The Orcs never go away


I was a gamer 40 years ago (I wouldn’t call myself one now, unless “plays games occasionally” is definitive of an identity other than “human being”). Back then, games were all played on a table top, with dice or cardboard markers or even miniature painted soldiers. Sure, there was Pong, and a few other electronic games that involved moving dots and squares on a screen, but we thought of those as games in the same sense that War was a card game.

Even then, although I wasn’t really conscious of it, gaming was almost an entirely male hobby. Why, I didn’t know: I’d drop into the gaming shop in North Seattle or the one near the university in Eugene, and all the familiar stereotypes would be there: the blustering neckbeard, the socially awkward obsessive nerd, the middle-class collector, the history buff. They were all guys. People who walked in who didn’t fit into the categories were sneered at and made to feel inferior, which was part of the elite mystique of being a grown man playing with toys.

That started to change with Dungeons & Dragons, which brought in a more diverse clientele. There were girls who liked to play that. I can’t even imagine the tremors that shook the manly enclaves of the local gaming store when Pokemon and Magic, the card games, became popular — my kids were into that and I saw lots of girls joining in.

I moved on from the gaming world after college, so I missed most of the difficulties in the transition from a boys club to a slightly more open environment (which is obviously still going on, and still causing tremendous anxiety among many delicate male flowers). But here’s a woman describing her experiences in this community. It’s ugly.

It is 2009. A man at my game store has been sexually harassing me, talking about how much fun he would have raping me. When no one is in the store, he traps me against a wall and rubs his genitals against me. I call the police.

“This is a matter for your manager. If he touches you on the street, then you can call us.” The officer hangs up.

The owner refuses to expel the creep and fires me instead. Three years later I win a precedent-setting human rights case against him.


What is shocking to me is that I am not particularly visible. I do not create, write about, or otherwise engage in gaming culture. Due to the years of persistent sexual harassment and threats, I maintain an incredibly low social profile and try to avoid gendering myself online. Just think for a moment how fucked up it is that I am not free to post about my hobbies, interests, or day to day life because I am a woman and the gaming community is so dangerous.

Back when I was active in gaming, I was oblivious. I was just having some fun on the weekend; I wasn’t trying to expand the hobby or create new opportunities for diverse people to join in. My girlfriend wasn’t interested in the slightest, and that was just fine, so I didn’t have a personal stake in it.

But then I became an advocate for atheism. I knew women who thought it was important — and in fact, there were women who were leading, like Madalyn Murray O’Hair and Susan Jacoby and Annie Laurie Gaylor — and furthermore, the theocratic right was making it important to expand and make the movement more visible. We’re progressive, right? We won’t lack for enthusiasm in making this movement inclusive and embracing a secular perspective on issues like civil rights!

Boy, have the last few years been an exercise in disillusionment. The Old Boys Club doesn’t want to open its doors, and the deeper cultural issues are pervasive. I read stories like this one, and I just think it’s the same problem everywhere, and it’s disappointing that atheists who pride themselves on their rationality are just as bad.

The response to the rampant sexual assault in the gaming hobby is predictably misogynistic. Women are expected to train themselves in self-defence and anything less is regarded as “irresponsible” on their part. This attitude is illogical, irrational, and deeply callous as it does not address the basic fact that, by the time a woman is forced to defend herself from sexual assault, a crime has already been committed against her person. Worse, any woman who has defended herself from sexual harassment in the gaming community can tell you that her self-defence was a precursor to ostracism as the men in the community embraced the predator and expelled his victim for “creating drama”. As if the perpetrator of the crime wasn’t responsible for the “drama” in the first place!

So what do we do? We keep fighting. And the fighting will never end in our lifetimes. It’s exhausting, isn’t it?


  1. says

    I sometimes feel a bit heartened. I imagine that the movement toward online anonymous harrassment is because it’s getting harder and harder to get away with it outright in the daylight. So I imagine that the online trolls are an extinction burst waiting to happen, as they get compressed tighter and tighter into the remaining online niches where their actions are tolerated. And once they’re all on 4chan and reddit and youtube: we turn them off. Or, more likely, someone sets up a site that mediates reputation and curates harassers’ accounts and everyone moves there and then you’ve just got a few moderately ignorable pimples of internet hate like the slyme pit and stormfront.

