WOTC Comes Out with D&D for Kids!

I have trouble with the idea that gaming is “growing up”, but it does seem like it was easier to get into it as a kid in years past than it is now. Whether that’s because rules have gotten more complicated (arguably they’ve generally gotten less complicated, if you ask me) or because companies are a lot less shy now than they used to be about including adult themes or something altogether different, I don’t know. Whatever the reason, every year I seem to encounter more and more parents at gaming conventions asking how to introduce their kids to gaming and the kids who I meet who do play seem to have trouble finding others to play with.

A few years back Wizards of the Coast hosted a session at GenCon that basically centered around asking a group of people what they thought would be good products to facilitate kid gamers – both new ones and players who already liked the activity and just needed more to work with. They got a variety of answers ranging from requests for games aimed at younger players to more modules that could be run easily for younger kids to products that took stories and worlds kids already knew and liked and brought them to the gaming table. It was a fantastic session full of great ideas. My favorite was actually the request for games and products that kids who can’t read could use (even if they require some help or a GM who can read) – which could be either younger kids or kids with disabilities or even just kids who are slow to learn to read and need a way to play that isn’t adding that extra stressor.

Wizards of the Coast didn’t do much with those ideas for a while, but they clearly didn’t forget the idea of making games for kids. They’ve had a publishing imprint that focuses on fiction for kids and teenagers for a few years now and it’s chock full of great material that could be used for gaming hooks. They even have a set of guide-like books that draw from the monster manuals and draconomicon to provide what are essentially kid-friendly field guides to the various monsters from Dungeons and Dragons. It should be obvious how this is an easy way to draw kids into the world and potentially into gaming – if they find those monsters and stories about the heroes that fight them so fascinating, maybe they’d like to try it themselves!

They finally came out with an actual honest-to-goodness gaming product for kids based on Dungeons and Dragons and on one of the fiction books from the Mirrorstone imprint. It’s a full-fledged adventure with a simplified version of fourth edition rules that’s designed for kids six and up. And best of all? It’s free. You can go to their website and download the whole thing as a PDF and be playing within minutes if you want.

So now what? Well, one adventure is awesome, but hopefully they’ll make more than that! Now that they have their simplified rules system figured out, hopefully they’ll continue to come out with adventures using it aimed at kid players. It would make a fantastic monthly feature on the website. I wouldn’t even object if they decided to actually physically publish some (perhaps a book of short adventures or a “create your own adventure” kit) and actually charged money for it, as long as the cost was reasonable. Kid players want more content just as much as adult players do and not all GMs are good at creating their own. What’s the good of getting a group of kids excited and hooked after one great adventure and then having to tell them there isn’t any more? So here’s hoping WOTC realizes this is a great opportunity to grow new and future customers and that they put some manpower and effort into producing products to service those customers now!

DC Characters and Branding in “Young Justice”

DC is coming out with a new cartoon this fall. Since their cartoons are generally really good, I was pretty excited about this (Justice League Unlimited is one of my favorite cartoons ever and I really think Batman: the Animated Series is one of best cartoons ever made). This cartoon will be called Young Justice and is going to focus on teenage superheroes and the challenges they face to prove that they are good enough to join the adult heroes who protect the world on a daily basis (not to mention the challenges involved in just being teenage superheroes).

The cast of characters is largely drawn from the pages of Teen Titans, so we have Robin (because it wouldn’t be a kid/teen supergroup without Robin or Nightwing), Kid Flash, Superboy (because somebody has to be wearing a big red “S”), Miss Martian, Aqualad (who’s gotten an African-American make-over, presumably so the cast is more racially diverse – which still makes him token, which kinda sucks), and “Artemis”.

Seriously? Artemis? Ok, there are two MAJOR problems here. First of all, that means this is a made-up character instead of one of the many, many, many awesome female characters they already have that they could have used for this show. Second of all, what’s with the name? Not only is “Artemis” kind of a lame superhero name, but it’s already been used at least eight times in the DCU! Once by a pretty major character and a couple of times by various incarnations of the actual goddess, who exists and is a real entity in the continuity of both the DCU and the Animated DCU (or at least, one would assume she exists in the Animated DCU, since Ares, Hades and Hephaestus all do).

