Gamemastering Tabletop Sexism: When Conventions Require Defense Tactics

Dungeons & Dragons

I was ten years old the last time I attended a gaming convention. It was Gen Con (2000) and I won the youth portion of the costume contest as a Robin Hood-like rogue. I remember being nervous and being treated very kindly by a woman dressed up as my favorite Sailor Scout backstage (Sailor Venus is still my favorite), but nothing about being on stage. I also carry with me the memory of not wanting to take off my heavy and sweltering suede cloak for the rest of the day because it hid my childhood potbelly. At ten years old, I had seen enough fantasy art and cosplaying in my local games store and at conventions to know what I was and was not supposed to look like. At ten years old, I had already begun to compare myself to the fully grown women in my favorite games.

I attended Nexus Game Fair at the end of June, hoping to reclaim the good feelings conventions used to give me. For the past few years, I have been attending cons as a press representative, which was exhausting. Finally free from that obligation, I hoped to begin attending conventions as a free agent. I thought a return to my gaming roots would be a good place to start as a casual consumer of media.

Nexus, like many niche conventions, is divided into a Dealer Hall (where vendors can sell their wares) and events areas. The events are primarily tabletop games, subdivided into roleplaying and miniature varieties. There was also a spaceship bridge simulator. Industry leaders lead seminars, and while it lacked a dedicated exposition area, those hoping to have people play test their card, role playing, or video games set up in the free play room dominated by the games library or the Dealer Hall.

It has been over 15 years since my first convention, and I have attended dozens of them. Some things have gotten better: open conversations on ‘Fake Geek Girl’ accusations and public shaming have cut down on assault, harassment, and claims that women at conventions are just there for attention. However, whether it’s a tech summit, a comic book convention, or video game meet up, the experience of walking into the artists’ alley and vendor areas have not changed enough.

I have written before about the duality in women’s representation that exists at conventions, best illustrated in the stark contrast between the vendor/art halls and the play rooms. These areas of a convention often consist of scores of enthusiastic, friendly artists and game designers that spend hours light boxing and imagining women in back-breaking positions that please the eye. As a woman at conventions, I am bombarded with images of a uniform feminine entity with large tits, a sizable ass, and small character. She is beautiful, she is dangerous, and she is as one-dimensional as the giant banners artists have made of their prize work that stand next to or behind their booth. I have yet to go to a single popular media convention where this has not been my experience walking into the artist alley or vendors’ areas.

While games and comics have had their ups and downs in recent years, women are still largely depicted in this way. It often seems as if an artist’s skill in concept art is tied directly to how far they can twist the body of a woman. This seems to be true in role-playing and video games, though I have always viewed board games as a sort of safe haven as far as concept art goes.

An impressive feature of this convention was the Milwaukee Company of Gamers’ (MilCoGs) 1,700 game lending library. The variety is what made it impressive: the library included games for extremely young players all the way up to experienced strategists. My convention companions and I borrowed a couple of games in-between events, and appreciated the knowledge and friendliness of the MilCoGs staff. That was until I noticed the tentacled “Takaoshi University” t-shirts featured at the front of their table.

Tentacle Bento

Something clicked, but I initially passed them by assuming it was a reference to anime someone I knew had talked about at some point (I don’t watch anime). Then I backpedaled. Takaoshi University is the setting for the infamous tentacle rape card game Tentacle Bento. Sure enough, there were copies of the game for sale (or demo? I admit I did not ask) featured in a prominent place beside the shirts. At one point on Friday or Saturday, I had overheard a vendor make a joke about selling superhero underwear in the dealer’s hall that was quickly cut short by an organizer loudly stating that no lingerie was sold at the convention. But games employing tentacle rape are okay?

I reached out to MilCoGs on Facebook that Sunday during the convention, asking them to comment on their choice to feature the game. Someone responded with, “Hi Josephine, how can I help you?” I repeated my inquiry, specifying the tentacle rape aspect, then asked for the name of the person responding. I have yet to hear back.

When writing this piece, I originally began developing my emotions in a detailed narrative: my anxiety, my experiences at other conventions, the fact that it has been 15 years since I’ve attended a tabletop gaming con. I danced around the fear I feel entering spaces predominately filled with men as a survivor of multiple sexual assaults and rapes by trusted men in my life. Reading back through it, I realized the setup for what happened at Nexus Game Fair is unimportant.

What is important is that when I attend conventions now, as an adult woman, my negative experiences are not limited to internalized self-consciousness. I did not have a bad time at the convention overall. Walking into the hotel where it was hosted felt a lot like coming home: these were my people. Plus, there were ladies there! I felt like finally I was with weirdos of my own kind—and even of my own gender. The convention volunteers were helpful and friendly and the hotel staff were shockingly accepting of us nerds. Granted, it’s entirely possible some of them were gamers, too. I had some good conversations with people right on my first day, and even the grognards seemed welcoming.

