Bullying is Such a Joke: Problems with the RPG Kickstarter

Last week, a Kickstarter campaign called “9 Year Old Building an RPG to Prove Her Brothers Wrong!” launched, and so far has raised over $20,000 using the marketing strategy that a child’s brothers mocked her plans to go to an RPG-building camp. Therefore, she needs Kickstarter to give her $800 to attend the camp. Rewards for donating $10,000 were added soon after, in which the brothers would apologize for being mean to their sister. No details have been given as to their mean behavior, and it may have been even used as a joke–a joke that was marketed as a serious issue to donors.

The project also liberally throws around STEM as a buzzword and links itself to several legitimate issues: harassment against women, and a drastic imbalance between men and women in technology fields.

Many parts of this Kickstarter were handled badly, but the part that stood out to me the most was the child exploitation angle. While not a violation of the Kickstarter ToS, interpreting the situation any way is problematic.

Before Susan Wilson clarified the intent behind the bullying and gender angles recently, I interpreted the situation in two ways:

  • If the brothers were bullying their younger sister, the result is that the mother chose to commercialize and encourage the strife instead of putting an end to the bullying. Their bullying was left unchecked to fit into a tidy fundraising narrative, with an apology from the brothers only coming as a $10,000 stretch goal reward. An apology isn’t something you deserve if you only raise money. The whole message of this is that the child needs to rely on the goodwill and credit cards of outsiders, hoping she needs to sell her story well enough, to put an end to bullying.
  • If they were having run-of-the-mill sibling rivalry, then the author exaggerated and fabricated events for publicity. This option of faking a situation to pander to a tired tried-and-true narrative is scummy in an equally bad way, that will damage the children when they grow up and realize they were publicly villanized for money. Or, it will encourage lying in the future as a way to make situations more marketable to get ahead in life.

When she described the intent behind the marketing, it didn’t make anything better:

“It was never intended to be this gender thing. It was literally two boys picking on their little sister, she stood up to them and it was game on – in a joking way. Even the boys were fine with it.”

Everything about this Kickstarter was deliberately marketed through the lens of gender. Pitting the girl against mean brothers was a phrase spam tweeted and put in a public place. The title was about proving her male siblings wrong. When briefly linking the project to STEM, it was done so by saying that the girl wanted to be a hero to other girls in technology. But besides these contradictions, bullying isn’t something you joke about or appropriate to add some “flavor” to your Kickstarter.

In a later interview, this description of the situation was given:
“Two very successful gamers reached out to me (unable to divulge) and said ‘I’m promoting this to my network, can you add some more tiers, higher level rewards?’ This is bigger than MacKenzie, people are loving this, and this is a generous group, and so I added – you saw the first time, I added $500, I thought that was amazing – well, then I got contacted back and was told, ‘no, make it $10000 here. Just do $10000, maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t.’ And I was like, ‘what are you saying?’

And literally, she helped me craft the message. It was almost her word-for-word what that says about the boys apologising. It was after the fact because we know it was about more than MacKenzie and the money was going to go to something else. I asked the boys, and the boys thought it was hysterical – yeah we’ll apologise if it creates something cool. My boys… the idea of them doing something to make the world a better place or being part of something bigger is cool to them. So, it was added after at the request of other people with money.”

This comes across as a bunch of clueless privileged people sitting around thinking that bullying is hysterical. Pay us $10,000 for a joke! Maybe it will work! Hilarious! (As a successful entrepreneur that’s tried indiegogo and Kickstarter before, why is she suddenly confused and acting like she was forced into putting up a $10k reward? Having done crowdfunding before, did she also think asking for such a huge reward without any idea of what the money could go towards is good?)

She’s also still throwing her kids under the bus here by shifting the blame onto her children instead of taking responsibility for the situation. First she’s held hostage by people pressuring her to make a $10,000 reward, next she’s held hostage by her kids suggesting jokes. (If that–an old indiegogo project from two years ago had Kenzie posting about her “bratty brothers,” which appears to make this an ongoing marketable sibling rivalry. Her post has since been deleted.) If there was serious bullying going on, casually discussing it as a Kickstarter is not how to handle it, and if the sibling rivalry was played up for publicity, that is tasteless.

The girl in question is exploited as well–she’s billed as a victim in all the marketing and she’s also shoehorned into some tired tropes. The parent takes pains to point out, in describing her gaming background, that she’s not a girly-girl, as if that has some bearing on her interest in games. In a recent update, she had to point out once again that Kenzie hates pink. Some parts of the Kickstarter sound like an adult had a firm hand in it, while other parts were deliberately written to sound juvenile. Brothers are stupid. Age-appropriate games are stupid. Classrooms are boring. Her friends aren’t hardcore. It’s hard to take a complaint seriously when the presentation has a consistent vaguely insulting tone.  If this is truly what the child was thinking, and not a calculated adult appeal for publicity, the parents should sit down with their children and educate them about respect and communication.

