Kickstarter – Too arbitrary, or just right?

Susan Wilson, Kickstarter, and the problem with money.

Kickstarter has been seen as a bit of a watershed moment for game development in the last few years. It’s enabled indie developers to tap into the vast resources of our wallets before they’ve delivered a product. It’s allowed them to bypass the publishers, often considered to be a major roadblock to anything good (if you believe our glorious PC gaming master race), and to acquire funds directly from the people who want to see their game released. Without any real accountability (unless you’re promising a physical product for backer rewards).

To be honest I have a number of issues with Kickstarter when it comes to gaming, but I’m not really going to discuss my issues with Kickstarter in gaming. I think it has a significant lack of accountability and that when (not if) a few major projects fail, the Kickstarter bandwagon will hit a ditch and caution will return to the market. It’s inevitable that a few of them will fall off the track and disappoint people, but right now that still hasn’t happened so everyone’s highly optimistic about it.

No, my issue is with this: 9 Year Old Building an RPG to Prove Her Brothers Wrong!

What is it?

This is a pitch by Susan Wilson’s daughter, Mackenzie Wilson, a 9 year old female looking to raise $829 to go to RPG Camp, so that she can learn how to use RPG Maker to make an RPG to ‘prove her brothers wrong’. The Kickstarter pitch has clearly been written by her mother, which is fine I guess, and has at the time of writing raised $21,870, with another 24 days to go on the clock. There are a bunch of reward tiers, some including physical goods, and some which are quite frankly ridiculous. The $10,000 reward tier promises a ‘personal apology’ from her brothers, along with the satisfaction of knowing that you’ve started her career and helped to fund future courses.

The crux of the Kickstarter is about sending Mackenzie to RPG Camp, which costs about $829, so that she can learn to make an RPG. Pledging $10 or more will get you a copy of that game that she makes. That’s what lies at the core of the Kickstarter, though the absolute, fundamental, basic aspect is that you’re paying for her to go to RPG Camp. Any extra they earn apparently goes into buying her a new laptop. The rest goes to Girls-in-STEM causes (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Exactly where it’s going still isn’t clear, but that’s the goal apparently.

The implication however is that it’s not just about sending a girl to RPG camp, but rather it’s about proving that girls can make RPGs. Perhaps in this way it’s relying on the recent turmoil over Women vs Tropes in Video Games and the recent arguments over females in gaming. Now that’s a whole can of worms with absolutely no safe ground, so I’m not even going to touch that (where you’re either a white knight or a misogynist) except to suggest that the overtones of this Kickstarter have been coloured by similar recent events.

This has generated a number of arguments about whether or not it should be allowed, as well as much debate about trolls and critics and so forth. Due to the ‘girl power’ element in this Kickstarter pitch it was always going to attract a number of nutjobs from both the men’s rights activists and the white knighting community. Before we even go any further, I want to try to head off any “Oh my god you misogynist prick!” attacks. I don’t have any issue with the alleged ‘demonising’ of her brothers nor the fact that this campaign has the ‘girl power’ element strongly on display. I’m a male nurse, I’ve worked in a female-dominated sector for ages, to call me a misogynist would be absurd. I’ve also experienced sexual discrimination in nursing for being a male so there’s no way in hell I’d tolerate it with the shoe on the other foot. But I am a critic of this project.

Should it be on Kickstarter?

The first port of call for answering this question is Kickstarter’s guidelines. The Kickstarter Basics page under “Can Kickstarter be used for anything?” clearly states that ‘fund my life’ projects aren’t allowed. The guidelines provide more direction on what is or isn’t a project. Let’s take a look through them and see if this project fails any of them:

Funding must be for projects only: This outlines what a project is, namely it must have a clear goal and must eventually be completed. Starting a business for example is not a project – it’s open ended with no end, even if it has a goal. Arguably there’s no breach of this guideline – it does have a clear goal and it is ‘completed’ in that her daughter finishes her RPG camp. Although the body of the Kickstarter doesn’t promise it, the backer rewards do promise that some backers will receive a copy of the game that she makes at RPG camp. The excess money is probably going to go into funding somebody’s life but extra money is irrelevant. As an aside, this is why I don’t consider Penny Arcade and their Kickstarter to quality – even though they put an ‘end’ at 12 months, it’s an entirely arbitrary date with the promise of coming back each year for more.

Projects must fit categories: Well, I guess it is a video game, so no problems here.

Prohibited uses: Kickstarter lists a number of prohibited uses, most notably ‘no charity or cause funding’ and ‘no fund my life projects’. This is where I have an issue with this Kickstarter. The addition of ‘you get a copy of the game!’ does change things somewhat but the crux of the Kickstarter is sending her daughter to RPG camp. This seems an awful lot like ‘fund my life’ or maybe a charity cause (since they’re playing up the girl power element). It’s designed to educate her daughter and to empower her. Honestly, the “you get a copy of my game” part is fairly tangential. The majority of the Kickstarter is dedicated to talking about RPG camp, how girls can develop games too, and a bunch of merchandise. It’s well written, more like an advertising pitch (but then again that’s all Kickstarter ever really is – advertising to get your money). With the focus on getting her daughter to RPG camp and little else, I’d argue that this is more about “fund my kid’s life” than a legitimate project.

