halfway.
I'd also like to see more conventions bringing in groups like ConTessa to host events that strengthen diversity rather than trying to pull something off on their own or blindly hoping their recruiting efforts will cause a more diverse audience to show up.
Along with that, it'd be great to see more groups like ConTessa for other types of diversity. I really want to partner with those groups so we can do great big events all together, and take over conventions, but I need them to exist, first.
BD: What games are you presently excited about?
SD: I wrote a game shortly after returning from Gen Con that originally started out to be 'Pulp', but has since then turned into a game based on action/adventure films. Lots of pulp tropes, but not in the pulp time period. I'm very eager to playtest it, but I haven't had an opportunity to set anything up just yet.
Beyond that, my husband is a high school teacher, and he's agreed to be the advisor for the RPG club this year, with a lot of my help (I'm the gamer in the family). To that end, we hope to get the kids embroiled in a game of Shadowrun, which I'd love to get a chance to play and/or run again.
BD: I have to ask; how does your family know the Cobains?
SD: Ha! My parents both worked for the Washington State Patrol as Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Officers—the people you see stopping big rigs and staffing weigh stations on the freeway. We lived in Northwest Washington, up by the Canadian border in a relatively small city called Bellingham, where Don Cobain, Kurt's father, also lived. Don was a CVEO that worked with my parents, and a friend of the family. He's one of those guys with a REALLY LOUD voice that came from working in a lumber mill early on.