Quick Hit: GenCon Events for the “Better Half”

GenCon has some programing for non-gamers who might be attending the con with their spouse. Sounds like a good idea, for those who want to travel together but don’t all want to attend the con. The problem is that they’re represented by this icon:

GenCon SPA - Activities for the Better Half

Valleyviolet has an excellent critique of the problematic responses GenCon has made in response to complaints.

I noticed the category of events at GenCon for the “Better Half” shortly after they began running several years ago. As Vanir points out, their icon is woefully not ok. When I first saw it I went to the Con Staff and said so. They looked at me like I was some kind of giant purple ostrich with two head and they had no idea what words were coming out of my mouth(s).

But Vanir’s open letter got more response. The official response from GenCon can be summed up something like this: “I’m a woman and I thought it was funny” as well as “but the events are fun!” (which never seemed to be in dispute). Valleyviolet points out that this really isn’t a very good response:

Women can be sexist. Saying “my company has women in it” is like saying “I have a black friend”. It’s tangential and unrealistic to expect that every woman (or person who works with a woman) has a full understanding of the gender related issues that upset other people.


I don’t know if you are a gamer. I don’t care other than to ask if you fully understand how sexism still affects the women at your con. Have you enjoyed the stereotype of the non-gamer wife every time you walk into the exhibit hall and have exhibitors address your husband and ignore you? Have you sat down to games and enjoyed being asked if you date the GM (who you’ve never met) because you got a ruling or a character that someone else at the table thinks you didn’t deserve?

Being a gamer is part of my identity and that icon says that you do not understand or respect how others have hurt me and continue to hurt me by disregarding my identity and feelings. “Oh haha it was a joke” is no more an appropriate excuse here than when it’s used to excuse any other disregard for the feelings of others.

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Terri has a PhD in horribleness, assuming we can all agree that web security is kind of horrible. She stopped working on skynet (err, automated program repair and AI) before robots from the future came to kill her and got a job in open source, which at least sounds safer. Now, she gets paid to break things and tell people they're wrong, and maybe help fix things so that people won't agree so readily with the first sentence of this bio in the future. Terri writes/tweets under the name terriko, enjoys making things and mentoring others and has a plain ol' home page at http://terri.toybox.ca.

12 thoughts on “Quick Hit: GenCon Events for the “Better Half”

  1. Mary

    I actually would have been a bit bothered by the “Better Half” phrase in the first place although I think the ball and chain thing is much worse. There’s a context around it that bugs me: a “better half” is your partner who spends their time on worthy work while you play. Too often, generally, when the partnership is female-male and it’s the woman being declared the “Better Half” that framing is close to “my female partner is the better person, the sensible grown-up, and I’m the little boy who plays and needs her to keep me under control! Tee hee!”

    That is, to me, “better half” is in very similar territory to “ball and chain” (and “she who must be obeyed” or “honey do lists” and so on). Women are angels/mothers/controllers and men are sinners/children/playful. Perhaps this reaction to “better half” is not as widespread?

    1. Jon Niehof

      Mary: you’re not the only one. I was pretty ticked at “better half” and my rage-o-meter pegged out when I scrolled down and actually saw the logo. (Mind, the rage-o-meter has been simmering pretty high lately from FB.)

    2. ConFigures

      You’re not alone. The ball and chain bothers me *worse*, but I saw the issue with Better Half (as you’ve explained), even before I saw the awful icon. Fortunately, I wasn’t going to GenCon anyway. I’m spending my fun con time/money budget on Penguicon instead (next weekend, near Detroit, much smaller scale but a well-run gaming track, along with SF and open source tracks). Penguicon has had its own issues (like most sf/tech cons), but at least some of the concom take these issues seriously, and some attendees/staffers are working on improvements (see previous posts on geekfeminism.org).

    3. Clara

      I definitely agree that this term is off-putting. My partner used to introduce me (ironically, he claims!) as his “better half” but stopped after I told him it bugs me, for pretty much the reasons you’ve stated.

  2. Margaret

    Hmmm…. I teach those workshops and love teaching them. And yes you are right, the icon and the name would do well to be changed. How about Non-Gaming Events and the icon could be a smiley face? Or perhaps just a fun geometric design.

    Oh and men and women and gamers alike take the workshops so hey, it isn’t exactly for non-gamers too. So now to change the branding to make it embracing for all differences.

    Perhaps I shall suggest this for next year. :)

    1. Jonquil

      That would be awesome. “Non-Game Thread”. Take the whole “not a REAL GenCon attendee” thing out of it entirely.

    2. Mary

      It’s also inclusive of anyone who isn’t a romantic partner/spouse. I’ve known conferences where, for example, parents of young attendees end up at the “partners’ programme”. “Non-Game track”, “Social track”, “Tourist track” (if it involves, say, local tours, etc), “Alternative activities”, etc.

  3. Maddy

    Uhh. Oh no. I think I have been Doing It Wrong by referring to male significant others as my better half and, maybe once or twice in my entire life, as “the ol’ ball and chain”. I didn’t realize these were supposed to be insulting female-specific monikers …

    1. Jonquil

      A joke made between two lovers, who know one another, is different from an organizational statement. I have been known to call my husband “the head of the household.” He rolls his eyes and calls me the head of the household, and has been known to put me in block 1 of the Census to make a statement about equality.

      If a conference I was going to asked for “the head of the household”, I’d be righteously pissed.

      In this case, a conference is insulting the people who are attending as non-gamers. That’s different from a mock-insult between friends. And, as somebody upthread pointed out, the track in question is popular with gamers, so it’s badly positioned.

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