CW: Harassment, exclusion.
This is a difficult set of posts for me to write, because they admit to my own complicity in a culture I desperately want to change.
To understand gaming, the games industry and the gaming culture it’s necessary to understand some of the backstory of the nerd culture. We’ve been considered underdogs and weirdos, and we’ve been attacked by priests, politicians, journalists and researchers, all of them looking for a scapegoat to explain “today’s youth”. In other words moral panic.
We’ve also dragged along the misconception that games are for kids for way too long. Even games that are made for a mature audience are somehow considered to be for kids, which is why we have parents of 11 year olds complaining that GTA V is too violent for children. The intended audience is 18 and above.
Because of both of these phenomena, the moral panic and the stubborn idea that games are for kids, the gaming culture and the industry has been and is still to some extent, under attack. It’s not too long ago that #45 blamed games for one thing or another. That mindset is still with us. And because of that, we have a hard time seeing ourselves as anything other than victims of a world that does not understand us, and it’s easy to dismiss any criticism to games and to the industry. This is important, because it makes it difficult to be critical of games in ANY avenue, be it content, culture or industry. We have a history of dismissing claims almost before they’re made, and that has made the awakening of the culture and industry difficult and protracted. We haven’t really had an awakening until now. The previous ones, even #GamerGate, died out in the collective consciousness without leaving much of a trace, except in the lives of those struck by it.
With the recent protests in the US and the gaming companies going public with political messages such as #BlackLivesMatter we have turned a corner. But not until now. The major companies around the world were very quiet when #GamerGate happened. They were quiet when #1ReasonWhy happened. This is the first time actions have had such measurable consequences. And it started with Riot in 2018. It’s been a slow awakening, but despite the resistance to change that always seem to be par for the course, something is happening in the industry. My crass attitude (we’ll talk more about my attitude later) suggests that this is a result of games making money, and games finally listening to data, and the data says that marginalized groups play a lot. And they also pay a lot. So instead of going on gut feelings – which kept playable female characters out of games for decades – we’re now listening to data, and the data contradicts the gut feelings that have been hailed as truths in the industry up until now.
Since I started in the industry around 2000, gaming has changed quite a bit. For one, it’s become much more mainstream than it used to be. Secondly, mobile gaming has become a major player and with that, gaming has also spread to a wider audience, pulling console and PC games along with it.
The industry itself hasn’t always kept up with the changes. Some studios I’ve worked at are still living in the illusion that they are small and scrappy, and in many cases they barely have an HR department worth it’s salt, much less guidelines for how to handle harassment. How do we expect that a culture built by white men will be inclusive and diverse, and that it has no issues with seeing marginalized groups as Other? Especially since the content reinforces marginalized groups as Other and white men as the centre of the universe? We still have a wickedly colonial and awfully sexist view on design, and if you don’t believe me, go read The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell, hailed as a fresh take on game design when it arrived in 2008, but it contained a – frankly – super sexist chapter about why women wouldn’t play games, where the author stated that women weren’t as systematic and logical as men. This chapter is still in the latest edition of the book, but it’s gotten a bit of an overhaul, so that it’s not so overtly sexist anymore. It’s still problematic, because it divides players according to gender, which is not only sexist, but reinforces othering. “Women are not like us, hence…”
I suspect that’s enough for now. It’s time to dig into the actual blog post. If you can believe it, that rant above? Not it.
The reason I borrowed beloved Murderbot’s stance on all things emotions is because this is an emotional post that have been many years in the making. So many, that I’ve had to divide it into four posts. You know. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined. 1 Bloodshed. 2 Epic. Although as you probably have guessed by now, not the good kind of Epic.
This has to be a long story, because it is a long story, and I apologize for that. I hope you won’t mind my half assed English and my stuttering. This is hard. It’s hard because I’m afraid. I’m afraid because we still don’t talk about stuff like this in the culture or industry and walk away unscathed, and the people damaged are usually the people hurt in the first place.
I started playing role-playing games sometime around 1986. It was eye opening. It was amazing. It was a whole new world contained in a box, a few booklets and character sheets, and boy was I in love. So much so that it became my foremost hobby. I loved TTRPGs before they were called TTRPGs. I still love them, with all my heart.
I was, however, never a true part of the hobby. I thought I was, up until 1994 when I started attending conventions. At that point I realized something was rotten in the state of Denmark, but it wasn’t clear to me what it was until I started having difficulties with my convention GMs and the teams I would go on to GM myself.