Then a woman told me I was “too dressed up for this con.” It was in the bathroom and spoken tersely while I was washing my hands. I laughed it off. It happened two more times that day, from two different women. There comments were more annoying than anything else, but a negative experience nonetheless. The first day of the convention, I wore a black dress with velocipedes on it and what I call my “sensible” heels. These are a pair of shoes I bought in Yongzhou (Hunan province) that now have mud permanently caked all the way up the heel, scuffed toes, and chunks taken out of them from me being a klutz. I wear them several times a week because I can run in them if I need to catch a bus, and they’re also ideal for biking.

If you found that description of my outfit entirely boring: yeah, I freaking agree. Why would anyone comment on anyone else’s outfit at a gaming convention? During one gaming session, I was seated between a guy wearing a leather top hat and another wearing a high quality fedora. I’m going to make a leap here and bet neither of them were told they were dressed inappropriately. However, occupying a woman’s body at a convention places you in the same category as those fictionalized bodies used to sell games—and subject to every passersby’s opinion.

Dungeons & Dragons

There were other little issues throughout the weekend: a well-known game writer and designer licked his lips while slowly looking me up and down, an author asked “What brings you here?” then told me it was rare to see a sister “chaperoning” her brothers (my brothers are 23 and 28), and so on. These are annoying and sometimes gross, but honestly, they are normal happenings in any niche event as a woman. Are they acceptable? No. But they have also been covered extensively by other authors at other cons.

None of these instances would have phased me under normal circumstances. But the continuous need to reinforce my gaming cred and make the tough choice to call out industry leaders (or at least well-connected gamers) or ignore it was something I foolishly assumed was a thing of the past. I expected to deal with this a little, but it got to the point near the end of my weekend where even the most good-natured attempts at simple inclusion were initially translated into an attack by my brain.

Just to have it on the record: I will have been playing tabletop role-playing games for 20 years in 2016, and have been Gamemastering for a solid decade. I don’t know if popular opinion is that I need it tattooed on my forehead, but no one deserves their interest in gaming or any other niche area challenged if they were willing to pay money to attend a convention on that topic. People at gaming conventions are there to game and talk about gaming in the same way those at comic book conventions are there to discuss comic books and not be tested.

I will admit that I have no idea if my experiences were similar to how others felt at the convention. Unfortunately, I did not get to talk to many other attendees that were not white men. In fact, none of the seminars were led by women or people of color. The tabletop gaming landscape is dominated by white men, it’s true. However, us other geeks exist, and we exist in growing numbers. The idea that there were no other kinds of writers or designers or commentators to be found is ridiculous and encourages treatment of us as abnormalities to be gawked at.

I wonder if it is the experience of other women at conventions that figuring out how to interact is difficult. I sometimes feel so besieged by negative representation and creepy (and annoying) interactions that I am in permanent defense mode. I try to look out for my fellow femmes, but it’s often difficult enough looking past the things you are dealing with in the moment.

A final general complaint: Nexus Game Fair has no policy on harassment, ethics, or conduct that I could find. Someone took the time to outline a smoking policy, but nothing on personal safety or the quality of convention offerings. Fill in your own commentary on that.


4 thoughts on “Gamemastering Tabletop Sexism: When Conventions Require Defense Tactics

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  1. “and subject to every passersby’s opinion.” This is such an unfortunate part of being a woman in any capacity. Conventions just seem to amplify it more. Men seem to think that if you dress up in a particular character that somehow you must play into their fantasy or that, because they paid you a “compliment” you are somehow obligated to show them more attention.

    The fact is that conventions do need to consider safety and harassment policies. Too often women are shamed for either showing too much skin or not enough or for trying to call out these decrepit behaviors. I think you and others are doing the right thing by speaking up about your feelings and experiences; as we call more attention to these issues, I truly believe they will fade away and women will finally be free to geek out in any way they please. Cheers~

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “…a well-known game writer and designer licked his lips while slowly looking me up and down…”

    I want to fill a sock with AA batteries and use it to slap the next guy who does this in the teeth. This shit isn’t even gross, it’s scary.

    Men, did you know women don’t actually like you when you give them the same reaction you would a fresh plate of steak and potatoes?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I was actually very afraid and anxious to post this article, and including that a game writer did that to me was debated for a long time. Ultimately, I am glad that I let it in, and that people take seriously what happened.

      In the past, I have told women something like that happened, and they have followed it up with “Yeah, but he didn’t *touch* you, right?” I have been shamed into silence before, and am happy to have some support now.

      I really hope it helps someone else to know this happens to others, and it is not okay, and other people know it happens and that it is not okay or acceptable behavior at a convention or anywhere else.

      Liked by 1 person

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