This week I walked into the Idea Room at HUB Seattle and met two people whose office prank calling out sexism in gaming went all over the Internet as a positive story.
A positive story. Really.
One of them, “K2″ and @k2_said on Twitter, won’t reveal her name in public. The other is artist Sam Kirk. Both work at Meteor Entertainment, a Seattle gaming company that runs a free online mech war game called Hawken.
The more we talked, the more convinced I became that something a lot of people do wrong these two did so very right. From inception through execution, their prank was hardly a prank at all. It was a thoughtful, careful statement. And it rode on the power of playfulness to teach a lesson: maybe this is the way to spark conversations about gender stereotypes in male dominated industries.
Their story starts and ends with sexy posters.
In the beginning, there was “Ruby Underboob,” as K2 not so affectionately called her. She is Hawken comic art that Meteor Entertainment CEO Mark Long commissioned for a gallery show (he’s partner in Seattle’s Roq La Rue gallery) then hung on the out-facing wall of his office. It was the first thing people saw when they entered Meteor’s Pioneer Square office and the last thing they saw when they left.
K2 loves Meteor. But she did not love Ruby Underboob.
She hatched a plan, brought in artist Kirk and on April Fool’s Day the two replaced “Ruby Underboob” with Kirk’s new creation, “Brosie the Riveter.”
“What the hell is this?” Long said when he walked in that morning. Ten minutes later he approached K2 at her desk and said, essentially, this:
That was a brilliant prank. You called me on exactly the bullshit I need to be called on. I put up pictures of half-naked girls around the office all the time and I never think about it. I’m taking you and Sam to lunch. And after that, we’re going to hang both prints, side by side.
K2 shared the story online last week and it soared. “How the Poster of a Sexy Dude Helped One Game Developer Make a Point,” wrote Kotaku. “Hawken Developer Levels the Gender Playing Field with Brosie the Riveter,” said PC Gamer. “A Heartwarming Gamer Story about Gender-Swapping Mechanics,” said Wired.
Thoughtful (thoughtful!) critiques of sexism followed in comments and social media. Now, Brosie and Ruby prints are on sale for $25.
One of the sweetest lies I hear from people behind viral content is that they never imagined it would get so big. They may have been surprised virality chose them, or worked hard not to expect it, but of course they imagined it. We’re too immersed in a kingmaking digital universe not to.
K2 and Kirk made no such claims. They were surprised by the story’s quick spread and humbled by its impact. Its tone, though, was validation of calculated hypotheses about how best to make a point about a tense topic.
First, you absolutely have to have humor. It has a nice disarming effect. If there’s one thing Kirk never doubted, it’s that everyone in the company would find Brosie hilarious. Laughter is a good start. “Nobody gets to consider their reaction until they’ve already reacted,” he said.
Add a personal touch and humor becomes playfulness. Brosie’s face is the face of a Meteor developer colleagues had been PhotoShopping into funny poses for weeks. Playfulness is a tactic K2 knows well. When she started working at Meteor, she put a plush rooster on her desk. When her mostly male coworkers would ask her about it, she’d say she’d heard that in the gaming industry “it helps to have one of these.”
The rooster is still on her desk. Its name is Beyonce.
Next up, collaboration. It became clear in five minutes that neither K2 nor Kirk are afraid to speak their minds. So they actually could work together on a sticky thing without raging, wilting, or otherwise giving up. Plus, it taught them something. K2 expected to have to pay a company artist to design Brosie. Kirk would accept no more payment than one $90 bottle of añejo tequila. His instant interest in K2′s idea — he wasn’t a fan of Ruby either — was refreshing. “That’s the first moment I realized I was surrounded by allies who were male,” she said.
As for Kirk, the idea that guys wouldn’t agree with Ruby’s absurdity was a surprise. “I don’t see this as a women’s issue at all,” he said.
K2 has never worked in media relations. She could, though. Easily. When she decided to share the prank online, she understood that she had to share the story, not just the joke. She got Long’s permission to include his reaction to the prank, turning what could have a seemed a hostile provocation into something done, resolved and with a happy ending before it hit the interwebs.
How it hit the interwebs mattered, too. K2 looked at spaces that talked about women’s depictions in game culture with brains and humor, but not anger. She went with the Hawkeye Initiative, a popular Tumblr blog where contributors substitute female characters in absurdly sexual poses with the Avenger Hawkeye. It was a perfect launchpad.
K2 described the prank and everything that’s followed as “one of those Russian dolls that keeps unpacking.” And indeed it is. There are many angles to this, many lessons. K2 seems on top of most of them. Unlike so many who get caught in the spotlight, she’s owning the prank and everything it’s sparked as an opportunity to make progress on a topic she believes in, on terms she feels strongly are the right ones.
K2 said she’s “evolved” over the course of the story.
She was raised by a feminist mom whose style was so aggressive K2 refused to call herself a feminist for fear of association.
When her interests led her to the gaming industry, she did her homework. What would it mean to be a woman working in a male dominated industry? The stories she heard were discouraging. She didn’t realize how much they’d put her on the defensive until she saw how her male colleagues reacted to Brosie — with humility, good humor and respect.
The prank she hoped would disarm her environment ended up disarming her. How can you get playful when you’re often ready to get mad?
She wants to spread the effect.
With the help of collaborators, she’s started three open projects to take Brosie’s message a little further.
Real Women of STEM is a kind of art gallery network that’s taking submissions. Booth Bros imagines a response to conference booth babes in the form of real-life Brosies (companies who want in can email email@example.com). Gender-shenanigans itself is a project, a Tumblr formed in collaboration with @snipeyhead to gather more positive, funny stories about gender stereotypes.
“I’ve seen a hunger for a positive story I thought was there and now I know was there,” K2 said. “I have been ready for a while to have this public discussion.”
Update: This post has changed to correct the number of bottles of tequila K2 gave Kirk for his work. It was one bottle, not two.
Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist, freelance journalist and award-winning digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.