Interview with Julie Ann Dawson

by Cassey Toi

Hi all. This is the first of what I hope to turn into a semi-regular feature here at NMP. I’ll be interviewing – well if you can call an e- mail exchange an interview – some well known ladies on the RPG scene. To kick it off we have Julie Ann Dawson of Bards and Sages. Julie Ann is a prolific author and the owner/creator/editor of Bards and Sages. Since 2002 Bards and Sages has held an Annual Writing Competion, where the entrants fee goes to a charity. This year’s contest helps Doctors Without Borders.

Julie Ann was great to chat to; she didn’t mind that I couldn’t get her a safari trip. She also raises some interesting points, which I hope get you talking.

CT) What drew you in, and keeps you interested in the hobby?

JAD) I was actually introduced to gaming by an ex-boyfriend, who recruited me because I was a writer and he figured I would make a great GM.  It’s the only good thing I got out of the relationship. I think the thing that first drew me in was the collaborative storytelling aspect of gaming – each person developing their unique character, and those characters interacting with each other and evolving as the game progresses.

The thing that keeps me interested is that, in many ways, gaming makes me a better writer.  Particularly because I am often the GM, I always have to keep game balance in mind when I present a new world.  The players will react negatively to world elements that don’t seem to make sense, or radical plot elements that don’t fit what came earlier in the campaign.  When you get those elements right, the end result is that your players become fully engaged in the story and can’t wait until the next session to find out what is going to happen.  You carry those lessons over with you to your writing.

I think the other thing is that, as a game designer, it forces you to keep learning new things.  When I was writing Karmic Places: Revelations, for example, I had to do all sorts of research.  What happens to a planet after a nuclear war?  How long does water remain radioactive?  What types of plant life would survive?  It’s an example of what the hobby does to you.  You develop something of a thirst for knowledge.  You start digging into areas you might never have bothered to learn anything about if you weren’t a gamer.

CT) Please share your thoughts on the following perceived images of RPGs:

  • Only sad guys who still live at home play them

JAD) I don’t think this is that prevalent any more, though it certainly was at one point.  But all of those “sad guys” twenty years ago who lived at home playing RPGs have grown up, married, started careers, and are now introducing their kids to the hobby.  I think this image persists more because we think it persists, and therefore keep arguing that it doesn’t.  It’s like the old saying about fearing something so much that you make it happen.  We’re so afraid people think this, that we keep talking about it, resulting in people thinking it.

  • You’re strange for sitting around with some figurines and dice

JAD) Well, I am strange.  But strange isn’t a bad thing.  I think we have a unique hobby because it isn’t a passive activity.  It requires co-operation, planning, strategic thinking, problem solving, creativity, and a healthy sense of humor.  So yes, it is a strange hobby, but that isn’t a negative.

  • The guys who do play, are sexist and rude

JAD) I don’t think male gamers are more or less sexist than non- gamers.  Sexism is unfortunately still a large problem in our culture overall.  It is not unique to gaming.  Have a pretty girl walk by a construction site in a mini-skirt and you’ll see that.  For anyone to imply that male gamers are somehow inherently more sexist than the rest of society smacks of insincerity or naiveté.

  • There is no scope for female players to be involved or have fun

JAD) This ultimately boils down to the GM.  A good GM will make sure everyone has fun.  A bad GM won’t.  Again, I think this is more a skewed perspective than a reality.  Twenty or thirty years ago, you didn’t have a lot of powerful female heroic figures.  But today, we’ve come to accept women in these traditionally male “hero” roles; so integrating a female player into a game isn’t all that hard.  A bad GM will alienate female gamers.  But then again a bad GM will alienate just about everyone at the table.

CT) In your opinion could some women be intimidated by perceived images of the RPG industry, and thus be put off from getting involved?

JAD) I think hobby shops could have done a lot more to attract female gamers.  And I think if they had done so, the brick and mortar part of the industry wouldn’t be in decline and we wouldn’t still be talking about the novelty of women in gaming.