I really hate when companies decide to make up a new character like this, despite having lots of great existing options. It wouldn’t bother me if she wasn’t being thrown in with a group of characters who are not being invented for the show, but in fact, have years of history and personality in the comics. It also probably wouldn’t bother me so much if I didn’t feel like this was another indication that DC doesn’t remember or care about their female characters, especially the younger ones and especially when it comes to animated shows.

The perfect example of them stating this can be found if you check out some of the behind the scenes materials on the Justice League cartoon. They made a test short to help sell that concept and at that point planned to use teenage sidekicks. In the test short they use Robin, Impulse (one of the young “Flash” characters from the comics) and a girl they made up who is basically Cyborg as a girl. They made her up because they felt they needed a girl “for the sake of diversity” but “there aren’t really many young girl characters in the DC Universe”. Right. Every incarnation of Teen Titans has had a couple of girls, but “there aren’t many young girls”. There are just about as many girls, some of them young, in the Batman family as there are boys, but “there aren’t many young girls”.

Can you tell that I don’t think much of this excuse? And I can only assume the choice to make someone up instead of using one of their many great female characters stemmed from the same way of thinking. I read the blurb about the show and saw Artemis and my first thought was “why didn’t they use someone they already have?” Like, for example, Arrowette (who clearly inspired Artemis’s look)? Or Speedy (another archer, who has been a boy and a girl)? Or Wonder Girl? Or Troia? Or Batgirl? Or Spoiler? Or Supergirl? Or Raven? Or Starfire? Or Terra? Or Ravager (who could be awesome to use in a show like this)? Or Bumblebee (who’s already African-American, by the way)? Or Aquagirl? Or Jesse Quick? Or Misfit? Or the new versions of Hawk and Dove? I could go on. And I can see ways many of these characters would be particularly fantastic in a show like this.

But no. We get a made up character. And I’m not saying that I don’t like new characters being introduced. I even like some of the brilliant characters who have been created in the animated shows and made the jump to other mediums (Harley Quinn, who managed to cross into comics, a live action television show and numerous video games, is awesome and Renee Montoya, who has actually grown out of the role she was created in and inherited the mantle of The Question, are two amazing creations from Batman: The Animated Series). What I’m saying is that it feels like they remember and celebrate the great history and long line of stories they have behind some of their characters when they pull these groups together and forget others.

And then they complain that their female characters don’t have the same sort of following. The repeated refrain of “we just can’t seem to make Wonder Woman as popular as Batman and Superman and the only reason we can figure out is because she’s a girl” comes from the higher ups at DC pretty regularly. Well, perhaps that’s at least partially because you don’t give her the same backing and visibility! Notice how even in this group of superheroes that notably does not contain any of the “big three” there are clear representatives of both the Bat-Family and the Super-Family (Robin and Superboy), but no such representative from Wonder Woman’s “family”? No Wonder Girl or Troia or anything? And even if they tell us “oh, but Artemis is an Amazon!”, she has no visible way of showing us that and since we don’t know her, we wouldn’t connect her to Wonder Woman without knowing that. It just doesn’t work.

Basically, it all comes down to branding. They could be creating a show about teenage superheroes trying to prove to their mentors that they’re reading for the big-time with all new characters, but they didn’t because part of the draw of this show will be the recognizable characters – the brand. There are people who will watch it primarily to see characters they know and love – to watch Robin and Superboy, to see cartoon versions of Kid Flash and Miss Martian, to find out who this new Aquaboy is (and if there’s any explanation for what happened to the old one). People are already asking if this show is part of the official Animated DCU or, like Teen Titans and the two recent Batman shows, a separate “universe” by itself.

