Zak has a post up about issues of art direction and marketing RPGs to women. As far as I can tell, it is a response to Trollsmyth's post about the nuances of using art that appeals to women. Trollsmyth's post was inspired by Loquatious' post on chainmail bikinis and the flare-up on Raggi's blog about his art choices which I contributed a good bit to stirring up in the comments.
So I am going to detail out here why I think Zak is dead dead wrong on this issue. But before I do, let me say that he is completely and utterly right on division of power between GM and players and the history of poor module design. In fact, I aspire to knock Caverns of Thracia off it's throne with the setting/module that I am working on called Dheinland and I share all of Zak's critiques of contemporary design and have my own solutions for those problems (but that is a topic for another day). So it is definitely not a personal slight on Zak here, we actually have clashed on this exact same issue before on my other blog.
As far as I can tell, Zak is ultimately making the following argument about art and marketing.
The artwork that is on a product has no impact on the decision of women to buy it, because women are going to buy it whether they like the product or not.
This argument is dependent upon several assumptions, all of which are faulty, and that is why Zak is wrong.
1. The argument assumes that the customer actually knows what they want.
This is completely untrue and flies in the face of everything we know about marketing. Marketing as a discipline exists precisely because the customer does NOT know what they want. Marketing is about encouraging people to make decisions that profit your firm, whether it is in their own best interests or not. Case in point, Malcolm Gladwell has a great lecture about how the most-preferred spagetti sauce was not being chosen by people for a long long time because of the things believed by spagetti sauce producers was dead dead wrong and this caused them to market spagetti sauce in a particular way (the most relevant part is between the 8 and 12 minute marks). Marketing is about influence. It is in many ways about trickery and deception. McDonalds is successful because of it's marketing, not the "quality" of its food.
2. The argument assumes that the customer does not make decisions based on packaging, but on content.
I think perhaps the greatest way to illustrate this folly to Zak is to discuss political beliefs. I am assuming based on his online persona that Zak possesses quite liberal political beliefs. I have those beliefs myself. I am sure we have minor points of contention but will generally agree on most issues. In fact, the majority of people have liberal political beliefs in our society on most "social" issues; drug laws, pornography, abortion, gay marriage, etc. Surveys show 60% or higher support for things like marijuana legalization, allowing gays to marry, etc. Yet, the whole pantheon of liberalism is under crushing attack in this country from a minority position. Why?
Marketing. Republicans have convinced people to vote against their own interests using race-baiting, homophobia, religion, and nationalism. The actual facts of the situation have no relevance at all in contemporary US politics. It is ALL marketing. If you vote against this bill, you hate the troops. If you don't want to bomb these people, you hate America. And unfortunately, liberals suck at marketing. And so they lose. Just think about it Zak. Why do so many people who share your views vote for Republicans? I don't want to get into a big discussion about politics, I just want to highlight that these principles are not limited to business marketing. People are not rational beings out there making top-notch choices.
3. The argument assumes that women generally do not like RPGs as a product.
I think assumptions like this are ludicrous. Can anyone really make the argument that getting together in a small social group, creating imaginary characters, and interacting with an imaginary world using those characters is not something that could appeal to women. Really? Really? Come on.
No, the problem is that women THINK they don't like RPGs because of what they see on the package. Just like good little Christian mothers THOUGHT that D&D was Satanic because of artwork like that which Zak put in his post from early TSR stuff. It was an issue of perception, not fact, that lumped D&D in with Satanism. And it was only through decades of work to reframe D&D and (most importantly I think) the rise of other RPG systems, especially on computer, that dispelled the whole Satanism thing about D&D.
Women see the images on the art and they say "this is a boy's game".
4. The argument assumes that the images in the games have no impact on the people playing them
As Loquacious points out, a lot of the BEHAVIOR of gamers is the problem. If these games are full of art that presents female characters as objects and not equals, it reinforces these terrible beliefs they have about women, and thus driving women away from playing the games.
In my previous discussions with Zak and Raggi on these issues, the exploitation and demeaning presentation of women has been central to the discussion. I have to really credit Trollsmyth on helping me see this next thought.
It isnt just the sexist presentation, it is the entire presentation. It is the fact that D&D books are not beautiful in the way that Vampire the Masquerade is. Or as beautiful as a large portion of White Wolf products, especially core books. Dark Ages: Mage is the most gorgeous RPG book I have ever held in my hands. It is stunningly well-designed. Pictures online (which I just checked) don't even do it justice. There is nothing comparable in my D&D line-up.
D&D books scream out the following message: This is a juvenille boys game about running around killing stuff
And Zak may very well reply, that is what D&D is. My reply would be, that is not what all RPGs are. Despite the proclamations, D&D is not all of roleplaying. Believing that is a road to marginalization and the death of the hobby.
I will leave you with this final claim, which I challenge anyone to contend:
The misunderstanding of what an RPG really is is the single greatest threat to RPGs. RPGs should appeal to a much larger audience than currently enjoys them. Designing products in a way that clarifies what an RPG is and why someone would want to play one will be the defining feature of successful RPGs going into the next decade. And this is a graphic design and marketing task, not an issue of content. And appealing to women is crucial.
I must also include an enticing picture to get people to click on the blogroll links to read this post, because of believe that people DO care about graphics. This should draw some people looking for a bit of a fight. Hehehehe.
By the way, future RPG players might be watching this movie right now. Let that blow your little mind for a bit, eh?