• Gaming as Women Have a Conversation About Feeling Unwelcome

    by , , , and  • December 5, 2012 • People & Events • 6 Comments

    Joanna: Recently on G+, I saw some comments on a post that struck me. Women were saying how they feel unwelcome at gaming conventions. That was a surprising word to see, unwelcome, and something I want to explore. Instead of derailing that particular thread, I thought I’d start a separate discussion.

    I have never felt unwelcome at a game convention. Sometimes I wonder if I’m living in some strange alternate universe to some other women gamers. Sure, there have been times I’ve felt out of place, or uncomfortable in particular situations. I’ve been sexually harassed on more than one occasion. But feeling generally unwelcome, never.

    I don’t want anyone to think my comments are out of anger or defensiveness. I am genuinely interested in learning about other women’s experiences and fears. I am saddened that other women don’t have the positive atmosphere or experience that I have, and I want them to.

    One of the things that makes my convention going feel safe is that I have always been in the company of people I trust. Often I’m traveling with a posse of gaming friends. If I’m arriving alone, I’m always meeting people there. I don’t have to hang out with friends every minute of the day, but having a team available to talk to is important to me.

    Also, having a place to retreat is important to me. If I have a hotel room available, that’s great. If I’m going to a one day thing, I will check the area for retreat spaces like a local coffee shop or book store. I may not go there, but knowing it’s available is good.


    Brie:  I feel out of place at most game events, and have felt unwelcome in a lot of gaming environments, so I’m interested to see how my con experiences go. Gaming is supposed to be a fun hobby for me, or at least something fun to work on, not something I want to be required to wade through creepers to enjoy, yanno?

    I am one of those people who attracts negative attention. I know I am abrasive by nature, and I work on it, but it’s still there. Even when I am not abrasive, though, I attract the creepers, I attract the jerks, I am the one who gets ganged up on. I either get ignored or targeted. Online, I have been luckier because there’s an opportunity not only for people to get to know me first but also because I can block people or mute people or whatever. This is not exclusive to gaming or comics. Many conferences I have been to that are not gaming/comics related have these issues too, BUT part of it is what I said before – I don’t want to have to fight to be able to enjoy myself. I don’t want to feel like I have to struggle. I’ve always worked in companies that were male dominated population wise – mechanic shops, engineering companies – before that it was male-dominated socially, so while I’m used to it, it’s stupid and exhausting. I think I have a habit of trying to blow it off because I don’t want the negative reactions, I don’t want to be frozen out, and more now because at work, calling people out is risky. I still do it a lot, but with some people I’m less likely to do it than others.

    It’s always possible I’m just totally crazy and that my past experiences were either bullshit or complete anomalies, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Examples of things that make me feel welcome that don’t involve assault or verbal harassment are things like staring at me but not talking to me, talking around me, talking down to me, immediately leaping to tell me I am wrong, surrounding the place with sexist discussion or imagery, and invading my space in a way that implies they are ignoring my presence.

    I also am into comics – and while my comic shop owner is cool, I get uncomfortable at our ComicCon when I go because I feel out of place, a lot of the stuff is super sexy ladies, and while I like sexy ladies myself, that doesn’t mean I feel comfortable being either a) the girl that wears sexier clothes and gets stared at or b) the girl that wears normal clothes and gets to be totally ignored, because it can feel that polarizing at times.

    There are a lot of things in place here. Let me break it down: First, I already have social anxiety and I don’t do well with crowds. Because of this, if people are rude to me or violate my personal space, I feel very threatened, in part because, second, I have been assaulted in the past (on the street, by people I knew – verbal and physical), and that is in part influenced by, third, the people I spent time with when I began coming into the geek circles, and the rural culture I’ve been brought up in, and fourth, I suffer from being not conventionally attractive (I’m overweight and I’m built a little big in the first place) OR very girly, but I’m not “tough” enough to be “one of the guys”, so I don’t fit into either category of what’s accepted by most guys (or girls) I had met in gaming up until recently (or, hell, people in general).

    It is a weird feeling – I know I have extra problems some people don’t (the anxiety, the past experiences, etc.), but that’s the thing: some people have these problems just like I do but are afraid to go to conferences for those reasons, not because of something they heard on the internet (an assumption that really gets to me). That’s why I push for anti-harassment policies. Knowing cons have those makes me feel less afraid to attend, and I think it will help other women. It’s not just geek cons, it’s all cons. I know women who have gone to business and legal conventions and been hit on, propositioned, followed back to their rooms. It’s not okay, it’s scary, and when I witness these things first-hand, it makes me even more concerned.

    It is also, in part, because until now I would not have known anyone at geek cons. My husband can’t always go places with me, so I would have been on my own. That’s terrifying.