But Artemis, as a new character, isn’t part of that branding. I can’t figure out why they wouldn’t want her to be, either. It’s a totally wasted opportunity. Pretty much any character who has been around for any real length of time has some kind of following, so why not draw on an already existing following as well as whatever new fans this show will bring in? Why not bring in the not-inconsequential number of Wonder Girl fans? Or the startlingly large number of Spoiler fans? Or how about the devoted and regularly disappointed Arrowette fans who always seem to be forgotten when the character isn’t included?

It seems to me like not only a bit of a slap in the face to all the fans of the many amazing female characters they could have picked from for this show, but also a startlingly poor marketing decision. When something so simple could mean more fans and more money with so little effort, why would you not do it (and isn’t it easier to use an existing character than to create a new one, especially when you can tweak details as needed since this is a new medium and you’ve already done it with everyone else and not lost hordes of fans over it)?

SPA Should Not Mean Prisoners

I’m a gamer and I’m a woman. I’m married to a gamer, too, but I’ve been gaming since long before I met my husband and got into pen and paper games playing D&D with other girls in elementary school. I’ve been going to Gen Con since, I believe, my junior or senior year in high school (1999/2000). I know a lot of other gamers. Some of their significant others game and some of them don’t. Some of those significant others are women and some are men, but there’s not actually much pattern to their gamer-ness or not. It’s a varied bunch. I enjoy Gen Con and a lot of my friends attend and enjoy it too. It’s a fun convention full of all kinds of gaming and entertainment.

But it isn’t always very friendly to women. It’s gotten dramatically better over the years. I felt out of place as a woman going ten years ago, so I can only imagine what it felt like when my friend’s mom was going thirty years ago. But every year there are more women and as more women come, the feeling of being out of place is reduced.

I was beyond thrilled a few years ago when Gen Con introduced “Activities for the Better Half” – non-gaming events aimed specifically at non-gaming significant others who came along with gamers and wanted something more amusing than walking the dealer hall for four days. The events offered vary widely and are generally a great addition to the convention. I’d love to see more of those events that are a little less specifically geared to women, since there are non-gamer guys too, but it is somewhat limited by what people want to run.

The major problem with this program is the icon used to represent it. This logo appears in the convention booklet and on the website both with the description of the program in general and with the description for each and every single event that is part of the program. It’s been the same logo since the program’s inception in 2006. You can see it portrayed above – it’s a green square (all of the icons are square) with a prison ball and chain image. I’ve hated this image from the beginning. Like a friend of mine, I complained to convention staff early on, but I was told that no one at the convention could do anything about it or even address the issue – that it was handled somewhere else by a staff that didn’t even attend the convention. I have no idea if that’s true or not and, honestly, it doesn’t matter. What prompted me to write about it now was this open letter to Gen Con about the issue and their response.

There are several problems here, but before we get to the image itself, I want to look a little at what Gen Con said in response to concern about it being raised.

Thank you all for your comments. Let’s go over some facts to set the record straight as some incorrect assumptions are being made here. Hopefully these facts will shed some light on this topic.
• Gen Con’s majority shareholders are women.
• Gen Con’s CEO is a woman and the staff is primarily made up of women.
• I picked the icon. I consider myself an independent, liberal minded woman. I picked it not because I thought it represented who or what I was or as a reflection on women, but because I thought it funny and I liked the irony. Yes it might be base, I’ll give you that, but I’m getting off point.
• The SPA icon has been around since the program began four years ago – it is not a new icon.
• Now in its fifth year, the SPA program has grown exponentially and boasts over 90 events in its offerings for 2010. Not all events are knitting or scrapbooking. The program also includes such events as wine and beer tasting, walking tours, chainmaile classes, Pilates, Irish Dancing, yoga, etc.
• SPA events are very popular with all types of people, gamers, gamer widows and widowers. A lot of the events sell-out.
• Events at Gen Con are submitted by fans for fans. While Gen Con hosts and sponsors some events, the majority are run by you. If you don’t like the offerings don’t go to that event, if you want to see something specific, host an event yourself! Simple as that.
I respect that we all have opinions, believe me I know I do … I find it ironic that the author of the open letter has his website sponsored by cougarlife.com. But I digress. I wonder if such passionate responses on such a non-starter issue might be better served on issues that really matter to women such as domestic violence, health, slavery, prostitution, the list goes on sadly.
Vanir you mentioned you were a karate instructor; it would be wonderful to have a beginning/intro to Karate class to include as part of the programming at this year’s show, SPA or otherwise. Since I’m the director of events at Gen Con you’ve come to the right spot, let me know!
Thank you all for your opinions and for calling attention to a wonderful program that Gen Con is proud to support. The process for picking the icon was not an arbitrary one; thought was put into it. It’s hard to pick one “icon” for such a diverse group of people and event types and to find one that wouldn’t be misconstrued as something else. The icon was chosen for its tongue and cheek aspect, nothing more and will remain as is for the time being.
If you want to talk to me directly about SPA or anything Event related please feel free to do so. My email address is jeannette.legault@gencon.com.
Best,
Jeannette LeGault
Director of Event Programming for Gen Con LLC

