The Time I Didn’t Get Murdered IRL after Inviting 7 Grown Men into my Home to Play D&D

3D model of an adventuring warlock holding an orb and wearing a scowl. A red d20 is next to tge model for scale.

My current D&D character, who is basically the warlock version of Darlene from Roseanne.

 

Last year I joined a Dungeons & Dragons group that was made up of seven grown men and me.

The only person I knew was Davey, the dungeon master, who was DMing his first campaign. I knew Davey from other, anti-oppression circles; I trusted him, but as the date of our first gaming session approached, I got nervous.

As the minutes ticked by that night and our characters got to know each other through time rifts and creepy, badly done taxidermy, I monitored the low buzzing in my ears and the slight tremble in my hands as I rolled d20s and scooted my LEGO mini-fig around on the map.

Well, I told myself out of character, it’s pretty normal to be nervous.  After all, it’s been a lot of years since you played D&D and you forgot so much.  It’s nerve-wracking to be a beginner at something, especially with male nerds.  But these were Real Nice Nerds, like me, and some of them were beginners, too.

Maybe my nerves are on account of role playing feeling a little awkward, I thought. I felt a little goofy after all; every time I had my character do anything, I kept recalling the fully armored LARPers (no shame) who meet at a local park to carry out campaigns and wondered how far removed from them I now was, having now announced things like, “I compel my familiar to collect a sample of the ooze for my collection.”

I’ll let you take that in for a second. I know how cool it sounds. (So cool.)

When everyone left at the end of the night, I realized I let out a sigh of relief and my body unclenched.  Suddenly, it hit me:

I was relieved because I had not been murdered.

Let me repeat that.  I was relieved because I had invited seven grown men that I did not know into my home to play Dungeons & Dragons (5e, if you must know), and I survived the night without being raped or murdered.  To be clear, I’m talking about me, the actual person, and not my character, whose survival continues to be deliciously precarious (thanks, Davey).

Knowing this bunch of dudes as I do now, it seems absurd to even think it. (I have actually said since then that we should campaign together until we are 109.) Yet, there it is.

Like a lot of folks, I imagine, I play games to escape the unpleasantries of life. Yet here was rape culture, showing up uninvited, stealing my enjoyment and my focus, destroying my suspension of disbelief, and defiling a good thing.  Again. Still.

You probably know about Gamergate.  Maybe you’ve read articles like this one by Latonya Pennington about how even if you aren’t subject to direct violence or threats when you dare to step into male-dominated gaming spaces (that’s pretty much all of them, FYI), dudes will (inadvertently or sometimes deliberately) push you out by making the group culture so vaguely hostile that you’ll eventually give up and go away–and then they’ll call you crazy for it.  The whole thing is exacerbated if you’re queer or a person of color.

Pushing back can lead to being alienated or less respected.  If you can’t stand the heat, they say, get out of the kitchen.  Better yet, stay there and make me a sandwich.  (That is an actual thing someone said to me once.) As if rape jokes come standard with gaming culture and there’s nothing we can do about it except continue to issue them while denying that anything is wrong.  Death to false logic!

Before my latest D&D stint, I played World of Warcraft for a number of years.  I deliberately chose an ugly, male troll as my avatar and named him something that sounded like the German word for goblin puke.  I played a warrior and eventually became a guild officer and class lead. I did that because it was fun, but also to protect myself from harassment.

My very unfeminine, aggressive, powerful character was an effective shield. When new guild members would hear my voice over Vent, they’d often be taken aback that I wasn’t a guy and I was in charge of them.  The jig was up.  My elaborate ruse to create a fantasy world/character untouched by the daily realities of misogyny and rape culture inevitably ended when my voice shattered the illusion.

Even though I was mostly playing with a bunch of people that had been gaming together for years and knew each other to varying degrees, there were still rape jokes.  Unfortunate or undesirable things were called “gay” and “retarded.”  Players were advised to not be pussies or fags. There were attempts to rename the guild after pornographic acts that demeaned women.  It was all “just joking around,” you see.