  2. says

    Preemptive “not all gamers” post, here. Yes, gaming is becoming more inclusive. But, there is still a long ways to go. For the gamerbro that might want to claim that it’s in the past (or never really existed to start with), I say my most local shop is a case in point. On any given night, you might see one or two women or one or two POC. Out of, sometimes, 30 or so people. I pop n now and then to see if it’s changed and in 4 years, nope. I don’t know what the deal is there, but I know I don’t want to be a part of it.

    On the bright side, the next two nearest shops are fantastic. The closest one-not-the-first, has a ton of all kinds of everybody. It’s a great vibe walking in. I go often and spend time and money. But the farthest of the three is the best one of all. It’s Roll2Play. The absolute bestest gaming shop I’ve ever been in.

  3. cartomancer says

    It’s not like creating a welcoming gaming community is all that difficult. Plenty of gaming communities manage it (I balk at the notion that there is “a” gaming community – there are thousands of them), and those that don’t aren’t just some kind of default – they explicitly choose not to. Although an avid tabletop gamer myself, I tend to play only at home among my own group of close friends, so I have not experienced any of this unacceptable nastiness myself. It’s depressing to think it exists.

    But as well as fighting the symptoms whenever we see them, we should really give some thought to the causes as well. The fonts of toxic masculinity are an obvious candidate, but in this particular case I think that there are problematic cultures of cliquery and exclusion to break down too. The whole idea that “nerd” is a cultural identity and source of instant and exclusive community needs to disappear – indeed, the whole notion that tribalism and out-group condemnation are a normal and natural part of society and should be facilitated. Particularly among the young, in whom these notions tend to take root most effectively.

  4. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    I can just about handle the fact that we need to keep fighting this in atheism. It’s still soul-crushingly disappointing that the people who seem to consider themselves the most intelligent and rigorous are so thoughtless and reactionary, but I can see where the problem comes from, and being openly atheistic online has never been a fun thing for me; so having to deal with my supposed allies trying to pull up the drawbridges when allies come, and flood the trenches with sewer water when we’re under attack is… well, it’s shit, but this whole thing is kind of shit anyway, so it’s just adding a little variety to the stench, and variety is the spice of life and all that, right? I don’t have a great deal of time for it anymore, but I’m not one to back away from handling all the nonsensical bigotry from atheists.
    In gaming, though… I’ve never had any illusions about gamers being good or particularly thoughtful people – rolling dice to determine if your arrow hits a goblin in the face, or shooting pixelated imps with a BFG doesn’t turn you into a killer, but it doesn’t do anything to make you a good person, either – but, damn it, games are my relaxation time! I’m visiting Hoth so I can tame a Tauntaun so I can go ride it around the Coruscant markets! Not so I have to choose between the letting casual misogyny that turns up at least once a session go unchallenged and subtly reinforce the status quo, or calling that bullshit out, and dealing with the inevitable explosion of He-Man, woman haters’ club members who apparently need that bullshit as ambience, presumably for when the Modal Nodes are on a break. I hate that there seems to be nowhere we can go without this shit coming along. I don’t play many communal games, and those I do play, I usually play solo, but I do appreciate the chat box in the couple of MMOs that I play – if you’re looking for Monkeytooth, you can find out pretty quickly that he’s down by Spookydeep gorge, under the surprisingly large mushrooms. But some people are apparently incapable of seeing a chatbox without feeling the need to waste their own relaxation time on making sure the rest of us are aware of their unconsidered views on some significant percentage of the world’s population, and while that’s apparently not a problem, contradicting them seems to crime of the century.

    I don’t know if I actually have a point in all of this, or if I’ve just needed to rant for a while. Argh, blargh, rargh. I think it’s the latter. I do think it’s getting better in many ways, and I’m sure that people who are Totally Not Sexist 80 years from now will be entirely on board with everything we’re saying now, and that it’s only the 5th wave feminists who have Gone Too Far in demanding whatever increment toward equality we’ve reached by that point and destroying the family unit but… ugh… does it never end? At what point do people allow empathy and reality to influence their thinking? Will that ever happen?

