Kickstarting Sexism with "Kingdom Death" UPDATED!
Sometimes, board games have cool miniatures and artistically admirable player pieces. Other times, they have patently sexist, exploitative and offensive miniatures. Sadly, this week has supplied an exemplar in the latter category. Kingdom Death, a horror-themed board game for 1–6 players and currently in development, just finished its Kingdom Death: Monster Kickstarter. The full game, available to backers of the campaign at $100 or more, contains a generous number of pieces. As the campaigns steadily racked up more backers, upgrades to the base game were unlocked via stretch goals. Creator Adam Poots had set the funding goal at for $35,000. He ended up raising $2,049,721 from 5,410 backers. While it's important to remember that both Kickstarter and Amazon take a percentage of a Kickstarter campaign's money in processing fees, it's equally important to point out that 5,410 people are really, really excited about this game.
Kingdom Death is described as a "nightmare horror game" that "underscores the brutal physical and mental torment of surviving in a world where people are the struggling bottom of a monstrous ecology." Though the examples of characters and monsters viewable online are not exhaustive, the thematic element that appears to recur is sexual organs. At least one monster, whose image appears on the game's main page, appears to comprise testicles, a tail, multiple breasts and arms, and at least one face. I'm always a little concerned when human sex organs are portrayed as monstrous or even sinister. The human race has enough issues with sexuality as it is, but apparently Kingdom Death is a world where giant sentient ballsack-breast monsters are but one of an adventurer's problems.
The portrayal of women in the art and miniatures is just as concerning. Miniatures in general are rarely varied or diverse in their portrayal of women; they're usually a tiny replica of the worst chainmail-bikini tropes. Kingdom Death has reached for the limits of this aesthetic. Sexualized portrayals of women abound in the game images available—some of them even called "pinups"—as do images of women in submissive positions. Female figurines are either monstrous, sexual, or both.
The "Preacher Pinup" demonstrates a misunderstanding of what constitutes clothing.
I find it disturbing and discouraging that a creative team that clearly prioritizes making quality figurines chose to make those same quality figurines out of astoundingly sexist material. This scale of female sexualization in Kingdom Death's characterizations outweighs, for me, any other merits this game could have going for it. High production values don't change that a game with pointedly sexist artistic content was able to raise more than two million dollars to fund its manufacture.
I'd like to see the miniatures market catch up to consumers who don't want sexist miniatures. I'm also not expecting to see that happen any time soon. The success of Kingdom Death's funding campaign is a clear reminder that women remain outside the target audience of many game designers. I've seen a lot of people already saying "Don't like it, don't buy it," but the vote-with-your-dollars argument is a cheap way to shut down criticism—and neatly sidesteps the fact that sexism continues to be a problem in tabletop games.
Update, 1/10/13: I wanted to respond to the comments on this post. Because of the volume of them, I'm going to try and address as many as I can in one response. It's being added to the article to keep from repeating responses throughout many comments, and to keep from getting lost in the comments section.
I was unaware of the Kickstarter for Kingdom Death: Monster until after it was finished. I do have issues with the pinup's proportions, because I feel they are highly exaggerated and sexualized depictions of women's bodies. As has been pointed out, I did not clearly differentiate between which miniatures are present in the game versus other miniatuires, such as the "pinups," which were represented in the article's visuals. I ackowledge that was not a deft employment of language skill, but does not change that such sexually charged imagery was popular, and sold well.
There were several compliants pertaining to my opinions and biases not constituting journalism. My series is an opinion series, and newswriting is vastly different from opinion columns. I am not obligated to interview people.
I find the gorm pretty damn scary. I mentioned in the article that I find genitals in monster imagery very disturbing, and it concerns me because I think that feeds into societal issues surrounding sex. In this case, somewhat unintentionally. The Wet Nurse suckles children, so its appearence at least makes sense, but it still squicks me out.
A number of people seem to think that the issue is not that the pinups or game base minis are sexist, but there isn't an equal ratio of scantily clad hot men to scantily clad hot women. "Equalizing" the images of sexual consumption just exploits men too. Exploitation isn't suddenly okay when we're doing it to two parties. It just means more sexism.
Many comments seem to agree with my recognition that sex sells by protesting that people want to see attractive, scantily clad people. While this is true, my issue was with how selling those minis as part of the campaign struck me as sexist. It was using images of women's bodies to make money. We already see that every day outside gaming. The effort and quality of the Kingdom Death minis is some of the best I've ever seen. That kind of artistic merit stands on its own. That's, in part, why the pinups make me frustrated and dissapointed. The Kickstarter page is full of the pinup images. It distracts from the product. KD is a horror board game in a nightmarish world. Why not more exquisite monsters, instead of the default to selling women out?
I can expect better care from men who design games because designing is usually done by smart, savvy people. I don't expect men to universally be sexist, to attack women in any fashion, or treat others in a pejudicial manner just because they're men.
Since Warhammer came up: I've played Warhammer. I dig it. I think the few female minis in Warhammer feed into bikini-chainmail stereotypes. My bigger problem with Warhammer is how deeply women continue to be so absent from the minis. Which makes me sad. Thankfully it's slightly easier to cope with those aspects in the Warhammer RPGs, like Dark Heresy and Rogue Trader.
It is not forbidden for me to dislike a game, or its aesthetics, nor is it against any rules for backers and others to deeply appreciate and enjoy products I do not. I am not a monolithic voice, I am a single person expressing an opinion. I don't think people who backed this Kickstarter are evil, horrible, or lesser than anyone else. I've talked to backers in the past day who love the game and walked right past the pinups because it was Not Their Thing. That's okay. And it's also okay that other backers bought the pinups. I expressed my opinions about content I found problematic. At the end of the day, I have my opinion, others have theirs, and we all continue to have the ability to hold differing opinions and enjoy different things.
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