Not only is exploitation present in the summary of the Kickstarter, it’s the main advertising hook. The title is called “9 Year Old Building an RPG to Prove Her Brothers Wrong!”, and tweet spam included the phrase “Mean older brothers say she can’t so 9 yr old daughter’s proving SHE CAN build an RPG game AND pay for it “. The Kickstarter is focused on the sibling rivalry, with a brief detour to talk about the importance of STEM, a real topic many readers care about, but the mention of STEM haphazardly thrown into the description comes across as another cheap hook, instead of a legitimate issue. The camp is called RPG camp, not RPG STEM camp, as the writer describes it.

Maybe if the high-donation levels had included rewards relevant to STEM, a better connection could have been drawn, but the opportunity was passed up in favor of a written apology as a stretch reward. In a new backer update explaining how the excess money will be used, she doesn’t even mention STEM. Instead, the Kickstarter is dominated by discussion of how the brothers are vaguely mean to their sister, and how she needs revenge. It’s played up as cutesy laughs, and comes across as someone with a very nice life appropriating strife so that all those “poor and destitute” people out there can relate to it.

The author has been replying to many of the critics–some raise valid points, others are Internet trash–and her reply seems concerned but ultimately unsatisfying. She takes issue with people who think Kickstarter “should only be used for the downtrodden and the poor because it has the power to extend far beyond,” as several people have pointed out that she’s pretty well-off and didn’t need to raise outside funds for a camp. Kickstarter is not a place where people beg for money for “fund my life” projects–that’s against the ToS. It is meant to foster creative development. Between this and the gender angle as a joke, it sounds like a privileged person wanting her slice of the pie and attention that all those downtrodden people seem to be taking advantage of.

It sounds like a person who doesn’t understand that having spare cash changes the context of a financial situation. It sounds like it was written from a perspective of one that hasn’t had to think terribly hard about gender issues or the implications of being short on cash. The $10,000 flippant reward is explained away as something others suggested she should do when she hit her goal, but nobody told her to explicitly create such a large donation level with manipulative rewards and no plan on how to handle the money.

This Kickstarter comes from a place where people can make jokes about gender issues and feel entitled to money because they haven’t dealt with many hardships. She is trying to ally herself with an underrepresented demographic, women in tech, while not realizing how her financial privilege affects the situation. There’s also a dose of slut-shaming in Kenzie’s video, in which she mocks trophy wives and posts unflattering pictures of couples with taglines like “When any girl asks why she should study, show her this!” “So I never end up like this woman & Sugar Daddy becomes extinct.”

Her past crowdfunding projects have also used similar tactics in throwing buzzwords around and jumping on the bandwagon of popular topics without demonstrating a true understanding or empathy for them. One charts lifestyle trends of female entrepreneurs, with this dose of gender essentialism:

“Just as males are hardwired to be competitive hunters, females are communal gatherers. Our complementary genetics are how and why the human species has actually survived – which is an important point to remember btw.

So a woman’s natural preference to collaborate and communicate is actually a gender trait not a choice (or character flaw). And before this becomes an all or nothing distracting debate, I’ll readily admit this isn’t true for every female. So let’s continue. As a direct result of our genetic hard-wiring, females see ourselves in relation to others. Whether we’re babies, girls, teens or women, our personal happiness is directly (and naturally) based on how we see ourselves in relation (and compared) to others – primarily other women.”

A project called Girls Afraid of Money is about rebuilding a networking site for women so they don’t end up as “partying socialites and movie stars” or “girls that look like them – reality stars whove become rich and famous for behaving badly.” The title’s claim is not brought up in the Kickstarter.

Another project talks about veterans sewing superhero capes, but the sample picture used is a red towel on a dog. A project a relative made is called HELP Me Get These Kids Off Video Games, yet the project description mentions no games.

I delayed publishing this article because a Kickstarter update was posted I wanted to cover. In this update, it is revealed that the extra funds will go towards her game, including hiring professionals to work on it. Some funds will also be used to set up a new website, and of course she can’t resist the opportunity to stress that Kenzie hates pink when describing the title. If she gets corporate funding, she will consider making an annual conference. STEM is not mentioned at all in the update.

