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.

3 Comments

  1. Heather said,

    April 21, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    It would only be a worse logo if there was some inference of babysitting or placating the non-gaming partner. I assume all events, SPA and otherwise, are open to all participants so it also seems to discourage the gaming half from participating by explicitly pointing out who the events are for (those total drag, non-gaming, mostly ladies.)

    It’s a nice thought having something not totally about gaming as a refuge for those who can’t handle 4-whole days, but there’s a little hint of an insult there even with the nice gesture and that sours it a bit. Fixing that would be one more easy, tiny gesture that would tell women (gamers and non) that they’re considered.

  2. Richard Bliss said,

    April 22, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Excellent post that clearly outlines the issue. I have been wondering about the growing trend of women in gaming in the USA and how it will change the industry. At Spiel in Dusseldorf last year I was stunned by the overwhelming presence of women at the event. And the women showed every sign of being the primary shopper, as I watched one family after another following behind the mother with the husband bringing up the rear.

    Where do you see the industry going with this growth of influence by women? It certainly won’t stay the same, as the SPA icon debate demonstrates.

  3. Emily said,

    June 1, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    It would only be a worse logo if there was some inference of babysitting or placating the non-gaming partner. I assume all events, SPA and otherwise, are open to all participants so it also seems to discourage the gaming half from participating by explicitly pointing out who the events are for (those total drag, non-gaming, mostly ladies.)

    It’s a nice thought having something not totally about gaming as a refuge for those who can’t handle 4-whole days, but there’s a little hint of an insult there even with the nice gesture and that sours it a bit. Fixing that would be one more easy, tiny gesture that would tell women (gamers and non) that they’re considered.

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