• The Emotional Costs of Making Space for Me at the Table

    by  • November 19, 2012 • Essays • 9 Comments

    I was rereading Melissa McEwan’s terrible bargain piece1, and I started to think abut the terrible bargains I have made as a woman in role playing.

    And I returned again to the thought I keep having, that’s been sharpened through conversations with others. The deals I make to game, the ones I never talk about because doing to feels like exposing some core of feminine weakness that will get me banished from doing this thing I love. As a role-player I enjoy a lot of games, from Vampire (both Requiem and Masquerade) to Pathfinder, and many, many things in between. Often these games seem to attract people that want to explore “darker” themes…evil aligned or amoral player characters, murder, and interpersonal conflict in the party all seem to be common.

    Gaming culture, especially around games that I would consider mainstream type games (things you can pick up in your local Barnes & Noble for instance), seems to attract and support a culture of boy’s club-ish behavior. Too often the groups who play them, especially if I’m finding that group through my local game store or coffee shop, seem to think that gaming must be taken seriously, and that they only way to take it seriously is to play out the direst of stories, to focus on pain and misery, and to make it clear that values which are often coded as feminine have no place at the table.

    I thought about how when I sit down at the gaming table, I keep my mouth shut when everyone else wants to play a party of evil or amoral characters, because to say that I do not prefer that is to admit that I am soft-hearted and therefore unsuitable for gaming with. When I talk about how what I seek from gaming is heroism, moments of personal glory infused with joy, I am accused of not knowing what the purpose of the game is. I am silenced, usually through teasing, until I learn to respect my place.

    When I discuss not understanding a point of rules, rather than having a conversation to work it out, I am asked why I don’t just have a boyfriend make my character or calculate my dice pool.  When I go to LARP, it is often assumed (and stated) that I am only attending to play dress-up, or because my boyfriend brought me.

    I have been told (often though not always by men, the same men who comprise the groups that do not want to play the way I want to play) that what I should do is seek out players who also desire to play these games, to fling glitter about the darkness of a pseudo-medieval fantasy world, or to play the story driven exploits of people who are half mortal, half rescued fairy. And I nod, and I smile, and I take it under advisement and I pretend not to be hurt when they tell me “that’s such a girly way to game.” The unspoken but understood assumption is that their groups are not for such frivolous pursuits, they’re too busy playing vampires who drain every victim dry, or anti-paladins who rely on assassination and pillage to support their dark gods.

    And that is what the terrible bargain of gaming as a woman has come to be for me. Not only is my chosen subculture filled with people who make hurtful jokes about getting in the kitchen, or who call what happens to their characters when they meet a boss they weren’t prepared for “rape.” Though those are commonly addressed issues of sexism in gaming, they’re not the only ones I face. I have also made the bargain to not ask for the things I want. To be grateful when they’re handed to me in small crumbs. Because what I want is to “play like a girl” and that has no place at the “serious” gaming table or in “serious” discussions of the hobby.  I have chosen, so often, to accept the micro-aggressive assumptions about my motivations in gaming, and to refuse to engage and defend myself from them because the tiny niche I’ve carved out is more valuable to me than the defense would be.

    I’ve started to see change, to meet allies who also want to see gaming culture move away from both the overt sexism of anti-woman jokes and the more covert sexism of making games focused on the worst parts of human nature without also making a place for the best. It’s heartening to me to finally have people who understand what it’s like that I can talk to and work with to figure out solutions. But I can still see those deals I’ve made.

    So the next time someone looks around my local gaming store, or Friday Night Magic, or even my own gaming table, and asks why there are no/so few women present, maybe I’ll finally have the courage to tell them about the cost this tenuous treaty I have made to carve a space for myself in gaming really has.

    1. The linked entry is about how to make peace with living in the world, to get by, sometimes you have to choose not to raise your voice and condemn those who have caused you pain, not on purpose, but thoughtlessly and without consideration.  And how it’s hard to trust even those who are supposed to be allies and friends not to thoughtlessly cause those pains.


    Player of games both tabletop and electronic, as well as being a writer. I spend way too much time on the internet, and am most accessible at Google+ and Twitter as @sweetpavement.


    9 Responses to The Emotional Costs of Making Space for Me at the Table

    1. avatar
      November 20, 2012 at 00:25

      Oh yes. I am a very, very character gamer. I don’t dislike combat, I just want it to serve some sort of plot/character purpose. Most of the gamers trmechzero attracts (because of the way he likes to play and DM) lean more toward wargaming and min/maxing. Which is fine, but dang, I feel lonely at the table sometimes. I put out “this is important to me” backstory or info to the DM or to the other players and get nothing back. (This is probably why I flat out refuse to play D&D any more. At least with Shadowrun there is built in strategy that isn’t fight-related.)

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      • avatar
        November 20, 2012 at 01:34

        D&D 4 sadly is a miniatures game with some role-playing, if you’re so inclined (Pathfinder is better, but not by much). Shadowrun, with it’s heavy reliance on planning and social networking, is much more story and roleplay oriented than people tend to give it credit for.