But none of this matters because Kickstarter allowed it. And this is my biggest problem with Kickstarter – they seem to ignore attempts to bend (or sometimes outright break) the rules like this. They’re entirely arbitrary in their enforcement of their guidelines (which are effectively rules), so why the hell have them at all? From their perspective it’s only in their interests to enforce them in cases of obvious scamming, because remember they take a cut of whatever money you earn on Kickstarter, so the more projects that get funded, the better off they are. This is what annoys me about Kickstarter and it seems to be a fundamental issue with how it works. If we’re going to have guidelines, can’t they at least enforce them, or better describe them?

For all of us who don’t think it’s a Kickstarter because the guidelines suggest it isn’t, I have to say that I can’t defend this position because Kickstarter said it’s okay. I don’t agree with that, but there you have it – much like the highest judge in a common law jurisdiction, their word is law for their own little domain, and our disagreements don’t really matter.

Is this really a ‘morally acceptable’ proposal?

So it passes the guidelines test only because Kickstarter said so. There’s still an argument to be made about whether it should be ‘morally acceptable’ for a Kickstarter like this to be there. This is all subjective, there’s no real objective test here. It’s more about ‘is this in the spirit of Kickstarter?’ rather than ‘what does the rulebook say?’

My opinion is that Kickstarter should be for projects that need funding to get off the ground. That is to say without a Kickstarter there’d be no project. If you can fund it yourself without significant hardship, I don’t think it should be allowed on Kickstarter. Kickstarters are effectively transferring the financial risk of development onto the backers, so if the project ultimately fails it’s mostly our money that’s lost. While a publisher can smack the developer around or possibly drag them through the courts, we’ve got no real avenue of complaint. The only thing that happens is that the developer’s reputation takes a hit. So in analysing this one, my question is – could this have been funded without a Kickstarter? And to answer that, let’s look at who Susan Wilson actually is.

Wilson has had a couple of projects which were flexible funding under IndieGoGo, including one by her partner (see the Comments section), which gained a little bit of money but never reached their goals. There’s also this previous unsuccessful Kickstarter to try to make personalised capes. She’s not new to crowdfunding. Wilson has been named as one of the most powerful women entrepreneurs (CNN) in 2009, apparently from focusing on debt collection. She also has her own crowd-funding website focusing on females. All of this makes her motives look fairly suspicious.

Now we don’t know for certain about her financial situation or that of her family, but I’d find it hard to believe that she couldn’t find the $800 or so to send her daughter to camp. $800 isn’t a small amount of cheese, don’t get me wrong, but given her mother’s history and continual attempts at launching either business or funding campaigns for them, I’d be surprised if they don’t have that money. This, combined with the previous attempts at gaining money (which resulted in pretty much nothing, so far as I can see, except inflating her bank account thanks to flexible funding), make me think it’s just a grab for cash.

When I combine this cynical outlook with her insistence on dragging in important causes like women in STEM along with the current climate which focuses on getting girls in technology, it looks to me like one big marketing pitch to acquire a bunch of cash while claiming the moral high ground. Is it a scam? Not really. But it does have an element of dishonesty about it (in my opinion). The sad part is that at the centre of it is a 9 year old girl with an interest in technology which should be fostered and developed.

It’s a brilliant bit of marketing, I have to hand it to her, because critics are going to be crucified. If you’re against it, some of the commentators suggest, then you’re a misogynist! You’re against this project? Clearly you’re against women in technology! How dare you? This kind of divisive nonsense, which is also on display for any critics of Women vs Tropes in Video Gaming, puts people into either a white-knight ‘save the females!’ group or a hateful misogynist-troll-firestorm. It prevents any real debate about whether or not this should be allowed. Guys, a critic of this does not necessarily hate women. Sure, there are going to be a lot of trolls sending death threats. But this kind of bullshit “You’re either with us or against us!” response is just as bad as the trolls. How can we ever move forward if you just crush any sort of questioning because it isn’t unconditional support?

In my opinion, Susan Wilson has played us all like a master musician. The raise of the conductor’s baton signalled the start of the hate from the trolls and the knee-jerk reaction of unconditional support from everyone else, effectively eliminating any sort of balanced debate about her project and whether or not it’s a valid one. And she’s used an important topic to leverage her campaign to acquire a load of cash. She didn’t manage to hit the right notes previously, but in the current climate, and by playing the gaming community like a harp, she’s finally managed it. Seventh time lucky, hey?

Nobody’s Side

From where I sit, I’m really on nobody’s side. On one hand it’s allowed on Kickstarter, because Kickstarter’s guidelines are inherently broken because they’re out to make as much money as they can while not allowing blatant scams which might destroy their credibility. On the other, I don’t think that this is morally right. I think it’s a cynical grab for cash taking advantage of the current interest in women in STEM by a woman who is incredibly good at marketing and business. She earned that spot as a powerful entrepreneur. Whether you like her or hate her, you have to hand it to her – she did an outstanding job on this Kickstarter. I don’t like it, but that’s the truth.

If she did donate the bulk of the money to a worthy Women in STEM cause then we haven’t got much to argue about, but I have very little faith in that happening. No doubt some of it will be donated but I’d be surprised if they didn’t keep a decent chunk of it. She’s a business woman first and foremost, and business are out to make money. It’s just sad that she’s chosen her daughter and the issue of women in STEM to leverage her ambition to make money.

And at the core of it, Kickstarter is still inherently broken. Prepare for more of these projects!

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2 thoughts on “Kickstarter – Too arbitrary, or just right?

  1. GREAT article. Much better than what passes for journalism on CNET, Kotaku and elsewhere. VERY rational and reasonable.

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