Dear game publishers,
Listen, I get it: sex sells. And I know we’re in this enlightened age where no one cares what anyone is into and no one is ashamed of their body (or at least those statements SHOULD be true and we’re working on it), but I belong to the gender that’s often accused of primarily thinking with their gonads and I’d prefer not to foster the image that that’s true.
So the thought of buying products that look like porn makes me uncomfortable because even if I know that I bought it because it’s a great product, I know that anyone who sees me in the checkout line waiting to buy something that looks like porn “knows” that I’m just shelling out my cash because of the eye candy, which makes me look like a sleaze and like an unsavvy consumer who will throw money at anything with a hot girl on the cover. Sure, none of their business, but that doesn’t stop me from being worried about what everyone is thinking.
You may say: “So what? Who buys stuff in a retail store with people looking at you anymore? Buy it online.” And sure that works, unless you want to support your FLGS, or you have friends who come over to game, or you have a family. Especially if you have a family. It’s one thing if total strangers think I’m a dirty old man, it’s definitely another for my family to think that, even if I know they know better (I hope).
It’s worse as I get older too. As a teenager and in my twenties, it wasn’t that big of a deal if people thought I enjoyed some softcore with my gaming. As I age, I fall into the decidedly different and much less favorable stereotype of “dirty old man”, so I’m a lot more careful about what I buy. This may be correlated with the family factor, or any number of other things, but the fact remains the older I get the less likely I am to pick up these sort of products.
And it’s not just products that are too sexualized for me either. Let me tell you a story about GenCon 2012: I was on my way to a game in the miniature hall, so I was craning my neck about both to find the right table and to see everything on display. I leaned close to a table as I walked by, saw it was a historical tactical miniature wargame about tanks and kept walking (If your thing is historical tank games, help yourself but they are Not My ThingTM). However, one of their staff had noted my interest and smelled a sale, so she interposed herself in front of me and started in on her spiel. It’s my own fault, but I am not the kind of guy who can quickly say “No thank you” and brush past someone, so I ended up standing in the middle of the convention hall trying to politely disengage from a salesperson. Now, to her credit, she was completely professional and an excellent salesperson, and if I didn’t hate parting with my money even more than I hate saying no, I probably would have ended up with a bright shiny copy of their game instead of a flyer and a promise to stop by their website. Here, however is the point: I know it’s kind of part of the con experience to drool over the women manning the booths, but it very much made me feel uncomfortable and desperate to get away standing there listening to a pitch from a lady half my age evidently cosplaying “Allied officer who lost half of her uniform jacket fighting the good fight”. While it’s true I was talking to her because she wanted to sell me something, to an outside observer I’m sure I looked like just one more of those guys who refuse to take the hint and leave the “booth babes” alone. Now maybe she was just a regular employee who just liked to cosplay (she seemed knowledgeable enough) and if I knew that was the case it actually wouldn’t have bothered me as much, but I suspect in the majority of cases these are “marketing event consultants”, hired for the event and talking to them just makes me feel creepy.
Now, in a rare moment of self awareness, I will admit that the frequency and degree with which this issue impacts me is fairly small and that certainly my demographic is not the one most impacted by these practices. The real reasons to cut this shit out, are the reasons that others will give you, but I’m of the opinion that all viewpoints, even the lesser ones can probably help lend weight to this problem. After all, the common argument goes “Sure it’s objectifying women but Money!!!” and I would like to point out: not only “Not MY Money!!!” for the correct morally highgrounded reasons, all of which I hope everyone has heard before, but also “Not MY Money!!!” because it makes me uncomfortable to be around.
I’d also like to point out that because these products are making an appeal to my gonads, the default assumption is that they’re lacking in other departments. “After all”, the thinking goes, “if these products were able to stand on their own merits, they wouldn’t have to resort to cheap tricks and try to fool me with dopamine.” Thus, product that prominently displays objectifying material is usually assumed to be poor quality or deficient in other areas. This may not really be fair. It’s hard to stand out on a bookshelf next to dozens of other titles, but no one says the same thing about epic battles, bright colors, or giant dragons, so why use the “notice me!” tactic that’s associated fairly or not with lower quality.
Here’s an example of how this hurts gaming companies: This book with the fairy on it? I owned that. My wife wanted to run a Celtic themed campaign and she bought both the company’s award winning Celtic setting book and the fairy supplement. Turns out it’s not a bad book. Granted, I read it years ago, but I recall it being better than a lot of the glut of d20 material of the day, porn cover aside, and not only would I never have bought it in a million years because it’s obviously poor quality trash and I wouldn’t want to be associated with it, but I never would have even given it a cursory browse in the store to find out that it wasn’t as bad as it looked because if someone saw me browsing it I would have looked like some sort of pervert. This one-two punch keeps a lot of books firmly out of my hands. In this case, I very much did judge a book (an entire book line in fact) by it’s cover, and that judgment was not charitable. Maybe all the other books in that line were just as good as this one. I’ll probably never know.
I will also admit that (from my anecdotal experience) this issue has been improving. Both the examples above are over a decade old (which is by design. I wanted to grab some “iconic” offenders and I didn’t have the heart to go looking for modern examples and depress myself). But that doesn’t mean that things are perfect. There are plenty of game products with a high “squick factor” and even game companies with logos that are objectionable. There’s even a few products from a particular company on my shelf that appear fairly innocuous from the cover, and once you open them up, every woman in the book is lounging naked in a tree or is wearing a shirt open to the navel. In my opinion, in our role as GM, and thus in some capacity as de facto leader of our groups, we have a responsibility to step up and help cut back this kind of thing (mostly for the ideal reasons, but hey also because every book that we’re NOT uncomfortable to hold up in front of our group is a book we can use at the table).
From my standpoint, this means not buying these kinds of products, but it also means being open to disallowing sources in your game that one of your players is uncomfortable with, and it might even mean letting a gaming company know if you don’t care for their products. While some products are so obviously porn that no one is going to claim plausible deniability, other products may just be unintentional and a decent ratio of comments to sales might make a difference.
I’d also like to hear from everyone else. Are there products you haven’t bought, companies you haven’t patronized because they were too racy? Have you ever been or had a player be uncomfortable with a product that you or someone else brought to the table? Have any anecdotes or interesting experiences to share? Thoughts on effective strategies to deal with problems this causes?