Before -94 I had only met the attitude once, in one of the players in my brother’s group who gave off the vibe that he absolutely did not want me to be there. Maybe it was because I stole my brother’s groups GM in a heist I’m still proud of today. It was long and complicated and primarily consisted of me bringing my friends to play with him. We’re still friends, all of us, so it probably wasn’t that heisty or traumatic. Maybe there were other reasons. The rivalry was, in retrospect, fairly benign.
In -94 though, I learned that I was an anomaly in the hobby. There were other girls playing, but they were rare, few and far between.
And then there was the trouble. Sexist GMs who wouldn’t see me. As in acknowledging I was even there. This was an issue when I was playing with other groups than my own. There were the pre-generated characters that barely contained any women, and if they did, they were always stereotypes of one sort or another. They were limited because they were women.
I remember a specific event where our characters were locked in an experiment and dressed according to the experimenter’s whim. That meant a busty black vinyl catsuit for my character, and for some reason a black smurf that kept popping up in my décolletage.
It was one of the few times I’ve been sexually harassed under the guise of humour at a con. I know of others who have been treated much worse. (And isn’t it just like patriarchy to make me feel bad that I’m not attractive or woman enough to be sexually harassed? This world is so fucked up.)
For me, being diminished and made to feel less than my male co-hobbyists was worse, because it happened all the time. It still happens. Rules lawyers would try to nail me with errors. I would get mansplained to. I would get asked where my boyfriend was. I was occasionally hanging out on an RPG forum as well, and boy did they pick me apart. I don’t think I’ve ever been called as many names as when I suggested that maybe the content of TTRPGs wasn’t very inclusive or diverse. I don’t think I’ve ever been as diminished or declared ignorant as I did when daring to post on that forum. Y’all know what nerds are like. They’ll kill you with nitpicking and rhetorical tricks. This is one of the reasons why I’m so good at arguing on the internet. I had to learn to protect myself through rhetoric. I had to learn how to spot the straw men. To see what constituted ad hominem attacks and what just skirted the line, because calling out a personal attack and being proven “wrong”… you don’t walk away from that unscathed.
I think what hurt the most – both at cons and in forums and groups – was that these were people I had helped and tried to support at conventions, people who knew who I was and who I respected. And up until they told me that my wishes to be included were stupid, I thought they respected me as well. Burn, I guess.
It hasn’t stopped by the way. Whenever I test the waters on any kind of forum, I get the same treatment over and over again, by new additions, by people who don’t know me. By some who do. I’m being made to feel small, I’m called ignorant, called a feminazi 3, and in one particularly entertaining thread4 in a Facebook group, I was called a reverse racist and man hater. It was reverse sexism! What I did? I asked for tips on TTRPGs written by non-men or feminists. It spawned 900 posts in that thread, and 5 or more additional threads where everything from my supposed motivation to my man hating was discussed. Yes, nazis and Jews came up. This was in 2017. I’ve got the screenshots to prove it, but they’re in Swedish and depressing, so I’ll leave them where they are.
I love TTRPGs. Too bad the people who play, create and keep the hobby alive aren’t as fond of me. To be fair, some are. I’m getting more and more people on forums and Facebook groups defending me, but that doesn’t mean that the people who want me gone or at least quiet doesn’t still exist.
This is what I’ve had to live with in the culture. A culture that has made it clear to me over and over and over again that it doesn’t want me there.
Not all TTRPG-players though. Not all of the culture. But enough that if I didn’t have my support group around me, I would never have stayed. And this is coming from someone who’s arranged gaming conventions for 10 years, written more than 400 reviews, published a TTRPG, contributed to two other TTRPGs, written articles and received three awards for my writing and one award for being a pain in the ass.
If I hadn’t had to fight to belong, how much more could I have done? If people weren’t assholes to me, I could have helped them even more. I could have contributed. But having to fight to even belong takes a lot of energy and so… A lot of energy has gone into defending myself and defending my belonging to the culture. How many people from marginalized groups have not had the stubborn masochistic tendencies that I do, though? How many amazing talents have just upped and left before they could make a mark? I want them back. I want them to shine.
Before I learned that there was nothing I could do to belong I used to ask myself “why don’t they want me?”.
Nowadays I tell myself “they can’t have me. I’m amazing, and they can’t have me or my knowledge.”
Part II starts in on my career in games. It’s even more depressing.
- Mostly mine
- Again, mostly mine.
- The absolute best “nickname” I was ever given was “feministisk pansarnäve” which translates to “feminist armoured fist”. It wasn’t intended as a compliment, but I take what I can get.
- Look, what am I supposed to do? I can’t go around being angry all the time, it would destroy me. I have to make fun of these people or I would kill myself. Actually, more on that later.