Think about all of the hobby shops you have ever been in.  The majority of them have been cramped spaces that look more like someone’s basement than a shop.  The generic set up is a bunch of shelves stacked with books, often in no particular order, with three or four tables in the back used for gaming.  I’ve walked into hobby shops to find popcorn and spilt soda on the floor, and nobody bothering to clean it up.

Now a teenage boy walks by the store, he sees a bunch of guys laughing around a table in a cramped space, he walks in to see what is going on.  A teenage girl walks by and sees a bunch of guys laughing around a table in a cramped space, she keeps walking.  The environment, not the hobby, is what is intimidating to many potential female gamers.

The home improvement industry learned this lesson.  I remember reading an article about Home Depot beginning to target women shoppers.  While men buy most of the tools, women originate most of the improvement projects.  So Home Depot undertook a major renovation program.  They make aisles wider, cleaned the stores, improved lighting, and started labeling things clearer and setting up displays that included products that complimented each other.  The end result was a huge spike in market growth, and women are one of their fastest growing demographics.

And let’s be honest.  Women shoppers are loyal.  We like our local stores and we support them.  If we see a pair of shoes in our favorite shop, we buy them in our favorite shop.  We don’t run to Amazon.com to see if they are cheaper there.  Hobby shops could benefit from attracting women gamers because of this.

Women that are recruited into gaming by male friends aren’t intimidated by gaming.  I never thought twice about gaming at a table with all men, because they were all guys I knew outside of gaming. But I don’t know if I would have gotten involved in gaming if my only introduction to the hobby had been a bunch of strange guys in a poorly lit, cramped and dirty storefront.

CT) Please share your thoughts on the general nature of the artwork in core rule books, please limit your discussion to the more widely known rule books.

JAD) I think art is still an issue for female gamers.  In some cases, it has gotten better.  But the fact that overall it has gotten better makes the appearance of “chainmail bikinis” in products all the more glaring.  For example, female demons, even the ones that are supposed to be hideous, still having voluptuous figures and huge breasts.  They might be covered in spikes and scales, but they still have an hourglass figure.  Whenever I see any sort of reptilian race where the females have breasts, I laugh.  Fantasy world or not, it’s a pretty big leap to give a reptile or amphibian mammary glands!

I don’t necessarily find it offensive, but if art in a book isn’t balanced it can reinforce all of the negative stereotypes about gaming.  Or at the very least, leave someone scratching her head wondering where the artist learned his biology from.

CT) Are there gender issues, in your opinion, that the industry as a whole should look at and perhaps change?

JAD) I don’t think it is the industry’s responsibility to address gender issues per se.  I don’t want to see political correctness run amok in a misguided effort to appease female gamers.  I think the best thing the industry can do is to not make a big deal out of us, instead of placing us on this pedestal for study.  Some sites do things like “female gamer of the month” and stuff like that, and I honestly don’t think it actually helps any.  You know, I am always happy to talk with reporters and bloggers about the industry.  But my first thought when I got your initial query asking my opinion regarding being a female in the industry was “it’s the same as it’s been for almost twenty years.”

In a way, it bothers me that we are still having this conversation in 2010.  I don’t think it reflects so much on the gaming industry, however, as it does on society as a whole.  Society in general, not the gaming community in particular, still very much has some rather arcane notions about what women do and do not like, and what we should and should not be interested in.  And I think it is perhaps the greater societal issue regarding gender that drives these questions more than anything going on in the industry itself.

For the most part, the online aspect of the gaming community really is rather gender neutral.  I can jump into conversations on any given gamer forum, and my gender has never really been an issue.  I mentioned earlier how hobby shops should work harder to attract female shoppers, but that is more from a good business practices perspective than addressing overarching gender issues.  If women feel comfortable in a store, they will bring their kids, who will also take up the hobby.  That is how you grow a business.

Leave a Reply