Another piece talking about the harassment of women in tabletop gaming has surfaced on the internet. At least one of the incidents related in that piece has been substantiated as being true, so I am willing to accept that there is more truth in that article. Whether gamers, or geeks in general, want to admit it or not, there are serious issues within our communities with how people act towards women, people of color, and the LGBTQI. We need to knock that off right now. Obviously, this is an opinion piece.
Just as a warning, for those who might be bothered by certain sorts of content, some of the incidents that were relayed to me, the stories that were told, have jarring, uncomfortable occurrences in them. If mentions of rape and unsolicitated physical contact will bother you, you might want to skip the rest of this article. I know reading the emails and PMs from these women bothered me as they came in.
As much as what these women related bothered me, and obviously bothered them as the targets of the harassment, I felt that the fact that it was so uncomfortable was exactly the reason why this current piece needed to be written. We, as a group, need to start looking the people doing this harassment in the eye and telling them that we don’t think it is okay. We need to stop pushing these accounts into the shadows, under the rugs, and pretending that they do not exist. We need to make our communities into better places for everyone, and not just a bunch of men.
I put out a call over my various social media feeds (which was shared a lot), asking for women to share their experiences of harassment in tabletop gaming with me. Anonymity was offered to those who wanted it, and not surprisingly most respondents asked that their names be kept confidential. The reasons for them wanting to be kept anonymous were one of two. First, they were afraid of further harassment within their communities for calling out the bad behavior. They seen how women who tell men to stop get treated in small, closed communities and, for better or worse, they want to continue with their hobbies without additional harassment. The second reason was a bit scarier. Some of these women are professionals, working in tabletop gaming in a number of different capacities, who fear that publicly coming forward would negatively impact their careers within gaming.
I’ll just say that last one again, with emphasis: they were afraid that coming forward about their harassment, or the harassment that they had witnessed, would negatively impact their careers in tabletop gaming.
Because of these reasons, I will be keeping the identities of everyone who asked anonymous. Everyone who spoke with me identified themselves, I am just not identifying them.
One of the common threads through the experiences shared was rape. Most of these women had had characters raped during convention play, online games, or at events at stores. Sometimes the rapes were matter-of-factly introduced into play, others there was a titillating level of graphic detail to the assaults. One women talked about how a regular attendee at a local convention bragged of having a “rape kit” in his car for the women at the convention, and at one point he yelled at her to “find him women to sleep with.” She also talked about the organizers of the convention having a “men only camping retreat” and when she was on the board of the con the only way that she could attend was “nude and wearing a dog collar.” Another woman talked about the GM of her online game suddenly having her character knocked unconscious, taken away on a ship, and then graphically narrated raping her character. All of this occurred on voice chat while using a popular virtual tabletop site.
Another woman told me that her attempts at organizing a couple of women only games for a VTT online convention was met with such vehemence from male gamers that the games were pulled from the schedule of the convention.
People wonder why more and more people think that anti-harassment policies are needed at conventions. After all, even Gen Con has one:
Gen Con: The Best Four Days in Gaming! is dedicated to providing a harassment-free Event experience for everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, or affiliation. We do not tolerate harassment of convention participants in any form. Convention participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled without refund at the discretion of show management.
And an Ethics policy:
All of the following constitute grounds for expulsion from the convention without refund:
- Violating any federal, state, or local laws, facility rules or convention policies
- Failure to comply with the instructions of Gen Con Event Staff or security personnel
- Using anything in a threatening or destructive manner against person or property
- Endangering the safety of oneself or others
- Threatening, stealing, cheating or harassing others
- Failure to conduct oneself in a mature manner
The creators of the 13th Age RPG have anti-harassment policies for their organized play because “Nobody shows up for a game with the goal of feeling uncomfortable or unsafe, and sorry that they came. But organized play brings together many different types of people with different expectations and approaches to play. An anti-harassment policy sets ground rules that everyone can recognize and follow, resulting in better games and more fun.” In the policy they outline harassment as “Everyone has the right to a space that is safe from any type of harassment: physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual.”
Honestly, considering the experiences that have been related to me, these sorts of policies should be commonplace for conventions and organized play. I have heard that Paizo is currently drafting an anti-harassment policy for their organized play, and Ad Astra Games has one in place already.
These are some of the more overt things that women have to deal with in their tabletop gaming experiences, and doesn’t go into the more “casual” or systemic harassment and sexism that women deal with at conventions, in online play and at game stores. One of the women talked about women being a subclass in society, and it being more so in gaming communities. “It sucks for a female gamer, going into a store and having that reaction.”
Men are openly commenting on women’s body parts in a sexual manner. Sexual content is added to games because “that’s the kind of stuff that women like.” Crude sexual references and jokes are made.
I’m not saying that there is no place for sexual, or adult themes, in gaming. Just the opposite, in fact. In my personal groups I game with grownups, and we play games that can have adult material in them. We have, however, agreed that content like that is okay in advance, and most of the time we agree that players’ agency over their characters should not be railroaded by the story of the game, or the actions of the GM. There is a huge difference between making awkward sexual comments out of the blue, because you are hoping it will interest a woman gamer, and making awkward sexual comments that people expect in their game. This goes doubly so for games in public spaces, like conventions or stores.
And just because it is okay with your wife, girlfriend or the woman in your gaming group at home, that doesn’t mean that it is okay with all women. If it makes someone at the table uncomfortable, or makes them feel like they are being harassed, just don’t do it, or apologize for having done it.
And, of course, none of them are safe from accusations of being a “fake geek girl,” or being in the store to get something for their husband or boyfriend. Apparently the idea that a woman would want to buy her own dice or miniatures or rule books is alien to some gamers.
As Jon Peterson, author of Playing at the World, points out in an online essay, there have always been gender problems in tabletop gaming. But he also points out that women have been interested in tabletop gaming for a long time. But, just because something has “always been that way,” it does not mean that it has to stay that way. Even in the 1970s TSR Games employees were taken to task by fandom, and female designers, to be more respectful of women gamers and to stop using phrases like “ladygamers.” Sadly, these attitudes that were considered to be outdated back then are still being perpetuated now…in some cases by some of the same people.
My first AD&D group, back in 1979, had a woman for the GM, and about half of the group were women. Most of my groups since then have had women involved in them. We need to be better, as a community, about these things. We need to speak out when we see women being harassed, online or in person, and we need to tell the people who think that doing this is okay that it isn’t. We need to be active in making the change that creates better communities where we don’t have to worry about our friends being harassed because of their gender, or their sexual preferences, or their ethnicity. We have to convince conventions and organized play societies that having anti-harassment policies is a good thing, and enforcing them so that everyone feels welcomed and accepted is a better thing.
Guys, we have to remember that this isn’t about us. This isn’t about our perceptions of what is happening at conventions, during organized play events and in online games. We sit back, listen and ask what we need to do, rather than try to make the discussion about how it “isn’t all men.” We already know that. We need to not take the focus away from what needs to be done.
There are never going to be completely safe spaces, in gaming or outside of it. However, we can make better places where no one has to worry about their body parts being part of the table talk, or their characters being sexually violated. It is the 21st century, and we should be better about this than we are. We need to stop being quiet, stop facilitating harassment, and we need to start making better spaces for ourselves and our fellow gamers. A group, like nerds, that talk so much about being harassed in their youth for being different should really be more sensitive about harassing others. We can, as a group, be better about this, and we need to do it.