Infinite Sensitivity

By | November 17, 2012


Last week, we touched off a small storm of controversy by publishing our art guidelines and our rationale behind them, and that storm gave me an idea for a column.  Why not give folks a behind-the-scenes look at Room 209 Gaming and their ‘sensitivity’ process?  That is, how do the three of us make decisions about what goes in, what comes out, and how specifically we, as designers, choose to communicate responsible messages?

Equal Amounts of Cheesecake

One of my first thoughts on handling “cheesecake”-style art (sexy women in skimpy outfits, super-buff men flexing well-oiled muscles, etc.) was the ever-noble “we should just have equal amounts of all of it, then nobody can complain!”

The problem with this notion, of course, is that it was not derived from a consistent underlying philosophy, but instead derived from the actions of people we didn’t know, probably would never meet and with completely different ideas than ours.  I’m a straight white guy, mid-thirties.  So is my partner Ray.  And my wife Sarah is a straight white woman in her late twenties.  That left us with two glaring flaws:  (1) there is somebody, somewhere, who will complain about anything.  And (2) how the hell are we going to know what’s cheesecake for one group or individual and what’s cheesecake for another?  We’re all pretty darn vanilla.

This notion of “equal cheesecake for all” died about 5 minutes later, as we realized very quickly that we could not be the judges of what was sexually objectifying for everyone.  What we could do, instead, is say “no cheesecake for all.”

By banning outright cheesecake imagery, we’re instead forcing ourselves to find the excitement in an image, not through titillation, but through action and composition.  The character in the image, and what the character is doing, must be the exciting thing about the image–not what the character is wearing.  This goes hand-in-hand with our guideline that all characters must be doing something when depicted: no standing around glowering or preening.  Our art guidelines–which we also follow for our writing–are a holistic set: each rule complements the others, they are not individually isolated.

Pin-Up Thief

One of the challenges of developing Infinite Earths has been coming up with all the different iconic images for the different roles (12 Fighting Styles, 3 Personas and 26 Vocations at current count).  One of the images that I’d suggested for the Thief Vocation was a halfling (half-human, half-gnome) woman dressed in appropriate “thiefly” clothes, slightly bent at the hip, plucking a money pouch from an obviously rich man’s belt, and looking at the “camera” with a mischievious grin and two fingers over her mouth in a pose fairly evocative of some old pin-ups.

One partner objected immediately: the fact that the piece was meant to be evocative of the old pin-ups explicitly put it in the “cheesecake” zone.  Even with appropriate clothing and no “glamour” filter, if the intent was to let the viewer know that the thief was aware of the viewer, and “letting the viewer in on the theft,” there were other, better ways to do that.  Actually cutting the purse and winking at the viewer, while not presenting the buttock for display, for example.  That would be a more logical pose anyway, since the pose as presented made it clear she was leaning over to fiddle with the otherwise-inattentive man’s belt, potentially inciting an alert by observers other than the viewer being invited into the conspiracy.  Additionally, any kind of invitation on the part of the thief, while “presenting,” could be easily misconstrued as an invitation not to say nothing about the theft, but to instead find her later and extract payment for silence.

In the end, we felt a little creeped out by that and changed the positioning of the figures so that the thief is simply winking at the viewer, and is not “presenting,” while using both hands to cut and grab the purse.  This still communicates the fundamentally playful message of the piece while removing the potentially more lascivious undertones.

Dat White Man

I mentioned earlier that our art guidelines hold to both illustrations and writing.  The other day, while on a Google Hangout, I was describing one of the historical figures in our inaugural adventure hub, Talover: The Crossroads Kingdom.  This figure, Horgul Dax-Bor, I described this way:  “he was a human, but he was raised among the orcs, and eventually he out-orced the orcs and became their leader.”  And as soon as I’d said it, I went, ewwwwwwww.

Horgul was a character I’d invented back in 1996 at UNC-CH, and he began life as “Horace the Horrible Hellion.”  He was kind of a joke character, but I loved him and over the years he rather transformed into something bigger as I’d evolved as a storyteller.  One thing that was consistent, though, was that he was a human from a tribe of humans.  While preparing Talover, though, I re-envisioned him as a human raised by a tribe of orcs, and the larger racial implications of that change had not struck me until I described his history out loud like that.

There is an old trope of the “white man comes in and shows the tribals how to be better at being tribals.”  TVTropes calls it “Mighty Whitey.”  And having a human come in and do that to the orcs just reeked too mightiliy of mighty whitey and the corrolary tropes, “Humans are Special” and “Humanity Is Superior.”  And so Horgul’s story gets changed once again!

With those three examples, I’m going to wrap up this week’s post (we’ve been running a bit long lately), and say that to our minds, we see “political correctness” as cultural sensitivity and respect–not the end of the world and sense and reason.  Making people feel like garbage is not a fundamental human right, and it’s not the way we do business.

That said, there’s always someone in the world who will be mortally offended by something you’ve done.  As people, and as a business, we have to decide which course to steer and, in essence, who we’re okay with offending.  Are we more okay with offending women who feel objectified by our art choices, or are we more okay with offending the people who yell “Tits or GTFO!”?  I think we’ve been pretty clear on where Room 209 stands on that matter.

It has been no small amusement to me that the loudest reaction to our aiming to not offend has been about how offensive we truly are.  Ultimately, though, we will continue to steer our course and build a product that, whether it sells or not, we can be proud of.

That is the way we do business.