There is a hatred and fear of the feminine in mainstream culture and it’s (in my experience) more amplified in gaming culture.  Guild chat, player-vs-player combat, and talking into headsets for everyone to hear become proving grounds for masculinity.  Gaming–whether it’s tabletop or online–is creative and awesome, but absolutely not approved by the arbiters of all things masculine.

To make up for it, gamers can work hard, level up, and become more powerful, thus allowing them to dominate their enemies in evermore fantastic ways.  Things like tea-bagging someone you just killed (bouncing up and down to simulate repeatedly putting one’s testicle’s on another avatar’s face) are displays of dominant masculinity, but they are also a feminization of the enemy.  There is shame in being feminized, in being feminine.  Here, weakness, gayness, and ineptitude are all conflated with the quality of being feminine.

mi·sog·y·ny
məˈsäjənē/

noun

dislike of, contempt for, or ingrained prejudice against women.
“she felt she was struggling against thinly disguised misogyny”

It could be argued that the constant numerical, measurable ascension toward ever greater power in games reinforces a culture of entitlement that is already prevalent in rape culture among white, hetero, cisgender men.  I did the thing!  You give me reward! (P.S. You’re the reward.)

In fact, everything about gaming reflects that entitlement back at male gamers: the objectification of female avatars, the absence of complex female heroes, the tired save-the-princess tropes, women as rewards, women as ornamentation or backdrops, the hyper-sexualization of female avatars, etc.  Anita Sarkeesian explored these themes in her seminal series, “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” and–wait for it–got rape and death threats for her trouble.

When the entitlement math breaks down, when the prize is denied, that’s when things get lethal and terrifying for women and gender-diverse people.  I mean, just openly being a woman or gender diverse (or not white) on the Internet is scary; doing it in gaming spaces ups the ante exponentially.

So I walked into my new D&D crew with some considerable apprehension.  What if the men I was going to play with ended up being those kind of gamers?  What if it wasn’t safe?  What is the entire night was full of microaggressions and I wouldn’t be able to come back? There are no headsets; I can’t just turn off Vent and ghost out when I’ve had enough or need a break.

In the end, it was totally safe.  Davey put together a group of compassionate, reflexive, creative thinkers and a campaign full of surprises that honors gender diversity.  The players, too, brought surprising, atypical characters to the campaign. The guy that role plays a female character does so with nuance and care. When things come up, we deal with it.  The men I play with call each other out (“Tasha has been trying to suggest something for a while–let’s listen”) with minimal trauma and zero male tears. I want to go all the way to Mordor and back with these guys!  The long way, too–not the trick with the eagles.

But it could have gone the other way, and you just never know.  That’s the thing.

Rape culture is all around us, whether we game or not.  But gaming adds new stakes that I didn’t even know existed until we all sat around the table.

I lived to tell the tale, but how many women and gender-diverse gamers will never pick up a bag of dice or a keyboard because it doesn’t feel safe or they’ve been pushed out of the scene already?  We need some serious Title IX enforcement for gaming.

Look: Men may be the most dominant gamer group, but they aren’t the most numerous.  If you’re a guy who games, use your dominant voice to call out other guys on bullshit behavior.

Gaming culture is a living, organic thing.  It’s not static.  It hasn’t “always been this way.”  We can decide what defines it and whether or not we want rape culture and misogyny to be a part of it.

How about not.

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2 thoughts on “The Time I Didn’t Get Murdered IRL after Inviting 7 Grown Men into my Home to Play D&D

  1. I’ve steadily felt that gamer culture has gotten worse. As white cis man I cannot understand the extent of how stressful an activity *that is meant to be enjoyable* can be for women, GSD individuals, or people of color.

    The only context I have of oppression is being Hispanic in Texas around people who aren’t always that friendly to non-Teutons. (My birth certificate lists me as “Spainard” Not Spanish or Spaniard. “Spainard.”) Thanks to my coloration, though, I’ve been able to avoid the worst of it pretty easily.