A website talking about games for children is a great idea, but I do not think she is the person to lead this, based on her track record in abandoning other projects and how she’s already manipulated her children. I would like to see a discussion that doesn’t include slut-shaming, everything described as “awesome” or “stupid,” or mocking those with different interests and familiarities with games. We can’t prove if the author is pretending to be her children, or if the children decided on their own that making a joke about bullying was a fun idea, but either way, I would like to see the uninformed privilege and gender essentialism take a less prominent position on the blog. (Since publishing this post, it’s come to my attention that a video was made in which her daughter talked about plans for the game, but came across as very uncomfortable/disinterested when pressed by her mother for game specifics.)

This kickstarter is not heartwarming when it’s been built on such a manipulative foundation. Many of us have painful memories of being harassed and excluded at work and in our personal lives, and to see someone appropriating them for publicity is infuriating. It is not a fine joke to lie about bullying for money and sell apologies to the highest bidder. The correct thing to do is to educate others who hold these toxic beliefs, instead of posting them to the internet for money and approval.

(Edit: Thanks for all the responses! I originally had this written a few days ago, and then wanted to mention her backer update, so I delayed it. Then when I was about to publish it today, I realized there was even more stuff on the Naruto-based video that was pulled, but figured if I stopped to include everything, this post would never get published and would start having a pretty sprawling scope. I’ll add a few links in where I can to other obviously contradictory evidence.)

Edit 2: As of this morning, Susan has pulled the $10,000 reward. She’s done so in a way that demonstrates no understanding of why lying about bullying is bad and makes it seem like she’s doing critical backers a favor. She defends her choice to frame the Kickstarter in that light and appears shocked that people would judge her children or parenting negatively so quickly. Well, how about you don’t deliberately advertise your campaign in a way that puts your children in a terrible light?

The original title and product description still furthers her fake bullying agenda. And even if that was all removed now, it wouldn’t fully absolve her as she used sensationalism and exploiting her children to build her initial publicity platform.

 

32 thoughts on “Bullying is Such a Joke: Problems with the RPG Kickstarter

  1. Well said.

    This kickstarter had a smell from the beginning and it’s getting worse and worse.

    I’m also curious, if the daughter hates pink so much why is she showing off a pink dyed streak in the video?

    • I think it’s part of her constructed persona that she likes pink in the ‘correct’ geeky way. I don’t see why either detail (hating dresses, liking pink hair) had to be included in it, there’s enough snarking of ‘if you look like/enjoy X, you’re not a “real” geek, etc’ already. Certainly has nothing to do with liking games or being good at coding.

      • My wife is about as “girly” as it gets (including loving all things pink and Disney) and she still somehow manages to love Japanese RPGs (she spent all day playing Ni No Kuni).

        In fact, most women I’ve known in my lifetime who are into games are actually rather “girly.”

        I think the mom has no clue what a typical nerdy girl is like and she’s confusing “gamer” girls with tomboys.

        It’s remarkably transparent to geeks like me how completely fake this whole thing is. I’m surprised that other tech writers have been so easily duped.

        • It does sound like she’s trying to reach for a stereotype. Some of the Kickstarter details hate on traditional gender stereotypes (don’t be a trophy wife, hates dresses, pink sucks). From there it seems to also buy into the stereotype that girls are bad at coding, and then link that up to other assumptions about femininity. It’s like she’s trying to say her daughter isn’t bad at coding by “proving” she’s not feminine.

          I wouldn’t be thrilled if she was trying to reach for a typical “girl gamer” stereotype either, and based on what we’ve seen so far, there would probably be some problematic wording in it too.

          When you consider the uneven handling of what types of games she likes, how the story about the “mean brothers” has morphed over time, and how past crowdfunding projects have used buzzwords and other stereotypical details (often poorly convincing), it’s difficult to take anything at face value.

  2. This was a very good read, I love how to presented an thoroughly researched unbiased report. While some articles are shamelessly slamming or praising Susan, you do neither but instead back up your thoughts with good reasoning/logic and even presented solutions to how she could have handle it better.

  3. There is also the problem that the mother is being accused of fraud and scams, breaks the law cyber squatting, is a multi millionaire and listed as top 50 woman entrepreneurs by CNN, lives in a mansion, and photo evidence of the daughter being 11 or 12 yrs of age and not 9, and the sons being much older than 15 and 16, one even being 20 having already graduated years ago, and the daughter going to an all girls private school and not a public school the way she claimed. And that her youtube video which she removed, showed her plans for the game ( a naruto themed game) which she would not be able to do due to copyright. And that the camp fees were already paid for before the project launched and she would be attending the camp at the same time the game of hers is listed to release.

    • Link to her youtube account (daughter) scroll down half way to see her reply to shane dawson vid ONE INFECTION where she says (5 months ago) to be 11.

