September 10, 2009

Interview with Jennifer Schoonover: Woman in the Gaming Industry

It was great being able to take to Jen Seiden Schoonover.  She is an ex-WEG (West End Games) and has done numerous freelance projects for role playing games.  She owns an indie company that edits and write for other companies, as well as writen columns for RPGlife, and RPGirl Zine.  I was very happy to have her as our first female point of view for the project.  She has had a huge amount of experience that shows the the RPG industry is definitely not just for the guys.

d20 Sapphire: How did you first get into gaming?
Jennifer Seiden Schoonover: My parents played with a few friends of theirs around the kitchen table once a week and let me sit in and listen. I also looked through all their books, mostly D&D stuff. My dad's best friend started the war-gaming company that preceded West End Games and would bring over a lot of that stuff too.
d20 Sapphire: How old were you when you finally got around to playing?
Jennifer: I tried GM-ing Ghostbusters and Paranoia when I was about 16, and joined a bonafide D&D group soon after. By then my dad was working for WEG and I had copies of a lot of their supplements.
d20 Sapphire: When you started out with D&D, were you the only woman in the group or were there others?
Jennifer: I was pretty much the only woman to show up in gaming groups until about 1998.
d20 Sapphire: How easy was it to game as the only woman then? Was it easier in some groups than others?
Jennifer: Definitely. Usually there wasnt a problem. I think I saw my first "bad" group in 2000, but by then I was already ex-WEG and wouldn't tolerate that sort of thing anyway.
d20 Sapphire: How was that group bad? 
Jennifer: I'm not sure if they were uncomfortable with me having ovaries, me being ex-industry, or just my gaming style but everyone but the GM apparently had a problem with me being there, so I was told later on. Maybe I didn't play like a girl was "supposed" to play. Maybe I was anticipating the GM because of my background.  Not sure. At the time I was at WEG I was also one of the only editor/game director that was female. I don't play much anymore due to this actually. Mostly I GM now.
d20 Sapphire: Is it easier for you to GM than play at a comfort level?
Jennifer: Yes. After developing Chaos University for my own company I found I was really happy running the games. I kept trying to find ways to bring the players into the game deep enough that they would forget where they were and I think I'm happiest doing so.

d20 Sapphire: So it sounds like at least when you first started playing it was easy to get into the group without any hassle. Were you already good friends with everyone when you started gaming with them?
Jennifer: At the time I was about 16 and my 30-year old friend invited me to game. I think they were more stuck on the age difference than anything else. They were all in their twenties through forties.
d20 Sapphire: You were the baby of the group then?
Jennifer: Oh yeah. And I didn't understand the system part (still don't actually), but I could run with the storylines. Yeah, systems and me never work.
d20 Sapphire: Do you find systems too complicated? 
Jennifer: It's like a block. D6 was easy, and I know I learned the CoC system, though I've forgotten it, but I was the Paranoia line director and never figured it out. That's why whenever I have to create a new system for Iron Game Chef or one of the other games I put together, I use incredibly silly systems. This may be more "me" and less "female."

d20 Sapphire: It sounds like you're into the storylines developed by gaming. It's something that the other people I talked to thinkg females are more into. Do you think there's any truth to that?
Jennifer: I like pulling emotion out of gamers and I suspect that might be a female trait. But when I do put it in a game, I think the guys that play enjoy it too. Nothing sappy, but senses of betrayal and loss, anger and blind hatred... when you can evoked these emotions, it makes the victories more striking.
d20 Sapphire: I find that too. Do you think that doesn't happen as often if a guy is the GM?
Jennifer: Hm... now it gets tricky.... I think that it's the creator's hand that could better guide the GM. It's not that, on average, male GMs suck at wringing emotion, it's that you need a good GM. Most GMs are male therefore you have more male GMs that aren't good at it.
But... female GMs, while they CAN suck, are more likely to make an extra effort to be "good" just because they know that they're females and will be noted as such. If that makes sense.
d20 Sapphire: Like there's extra pressure to be good?
Jennifer: They know if they put too much sappiness in a game with a portion of male players, they'll be called on the carpet for it, yes. But they shouldn't have to give up their instincts and try to MAKE a "male-oriented adventure."
d20 Sapphire: You think they should incorporate their instincts into their GMing?
Jennifer: Absolutely.
d20 Sapphire: Working in the industry, did you find that you brought different ideas when it came to making games than your male counterparts? Were there things you focused on more that maybe your co-workers who were male didn't think about as much or at all?
Jennifer: Again, I'm not sure if it was just me or females in general, but I really try to make continuity match up. It's actually what I'm really well known for now when editing freelance.
d20 Sapphire: This is mostly for supplements for games?
Jennifer: Right, although I came up with most of the history for New Gods of Mankind by Dark Skull Studios. They had named some battles and occurances and I put it together and explained how the battles came about and stuff. It was pretty nifty.

