(Okay, I might be dating myself by bastardizing an SNL quote from the Stuart Smalley sketches…)
Increasing female participation in male-dominated subcultures like science and technology or gaming is a difficult problem, and trying to solve it can be much like trying to slay the hydra in that there is no one root cause. One of the many problems with promoting the participation of women in male-dominated fields is the lack of women in leadership roles, which can become a chicken-and-egg type situation where women feel alienated by the lack of female leaders in their subculture and either don’t participate in the subculture or stick to participating on the edges of that subculture, which leads to a lack of women stepping up to assume leadership roles and… You get the picture.
Often the assumption then gets made that there just aren’t leadership-quality women participating in the subculture and that the few female leaders are just rare and special like unicorns. This is problematic for obvious reasons. The other assumption that often gets made is that women just aren’t interested in leadership roles, which is also problematic. Both of these assumptions ignore the fact that women are very heavily socialized to value the contributions of others – especially men – over their own. Women are not supposed to put themselves and their achievements forward, and there are very often social consequences for being seen to do so. As a result, there are a lot of fantastic women out there doing amazing things who, if asked, would minimize their accomplishments as not being important and would call any success they had achieved the result of “luck” rather than merit. This is called Imposter Syndrome, and it’s much, much more common than you’d think.
Some recent events got me thinking about my own personal experiences with Imposter Syndrome and how I’ve managed to come to terms with my creative passion and achievements over the years, so I thought I’d share some of those experiences in the hope that it might encourage other female gamers to re-examine how they see themselves in the context of the gaming community.
Experience the first: I am not a game designer (even though I totally am)
I first wrote Thou Art But A Warrior as part of a setting hack contest on the Forge in 2008. It wound up winning, and the response that I got was sufficient enough to convince me to make a go of publishing it as an actual expansion of Polaris. In order to make it work, I needed to make some changes to the base Polaris rules as well as add in a few new rules of my own. I wound up writing, re-writing, and even doing playtesting to determine how the base game needed to change and what the best way to convey those changes would be.
In the end, it didn’t wind up drifting very much mechanically, and the changes that were made were very much true to the original spirit of the game. But the end result was that Thou Art But A Warrior became its own version of Polaris – a thing distinct from the original with its own properties. When it was published it got some good response and sold a not-tiny number of copies. And that was cool! But I still wasn’t a game designer. TABAW was nothing more than a jumped-up hack, in my mind. Never mind the fact that Ben Lehman – the author and designer of Polaris – publicly proclaimed that I had “fixed” his game (something I still find a bit embarrassing). And never mind that legitimate excitement from some pretty big names in the indie community (Vincent Baker, Joshua Newman, and Jason Morningstar) had given me the kick in the pants I needed to slog through layout and editing and get the game published. I might have been a writer with a published game, but I wasn’t a game designer. That title was for people doing far more important things in indie game land than I had done.
Fast forward a few years. I’ve written a few joke games in the time since then. I’ve started projects that I wound up discarding as not being worth the effort. I’ve written another game, Black Sky, that I keep coming back to and setting aside because the idea is so good but I don’t know how to fix it yet. I even wrote a game – Under the Sun – that could have been a Game Chef Finalist in the year it was written, had I had the time and ability to put together a group to help me playtest it. And if you asked me today, I’d identify as a “game designer” rather than “a writer who dicks around with occasional game design”.
So what changed? I realized that I had to stop thinking of myself in reference to the achievements of others. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t be a real game designer because I didn’t write beautiful systems that did exactly what they were supposed to do like Vincent Baker. Or because I wasn’t as prolific as Jason Morningstar. Or because TABAW’s sales were nothing compared to designers like Fred Hicks and the rest of the Evil Hat crew. In other words, I was defining what I couldn’t be in reference to the men around me. Which is, to say the least, fucked up.
So fuck that. I’m a game designer, dammit. I may not be as prolific as some, and I may not have an intuitive grasp of game design principles, and I may not have sold a bijillion copies of my work, but that doesn’t make me any less a game designer. (Though I still do hate it when Ben tells people I fixed his game.)
Experience the second: who are all you people and why are so many of you listening to what I have to say?
Writing Go Make Me a Sandwich was a weird experience for me that got progressively weirder the more exposure that I got it. I started with the expectation that it would be the internet equivalent of me wandering crazily in the wilderness. It was much more about feeling impelled to write about the things that bothered me than it was about trying to get people’s attention. So it was pretty cool when, at the beginning, I started getting 100 views per day. But the more my readership increased, the more it started to freak me out. At its peak, GMMaS pulled in 55,000ish views in one month – at which point I started to feel very dissociative about my involvement with the blog.
Clearly it was succesful, and clearly a lot of people were finding value in what I was saying. But where I got lost was the fact that so many people were honestly interested in what I had to say about sexism in games. What real qualifications did I have to be taken seriously on the subject?
Ultimately I wound up (mostly) winding down the blog because there’s only so long I could maintain such a furious posting schedule. (I averaged 3 posts a week for an entire year!) But very recently I checked in with the traffic there and discovered that between the old Blogger site and the newer WordPress site, GMMaS has surpassed a million views since its creation. ONE. MILLION. VIEWS. And then I feel kind of freaked out all over again.
Experience the third: Lamentations of the Flame Princess
As you might have seen from the widget on the site’s sidebar, there’s currently an Indiegogo campaign to fund an adventure to be written and illustrated for Lamentations of the Flame Princess by none other than yours truly. It’s an opportunity that I’m pretty excited about, and I’m excited about the ideas that I have. It’s going to be pretty awesome, folks.
But I’ll admit, that when I was initially approached by James Raggi about writing the adventure, I experienced some trepidation. There are some really big names involved in this campaign (there are actually 19 campaigns running concurrently, each for a separate adventure) – much bigger than mine! But I’ve been down that path enough to recognize where it leads and that’s the part where I (metaphorically) punched myself in the face and told my stupid brain to stfu.
I’ve designed games, illustrated several others, and have written a hugely popular blog. I am allowed to accept that I am awesome in my own right, and that I should be included on this project because my adventure (assuming it funds) will be awesome. The fact that there other people writing campaigns that I look up to does not diminish the fact that I, too, am awesome. Awesome is not a zero-sum equation! I am going to punch this adventure in the throat and make it beg for mercy, and it will be a thing of… well… awesome. And that’s okay.
Conclusion: writing this was still painful
The funny thing is that even though this was ultimately a post about giving myself permission to be awesome, it was still incredibly painful to write because the entire time I had to wrestle with that voice in my head that cringed that this whole thing sounded a whole lot like bragging and, god forbid, name dropping. There were even things that I was going to mention, hesitated over, and ultimately left out because – well, there’s no need to look like I’m blowing my own horn, right?
…yeah. Irony, thy name is “my brain”. So I guess the two takeaway points here are that socialization is a powerful force, even when we know and can identify it as being the cause of a problem, and that many women need extra support and encouragement to overcome that socialization and allow themselves to contribute passionately in their communities.