The 2020 Diana Jones Award: a perspective from one “honoree”

Now that the award has been given I’d like to take a moment to talk about the Diana Jones Award and what happened this year. Most of this will be my experience but some will come from discussions I’ve had with others.

Let’s begin.

Tuesday July 21

I received an email through the contact me link on my website. I didn’t recognize the name and the name didn’t match the email address, (yes, he misspelled his own name) so I’m already thinking this is probably spam.

Then I start reading it.

Hi, Julia

I stop and recheck. Yes, sent to my email, through my website, yes my name is on the website. No, Julia’s isn’t. Great. Someone got us mixed up… again.

I skim the rest of the email, definitely convinced this must be spam right?

I’m writing to you on behalf of the Diana Jones Award committee. I’d like you to keep this under wraps for the moment, as we have yet to make a public announcement.

This year, the committee has decided to give the award to Black tabletop gaming professionals. Please see the text below for the official statement.

We have selected you as one of the professionals we’d like to spotlight with this year’s award. If you would like for us to post a profile of you on our website, please send us a headshot portrait of yourself, along with a roughly 75-word bio. Ideally we would have this by the end of the the (sic) week, but if you need more time, we can provide that.

If you would rather not have your profile posted — for whatever reason — we will be sure to respect your decision and your privacy. Thanks for your time. You have our congratulations and our gratitude.

This is a joke right?

I check the email listed against the DJA website and no, apparently they are indeed connected. At this point, I’m assuming they intended to send this to the fantastically talented Julia Bond Ellingboe who is one of the most deserving people I know to be recognized by the DJA. And based on the generic and impersonal nature of that email I had no real reason to believe otherwise. I’ve had the honor and pleasure of editing her entry in #Feminism “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” and oh wait, she’s in a group chat on my phone. She’ll get a kick out of this. I also jot off a quick reply to the sender:

I’m not Julia but I’ll be more than happy to pass the message along.

I keep reading the email and I start noticing a few things that are irking me (the first draft of the press release if you’re wondering) so I screenshot the first couple of lines of the email and post it on Twitter, blocking out the name of the awards.

Now, being called another Black woman’s name isn’t a new phenomenon for me. Senior year of high school the guidance counselor was still calling me by my best friend’s name despite the fact that she was a foot shorter, a lot stockier, a lot lighter, AND HAD LEFT THE SCHOOL AFTER SOPHOMORE YEAR!!!

The person emailing me couldn’t have known that, but it pushed a button for me and not in a good way.

Meanwhile, I’ve started getting messages from other people who have gotten an IDENTICAL email (except with the proper name on theirs) asking the same questions I am: How’d we get picked? Why 33? Who else got picked? Who did the picking? Did they just find a listicle?

While I’m chatting in half a dozen chat windows I get an email back:

My deepest apologies. That message is meant for you, Misha Bushyager, as one of our honorees.

I’m also trying to contact Julia Bond Ellingboe and must have gotten the names mixed up. I’m working on a laptop on a cell signal deep in the Northwoods, for what that’s worth.

So… you’ve come up with this plan, it’s a little over a week before the awards are due to be announced, you normally announce in March, and you haven’t even gathered everyone’s contact info yet? And still no mention of why people were chosen?

Yeah, now not only is my “I’m not the Black woman you’re thinking about” button activated, so is my “you’re only here because you’re Black and/or a woman, not because you’re actually massively talented” button, and also my “you waited until the last minute and now you want me to pull your ass out of the fire” button too and I am self aware enough to realize it. Also I spent the weekend driving to Georgia and back in 36 hours and I have houseguests and I’m pooped.

And then I get this email

I saw your tweet, and I’d like to apologize again. It was an honest mistake in copying and pasting names by hand when sending out that message to 33 different people. I understand your feelings, and I feel terrible that I offended you.

Why wouldn’t you take the time to actually acknowledge the people you’re “honoring” individually? Why are you copy-pasting a form letter to them if this is such a big deal?

So I type out a response but wait until the next day to send it, because replying when you’re upset rarely gets the results you want. And it’s the Diana Jones Award. I would love to be awarded one for my work, not for just being Black.

Wednesday, July 22

I slept on it. I chatted with friends and my spouse. And then I re-read and sent the following:

Apology accepted. I get mistakes happen.