      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1AvO2b-2DfJt7YrG5GCo1w/feed?filter=2

      Screen shot.
      https://imageshack.us/a/img195/6087/9myass.jpg

      And link to her kickstarter video (she removed it but another user uploaded it here)
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWY5iPQ9fno

      The mother is threatening people with the media and authorities in response to the top comments.

      Screen shot here in case she deletes her comment
      https://imageshack.us/a/img22/1083/lolsc.jpg

      • Also I find it strange that the mother lets her “9″ year old daughter play her “favorite game” Dragon age 2, rated M for Blood and Gore, Language, Sexual Content, Violence, but still wants to make an RPG (on rpgmaker lol) that focuses on non violence and skipping on the bad language. DOnt get me started on that pic of her MTG game and D&D sheet.

        • I don’t want to pass judgement on parenting, but I did find that a bit odd–using M-rated game influences to lead into how she wanted to do something on rpgmaker that was accessible/appropriate for other children.

    • I’ve added a bit about the removed youtube video, and also a note at the bottom that there continues to be bizarre developments. There’s a lot of contradictory evidence here and in the interest of time, I just wanted to focus on the angles that bothered me the most (while acknowledging that more problematic stuff exists). I already had delayed publishing it once, and I knew that if I wanted to cover every angle in-depth, this would never get published.

  4. I appreciate this well thought-out response to this situation. Things are started to get a bit heated out there, and a bit of sober analysis is always helpful.

    • Thanks–worked hard on the presentation of evidence in this blog, and always good to hear affirmation that it had the intended effect.

  5. Well done, this is the best article on the subject yet. a thousand times better than the “professional” hacks at cnet/wired/shitaku.

    • CNET sold their credibility to the highest bidder after their awards fiasco. Kotaku lol this is common knowledge they are biased and dumb as hell. I dont visit wired so idk.

  6. What kills me in all this is the equation of “I think this project looks fishy” to “I disagree with the causes this project mentions.” If an organization that claims to be a charity that gives money to veterans is exposed as a fraud, I’m not going to give money to it – but that doesn’t mean I oppose helping veterans! It only means I want to give my money to an actual charity that really helps vets.

    That’s the problem most of the “haters” have with this project. It’s being run exactly as a scam would be run, and the “disapproving of me means you hate the cause” angle is a prime example of that. The proper response to the opposition would be for Susan to address the concerns in a meaningful way, rather than demanding they just take her word that she’s a good person. Appeals to trust mean nothing to people who don’t consider you trustworthy…

    This project has only a vague goal and no apparent plan to reach it. That alone should sound loud warning bells for every backer and every journalist reporting on the story.

    At the very least, Susan’s track record doesn’t bode well for the project, even if she’s completely legit. She claims to have gotten shafted in the kinkos.com sale. Her “Money & Company” startup flopped, as did her “FundHer” site. She claims her present company, The Judgment Group, isn’t making payroll. Personally speaking, I would not back any project started by this person at this point. It just doesn’t seem wise to do so, regardless of the product or the pitch; she appears to lack competence.

    I want to see women succeed in business. I want to see girls get excited about “geeky stuff” like STEM. I want to see innovative ideas get their chances. I just don’t want to see con artists diverting money away from those causes and into their own pockets.

    • I completely agree about wanting more girls to be excited about STEM. I didn’t bring it up in the article, but growing up I was always signed up for all those Gifted and Talented math/science programs, and while I did well in them, I did a complete 180 in high school because I was tired of always being the only girl in the classroom and getting picked on constantly. At my current job, which is Content Manager for Wowhead, I started off writing guides and news blogs, and then naturally gravitated towards teaching myself more coding for the actual database. I really enjoy it and wish I didn’t take a humanities detour for a few years in college.

      I really don’t understand why she added a $10,000 reward of no real substance and assumed people would just trust her to find a good source for the money–especially when she later admitted she wasn’t initially sure what to do with it.

    • Thanks for the compliment! I wasn’t really satisfied with a lot of the coverage out there, so I thought it was worth adding my voice. I hope it helps others who are unsure about the Kickstarter.

  7. Great post, glad you went ahead and posted it as I imagine it will keep getting more and more absurd as details show up.

    • Yeah, I’m not sure I’ll do a follow-up (gg 5.3 PTR), but details keep popping up that are equally puzzling–such as some strange address locations and Judgement Group financial information.

