International Women’s Day seems like as good a time to discuss this as any: if I would be the token girl in your game group, guild, etc – or you only have one token female – I am not going to join, no matter how nice you come across.
For a TL:DR on my gaming history, I started playing a MUD back in the mid-90s and have played some form of MMO consistently ever since, along with tabletop games with a local group, and I M:tG’d until high school (though I still have my collection – mostly ice age and earlier). There is no TL:DR on why I only game with majority female groups. It’s not an issue you can reduce to a sentence or two. It’s an experience.
I was eleven when I started gaming, healthily afraid of the many basement-dwelling murderer perverts that my mom and society told me were proliferating the internet. Soon, I found there were other things to be afraid of. Not the blatant perverts, or charming serial killers, but the guys who would fly off the handle the second they found out you were a girl, you gamed, and worse, you were good at it.
I admit, I was lucky. One of the implementers/imps of the MUD I played – J. Sebek’s Clandestine – was female. Though tyrannical, frightening, and well deserving of her name, I think her presence played a part in why they took harassment complaints seriously.
Also, for the most part the female players looked out for one another. They’d warn you about the guys. Not the blatant pervs that you could just mute, but the ones that seemed nice… until you wouldn’t cyber with them. The ones that were okay with you when you were an initiate in your rel – low level, unimportant – but couldn’t stand it if the Archon of their rel was played by a woman – or worse, the Chosen One. For them, the promotion of a female player above them was the gravest insult, and they’d turn on you – a former friend would go aggro and start making accusations of cheating, or seducing the imms, or worse.
The girls in-game also whispered to one another about the men who were okay with being beaten in combat by a guy, but swore and spit and raged if you took them down in a duel – or worse, the ones that would go off like a bottle rocket if you mentioned the notable female players like Ophelia – the level 150 player-killer that to this day remains the single coolest PKer I have ever had the pleasure of being mercilessly slaughtered by. Knowing who not to duel to avoid an angry two-day tirade made playing more enjoyable.
My best allies in game were the other female players on the server – or most of them. The places where they didn’t go – the private chat channels they avoided, the religions where there were only men – those were places I didn’t want to be, either. They also knew which imms were more sympathetic – and which ones were likely to think it was a waste of time to complain about inappropriate out of character comments, the harassing requests to cyber, the threatening bullshit about having slept my way to the top, like I needed an imm or an imp to boost my stats to beat them.
They also knew things like to always keep logs, to give verbal warnings before contacting an imm. They’d learned the hard way so I didn’t have to. And, of course, I passed on what I learned to new players, too. Without that, I think the game would have been unbearable.
When we moved on to other games – WoW, briefly, and FFXI, FFXIV – that didn’t change. The other female players were there, supportive, already having worked out the road map for how to get help when you needed it, which GMs would dismiss your complaint – or worse, punish you for wasting their time with your complaint – when you report being harassed. Not all girls, but enough of them that the Final Fantasy Online, at least, was still a good gaming experience (WoW less so, but that had more to do with the players I knew from the get-go – guys I knew socially and thought were cool, until they wouldn’t stop telling me how they’d modded things to remove character clothes).
Online, it was easy to stay in safe spaces – to find allies. To pick and choose which players I played with, which games I invested time in.
In real life, though, gaming groups just aren’t that common. And finding allies is a lot more difficult.
My first gaming group was actually my brother’s group. He needed a cleric, and had a sister. I didn’t know at the time that this was going to be a life-long assignment. That girl = cleric. We played for years before I decided to find my own gaming group – only after his fizzled out.
My next long-term group was mixed gender. Two guys, three girls, if you count the DM (she was awesome. Still is). We played together for years, and I got to play a swashbuckler – my first non-cleric character. I loved it. Finesse fighters are so much fun. And it was so cool not to have to worry about everyone’s HP all the time, to just play my character. There were no DM-mandated rape plotlines, or any of the numerous weird clothing removal scenes later DMs would attempt to call normal parts of the game. It was nice.
Eventually, though, the DM moved away, other people broke up, changed jobs, and I was on the look out for a whole new group. For a long time, I didn’t find any. The few groups I knew about were incredibly stable – and incredibly full. When a guy from work mentioned his group was looking for a new player, I jumped at the first chance to play.
The DM said they needed a healer, and so since I was a girl, that would be perfect. That should have been a red flag. That they were looking for a healer. That they assumed as a girl I’d play a healer. I didn’t notice or care – I was just glad they would let me play. Since the guy from work was nice enough, I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. Didn’t think I’d need a ally to have my voice heard.
I don’t need to tell you that things went badly. I was talked over the top of, my previous experience dismissed because my previous DM had been female, and every time I went to do anything in-game, I had to listen to an explanation for what I was trying to do, like I wouldn’t know. They didn’t care that I said I’d played before. That I had my own set of polyhedrals and my own game books. I was a girl, and to them that meant that I couldn’t possibly know what I was doing. That I’d never know what a D20 is. That I wouldn’t be able to work out how to even play my character. Worse, they’d try and dictate what my character was doing, and ignore my protests.
Sure, they were nice to me out of game. I was their token female, after all, and they meant well – or I thought they meant well. I stuck it out for a while. A few months. After all, they didn’t play with many girls. I had to be representative of my gender, prove I could handle it. That I was cool, girls could be cool.
It wasn’t cool, though.
The final straw was when another player grabbed my dice, announced what my character was doing, and rolled. “She’s going to heal my character now,” he said, throwing my dice for me. And the DM nodded, like of course this was what I was doing. Nothing I’d said – not the fifty, sixty times I’d asked them not to do that previously – mattered. I might as well have been invisible, a paper prop. A game token.
I grabbed my books, left my dice, and walked out of the game. I have heard from other girls in the community that they have done the same things to others. It’s not uncommon to hear it mentioned that they’re looking for a new player.
If it were just once – just the one group – maybe I wouldn’t mind joining an otherwise all-male guild or D&D games. Maybe I wouldn’t notice, even the gender balance. But it’s not just the one. And it’s not just me. And in this gaming community, girls need allies so they can avoid falling in to that role, that trap – the token female. Someone who should be honored to be present, like their gender is a handicap they’ve overcome.
I can’t count the amount of women who have had similar experiences, and worse. Most of the players I know have at least one horror story. Comparatively, I’ve been incredibly lucky – I haven’t been raped, or brutalized, or stalked like some of the other women I know. Nobody plastered the community with warnings that I was a slut, or a whore, or worse, a fake geek girl. I was just dehumanized. Dismissed. Ignored.
I learned my lesson. I don’t play where there isn’t already a female presence. It’s not an honor, or a privilege when you’re the only girl let in – it’s a trap.
Footnote glossary by request:
Archon = a rank in the in-game rel (religion)
Chosen One = highest-rank player in MUD rel
DM = dungeon master, s/he who runs a D&D game
GM = Game master, s/he who moderates or runs a game
FFXI = Final Fantasy XI, AKA FFOnline
FFXIV = The newer Final Fantasy MMO.
imm = Immortal, the MUD-version of a moderator
imp = Implementer, the people who run the game
MMO = Massive Multiplayer Online game
MUD = Multi-user Dungeon
polyhedrals = polyhedral dice. D4, D6, D8, D10, D12, D20
rel = religion (the MUD’s equivalent of a guild)
TL:DR = too long, didn’t read. A brief summation.
W0W = World of Warcraft