The first two parts of this series looked at the basics of designing games for kids. This segment looks specifically at accessibility, particularly for players with dyslexia, color-blindness, visual impairments, and autism.
WHAT DOES ACCESSIBILITY IN GAMING MEAN? AND WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Accessibility in gaming, to me as a game designer, means purposefully creating ways for the widest variety of players to play your game to the fullest.
For kids, this kind of accessibility can be life-changing. Studies and personal accounts have shown that gaming helps kids feel more confident, learn new ways to express themselves, and develop important life and social skills.
Accessibility in gaming typically falls into five categories: Vision (color-blindness, blindness), hearing (hard-of-hearing, deafness), speech (speed impairments, language differences), mobility (physical challenges), and learning/cognitive (learning and reasoning challenges, including dyslexia, autism, and Asperger’s Syndrome).
A few of these–namely dyslexia, color-blindness, vision impairment, and autism are particularly challenging for kids and roleplaying games.
Dyslexia is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols. This is especially pertinent (and problematic) for roleplaying games, where the books are often beautifully designed, with elegant, complex fonts, dark or complicated backgrounds, and lots of small text, cursive, and italics. Unfortunately, these beautiful design elements can make it difficult for dyslexic readers to understand the text.
Choosing good font types, sizes, and contrast can all make reading easier, not just for kids with dyslexia, but for new readers or those who struggle with reading for other reasons.
Font Types: A number of studies have explored the best font choices for readers with dyslexia. So far the results vary in surprising ways. One article I read even reported Comic Sans as being the most dyslexic-friendly font. Here’s what a more recent study found regarding potentially good font choices:
Good fonts for people with dyslexia are Helvetica, Courier, Arial, Verdana and Computer Modern Unicode, taking into consideration reading performance and subjective preferences. On the contrary, Arial It. should be avoided since it decreases readability. Sans serif, roman and monospaced font types increased the reading performance of our participants, while italic fonts did the opposite.
So, there’s a lot of variability in what the research says makes a “good dyslexic” font, but it’s easier to tell what makes a bad dyslexic font: complicated and extraneous elements, italics, and all caps.
Font Size: Small font sizes and tight spacing between words and characters can make reading difficult. A 12- or 14-point font is recommended for adults. For kids that number is even higher.
Contrast: Dark backgrounds with white text or image-heavy backgrounds can also cause problems. A cream or matte white background with a dark, clear font seems to work well.
Game Elements: A common element of roleplaying games that can be especially problematic is charts and tables. Keeping these to a minimum is best. If you need them, designing them with lots of space and clear distinctions between rows and columns can help.
Color-blindness is an especially important concern in kids’ games, because many games use symbols and colors to help young readers who have difficulty reading. But if one symbol is a green circle and the other is a red circle, then kids who are color blind might not be able to tell the difference.
Choosing colors with color-blind players in mind, and using a variety of different shapes in icons and other symbols can go a long way toward clarity for struggling readers. The inability to distinguish between red and green is the most common form of color-blindness, so staying away from those colors within the same symbol set can help a lot. Blue-yellow color-blindness can also occur, as well as the ability not to see colors at all. This color-blindness simulator (and others like it) can help you see how your color choices will look to colorblind players.
Visually impaired players may have blurred vision, partial or total blindness, or other concerns that make it hard for them to see text and dice. For those players, having a PDF or other electronic document that can be read aloud by a computer makes a big difference. Adobe has some free online resources for making PDFs accessible and Daisy (Digital Accessible Information System) talking books is another popular option. Braille dice and overlays for accessories are also great for at-the-table use, especially to supplement the read-out-loud text.
For those with limited vision, print books with large, dark fonts on matte (non-shiny, non-reflective) paper makes reading easier. PDFs with the ability to zoom way in without quality loss are also helpful.
Autism and other cognitive/learning concerns, such as Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, are perhaps the most difficult to design for. We still know so little about them, and every child’s experience is so unique, that saying, “Here is the right way to make a game accessible for kids with autism” is something of a pipe dream.
Accessibility in this case seems to be more about building appropriate options right into the rules. Make sure that games have the ability to be scaled up or down, that rules allow flexibility for a variety of attention spans and playstyles, and that parents and other adults are given the rules and tools they need to help players. But the rules should still have a clear structure; autistic children often need to know what to expect and to be able to anticipate what’s coming next.
Games that minimize loud or surprising sounds, allow for short breaks, and encourage, but don’t require, interaction can help set players at ease and allow them to play the game in the way that makes the most sense for them. Because many autistic players struggle with verbal communication, create rules that allow players to act out what their character does rather than talk about it. (Children with Asperger’s Syndrome, on the other hand, are more likely to want to talk about anything and everything; allowing them to speak in a robot voice or repeat a favorite phrase as part of their character provides a way for them to use their verbal skills within the context of the game)
Also consider having an ‘opt-out’ concept built right into the rules. If players know that they can say a word or make a gesture that will stop the game any time they feel scared or uncomfortable, it gives them a sense of autonomy and control. Most kids won’t need to use their opt-out; just knowing they have it is enough to alleviate that sense of tension and worry that can sometimes build up.
All of these elements are important first steps toward accessibility, but of course, they’re only small steps and there’s so much still to be learned. Every little bit helps, though. And the more we can do today to make games accessible to those with challenges, the more likely young players will be to grow up to love and work on games themselves. And they, in turn, could use their experiences to make games that are accessible to an even wider group of young players.