    A majority of my friends are not white dudes though. Even in the allegedly male space of gaming, most of my fellow players have been more diverse. It’s great! It keeps us in a nice little positive welcoming shell.

    Being isolated into safe pods is new for me though. That’s definitely because spaces were always safe for me and I’m realizing it more, but maybe matters are getting so much worse it’s easier to see.

    I used to be excited to visit game shops. They were communities where nerds of every kind can celebrate this hobby and have fun.

    After some nasty experiences though. Now I feel apprehensive. Not for my own sake but for the sake of my wife and friends.

    I think, “what grotesque sexist annoyance or worse will they endure? How will this experience be ruined? Will I feel terrible and responsible for exposing them to this space.”

    That’s not what any of us should feel going to a space that is for *playing games.* Seriously. It’s like going to a birthday party to threaten and push your friend’s party guests or going to a movie theater to yell at people.

    Nobody should feel threatened anywhere, but least of all a space of fun and camaraderie. Yet, as you say here, that queasy feeling of being unwelcome and the hostility in these spaces is very real and very legit. I pick it up from my friends and I can only imagine how many times worse it is to experience that first hand.

    For all the progress that time supposedly brings, I get the feeling the problem has gotten worse. The creeps and bigots have dug in like ticks. They’ve dug into a space that was never theirs and shouldn’t be shared with them in the first place.

    People like this have always been there, but the brazen toxicity has reached new heights. I have grown to be skeptical of men who share this hobby. It’s absurd that it has come to that. It’s absurd that anyone’s feelings would go in that direction with fellow hobbyists BECAUSE they share that hobby.

    There’s no denying experience though, and working to repair this happens one anxiety inducing step at a time.

    You are 100% correct that everyone – especially the privileged – needs to step up on this.

    As I heard in an ECCC panel once, if you have the luxury of being a white guy you have to follow the Spider-Man Uncle Ben rule. With great power comes great responsibility.

    I didn’t earn this power and sway, but it is unethical to use it for good.

    It can be scary for me, but I have to remember it’s much scarier for the people being targeted.

    Our gaming group is going to try playing in game shops again sometime. Leaving the safety pod is awkward and not necessary for people who don’t want to. It would be nice to try to reclaim that space from fear though.

    Thanks for writing this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Men play games because they are an outlet for masculinity’s competitive instincts. This is why gaming cultures seem so hyper-masculine most of the time. The same men, or at least most of them, will behave entirely different in most of society, just as their ancestors would behave entirely different within the family group.

    It is not feminism that masculinity hates, but rather it is losing (and thus letting down those who depend on your victory). Your opponent will exploit any weakness you display, and you are best served by exploiting your opponent’s weaknesses. If you can evoke an emotional response in an opponent, they will begin to behave in a more careless manner, increasing your odds against them. That’s all that banter has ever been. In a friendly game, there are limits on this (and pretty much all men know these limits through experience).

    When women choose to enter into the competitive culture as equals, and not as women, some men will instinctively try to get them away to safety (which often comes across in the form of “get back in the kitchen”). Others will simply take them as equals and attempt to exploit known psychological vulnerabilities typically associated with women (of which talk of rape is probably the primary example). If you demonstrate that it does not bother you, it will quickly stop. This is not because of any respect gained (though there will be some), but simply because a non-viable strategy is not worth utilizing. If this competitive culture is not something you’re willing to subject yourself to, leave.

    When women choose to enter into the competitive culture as women, and demand it be made safe for them, they deprive men of the outlet for their competitive instincts, which is a very important part of maintaining a healthy masculine psyche. In many ways, gaming culture is the only remaining avenue for the more intellectual male to compete, just as sports remain the only remaining avenue for the more physical male to compete. The push to sanitize these arenas for women is facing so much of a backlash because men have no where else to go.

    Like

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