I appreciate that Ms. LeGault personally responded to the original open letter. That’s totally awesome. Unfortunately, I’m not so impressed with her response. She starts out by saying that Gen Con is run by women, which is not actually germane. Women can do sexist things just as easily as men can. We live in the same culture and internalize all sorts of messed up messages, many of which are horribly sexist. Being a woman is not a free pass. Then she says that she picked out the icon herself, which I totally give her credit for owning when the icon is coming under attack, and gives her reasons for picking it, but she also dismisses concerns about it in the same point. Then she changes the subject by giving a lot of information about the program itself and how popular it is, none of which was either in dispute or under attack.

After that, she really makes a mistake by picking on the author of the letter for the ad on the website where it was posted, which (like most online ads these days) wasn’t chosen by him but rather by whatever magic formula Google uses to determine what ads appear on what pages. And then she picks on him further stating that the issue is too small to be worth his time and that he should be worried about the big problems in the world (this is an arguement that all groups working to improve how disadvantaged portions of society are portrayed in culture hear all the time and it’s worthless – you can’t stop the big stuff if the small stuff is reinforcing it). Then she thanks him and basically states that the discussion is closed. This is very bad PR and probably should have been reconsidered before it was posted.

But what about the icon itself? Why do I think it matters? I think that it sends the absolute wrong message. I think that it’s a dated, misogynistic image and that Gen Con hasn’t really considered the message that their icon actually sends. The phrase “ball and chain” has been around for a long time. The internet isn’t sure how long (a Google search will reveal a wide range of answers for the earliest date of the phrase appearing from sometime in the 1600s to the mid 1800s and sources vary as to where it originated as well), but it’s a phrase that has been used for quite some time. The image the phrase evokes – the image in the icon – of an actual iron ball attached to a chain and manacle refers to a device used to inhibit the movement of prisoners.

At some point, the phrase began to be used to refer to wives as well (wives, it is not a phrase that was used to refer to men of any kind until very, very recently and that is still very rare – most dictionaries still say “wives” and not “husbands or wives”). Specifically, to nagging, annoying wives who deny or inhibit their husbands’ freedom.

This is not a pleasant image. It means that the icon is either suggesting that the significant others of gamers are somehow inhibiting their freedom and fun, which is insulting and downright mean (especially when you consider that these non-gamer partners are not only “letting” their SOs geek out for a weekend, but are also along for the ride at a con not really full of things they enjoy), or it’s suggesting that the people who attend SPA events are like prisoners, which is an unpleasant image at best and an upsetting image at worst.

Ms. LeGault suggests that coming up with an icon for this group of events was challenging because of the diverse group of people and event types involved. This may very well be true – the program does have an extremely wide variety of events. Still, they all fall under the same banner. Every program or section of events has an abbreviation as well. The abbreviation for this program of non-gaming activities is SPA. I think that’s great – it suggests that these are supposed to be fun, relaxing vacation events for people to just enjoy. Why not pick an icon that suggests “vacation”? A beach umbrella, a little person in a yoga pose, a palm tree, maybe even a sun or something. There’s got to be a better way to indicate that the events are there than to use an incredibly old-fashioned slur for a woman who makes her husband feel like a prisoner!