SOME ADDITIONAL RESOURCES:
AbleGamers (works to make games more accessible)
Game Accessibility Guidelines (geared more toward video games, but still useful)
International Game Developers Association (also for video games, but also useful)
64ouncegames (creates Braille overlays for games and supplements)
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In addition to the way that age does (and doesn’t matter), I think there are the other two important parts of designing games for kids:
EVERY KID (AND ADULT) SHOULD BE ABLE TO PLAY
It’s not possible to make a game that everyone excels at because everyone has different skills. Numbers will be the bane of some players, while writing is the arch nemesis of others. As a kid, I failed at any game that required me to stand up and do something in front of people, because I was incredibly shy. Games like Charades terrified me.
But it is possible to make a game that everyone is able to play and have a good time at. For kids, some of the biggest hurdles to game playing are the four “R”s — Rules, Reading, Writing, and Reflection. Taking a close look at these elements during the design process helps young players jump into a game quickly and easily.
The Rules: Rules should be accessible, necessary, and interesting. If a rule isn’t necessary, or takes a long time to explain, consider whether it’s vital to the game (or whether it’s just too detailed). To me, the goal of rules is clarity and guidance. If a rule confuses things, constrains the players for no reason, or stops a GM from saying “Okay!” then I think long and hard about whether it’s necessary.
Sometimes the rule is necessary:[combat] “I want to swing my sword and kill all the monsters in this room!”
Sometimes the rule isn’t necessary, because it would force the GM to say no to something fun for the players, even though saying yes wouldn’t impact gameplay:[combat] “I want my armor to look like a dinosaur and I want to yell Rawr! while I swing my sword!”
Rules are important, and kids will look for those boundaries and push them. The boundaries that matter should matter a lot. But once players understand those limits of the game, they should feel free to be as creative as possible inside them.
Reading: Some kids are fantastic, enthusiastic readers who will read entire corebooks for pleasure. Others will read the bare minimum for what they need to know right now. Others will do everything possible to avoid reading. This might be because they haven’t picked up the skill, they’re struggling with issues like dyslexia, or they can read but just don’t like to.
Ways to help this are by choosing easy-to-read fonts in appropriate sizes and colors (I’ll talk more about this in part 3, and talk about fonts, styles, and sizes that seem to be most accessible). Symbols, icons, color coding, and shapes are all useful cues for struggling readers. Additionally, using graphic elements to point out the most important elements on the page will help players focus in on what they need to read, and will allow them to skip the non-essential reading until they’re ready.
Charts, tables, and even dice are another important element of this. Lots of numbers, lists, and lines can be overwhelming even to good readers. Dice, especially, need to be easily readable, as there’s nothing more frustrating than rolling and not being able to instantly see whether you’ve hit your goal.
Writing: The same aspects of reading are also true of writing. Some kids love to write. Others hate it. It can be useful to give players the option to write if they want to—or to play the game without picking up a pen. Good character sheets with large and interesting writing and drawing spaces facilitate interaction for those who want to scribble, while easy-to-hold and use tokens, cards, stickers, and other elements provide non-writers with other ways to keep track of things.
Reflection: Reflection is the idea that you see yourself in a roleplaying game. This, to me, has two parts that are closely linked. The first is that you can see yourself as yourself in the game. The second is that you can see yourself as someone else in the game.
Seeing yourself as yourself means that there are images and characters that look like you (or that look the way that you see yourself). This means depicting characters with a wide variety of sizes, shapes, colors, personalities, and outfits. This is especially true in a game with human characters. Most games that focus on non-human characters, say, aliens, show every alien differently. Blue skin, yellow skin, round, square, stick-like. But when you look at kids’ games with human characters, they’re often thin, white boys. (Not that there’s anything wrong with thin, white boys — they should be able to see themselves reflected in a game too). However, having more options means that more kids will find someone they can instantly relate to. Of course, you can’t make a reflection of every person who’s going to play your game, but making every character truly unique means that there’s a larger chance that kids will find someone they can really see themselves in and feel proud of.
Seeing yourself as someone else is the creative- and empathy-building element of roleplaying games. When you start playing characters who look and act differently than you do, you begin to understand them better, you move outside yourself into a creative space, and you start to develop human empathy that translates into the real world. Games can help players do that by providing a wide range of character options in terms of race, culture, personality, gender, skills and more (within the constraints of the game and the world, of course).
YOU’RE COMPETING WITH PUPPIES (AKA: DON’T BE BORING)
The number one thing I know about designing RPGs for kids might be this: Don’t be boring. Keeping kids at the table – both in mind and body – will be a difficult enough task for the gamemaster. Don’t make it more difficult with the game design itself. Anticipate that young players will be incredibly creative, incredibly smart, and easily distracted. If something isn’t the coolest, funnest, most interesting that you can possibly make it, then cut it or rethink it. When you’re doing playtests, watch for those moments when the kids get bored (or ask them — they will absolutely tell you, probably in great detail, about all of the most boring parts of your game).
When kids DO get bored and turn away from the game, watch what they do instead. If you’re in the middle of a combat scene, and the kids jump away from the table to act out that scene, that’s not boredom, that’s engagement. If they jump away from the table to start playing with the dog, that’s boredom (and the power of dogs). So just imagine that with everything you’re creating, you’re competing with the power of a cute puppy (or a video game or a TV show) near the table. Can you keep the kids’ attention (or at least some of it), despite the adorableness of the puppy? Is the game flexible enough to incorporate the puppy as a companion or an escort or even as a friendly helper? Does it allow the GM to give the kids some kind of in-game benefit if they spend one minute away from the table as a group to play with the puppy?
