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.