How not to increase diversity in your freelance writing pool, part 1.

When I was young I wanted to grow up to make games. A lot of kids my age did, boys and girls alike. We didn’t know that we’d be growing up into a cesspool of gender toxicity at the time…in fact most of the kids I knew growing up were raised in homes as liberal “hippie” as mine, and so we didn’t even know that there was a cesspool of gender toxicity to grow into. We just knew that we liked playing games (board, video, roleplaying, nerf gun, it didn’t matter) and that we wanted to grow up to make more of this thing we loved.

As an adult, I’ve been offered the chance to freelance for a game company I absolutely love, Onyx Path. To work on games I adored when I was a younger adult. To create things for the next group of kids to love and aspire to be. And I’ve also seen what happens to other women when they grab the golden ticket I was offered. I’ve seen what becomes of women reaching outside of their “station.”

See, Onyx Path has a number of game lines. The one I was briefly involved with (Dark Ages) is headed up by a line editor committed to diversity, to raising up marginalized voices, to breaking out of the status quo, and to really listening to all of the player base (not just the fifteen grognards who post about it vociferously on their fora). Not every line held by the company is like that.

Still, it came as a surprise when a number of women of my acquaintance, women with prior publishing credits and writing samples, started telling me about the writing test “application” they were given to write for one of the company’s other lines, Exalted. An application that was sent out after the line editor was pressured (this is how it was conveyed to me, I will update if I get information to the contrary) to “increase diversity” on his team.

I’m going to pull some things from that application to talk about more in this series of posts. Today we’ll look at the questionnaire portion.

The structure of the application is: introduction, questionnaire, writing prompts, final note. I have chosen to begin with the questionnaire portion and to examine the introduction in tandem with the writing prompts as they are somewhat intertwined. To give a bit of perspective on the following deconstructions and responses, everyone I have talked to who received this application was a woman, I do not know if any men received this application.

The first pair of questions in the application seem entirely reasonable given that the line editor is attempting to signal the direction in which he intends to move the line. They ask only if one has read specific, recommended titles. It isn’t until we get to question 3 that I begin to feel concern (emphasis added and completely mine):

3.      Have you read any of the other books listed in the Exalted First Edition list of suggested resources? If so, which?

4.      Are you more experienced with First or Second Edition? If you are only familiar with Second, you will need to familiarize yourself with First Edition. (Working from Second Edition will guarantee any draft you put forward will not get used.)

Question 3, on its face, seems like a fair extension of the first two questions. The problem is that when you get to question 4, the frame in which these questions are being asked starts to become apparent, and it is very definitely in the shape of a gate that only the “worthy” shall pass. 1st edition Exalted was in print from 2001 – 2005, a run of four years in which (according to Wikipedia, which may be incomplete) 36 source books and 9 works of fiction were released. 36 source books and 9 works of fiction which then went out of print, and theoretically fell out of circulation. (We can talk about the secondary RPG market some other day, but for a lot of people having to rely on it for materials means that those materials are essentially out of circulation.)

Of course, it’s reasonable for a line editor to have a vision of the line. It’s reasonable for an editor to want to shift things back to an earlier version. It’s even reasonable for an editor to express the desire to shift that direction in the application. What isn’t reasonable? When concerns were brought to the line editor that applicants did not have 1st Edition materials to research from, they were told they would shoulder the burden for acquiring those materials themselves if they wished to work on the game. Materials that, at their lowest (official) price, are available for $310 on DriveThru RPG.1

So now this isn’t just a knowledge gate. It’s a resources gate. It’s a “do you have the money, or are you old school enough to prove you deserve to work on this line” gate. At the lowest level it’s a “I bet you never even played that game” question, and the out offered is to throw resources at it.

Though I could fill an entry with why that’s problematic alone, the high level overview is:

  • Exalted 2E has been out since 2006 and though it officially stopped publishing in 2012, the digital sources market has remained active, meaning that 2E was the official source for the line literally twice as long as 1E. (8 years+ v. 4 years.)
  • Exalted 2E contained 33 print books and 17 digital publications, none of which appear to be fiction. That means 2E contains around 25% more mechanical material, and yet the ability to digest and synthesize that material is being completely discounted.
  • Women and other minorities (ostensibly the groups intended to respond to the call that resulted in this application) are frequently victims of such social restrictions as the wage gap and leisure gap. That means demanding that potential authors familiarize themselves with copious, expensive materials that they must purchase with their own money and read on their own time will remove a number who can’t meet this bar even from consideration. No matter how talented they are as writers.

That, right there, would have been enough to turn me away from this application. But then we get to question 5 (emphasis mine):

5.      What is your writing experience? Optional: Can you include a writing sample?

Remember, this is an application for freelance writers. All of the women I spoke to who had been sent this application have writing samples, many of them have written for Onyx Path before. However in seeking freelance writers, this application has prioritized the actual writing below the gatekeeping measures of “having done the reading,” and “being willing to spend the money.”

I suspect there was no prompt for a writing sample here because of the rest of the application, but I have to say that it seems suspect that this question wasn’t phrased more like “What is your writing experience? Please submit a sample if you have one. If you don’t, please write 500 words on [something relevant to writing for games].” Background reading can always be done, and setting knowledge can almost always be taught. By deprioritizing writing, however, a line editor is pretty much guaranteeing that more time than necessary is going to be spent in areas like redlines and proofing, rather than on development.

Questions 6 and 7 are utterly reasonable, but they bracket the unreasonable questions in such a way as to somewhat gaslight them. That’s a hard statement for me to make because I honestly don’t believe that misdirection is intentional. I think that when this application was written, its creator put those things after the cred check questions because that was the order he thought of them in. For me, that’s actually the greatest indicator of why they’re problematic.

Questions 6 and 7, for reference, are:

6.      What do you feel your strengths are? Where can we best use you?
7.      What Exalted books / subjects are you most interested in writing? Don’t be shy in answering. We are looking for stable writers to contribute to books throughout the life of the edition.

What this means is that the line editor (consciously or subconsciously) thought it more important to make sure that the people writing for him were “geek enough” than to make sure that their passions aligned with this project. Ironically, however, Q7 actually does a better job of filtering out people who might not have the “right” background knowledge than the questions on having done the reading.

That’s important enough to call out on its own: Q7 actually does a better job of filtering out people who might not have the “right” background knowledge than the questions on having done the reading. And Q7 does it without expressing an overt bias as to the “correct” way to get this knowledge.

Questions 6 and 7 could do the heavy lifting of all the questions before them. They’re questions about strengths and weaknesses, questions about game interests. They’re questions that ask why you want to write for Exalted and what you bring to the table. Instead, however, they’re being used a carrots that elide the gatekeeping before them (“tell us what you want to work on”) and work to further normalize the undue burden being created above. That’s what I mean when I say “gaslight” as regards Qs 6 and 7. These questions provide just enough cover and doubt for the questions above them that many applicants will simply take this entire questionnaire as normative and unproblematic.

In Part 2, I’ll take on the writing prompts and introduction.

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  1. I have recently been made aware this may not be the case for all applicants, however at least some were informed they would have to shoulder the burden themselves.