Focusing in on the right age group (without talking down to them), decreasing hurdles to play, and never, ever allowing your game to be boring: Nail those three elements and you’re well on your way to making an amazing roleplaying game for kids (and their families).
Come back soon for Part 3, where I look more closely at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I became a gamer because of my grandmother. A librarian and an avid gamer herself, my grandmother was smart, creative, and utterly ruthless when it came to anything involving cards, dice, boards, and even controllers (it was at her house that I played my first ever game of Frogger). Every time the family got together, she brought out a new game that she was passionate about and got us all to play it.
We played games designed for adults and kids, and while she made sure that we kids understood everything, she never treated us—or even the most kid-focused of games—as anything other than equals and utterly worthy of her time and (competitive) attention. If you wanted to win, your age didn’t matter, but your skills did—you had better be two steps ahead of her (I never was). But if she was on your team, she would take you into the fold and teach you all her winning secrets. When I lost, I learned to take it well so that we could play again. If I was on her team, I felt like her equal. And when I finally won a game against her for the first time, I had already learned a lot about how to be a good winner, after having watched her whomp me graciously for so long.
She was a stickler for the rules—and for finding all kinds of creative ways to bend those rules without actually breaking them. On the other hand, if she thought a rule was stupid or bad for the game, she would explain why and suggest ways to work around it or offer ideas for creating a different, more useful rule instead. She made up games, too. (Or at least, I think she did. We played things when I was a kid that I have never seen anywhere else.).
It was because of her that I started looking at games from a design perspective early on (although I didn’t have the words for what I was doing). Why this rule and not that? What happened when you tweaked one thing but not the other? How could you work together as a team to accomplish the goal?
My grandmother passed away last year. Even as I write this, she’s probably teaching the devil a few new tricks in his favorite game. I’m so glad that she got to see my early game design projects, and I hope she knew how much of an influence she had on my life and work.
Right now, I’m working on a game that I wish she was going to be around to see—and to play with me. It’s a roleplaying game designed for smart kids (and their families, of course), and I bet she could teach me all the best house rules. I think of her often as I work on the game, and of all the lessons that she passed along that I’m using every day.
This is a three-part look at designing roleplaying games for kids. Part 1 and 2 will look at some general game design concepts: Age Matters (And It Totally Doesn’t); Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play; and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 will specifically explore the ideas of designing for accessibility, including for players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
AGE MATTERS (AND IT TOTALLY DOESN’T)
When you set out to make a game for adults, you are purposefully aiming for a wide age range. A 15-year-old can usually play the same game as a 90-year-old. And that’s one of the points of the game.
Games designed specifically for kids are a different matter. One of the first, and arguably most important, decisions you have to make is “What specific age group is this game designed for?”
“Kids” is a big category, with a lot of variation. A game designed for 5-year-olds needs to be very different than a game designed for 8-year-olds, and by the time you get to 11-year-olds, it needs to morph yet again. Not just the rules and language, of course, but also the entire world aesthetic, the goals of the game, the pacing, pretty much everything.
Within your answer, you’ll also need to be clear that while you have a specific age (say 5-8 years old), the game will have a secondary group of players who are probably adults (parents, teachers, grandparents, etc.) as well as siblings, friends, and classmates who might be outside that age range.
Using the age ranges described by books can be helpful for narrowing in on your target audience. While the levels have many names, they generally run something like this (with lots of age overlap to compensate for varying skill levels):
Ages 0-3 / Listening / Board Books
Ages 3-6 / Beginning Reading / Picture Books
Ages 6-8 / Reading With Help / Easy Readers
Ages 7-10 / Reading Alone / Chapter Books
Ages 8-12 / Advanced Reading / Middle Grade Novels
Books in these categories can help you gain a better understanding of good image-to-text ratios for each age group, art style, word choices and sentence length, complexity of concepts, and even font choices and size. But of course, every kid is different and their ages may not reflect their reading or comprehension skills.
Where age doesn’t matter is when it comes to treating the material and the players with respect. Try to stay away from art or language that talks down to kids, and always assume that they’re smarter and more creative than you are (they probably are). Respect every player fully for who they are, no matter whether they’re 4, 14, or 41.
This was one of the first lessons my grandmother taught me when I was a young player, and it’s something I try to carry over into both GMing and game design now that I’m an adult. I think a great game should be designed to make players of all ages feel smart, creative, and cool. And one of the ways a game can do that is to give them all the tools they need, and then assume that they will use those tools in brilliant, unexpected ways.
Continue on to Part 2, where I explore two more ideas: Every Kid (And Adult) Should Be Able To Play and Competing With Puppies (AKA Don’t Be Boring). Part 3 (coming soon) will look at accessibility, particularly for those players with dyslexia, autism, and color-blindness.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I woke up this morning, and like that, I was 43 years old. I like to keep track of my years, my experiences, my growth as a person on this planet.
Some years, I am successful at this. Other years, not so much.
I wrote this post when I turned 41 and followed it up with a lot of writing and essays.
Last year, the year I turned 42, my grandmother died a few weeks before my birthday. I wrote about her death in March, and then I didn’t blog again until August, when my baby sister got married. That blank space of almost half a year between posts says a lot about my state of space during that time. It was a year that was filled with a lot of highs and lows, as every year is, but for some reason I felt the rollercoaster of it more deeply than I have probably since I was a teenager.