    I don’t mean to be a jerk to those of you who haven’t had a bad experience. Sorry if it comes across that way. That has been used against me in the past a lot (the “not all girls feel that way so it must not be true” thing), so I’m sensitive to it.


    Elin: Swedish convention culture is different from US convention culture, but personally I never felt unwelcome at any event. There is normally a 30% female presence, a friendly atmosphere and there are usually no alcohol involved. Swedish convention is held by non-profit gaming clubs and is based on volunteer work. They are usually held at schools the city letting the club use over the weekend or holiday. Sleeping arrangement are communal, usually it is groups of 20 people sleeping on pads in sleeping bags in classrooms. Usually it gender mixed. While I can understand everyone might not be comfortable with that (for other reason then snoring, uncomfortable pads and disturbed sleep) it is possible to arrange other sleeping arrangement at a hotel of you feel like it.


    Filamena: I feel uncomfortable at cons because they don’t wear ‘I’m a Molester Badges‘. And the fact that I’ve heard stories like this by more than a small number of women. Gamers. Organizers  Industry people. It’s still ‘boy space’ in a lot of minds, and until that changes, I will feel unwelcome.


    Meguey: I love going to conventions! I would go to at least one a month if I could. In all the cons I’ve been to, I can think of only one where I felt uncomfortable. That was not due to being a woman at all, and was entirely about the over-the-top SS cosplay. I love meeting new people and running games and being on panels and all that stuff. Once or twice I’ve had random con-goers be dismissive towards me, but the vast and overwhelming number of people who are polite, helpful, friendly, enthusiastic and out-going  make up for those couple guys in boat-loads. I liked Joanna’s break-down about why she feels comfortable, so I’ll follow suit.

    When I go to a convention, I know exactly where I’m going and what I’m doing. I like to work like mad at a convention, so usually there’s someone to tell me “you have a panel here, run a demo here, and then come to the booth and sign books at this time”. That gives me solid support and ground control.  My job is to show up 120% and rock it. And any down-time is usually filled by talking with folks or moving from one place to another, so I very rarely feel adrift.

    If I am unclear about anything, I ask. That goes for directions in the airport or help getting a badge or confirming dinner plans. I ask all the time. I’ll ask for directions every twenty paces if I need it, like in an airport I’ve never been in before (hello Heathrow before the Olympics!) Being uncertain about something makes me feel, well, uncertain, so I head that off at the pass.

    I make sure I eat and sleep. When I was 15, I could go like mad on 3 hours of sleep a night – now I recognize that I have more fun if I get at least 6. I don’t drink, but that’s more of a personality thing than anything about conventions and comfort. It does put me out of the way of some of the crap I’ve heard about dealing with drunk con-goers, because by that time I’m either playing a game somewhere or asleep.

    I practice being aware of my surroundings. Like noticing the exits and who’s acting weird and how many people are wearing hats and whether there’s enough genetic variance in the room to safely repopulate after a zombie apocalypse and that sort of thing. I don’t mind traveling alone, I don’t mind sharing a hotel room with strangers that trusted friends can vouch for, and I just don’t care too much that there’s still a perception that rpgs are a “male-dominated hobby”. This is my hobby. I’ve been playing for over 30 years, going to conventions for over 20. I have all the right to that convention floor, and so do the women I meet there.  I hear you, fellow players who do not feel this way, and it makes me want to stride purposefully across a crowded foyer to meet you and welcome you to a convention and help make it a comfortable space for you, too.




    A gamer for decades, a nerd for longer, and a woman forever.



    I'm a 25 year old admin assistant from around Pittsburgh, PA. I am married, work and attend college concurrently, and have been tabletop gaming for about 8 years. I blog (very, very periodically), and write unpublished short stories. I play tabletop RPGs, board games, and both casual and RPG video games. I live for the social part of gaming, but do enjoy a good explosion, and am learning the ropes of creating worlds in which people can play.




    Elin Dalstål is a game designer, larp and convention organizer living in Luleå, Sweden.



    Filamena is a professional writer and game designer who isn't very good at writing bios. Having written for White Wolf, Catalyst, Green Ronin and a number of smaller table top games, she's been freelancing for several years. Interested in the indie game scene, Filamena also publishes independently with her life partner at Machine Age Productions. She's the mother of two (almost three) kids, an outspoken liberal and pro sex feminist.




    Meguey Baker has been playing RPGs since 1978. Her most recent game is Psi*Run, a game about people with psychic powers and amnesia, released in 2012. She is currently working on Miss Schiffer's School for Young Ladies of Quality, a game about bold adventurous women scientists and explorers in the 1890s. Meg is also the mother of three sons, a sex ed teacher, and a textile conservation specialist.