    Part of me wants to seek out a local p&p roleplaying group, just because I should probably be more social out in meatspace, but I have the worst feeling that I’d be overcome by the urge to burn the place down before the end of the first session if they’re anything like the chatwreckers, or the people who used to frequent my local Games Workshop game days. It probably wouldn’t help that my characters are women 99 times out of 100, and apparently it’s unreasonable for the quarter-demonic elven sorcerer with the Shard Of Heaven lodged in their knee to be of the lady-sort if their player is not likewise – I am, of course, all of those other things in the real world, which makes everything else alright.

  5. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    Well… that was a long comment. Um, tl;dr; “Grumpy Athywren is grumpy. Also Star Wars references.”

  6. says

    @YOB – Ye Olde Blacksmith

    Dallas area, I take it? Hmmm… now I want to see if I can figure out what the other two are (I bet I live close to one of them in Plano).

    Unfortunately, I can’t really comment to the gaming community around here. Years ago, I gave up on being part of that community, despite being one of the straight white dudes. It’s what got me out of tabletop in general, because they were generally not people I wanted anything to do with. I didn’t come back to it until a couple of years ago, when a friend started up a Pathfinder group at his home. The makeup was him and his wife, another couple, myself, and another coworker. My wife isn’t interested in stuff like this, and my daughter is very interested in dice, but she’s also three, and you can only have so many chaotic neutral gnomes in a party. But the whole game was a revelation compared to my “playing in a shop” days, because it suddenly became far more about friends and fun and randomness, like I remembered as a kid.

    After moving to this area… I didn’t feel like getting into the game shop scene. Said daughter is already well on the nerd path, with a love of Superman and Batman (and those dice) mixed in with her Disney and Daniel Tiger. She lives with a mom who loves 80s movies and a dad with a room full of LEGO and video games. And the shit I see from the greater “community” makes me want to discourage the growing love instead of encouraging it (like I absolutely want to), because she (and absolutely everyone) deserve better than what it’s offering.

    Side tangent for the area… as scary and stupid as some places are for this, the Dallas area has some really great locations for games and comics. Boomerang Comics up in Lewisville used to have a woman’s comic reading group, though I’m not sure if it’s still going. Red Pegasus in downtown Dallas is well known thanks to the marriage equality event. Given the state, it’s nice that the nerd culture is swimming against the tide in some good ways.

  7. dannorth says

    It is ironic that being a nerd, a social outcast in the old days, has become a clique of its own.

    Not especially surprising. Such is human nature, unfortunately.

  8. drascus says

    I live in a pretty liberal, progressive area, so you’d think gamers here would be too. Sadly, not so. The local game shop is a place where I get pretty good service, but my fiancé doesn’t. The tables for Magic the Gathering are covered with cheesecake-y fantasy girls.

    My fiancé met a female friend there on a few occasions to play Magic, and asked if there could be just one table without almost naked women on it. Of course she was ignored, and neither she nor her friend go into that shop anymore. If she wants to buy gaming stuff for herself or for me, she buys it on Amazon. This despite the fact that we try to but local as much as we can.

    It’s just sad, all these terrible shops and people ossified in a “girls have cooties” mindset. Luckily I have a great group to run games for that is almost 50% women. Having the female perspective enriches the game, and we can continue to leave behind the grognards and gamer-bros and self-diagnosed aspberger folks.

  9. Dunc says

    It is ironic that being a nerd, a social outcast in the old days, has become a clique of its own.

    People will build in-group / out-group bias out of absolutely anything. Take a group of people, randomly hand out badges of different colours, and they’ll form in-groups based on badge colour right in front of your eyes.

  10. davroslives says

    I think table-top gaming has a particular problem here, compared to video games. If you’re a woman or POC or other marginalized group, you buy your video game, install it, and play. You hook up with friends online, or play with friends on the couch. There is still a long way to go, but it’s relatively easy to insert yourself into the gaming culture to begin with. But IRL games… that’s a different proposition. You have to buy the supplies, but then you have to physically place yourself into the community, and doing that where you can’t just mute someone like in an MMO is far more intimidating. A woman could pick up a copy of Fallout 4 and be playing and enjoying herself 10 minutes later. If she wants to play D&D, she might have to be the only woman in a room of leering idiots. #notallgamers, yes, I know, but having a physical, personal aspect to the gaming experience (while a plus in some ways) makes it a much more daunting prospect

  11. microraptor says

    The gaming store I usually patronize is owned by a woman and has plenty of female clientele.