The highs: Numenera, the game of my heart, won a lot of awards and lots of people had a great time playing it. I love my job. I have a partner who makes me my very best self. We adopted an amazing dog. I lived for the first time ever in a house I owned. My life is full of amazing loved ones. My non-fiction book, “As Kinky As You Wanna Be” came out and is doing well. I had the opportunity to travel and meet some incredible, kind, wonderful people. My little sister, who I love with all my heart, got married and I was her maid of honor. My little brother is following his dream of becoming a police officer. My dad retired, finally, from his job as an engineer and is getting to do some of the things he loves best — being outside, building and making things, spending time with family.
The lows: The world is in a bad place–global warming, ISIS, wars small and large, discrimination and hatred and killings. The world is always in a bad place, I know, but this year felt particularly big and hard and unsolvable. The Internet, a place I loved, a place I felt at home in for so many years — is no longer a safe place for myself and for so many others. Shaming and blaming, dogpiling, lack of human empathy and understanding, death threats, and more have turned the Internet from a safe haven for misfits like me into an emotionally dangerous land. There was a lot of illness and tragedy and sadness among my friends and family this year. I lost far too many amazing people in my life to cancer this year. Fuck cancer so hard. This year, I dealt with some intense depression (which for me brings a binge-eating disorder and a lot of apathy along with it) — all issues I thought I had overcome long ago, but which reared their horrible heads in the midst of everything.
And I didn’t write very much, even though I promised myself I would. And that, right there, sums up the truth of the year for me. I didn’t write very much. That’s how I know my state of space is fucked up. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change the world for the better. I didn’t write very much. And that means I can’t change myself for the better. It means I am not doing what I believe I exist on this planet to do.
Last year, at 42, I was supposed to be the answer to the life, the universe and everything. I’d waited a long time to turn 42 on 4/2/2014. The numbers promised so much. In the end, it turned out I was the answer to nothing. It was my year to be the question instead. Being the question is hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just wasn’t what I was prepared for. I learned a lot, held my seat a lot, listened a lot. I fought hard, sometimes about the wrong things. And sometimes I gave up on the right things. Tough years teach us a lot, and one of things this past year taught me was that I am invincible, fierce, and powerful, even in the midst of difficulty. Perhaps especially so.
43 is a weird number, in the middle of things, half-prime, descending, the interrobang of numbers, sort of this, sort of that, a rhetorical exclamation. I am going in half-cocked this year, like a gun that’s stuck between the mantle and the hand that strokes it. I am going to live fast and dye my hair. I am going to bury the seeds of what could be with no expectation that they will grow. I am going to make promises I can’t keep, because I believe in the power of desires that extend beyond my reach. I will sing to the mermaids when they will not sing to me. I will measure out my life with kisses and coffee spoons and points of punctuation on the page.
Do I dare disturb the universe?
Yes. Yes, I fucking do.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
In my 25 years as a writer and activist, I’ve been called everything under the sun, even before the Internet existed. When I came out as bisexual in the late ’90s, I was a “confused fake lesbian.” When I worked as the managing editor of Nervy Girl! Magazine in 2000 and we published pieces from Muslim women who believed wearing a hijab was an act of feminist strength, I was a “woman-hating misogynistic asshole.” When I wrote sexy books about people of all walks of life, I was “a slut-devil who will surely burn in hell.” When I came out as a gamer and a geek, I was “jesusfuckingchrist another fake geek girl.” Last year, when my company created a succubus-like creature in one of our games, I was “sexist, homophobic, and transphobic.” Most recently, I am a “racist ass.” (Yes, I’ve kept records of all of these interactions over the years, and these are actual quotes from various letters to the editor, emails, comments, and tweets).
At almost 43 years old, I know who I am and what I believe in, and most of the time, other people talking about me in a negative way is a something that just lives under my skin like some vestigial, permanent part of me. To me, it’s just the cost of standing up for what I believe in, and the price continues to lessen with each attack.
But it took me a long time to get here, and not all of us are in that place. People are losing their jobs, their families, and their lives over being mislabeled and misrepresented on the Internet. They’re experiencing depression, anxiety, fear, and PTSD. Young people, trans people, minorities of all types are being slut-shamed and bullied to the point where they take or consider taking their own lives.
It doesn’t take much work to find hundreds of Internet forums, social media sites, and blogs that are full of conversations that start out about important issues — discrimination, sexism, homophobia, censorship, suicide, global warming — and quickly spiral inwards to become angry disputes attacking the characters of the people involved. “He’s an asshole.” “She’s homophobic.” “What a total racist dick that person is.” “I agree.” “Me too.” “No, you’re the dick.” “Look at what she said one time.” And on and on.
Not only do conversations like this take away from the issues at hand, they are also impossible to “win.” You are the only person who truly knows who you are, and the forty other strangers discussing your virtues and flaws are never going to get close to that core of your personality and essence.
The truth is that it’s so much easier to believe something negative about someone than it is to believe the positive. Think about this: Studies have shown that if someone tells you you’re an awful person (or that your work is awful), it takes TEN TIMES of someone telling you that you’re a good person (or that your work is good) to eradicate the first statement. Negative things are louder than positive, almost always. This, I think, is especially true if:
a. You don’t actually know the person in real life. The internet makes it easy to erase other people’s humanity and assume the worst.
b. You already like or trust the person being talked about. You think, “Oh, damn. I really liked them, and now someone is saying they’re an asshole. I must be a terrible judge of people.” And that makes us feel hurt and vulnerable.
c. The person being talked about doesn’t get involved in the discussions, whether because they don’t know about them, they’re busy doing other things, or they’re purposefully not getting involved.