d20 Sapphire: It sounds like you haven't had to deal with a lot of men that were weird about a woman at the gaming table. Have you had to deal with that really at all?
Jennifer: Not since that one group. Now I do demos at cons and if anyone has had a problem, I haven't been told about it. And convention demo-ing is a whole 'nother animal, because everyone's a stranger.
me: Do you hear other female gamers complain about it often?
Jennifer: I'd like to think I have... but I can't tell if it's real or assumed in most cases. Outside of playing I've gotten comments from guys like, "I've never met a female gamer." But not actually AT the table. Same thing, I think. Most of the women I've spoken with were at a gaming convention and were serious about it. Most women I've met OUTSIDE the gaming table, simply did not game. Or gamed a long time ago because their older brother did it.
d20 Sapphire: Do you feel that women are a significant minority in gaming?
Jennifer: I want to say no but I'm probably a bit out of touch with reality. The last two demos I hosted had an even amount... in fact one had three girls and a guy. But overall, probably. I think more girls are getting into gaming.
d20 Sapphire: Do you think that might have something to do with where you are from?
Jennifer: Yeah, I lived in really small towns or in places where there were other interests.
d20 Sapphire: Do you think there's something specifically helping more girls get into gaming? 
Jennifer: Current culture. The acceptance of things like Goth. Anime might have even helped. Cute big-eyed animals and Squee!
d20 Sapphire: Hahaha! So it looks like it's a natural evolution that the gaming industry isn't necessarily facilitating, is it?
Jennifer: The fads have changed significantly. Before it was be a prom queen. Now it's dress up like a vampire. The game industry was just 20 years too early. A majority of younger girls are getting into it because it's a cool thing to do. If LARP can go mainstream with the high school crowds, the rest of us have got it made.
d20 Sapphire: It sounds like you think the industry doesn't have much to worry about as time goes on.
Jennifer: It may actually have to keep light on the systems to incorporate a younger less-literate crowd, but it CAN go there.
d20 Sapphire: Have you found, as a GM and a developer, that female gamers bring something different to the table at a game?
Jennifer: I think more spontaneity in that they will just blurt stuff, and possibly more randomness in that they don't want to do the same thing twice. It's a guess though.

d20 Sapphire: Do you think there is anything that the RPG community could do to help bring in more female gamers?
Jennifer: Aside from acting surprised when a girl expresses an interest?  Have explanations of things. If a girl wants to use a gun, a male at the table, in his bid for showing his superior knowledge (which works on other guys) might start going into detailed explanations of EACH AND EVERY type of possibility there is. The girl gets bored, because she just wants to blast someone out of the sky--not as interested in the details. Thus the supplement or adventure in question might want to do a list, detailing just the difference with a picture of each gun. Thereby the woman just picks and chooses. This is done by some companies. But if you supply more of these things for a variety, it will eliminate some of the conversation and get right down to "make the selection, now go and do." Industry publishers could draw more girls in if they eliminated the competition themselves instead of hoping it will be eliminated at the table.
d20 Sapphire: Ah I see, less necessary choices should be left for expansions and supplements?
Jennifer: It's that and just that... well, I've seen guys talk out a comparison between two types of guns. Or motorcycles, or anything else. It's part of geekdom and a lot of women will do the same. But if a woman is new at it, she may be offput by having a guy "gently" tell her the differences between a whole bunch of guns. It may just be me. But why have someone explain it all to me if there's quick efficient descriptions I can glance through?
d20 Sapphire: Makes perfect sense. I know I would personally like that.
Jennifer: I'm not saying that women can't debate or anything, but we'd like to be prepared for the debate instead of being the student of one.

d20 Sapphire: Thank you so much for the interview!
Jennifer: Not a problem.

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