But,

I have to say I’m considering declining the offer for a couple of reasons.

1) while I recognize that being Black in gaming is a struggle it is not in and of itself a reason for an award. I don’t want an award for just being Black.

2) this feels a lot like when the award went to the “Actual Play Movement” in that it’s not like all the others which were for a specific project or specific person’s entire body of work. It watered down the award (and passed over a brilliant work by a Black author but that’s a gripe for another time).

3) this feels like a rushed reaction rather than a carefully considered plan, especially since it’s being done the week before from a phone in the middle of the woods.

So I have to ask a few questions before I make a final decision one way or the other.

Is the committee going to publicly explain why the people who accept were specifically chosen beyond the 75 word bio we’re being asked for?

Will any or all of us be involved in future decisions about nominees and winners?

Will everyone who accepts get a week with the physical award Stanley Cup style or what?

Reasonable right? Especially since I’m still not sure they intended to choose me in the first place.

I go about my day, still chatting with folx, until the next reply.

Those are all fair questions, and we’ll of course abide by your decision either way.

It’s not an award for simply being a Black gaming professional. It’s for being an excellent one.

Oh well glad we cleared that part up.

You’re correct that the award is going to a concept rather than a person. We’ve had a lot of discussion about that in the committee over the years. Some are very much against it. Others are passionately for it. One of the members pointed out that if Harlem Unbound lost to a concept, then it seemed hard to argue against putting forward this particular concept.

Oh honey, my problem isn’t that you’re awarding this concept.

We’ve actually been working on this for about a month. It’s a volunteer effort, though, and no one has devoted full time to it. The rush here at the end is partly because we had a long discussion about how to go about this. We also worked hard on the statement and hired a consultant to help ensure we were doing things properly and sensitively.

Really? Was the consultant Black? Were they in the industry? Did they do any research about the history of the award? Were they aware that only ONE Black person had won solo previously in the 20 year history and only one woman had won solo and that was LAST YEAR?

As for working from less than ideal conditions in the middle of the woods, that’s due to the traditional family vacation I usually take the week before Gen Con. I love it up here, but it’s a bit more of a struggle to get work done.

Look, I get that Covid fucked things up this year but somehow you’ve been working on this a MONTH and you still don’t have your ducks in a row? You STILL don’t have contact info for everyone? You still couldn’t be bothered to do more than just copy-paste a form letter?

We have a document with notes about why we selected each person, but we weren’t planning on making that public. I decided to ask each person to provide a bio because I believed they would have a much fuller picture of their accomplishments than we would. They can also highlight the things that are most important to them.

Your entry, for example, reads: “Misha is Marketing Manager at New Agenda Publishing, and a curator for More Seats at the Table, a newsletter highlighting games designed by “creators who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary, femmes, and women.” She’s also a blogger, podcaster, and sensitivity reader, and has written for Chill: SAVE, Lovecraftesque, and Dead Scare. Misha was editor of the award-winning #Feminism collection of nanogames.” We’d be happy to use that if you prefer.

I’m…concerned now. More Seats hasn’t used that phrasing since a little after we started because we (and maybe you should take notes on this part) got feedback from the community, LISTENED TO IT, and changed our language to be less offensive. It’s been at least late 2018 since we used that phrasing and I took Chill out of my bio in early 2019, so this isn’t comforting at all. But sure, we can do the work for you I guess.

I’m redacting the next part of it because it’s about the makeup of the committee and since that’s a secret and the people involved haven’t consented yet, I will honor that secret. (Although secret groups of mostly white dudes deciding which Black people are worthy of being called “Excellent” doesn’t sit well with me AT ALL).

We will ask the honorees to ship or hand the trophy around on a regular basis. That’s how other groups of winners have done that in the past.

WAIT, WAIT, WAIT. We gotta pay to ship it to each other now too?

There’s some back channel discussions happening among the prospective honorees and I decide sure. Why not? I mean, at this point I STILL think they’re just including me to cover their previous fuck up (and Julia still hasn’t gotten an email from them nor had another amazing Black woman who should have been at the front of the list and I am livid and ready to burn down the world) but I send the following:

Some of the language in that entry around More Seats at the Table has changed significantly and there’s a couple of projects highlighted that I’d rather distance myself from.