Conversations like these can contribute to all of the emotional issues mentioned earlier, creating a place where most people don’t feel safe being themselves, because who they actually are doesn’t matter as much as what other people say about who they are.
One way to not be part of that shaming and bullying culture is to learn more about the person in question before you decide–and publicly talk about–who they are. And then choose your actions accordingly.
Here are some suggestions for getting to “know” someone as best you can on the Internet. Yes, the steps take a little time, but imagine if someone accused you of being [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait]. Would you want everyone to just jump on the bandwagon and repeat that untrue or unflattering thing about you, or would you rather they take a few minutes to learn more about you before making a decision? It seems only fair to give other people the same courtesy (or at least reserve judgment if you don’t want to take the time to learn more). Even if, in the end, you decide that someone really is a [insert untrue or unflattering personality trait], you will have at least given them a fair shake.
In my experience, this type of exploration usually shows us what we already know in our hearts: most people are neither devil nor saints. Most people are just humans. Broken, beautiful, angry, kind, and utterly unique. And maybe that’s the best part of “getting to know” someone in this way. We all become humans to each other.
And perhaps that is the first step toward less bullying, less harassment, less harmful negativity. It’s a reminder that whether you like someone or hate someone, whether you agree with them or don’t, they are still a person, another human being. Whatever you think about the person, you can still make the choice not to say hurtful things to or about them. Or you could choose to say something awesome about someone else instead.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
P.S. As always, I’m sure there are lots of great suggestions that I haven’t thought of — please feel free to share them in the comments!
My baby’s a superhero.
And Sweet Jesus, but she’s got her powers turned on tight tonight.
You’d think she was the only one up on that stage and not part of a five-man band, from the way she holds court, all but mouth-fucking the microphone. Girl’s got the biggest, plumpest lips you’ve ever seen, and tonight they’re the purple of just-ripe plums, of bruises, of that half-moon mark where teeth tighten together over skin.
If you can bear to take your eyes off her mouth, go down. Slow. Open neckline, dark blue curls falling against her olive skin. Hint of cleavage. Long vanilla scar down the top right of her breast. Black spandex that works her curves like no-man’s land, makes you just want to taste that shine with your tongue all over.
The band behind her, they’ve got capes over their jeans and t-shirts. But no cape for her. It gets caught in her heels, she says, but you know it’s really that it covers too much of her. She likes to show off those hot-damn hips, that fine-as-rain-ass, those missing legs that end in something different every show
Tonight they’re steel filigree from her knees down; leaves and flowers and a hundred tiny metal creatures tucked into the empty spaces. She’s got a thing for whimsy wrapped in an enigma tucked into a weapon. Her legs, her feet really, end in six-inch knifed heels that could kill a man. Probably have killed a man. I don’t ask most times, because I don’t need to know. Sometimes she tells me anyway. And that’s when I have to buy a bottle of fine-ass whiskey and walk away from her, go down to the strip where the boys play ball in corner pockets and they’re all-too-happy to wield a fist to a face, a paddle to a place where the ass meets the mind.
Up there, on that stage, she looks like she’s singing, but she’s not singing. What she’s doing is so far beyond singing there are no words. A place beyond thought and sound coming together. If I believed in God, I’d say she was making the world, one note at a time. She just opens her mouth and suddenly things are in the world that weren’t there before. You. Me. Love. The sound of your breath leaving you, never to find its way back. I guess you’d call that death.
She makes the sound that makes death and life and love and when she stops, the crowd becomes a room of silence. Waiting. Teetering. Here, she could utter one more thing and blow them all over, explode them apart. End of days and all these delicate bodies would go down smiling.
One of these nights, I expect her to do it.
Not tonight. She smiles. Takes a deep breath. Bows. Her legs shine fierce as roughcut diamonds, sharp as a hand of razor blades before the fist. Some fan in the front row reaches up to the stage and touches the very edge of her toes. The metal protects him from her, but not from himself. Coppery blood arches into the air, and he draws his hand back, clutching himself. Ask him in five years, after he’s forgotten what it was like to have a finger there, and he’ll say he’d do it all over again, just for a taste of her, just for a single life-bleeding touch.
Bloodspill raises the crowd one more notch, fists in the air, fists in each other’s faces. They’re chanting, “Val-tora! Val-tora! Val-tora!” Once in a while someone screams, “Woooonder Caaaaaapes!”
Valtora, that’s her.
The Wonders, that’s her superhero backup band.
They think she’s saving them.
No one’s cheering for me. They don’t know about me.
Valtora wasn’t always a superhero. She wasn’t even always Valtora. Life gives you letters and you make letternames. That’s the kind of stuff Valtora doesn’t say. She just does it. Survivors, we just do the things that other people mouth about.
First Valtora was Valentino. Italian mafia. Man of a hundred wives and a million hits. No one cut off any of his body parts.
Then she was Valerie. Beautiful girl with a beautiful mouth. High-class escort in the pretty city. Everyone liked her body parts. Even when they found out most of those parts weren’t original model material.