    However, one of the other guys in my gaming group (who’s about PZ’s age) will blatantly ogle any semi-attractive woman in an intensely creepy manner the moment he sees them. I’ve told him to knock it off a few times, but he doesn’t listen to me.

  12. Gregory Greenwood says

    I am on the periphery of the tabletop gaming subculture, and I have periodically had just the slightest, mildest taste of what it might be like to be a woman in that environment when I have raised concerns about the near ubiquitousness of what is known as cheesecake depictions of women in fiction of the type drascus mentions @ 8, and which are depressingly commonplace both in artwork and in physical miniatures. I think it is pretty clear that such imagery creates a toxic environment of male entitlement that is further exacerbated because it is so hostile toward women and thus discourages them from becoming part of the hobby and contributes toward removing dissenting voices.

    As a result, you wind up with an all male environment that artificially reinforces the notion that grossly sexualised and downright distorted depictions of women are somehow fine and normal, and that anyone who disagrees is some sort of oppressive moralistic authoritarian looking for any excuse to destroy the entire hobby.

    During the early development phase of the science fiction tabletop war game Game Beyond the Gates of Antares being produced by Warlord Games, an attempt was made to provide opportunities for community involvement through online forums to help shape the direction the game would ultimately go in, the idea being that the game creators would make an attempt to engage with the gaming community and create something that gamers really wanted. Being a war gamer and a feminist, I took the opportunity to raise the issue of ‘cheesecake’ depictions of women in war gaming and ask the game creators to reject all the misogynistic tropes that surround it and instead create a fictional world that actually treats female characters as meaningful protagonists and antagonists rather than merely sexist set dressing. While I expected a degree of controversy, I did not anticipate the way the thread exploded to be scores of pages long and consist of hundreds of posts – naively, I hadn’t thought that the notion that women should be treated as people too would result in such extended argument within such a relatively niche hobby.

    Over the course of that discussion, I was accused of persecuting male war gamers as part of some feminazi conspiracy, of being an oppressive communist totalitarian for some reason the poster was insufficiently articulate to ever explain, and of being the ‘true’ sexist because women wearing no armour (or much clothing) allegedly actually celebrates the ‘purity of the warrior woman ideal’ – a military prodigy so masterful that armour is a needless impediment worn only by those of lesser skill. I kid you not, someone actually tried to make that argument. When I inquired whether the senior or more skillful male soldiers would similarly disdain armour and clothing, I received no coherent reply.

    Someone else tried another variant, where since this is a sci fi universe with a very high technology base you could totes have sub dermal energy shield emitters (got to love those magic, physics-defying energy shields) that rendered physical armour and clothing unnecessary. A outwardly naked enhanced woman warrior would be as well protected as one in enclosing armour, dontchaknow. Again, when I inquired why it would be specifically women who would use such technology rather than men, no one had any answer. It also seems a bit odd within the fictional continuity that anyone would trust their life to the aforementioned magic shield alone – why not have physical armour as well, in case the shield tech fails? If ever there was a time for a belt-and-braces mindset, you would think it would be when people are shooting at you.

    All the while, the moderators and game creators didn’t seem to have any clue what to do with the thread, and mostly just seemed to try to pretend it didn’t exist at all. Ultimately, this aspect of the project was abandoned and the game development went down a different path, so I have no way of knowing whether the discussion impacted the game creator’s attitude toward female characters in the fiction or not.

    The sad part is that this group actually wasn’t that bad, with most of the people there accepting that the cheesecake tropes were misogynistic and agreeing that things like the dreaded chain mail bikini and justly derided ‘boob-plate’ armour should be consigned to the dustbin of history at the earliest opportunity. I have encountered far worse in the past – why, no one even assumed I was a woman from the ungendered handle I was using and spewed rape or death threats at me, or used the phrases ‘mangina’ or ‘white knight’ even once. That is progress of a sort I suppose, but I can’t imagine how much worse it must be for women in gaming meat spaces or using clearly feminine identified handles online.