  8. Two very successful gamers reached out to me (unable to divulge) and said ‘I’m promoting this to my network, can you add some more tiers, higher level rewards?’ This is bigger than MacKenzie, people are loving this, and this is a generous group, and so I added – you saw the first time, I added $500, I thought that was amazing – well, then I got contacted back and was told, ‘no, make it $10000 here. Just do $10000, maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t.’ And I was like, ‘what are you saying?’

    And literally, she helped me craft the message. It was almost her word-for-word what that says about the boys apologising.

    one of them was Brenda Romero as evidence of her comment on her kickstarter page:
    Quote:
    “The only reason there is a $10K tier is that it was added after we’d surpassed the goal and Brenda Romero (google her because she’s got far more clout in this field than you do) asked me to do just that. I was specifically asked by industry leaders (who were total strangers prior to this campaign) to add more rewards because good people know good intentions and want to do good things. You should try it! I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen with the money but I can assure you it will go to Kenzie making the best RPG game and it will go to doing it in the coolest way possible that gets girls involved in playing and building games!”

    • The writer of the Kickstarter has said a lot of things where we don’t 100% know the truth behind–I can’t really tell, based on her comment, if Romero was involved and suggested adding a stretch reward, or specifically said “add this but only have an apology and nothing else be the $10k reward.” I don’t want to form an opinion on Romero’s involvement yet when this Kickstarter confuses everything. And even if the exact message was “give nothing to donors besides an apology,” nobody is forcing Wilson to type those words–she could have always said “sorry, that’s taking the sibling drama joke too far.”

      If this was a normal Kickstarter that suddenly gained more interest than expected, I could see the parent going ‘wow, we’ve gotten more support than we’d planned on! We’ve got 30 more days left on this fundraiser thing so we’ll be brainstorming up something new and will add stretch rewards soon, stay tuned!’ and then sticking up some well-thought out rewards a few days later. Even if some advisers were very emphatic about making a $10k reward, there was no need to throw it up instantly without polishing the idea more.

      • ah I should have known by now not to trust everything she said, it just hit me that she said that Brenda Romero was one of them and now on a recent interview with beefjack.com she declined to give any names. and then we have brenda romero quiting IGDA.

        BTW this a very nice article you wrote. definitely better than Cnet and uproxx.com (if i could actually call that journalism)
        funny you should mention that kickstarter update video about kenzie talking about naruto for 11 minutes. I had a hard time watching that because it seems to me that the girl isn’t even excited on making that rpg but that’s just me.

        one more thing. your article has been posted on the kickstarter comment. expect maybe a comment or two from Susan herself and her bestfriend Julie.

  9. One of the updates: “her brothers were asking why she was going to RPG camp b/c it’s not like she was going to be able to make a good game”

    Almost 1200 people have pledged enough to receive that game once it’s made.

  10. I would really like confirmation of Susan Wilson’s children’s ages.

    Some people have speculated that the girl may not be nine, but 11 or even 12 now, based on a YouTube comment made five months ago (at the time of the screenshot). That said, I don’t know for sure if it’s the right Mackenzie Wilson or not.

    The screenshot:
    https://imageshack.us/a/img195/6087/9myass.jpg

    This, however, probably is the right Zachary:
    http://www.mylife.com/c-148794831493

    (Unless, coincidentally, another Zachary Wilson living in the same town is related to another Christian Wilson and another Susan Wilson of the same age as listed in the Kickstarter.)

    A screenshot in case it gets deleted:
    http://i.imgur.com/2uG4nCd.png?1

    This would make Zachary 19 (20 sometime this year). If this is true, and if the girl is 11 or 12, it proves beyond any doubt that this Kickstarter was a deliberate deception from the start, with the intent to scam.

  11. I forgot to mention that the brothers are claimed to be 15 and 16 in the KIckstarter, which is why one of the brothers (Zachary) actually being 19 matters.

  12. One of the reason that the project is able to fund through 20k because of some slight mention from Monte Cook the famous RPG writer backed the project in twitter.

  13. Do you know what’s remarkable about those deleted posts here:
    http://www.neogaf.com/forum/showthread.php?p=51610152#post51610152

    Read those again. Look at the clear diction and the way the sentences are constructed. Look how how both mother and sun put certain words in quotation marks.
    Look at how a 7 year old girl writes “I’m going to prove to those bratty boys that girls rule and boys drool!”

    She wrote all of those entries. Of course she did. Her children are mere puppets for her show – she’s using their bodies and faces to make money.
    It’s sickening because it is so obvious that she wrote those entries to try and create a fiction between them all.
    So – she decided to make up bullying?

    Oh my word. Not fit to have children.

  14. To be honest this was a wonderful detailed write-up nevertheless like all wonderful authors there are many points that might be worked well after. However in no way the actual less it absolutely was exciting.

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