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    2. avatar
      November 20, 2012 at 01:15


      Playing all-evil characters is not examining the dark places of the human condition (you need a heroic character in a dark world for that). It’s an immature, teenage devil-may-care power fantasy where the ‘anti-heroes’ do whatever they please without stupid constraints. It seems rather popular, especially among WoD players, in my experience. It’s not, however, in any way acting out any values. It’s just power tripping.

      Now, you probably have reasons to stick with that crowd, so I’ll just skip the advice to walk on them. I’m reasonably sure you’d have done that already if you could. However, yu should try and talk to your regular GM to have him allow you spots to shine and do your thing, too (and the others to damn well let you). As the one person who wants a thing in a group of maybe six, you won’t get all you want. But you are due your sixth.

      Still, I’d find it hard to reconcile going with such a group. I did that ocne, with my first group, and in the end it …. ended really messy.

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    3. avatar
      November 20, 2012 at 18:27

      I completely understand where you are coming from here. My game group is quite good, generally, because we understand what the others want fairly well. Though I’ll admit that there’s a distinct avoidance of most “serious” kinds of relationships within my games and that’s probably due more to the men than the women.

      Not too sure if it’s because relationships are seen as feminine, they just don’t really want to explore that aspect or because we actually know each other quite well and don’t want to make things awkward away from the gaming table.

      As for the bit about microagressions, I’m completely there with you. It’s all the little ways that your buttons are pushed. That you are told that certain elements are not welcome at the table that lead you to abandon them.

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      • avatar
        November 28, 2012 at 21:30

        I find this comment kind of amusing, mostly because my all women “Girl Game” is far more hack and slashy than my mixed gender groups or groups where I’m the only woman. My women want to kill things and steal their stuff, while my guys are over playing “Hot Guys Making Out” and “Breaking the Ice.”

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    4. avatar
      November 21, 2012 at 08:42

      Some of it can be chalked up to different play-styles, but when you combine social sanctions against us asking for what we want with the general difficulty of finding a group to begin with (schedules, games, availability, etc.), it can make it really hard to find a compatible group.

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    5. avatar
      November 27, 2012 at 19:34

      I don’t think having to deal with people that want to play “serious” games is a uniquely female experience. There have definitely been games where people wanted to play “Mature” or “darker” themes than I was comfortable with and at the time it was an all male group, but my objections were not dismissed as “playing like a girl” just as “trying to control other people’s characters” or “being a dick” or “stupid”. I hate when groups solve everything with violence, that looting dead bodies is such a common part of games that a lot of adventures require it, and robbing graves is somehow an acceptable thing for a hero to do. I try to dissuade this behavior as a GM, but I also try to run a game that has a little of what everyone wants in it so it can be hard to reach a middle ground. As a GM I have a standing rule that attempting to kill or otherwise harm children instantly grants the child psychic powers equivalent to the most powerful magic or technology available in the setting, because of one creep in college.
      I feel like a lot of these types of players share traits with internet trolls; it is a similar blend of selfish offensiveness wrapped up in a power trip. They refuse to compromise and hide behind the social contract while not respecting it. They will whine and complain about infringing on their game but refuse to accept that they are doing the same thing to other people or that anything they do is wrong unless they have broken a written rule (and any rule that doesn’t have a number of dice or modifier attached is apparently meaningless to them). So we end up compromising because we want everyone to have fun and they usually don’t. And once we compromise we’re playing closer to the game they want than what we want. I might be a bit bitter about people I have had to play with over the years because it can be hard to find gaming groups.

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      • avatar
        November 30, 2012 at 19:12

        Yeah, you pretty much nail it. The best thing you can do with such players is walk on their group or remove them from yours (either directly telling them they’re not welcome anymore, or just not calling them when you play). Ignoring them is the worst thing you can do, because it’ll never get better. Compromise doesn’t work either. These people are binary, so you should treat them as such and remove them from your gaming circles. Let them fester with like-minded buddies on xbox live.

        That said, I know it’s sometimes hard to find a decent gaming group even in big cites. But myself, I’d rather not game at all than contend with such people. They don’t only ruin the game, in the end they bring out the worst in everyone around them too.

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    6. avatar
      December 3, 2012 at 21:26

      I’m going to tell you something that I wish someone had told me when I was much younger than when I first heard it: It’s ok to leave a gaming group if it isn’t meeting your needs.

      Just as it’s ok to leave a relationship that isn’t meeting your needs or a friendship.

      We, as a tribe, get so caught up in The Five Geek Social Fallcies (google them, because I fail at linking), that we forget that NOT everyone is compatible. Hell, I have people I love dearly who are great friends that I can not game with because our styles are not compatible.

      If it isn’t fun for you stop doing it. Find other people to game with, whether that’s in meat space or online.

      I’m going to suggest, as I did in a twitter conversation on Friday: If you have stated your limits and your comfort zones and someone repeatedly violates them because their fun is more important than your mental well-being? They’re a jerk and you’re better off without them in your life.

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