When the war blew into town, she became Val. You want a gender? Hers was tough-talk-no-takebacks and sly-in-the-night. Someone was slyer, though. Someone with a big blade and the desire to make her talk. You lose two legs at the knee, turns out the sounds that come out of your mouth aren’t words, aren’t song, aren’t nothing so much as a whole lot of fuck yous.
By the time I entered the big picture, she was already on her way to becoming Valtora. Bombshell. Vibrato. Superhero. Weapons of choice? Curves that’ll knock you sideways if you don’t look away quick enough, a voice that’ll devastate you right off a high cliff and a pair of legs that’d as soon fuck you up as run.
And me? I stand next to the stage and I get knocked on my ass by those goddamn curves. I open my veins and let that voice work its way inside me like a virus. I design those legs that’ll fuck you up. But mostly, well mostly, I save the world.
You want to know what she is, right? You’re thinking: Really a superhero? Some kind of immortal? Maybe that’s just a lie upon a lie upon a lie. Maybe she’s just a human who lost a pair of legs and a pair of balls in a suicide car over a bridge one starfucked night.
Or maybe the lie is the one you tell yourself, in those dark nights when worry and fear beats the skindrum of your ribcage and God’s on your side and there’s no such thing as devils or demons or even superheroes that can fuck you up with the slip of a tongue.
Those lies have no place in me anymore. Not with Valtora in my life.
[Excerpted from “Saving the World”, Geek Love: An Anthology of Full-Frontal Nerdity]. Read the rest of the story by picking up a copy of this beautiful book. It’s full of amazing stories of sexy, subversive geek boys and girls getting it on, all accompanied by art and comics. (As a point of trivia, the graphic design for Geek Love is by Bear Weiter, who is now the art director at Monte Cook Games. This was the first project he and I worked on together, way back when).
In the past month, I got the following things in the mail:
What do all of these have in common? Well, obviously, they were delivered in the mail. But that’s not the thing I want to talk about (although that in itself is pretty interesting–I haven’t seen so many subscription-style mail-delivery options since the CD and book clubs of my teenage years).
But what I really find interesting is that all of these products are, first and foremost, about trust. I am trusting someone I’ve never met to choose items for me (or make items for me) and then deliver them to my house via the mail. I could go to the pet store and buy treats for my dog. I could go clothes shopping. I could wait for a Kickstarter product to be produced and then, if it’s successful, go pick it up at the local bookstore or gaming store, or buy it online. Instead, I take a risk on something unseen, unknown.
Of course, the examples I listed aren’t the only ones out there — there are still music and book clubs, there are clothing options for men and kids, there are cat boxes and jewelry boxes and, of course, Kickstarters and other types of crowdfunding projects galore.
When I co-wrote Kicking It: Successful Crowdfunding with Monte Cook, we talked a lot about how crowdfunding is primarily a trust business. Do you trust the creator to make a great product and deliver it on time? Have they done other successful projects? On the other side, as a crowdfunding creator, have you made it possible for potential backers to trust you by providing amazing products in the past? By delivering as much as or more than you promised?
I find it interesting that in most shopping experiences, the buyer won’t trust the creator of the product, but they will trust a random, unknown person who loves or hates said product. I do it too. I go to Amazon and look at a book by an author I love. If I’ve enjoyed the author’s previous work, I should just trust that the new book will also be something that I’ll enjoy, right? Instead, I read the reviews of random strangers, strangers that may or may not share my reading interests, strangers who may or may not have anything in common with me. Strangers who may NOT HAVE EVEN READ THE BOOK they are reviewing. And I am swayed by their responses. SWAYED. Sometimes away from an author that I already know and trust.
This is also true of companies. If I want to buy a pair of boots online–even from a company that I know and trust–I read the reviews. I look at what people say about the fit, the feel, the look. And then I decide whether to buy or not.
In that case, why do I trust a random stranger over someone who I already know is skilled in their craft? I think this has a lot to do with the advent of buying things over the Internet. When I go to the bookstore, I can read a sample and make up my own mind. When I go to the shoe store, I can feel the shoe and try it on. Walk around in it. When I buy things online, I have a photo. Maybe a little write-up. That’s it. So I look for someone else to help me decide whether the product is something that I want or not.
Yet, with things like Kickstarter and Barkbox, I am trusting the creators implicitly. I am essentially giving them my money and saying, “I believe you will send me something awesome. Surprise me.” It’s an entirely different way of purchasing things. It isn’t as though one is cheaper or less important. A Barkbox and a Kindle book cost about the same. I have backed Kickstarters for more than I have spent on boots.
So why am I willing to trust the creators with one but not the other?
Perhaps it has to do with taking a safe risk. There’s something exciting about opening the Barkbox each month and seeing what new toys and treats someone else chose for the puppy. I get a tingle of fear and nervousness when I am about to dive into a Stitchfix and see what clothing might soon join my wardrobe. I love the excitement of backing a Kickstarter and watching it grow and then much later (sometimes long after I’ve forgotten about it) getting a goody box of a brand new thing in the mail. Being surprised–sometimes for good, sometimes for bad–is part of the shopping experience. It’s a calculated risk that sometimes really pays off.
Perhaps it also is a return to something that has almost entirely disappeared in our shopping experiences: A direct connection to the creator of a product. Or at least the perception of a direct connection. When I back a Kickstarter, I am backing the person behind it as much as the product. I believe that the people who run Barkbox truly love dogs, and that they will choose good things for my own dog. I like the creative minds and talented artists behind The Mysterious Package Company, and I want to support their unique concept (while also giving someone I care about a cool gift).
