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.
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.