Here’s a more accurate one and I am attaching a profile picture:

Misha Bushyager is a longtime gamer and designer working on making sure the next generation of geeks sees themselves represented. She’s one of the founders of New Agenda Publishing and a founding curator for More Seats at the Table, a newsletter highlighting gender marginalized designers.

She worked on Orun, #Feminism, Fate of Cthulhu, Lovecraftesque, Misspent Youth:Sell Out With Me, Masks:Unbound, and the as yet unpublished larp Nightingales.

#WeHaveAlwaysBeenHere #YouAreFinallyLooking

A couple more emails back and forth confirming I’m accepting and I go about my day, but it’s still weighing on me.

Thursday July 23

It’s been bugging me all day so I send another message.

I’ve got a few more questions for you if you have a minute.

Since the award is for a concept rather than a product or person, do those who accept get to use the DJA branding on all their products? Only the ones already out? Only future ones?

What about those that don’t?

Can you accept without having your bio listed?

If so, what are the rules around using the DJA branding then?

These are all reasonable since the distinction of “Honoree” vs “Winner” is new. In 2018 when Actual Play won there was no approved list of honorees. As I was on an AP of Dungeon World at the time I jokingly said I should add it to my bio along with 2006 Time Person of the Year. But this. This was a specific list right? After all “It’s not an award for simply being a Black gaming professional. It’s for being an excellent one.”

Friday July 24

Email comes back:

Those are good questions. I want to preface my answers by saying that while I am the public face of the committee, I am not the full committee. We’re a fairly loose organization, so there aren’t actual rules in place for everything.

We do have some logos for nominees and winners, but not one for honorees. It didn’t come up with the people/groups we spotlighted when Actual Play won the award a few years ago. We could and probably should correct that.

Wait. Hold up. We have to use a separate logo? So you’re really creating a separate and not equal category in the year 2020? That is certainly a choice you could make…

Now, normally, getting an award is a joyous thing. Instead, I have been alternating between rage and tears for the past several days. Julia still doesn’t have her email from them at this point. I decide to go work on my house and yard for a while and calm the fuck down.

Monday July 27

Okay, it’s been on my mind all weekend. I’ve discussed it with friends. I send the following:

I think I have to retract my acceptance. I’ve been sitting with a deep sadness about this since I got the first email and it’s the echo of all the voices that have told me over the years that I’m only here because I’m Black and/or a woman, not because I’m talented. It didn’t matter to them that I could and did out perform most people, they could not get past the idea that I could somehow be their equal.

With the award to a concept and a small selection of amazing people, most of whom have nonetheless never been deemed worthy enough of even a nomination for a project that they’ve worked on, the committee is creating a second class of “honorees” that I’m not comfortable with being a part of. While I am indeed honored to be considered someone who embodies excellence, I cannot allow my name and my reputation to be used to condone a separate but not quite equal treatment of Black gamers. If you had said “hey, we’re giving the award to the concept of Black excellence and as an avatar of that excellence would like to [redacted]” I would have said “absolutely” with no hesitation.

Thank you for your consideration and if in the future a project I work on meets the standards for a nomination I look forward to hearing from you.

I just can’t.

I respect those who accepted. The calculus on this decision is impossibly hard. There is no doubt that having a prestigious award on your CV opens doors and helps get sales. And when you’re Black, and especially if you’re also not a straight cis man, those awards are few and far between no matter how good you are.

But for me, I wouldn’t be the role model I want my daughter to see if I endorsed this.

To be clear, I think the choice to highlight Black Excellence in Gaming, especially with the groundswell that is happening right now, is a laudable decision. Had the committee stopped there I probably would not have said anything. But the committee went further than that and

a) defined who in the community of Black gaming professionals THEY deemed excellent without input FROM the community

b) did so in secret without any transparency to their decisions

c) created a second class status for the Black “honorees”

And that I can’t NOT speak out about.

2 thoughts on “The 2020 Diana Jones Award: a perspective from one “honoree””

  1. I wish that your situation with this award was different because I truly believe you deserve to be recognized for your contributions to gaming. But you’re right: not here, and not like this. I used to think that it would be cool to get an award like the Diana Jones award but after seeing your experience it calls into question every nod they’ve given.

    For what it’s worth, I hope someday to get the Misha B. “Badass of Gaming” award. God knows you’ve earned it.

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