On the other side, I truly believe (or at least really, really hope) that people who back the Kickstarters that we put together feel connected to us as people. That they trust us, and feel safe in our hands. That they enjoy the products we make, but that they also like and support our business and life philosophies. We are selling products, yes, but hopefully the quality of those products and of the experience are also helping build real relationships between us and our buyers.
The hard part about this is that trust is tenuous, and can go sour very quickly. If you go to the store and purchase a dog toy and your dog hates it or it falls apart, you’re sad and maybe mad at the company (or yourself for your choice), but there are other dog toys and other companies and it’s no big deal.
BUT: if you trust someone else to pick a dog toy and your dog hates it or it falls apart, you feel like they have broken that trust. Even if it’s the exact same toy and the exact same issue that you had with the toy you picked yourself, it suddenly has a big emotional impact. Because in your mind, someone you trusted failed you.
Even though it’s full of pitfalls, that emotional dynamic, that consumer relationship based on trust, might actually be a good thing for both the consumers and the quality of products. If I am creating a product and a business built on trust, then I damn well better do my best to keep that trust. I better make awesome things, create strong connections, and deliver every single time. That knowledge, that understanding that people are trusting me, drives me to do better, to crush expectations, because I hold that trust sacred. Not just as a business person, but as a human being. Trust is hard. It’s scary and dangerous. Even when it’s just a business transaction. There’s a reason that we no longer do business on someone’s word and instead have contracts and legal documents. It’s because every time that trust gets broken, it makes us wary. Because it hurts to have someone break your trust, even if they didn’t mean to.
I like to believe in the good of people. In their kindness and competence and honesty. Maybe in the end, that’s why I seek to create trust relationships with creators, businesses, and my own customers. I want to be surprised and delighted by the world. I never want to outgrow the promise of the unknown. Maybe it’s a way to say, “Yes, I still believe in the goodness of other humans despite the bad. Yes, I will take the risk and trust you because I don’t want the cynicism to win.”
I also want to be the kind of business owner who gives people a reason to trust and believe. I want anyone who gets one of my products to feel the delight of opening their package and being blown away by what’s inside. I want them to rejoice in the trust they put in me, to feel smart and awesome about believing in the promise of honesty and quality.
Trust. Excitement. Creating connections. Saving the world. Making my ass look amazing in new jeans. Okay, maybe that’s too much to ask of a little brown box with a mailing label on top. But I don’t think so. Do you?
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
A few weeks ago, the very talented erotica author Alison Tyler and I were chatting via Twitter about manners for creative business people on the internet. And then we got talking about creating a book about said manners (don’t let the hoity-toity literary magazines fool you with their articles about how fantastic book ideas come about over tea and crumpets; in my experience, the vast majority of great creative ideas are born when smart people with no filters imbibe too much alcohol or coffee or both, then get on the internet and start going, “You know what we should do?!” “Yeah!” “A book about manners!” “Yeah!” and then they write up a fake table of contents, going “Yeah!” and then suddenly the world stops and they’re all like, “Crap, this is good. We should really make this happen.”).
Since I don’t have time to write a book at the moment, I’m going to write a blog post. About manners. For creative business people. On the Internet. Because: You, as a creative person, as a business person, as a real live person of any walk of life, should know how to conduct yourself online (and truly, elsewhere too). This information might become a book. Or an ongoing series. Or maybe just a one-time rant that will surely make someone on the Internet hate me, because they’re going to say, “I don’t need to be nice. It’s the fucking Internet for fuck’s sake. Who does she think she is, Miss Fucking Manners?”
Yes. Yes, I do think I’m Miss Fucking Manners. See image below for proof.
Onward. Haters can stop reading right now. We don’t want you to learn this stuff anyway, because then you can keep outing yourselves so beautifully with your utter lack of manners and we can all lock you out of our virtual houses once and for all.
So here’s the list (more to come, maybe, as I think of them). And of course, this list isn’t just for the internet. It’s good for conventions, workplaces, daily life, and anywhere that you might interact with other human beings:
Be Fucking Respectful. As Wil Wheaton is fond of saying, “Don’t be a dick.” But I say better yet, go a step beyond that. Play nice. BE nice. Appreciate people for what they bring to the table. See people as human beings with hearts and loved ones and illnesses and fears and dreams. Be willing to accept that someone else doesn’t share your viewpoint. Respect that viewpoint if you can. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe people are accidental assholes. It happens. If you can’t say anything nice to someone, then find someone else that you can say something nice to. Which brings me to:
Say Nice Things To/About the People Who Deserve Them. Love another author’s work? Tell them. Think someone makes beautiful art or said something particularly smart or is doing an amazing world-changing thing? Tell them. Tell them. Tell them. It’s so easy. And it makes the world a better place. Also, share what you love. It helps spread good things, like a virus that you actually want to catch.
Tell Dicks to Fuck Off. Being respectful only works IF the other people are also being respectful to everyone else. Once they cross that line, I think it’s okay to tell them to fuck off. It’s also okay to just leave the interaction. Do what’s best for you. In video games, there’s a saying–“Stay out of the fire” or “Don’t stand in the bad stuff” — that is used when someone stands right smack dab in the middle of whatever is hurting them (usually fire or poison emitted from a horrible creature) until they die. Don’t do that, unless you have the appropriate armor and weapons (or a death wish). Otherwise, it’s okay to get the hell out.