  13. moarscienceplz says

    The Old Boys Club doesn’t want to open its doors, and the deeper cultural issues are pervasive.

    I know nothing about gaming, but the Atheist Community of San Jose has a woman for our new president. In fact, she’s a new mother who brings her baby to the meetings. We do still have about two guys for every woman, but many of our women members attend nearly every meeting, so we must be doing something right.

  14. says

    dWhisper @6

    Nope, not near Plano (relatively speaking.) Think more mid-cities. I’ll give a hint by naming the other good shop near me. Gen X Comics and Games.

    I’ll also plug Roll2Play again, since you mentioned kiddos. Tiffany has really focused on creating an environment that is reaching out to everybody, especially kids and families. She won’t carry “Cards Against Humanity” except for one deck that was priced $1000 (to be donated to charity if it ever sold). Not sure if it ever did, though. Anyway, they do a lot of after school stuff, summer day camps, Girls Night Out, etc. Really, her shop is, in my opinion, the very epitome of what good game shops should strive for. (I’m a bit of a fanboi, in case you can’t tell ?)

  15. says

    I’ve only been to Roll2Play a couple of times… it’s pretty far away from my normal haunts. When I did stop by, I was looking for some specific stuff (X-Wing and Star Trek ships for their associated games), which they didn’t have. It seemed like a very nice shop, and I like the library idea… it’s just not in the best location unless you’re in that area. I live fairly close to Madness Comics & Games, which is a great place to shop (and has a wonder staff) but I can’t offer much of an opinion on playing there. There’s an okay mix from what I’ve seen, but it certainly also leans to the normal demographics.

  16. Zmidponk says

    I can only speak regarding gaming in the sense of PC and console games, but another sign that there’s still a ways to go is that I commonly see these being bandied about as a couple of funny and accurate jokes:

    ‘When you meet a girl online, that’s actually a G.I.R.L. – Guy In Real Life’


    ‘The internet: where men are men, women are men and kids are FBI agents.’

    I have to admit that I do find them somewhat amusing, but their accuracy is more than a bit suspect, given that not only do I have real life friends who are gamers, and the female ones actually tend to play as male characters online, even when given the option to play as a female one, to avoid harassment (which is another sign we still have a ways to go), but there’s also various different studies that place the percentage of female gamers in the mid to high 40s, and one or two that actually place it in the low 50s, meaning that female gamers actually slightly outnumber male ones. Ironically enough, although a large part of the gaming industry has been basically ignoring this fact, this is beginning to change thanks to Gamergate, as their actions prove that female gamers tend to be marginalised and ignored (as well as outright harassed and threatened). One recent sign of this is the fact that somebody complained that a particular ‘victory pose’ in one of the characters in the game ‘Overwatch’, which is currently in beta, didn’t fit that character and simply reduced her to a meaningless, bland, female sex symbol. Blizzard agreed and removed it. Of course, the expected ‘backlash’ about ‘SJW censorship’ happened, but all Blizzard did was point out that getting feedback like that is the entire point of having a beta.

  17. says

    When I’m in a gaming group that’s all men things do get very locker room.

    When a woman joins us almost everyone* smartens the hell up and behaves like civilized human beings again. I much prefer having women in the group because any catharsis I get from letting my inner pigboy out always seems to be done with well before everyone else and I quickly find it tiresome. And I always prefer to *not* be in situations where I have to say, “Not cool, bro.”

    * Everyone except those self-styled “libertarians of thought” who don’t out and out say sexist shit but they do start dog whistling like they’re running the Iditarod.

  18. chigau (違う) says

    I have a t-shirt that I bought a long time ago
    “Alaska: where men are men and women win The Iditarod”

  19. speed0spank says

    @ Davrosilves

    A woman could pick up a copy of Fallout 4 and be playing and enjoying herself 10 minutes later

    Hey! I’ll have you know I had to leave Steam to install that baby ALL night long, and my internet is pretty good. It was really a painfully long night as I was so damn excited.
    I agree with all your points, of course. As a woman who has massive panic/anxiety issues I can hardly imagine trying to game with strangers, let alone ones that I thought might be hostile to me. I hate to think of all the women who have purchased all the *stuff*, got all excited, and found the whole atmosphere to be garbage. :(