Because the slur is insulting both the non-gamer significant others who were nice enough to let their gamers spend a weekend pretending to be great heroes (and to come along with them) as well as to the other women at the convention who are going to be affected by it being one more example of misogyny in a place that already has some problems with sexism sometimes. So even if it’s too late to fix it this year (although I have trouble believing that the programs are already printed), it is something that is well worth fixing for next year.

Schools as a Holding Pattern

Although it’s not something that I write or talk about that much, I’m actually very interested in science. I’m interested in a lot of types of science, but what really gets my attention is science that relates to people and how they work and how they relate to the world around them. I was probably a neuroscientist in another version of this life (seriously). So it’s really no surprise that I’m a big fan of the book Nurtureshock, which looks at the science of kids and raising them and how what we’ve learned from it doesn’t actually match how we raise our kids. Example: there’s a ton of scientific evidence showing that teenagers don’t function as well in the morning and that when school starts later, they do better, but high schools continue to start at 7am all over the country just the same.

This week I came across an article that one of the authors of the book wrote for Newsweek (as part of a whole series of articles, which are great and well worth reading) back in November about some research and a book by Dr. Joe Allen. The article discusses how Allen has been looking at teenagers and their lives and has come to the conclusion that they are stuck in a holding pattern that artificially keeps them from growing up. This is fascinating, but what really rang true with me was the statements about schools:

Basically, we long ago decided that teens ought to be in school, not in the labor force. Education was their future. But the structure of schools is endlessly repetitive. “From a Martian’s perspective, high schools look virtually the same as sixth grade,” said Allen. “There’s no recognition, in the structure of school, that these are very different people with different capabilities.” Strapped to desks for 13+ years, school becomes both incredibly montonous, artificial, and cookie-cutter.

As Allen writes, “We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.”

And we wonder why it’s taking so long for them to mature.

Think about that. Think about how school actually is structured. Not just how many kids are in a class and how long the day is and things like that – think about what they’re taught when and how and why. If you went to school in the U.S., how many years did you study U.S. history and how many of those years did you learn the same things over again? Did you take a foreign language? How many of the years that you took it did you learn numbers? colors? days of the week? How many times did your English teachers teach you how to write an essay or go over basic grammar? And now think about college. Did you do any of those same things again?

How many times do we really think kids need to learn about the revolutionary war? And, honestly, why did they get As in Spanish one year if they evidently didn’t learn the colors well enough to not have to learn them again the next? I realize not all those kids got As and that repetition is good and review is helpful. But how much repetition does it take before you’re just teaching them that it doesn’t actually matter enough to bother paying attention? And how much can you repeat the same material before you’re no longer “reviewing”, you’re just teaching the same thing over again?

I don’t know how to fix all this. I do know that some of it would be improved if we put kids in classes based on their skill level, as opposed to their age. Is it so vital that all the seven year olds be in the same room anyway? And by the time you get to the high school level, why is that the model at all? Colleges don’t entirely get out of this either. They are just as guilty as everyone else of the repetition problem. Just because a student learned it somewhere before they attended your college doesn’t mean they learned it any less well than they would if they learned it at your college (and this goes for everything from English Lit to Typing to Biology – mitosis is exactly the same process whether you learned it in grade school, high school, college or all three).

Maybe schools need to actually figure out what their classes teach and what they expect the students going into them to know and to not know. Once they have that information, they can start working on matching kids to the classes, and maybe even schools, that best match their educational needs and wants. And you know what? That’s a whole new set of jobs, too, since it would require a bunch of people to go through and do all that.

Too bad our society doesn’t actually value education enough to fund it. And there’s the real problem. We put our kids in holding tanks for almost twenty years that we don’t even care enough about to fund. And that’s something I really can’t even start trying to figure out a solution for because it’s something I really don’t understand. Maybe there’s a scientific study on it somewhere that will shed some light on it for me…