Have the Appropriate Armor and Weapons. Being a person is hard. Being a person on the internet is harder. Build your armor if you can. It helps you maintain dignity, respect, kindness, and human empathy. My armor is a mish-mash of self-respect, self-confidence, experience, perspective, and a small army of friends who tell me what’s what. My weapons are kindness, respect, human empathy, and my brain.
Shut the Hell Up Once in a While. Spoiler alert: You are not the most interesting/informed/educated/experienced person in every forum/chat room/virtual space. Yes, you might be the most (fill in the blank) person in one particular room, but not in ALL the rooms. It’s just not possible. Other people are smart and talented and experienced too. So shut up and listen. People hate blowhards. Unless you’re teaching or giving a lecture, if you’ve talked or typed for more than a few minutes and no one else has said anything, shut up. They’re quiet because a. you haven’t given them the chance to say anything with all your ranting and b. they’re now not paying one iota of attention to you because they’ve zoned out and are thinking about tacos, sex, or puppies.
Don’t Burn Your Damn Bridges. I don’t consider myself a petty person, but if you don’t know me and you start talking about what a shitty person I am online, if you lie about me, or tell the world how much my book sucks because of how much I suck (unless you are doing an actual review of the actual product, in which case, criticize away!), I will remember it. If you are a purposeful asshole to my friends or colleagues, I will remember it. (We’re all accidental assholes sometimes — that always deserves a second chance). If you are negative about everything or purposefully attempt to create hatred or vitriol, I will remember. Everyone else will remember it too. Because the internet isn’t a dinner party. It’s a public megaphone with a recording device attached, and everyone will know that you said that shit FOREVER. I suppose this isn’t a big deal if you’re just a person, because people will just label you an asshole and move on. But if you’re trying to make it as a business and/or as a creative person, you’ve just lost a whole lot of opportunities.
Learn these Words: Please, Thank You, I’m Sorry, You’re Awesome. Use them whenever necessary. Which is about three times more often than you think.
Please share this if you think it will help someone.
Thank you for reading.
I’m sorry for all the times that I forgot to mind my manners.
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I was brought up by hippies. That means a lot of things. We raised our own meat and grew our own food. My dad had (has, truly) long hair and had a record collection like you wouldn’t believe. I was taught to believe in taking care of the world and the community, in doing my best, and in a weird combination of manners and kickass. But mostly I was taught to give back.
Sometimes that means kindness. Other times it means helping out those in need. And sometimes it just means sharing when you have an abundance of things.
I currently have extra copies of three of my recent books: Lure of Dangerous Women and As Kinky As You Wanna Be and Geek Love. And I have a dearth of new things to read. So let’s help each other (and other authors) out with a trade.
Here’s how it works: Take a moment to think about the best author or book that you’ve discovered that you think doesn’t get the attention that it deserves (Any author or book or genre. Just don’t choose me or my books–that’s cheating. And don’t choose yourself or your books–that’s jerky). Write a comment on this post about said author or book, telling everyone why they’re so awesome. Share this blog post with people so that other people know about all of these great authors and books. Read the other comments (I rarely tell someone to read the comments, but in this case, that’s the important part; how else will you find that great author or book that you’ve been missing).
On January 27th, I’ll do a random dice roll and give away three signed books (winners will get their choice of either Lure or Kinky or Geek Love). Now, go forth and spread the love!
Kiss kiss bang bang, s.
I’m a gaming guest of honor at Confusion this year, which means I’m heading off tomorrow morning for the very cold side of the country (if you wonder what very cold means in this context, it’s currently 13 degrees there. So that’s a lot of holy fucking brrrrs that are about to happen). There is an incredible array of talent at this convention — writers like Ted Chiang, Karen Lorde, Mary Robinette Kowal, Steven Erickson, Colin McComb, Cherie Priest, Myke Cole, and many more (someone else kindly made a full list, with links, so I will link that here).
Here is my schedule for the weekend, if you want to come and see me sounding like I know what I’m talking about.*
*Important note: I am shy and introverted, and there’s a good chance that if I have only met you online, I don’t actually know what you look like. So if you see me walking around not talking to you, it’s because I don’t recognize you; please don’t hesitate to come and say hello. That photo up top is what I typically look like, so you can find me. Only more awake (hopefully) and with some actual make up on and stuff so that I look like a grownup person.
**Important note 2: All of the above does NOT apply at the dessert reception. If are are between me and dessert, I can’t be responsible for your safety.
|Friday||7:00 PM||Michigan||Opening Ceremonies|
|Friday||8:00 PM||Great Room||Dessert Reception|
|Friday||10:00 PM||Southfield||What Makes a Sex Scene Suck|
|Saturday||11:00 AM||Rotunda||Reading #7: Cook/Germain|
|Saturday||1:00 PM||Huron||So You Want to Make Games, Huh?|
|Saturday||3:00 PM||Dearborn||Are We Living in a Golden Age of Gaming?|
|Saturday||4:00 PM||Erie, Huron, Ontario||Autograph Session|
|Sunday||10:00:00||Model T||Kaffeeklatsch with Shanna Germain & Monte Cook|
|Sunday||11:00 AM||Southfield||How to Kick your Start|
|Sunday||12:00 PM||Southfield||Monte Cook & Shanna Germain Interview|
|Sunday||1:00 PM||Warren||Post-Binary SF|
|Sunday||3:00 PM||Michigan||Closing Ceremonies|