    6 Responses to Gaming as Women Have a Conversation About Feeling Unwelcome

    1. avatar
      December 5, 2012 at 17:09

      I’ve been fortunate to not have the negative experiences at cons that I’ve seen a lot of women describe. There have really only been a couple of times I felt oddly at a con.

      The first was my first con because it was a small one on a college campus and most of the people there were guys. It was odd for me because, well, it was my first con and I didn’t know what to expect anyway, but also because I was neither college-aged, nor male, so I stood out. No one treated me any particular way and even if my husband wasn’t with me, I don’t think they would have. It was just not overly well-organized, which contributes to a feeling of not being welcome. However, I think that was just because of the con and not my gender.

      The only other time I’d characterize as a bad experience in some way was when an industry person got too drunk to control himself and behaved in such a way as to come off vulgar, obscene, and obnoxious. He embarrassed himself greatly as evidenced by an apology I heard about much later that he made when he was sober.

      That’s out of about ten trips con to five of various sizes over the last ten or so years in four different states (NY, Indiana, Ohio, and Georgia). I don’t know the circumstances of the cons where women have felt unwelcome as a whole, but I do hope that they are able to have the good experiences many others of us have had. Regardless of your gender or people’s perceptions of what you should look like or act like because of it, games are supposed to be fun and it’s a shame so many women aren’t having fun at conventions about games.

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    2. avatar
      December 5, 2012 at 18:03

      I love a good convention, and have been to several, big and small. The larger conventions, like Dragoncon, having gaming as only one part of a large whole. Smaller ones like ConnCon are strictly gaming. I haven’t felt unwelcome because of my gender. Some of my favorite memories are playing D&D until five in the morning. The gaming suite was conveniently next to the convention suite–many southern conventions provide free beer. Gaming areas are also where I was first exposed to Killer Bunnies and Chrononauts.

      I’ve been harassed, but have been able to get away from the offending twit. Some people aren’t so lucky. Some cons do not do very much in enforcing a no-harassment policy. A friend started the Backup Ribbon Project to give people some help: http://backupribbonproject.wordpress.com/

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    3. avatar
      December 5, 2012 at 19:31

      Love tabletop conventions! Always have. They feel like home to me.

      Felt a little awkward at E3, though. Booth babes are certainly a contributor, but mostly it was just really loud. And since I didn’t have a press badge at the time it was a different experience… if I try E3 again it will be as press.

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    4. avatar
      Jodi Black
      December 5, 2012 at 20:12

      In reflecting on my con experiences (more than 20 in the past 2 years, beyond that I wasn’t keeping track but it was at least 2 a year for the past 15 years) the good far outweigh any bad. The key element in any of my “felt unwelcome” experiences lay in feeling lost, confused, or otherwise without authority to change my situation. Like Meguey, I’m usually part of the organization of the con, which helps a lot. But before I got to this point, I too found security in friends; a launchpad to explore my surrounding like a toddler who didn’t want to stray too far from mom’s protection. The more confident I became about my environment, the more fun I had.

      In all of those recent cons I can think of only 4 times when I felt this way: feeling lost because the convention did not have clear directions for where things were; feeling unsafe because the people around me seemed like addicts; feeling anger at obvious exploitation of women, which seemed celebrated culturally at that convention; being flashed in the dealer’s room (it wasn’t aimed at me but EW I saw it). All situations were amplified because my children were with me, so it’s possible they would not have affected me as much otherwise.

      I am so glad that gaming tends to be (from my family’s perspective) family-friendly in general! I think if you are feeling nervous about a con, ask about how family-friendly it is. If the con focuses on being a family-friendly environment they likely have an atmosphere that will be welcoming to women in general. I want to take all of y’all who have had bad con experiences and show you how wonderful they can be!

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    5. avatar
      Petra Bootmann
      December 6, 2012 at 11:22

      When I was younger I accepted unacceptable behavior, just because I thought it is unchangeable (for example offensive remarks or telling me I’m not qualified enough to play). I’m from Poland and at my first local cons there were no more than 50 people (from which 2 or 3, sometimes I was the only one). So after a few years, ’cause there were 5 women, orgs even opened the ladies’ toilet!

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    6. avatar
      December 6, 2012 at 16:11

      At each con I’ve been to, I’ve felt very welcome, and at the very least not unwelcome. At the first one I went to, I did know two people in person and two from online game correspondence, which certainly helped me feel not out of place. It’s true that everyone else assumed I was the wife of a male gamer (oddly, I got asked several times if my husband was playing historical minis even though there was quite a variety of game types there). However, I’d just say my husband didn’t game, we’d start talking RPGs, and I’d be taken on my own merits happily and immediately. People seemed really glad I was there. I thought it was *awesome* to have a huge group of people to talk RPGs, science fiction, and ancient history with instead of ad nauseum children’s-after-school-activities, so I was really chatty and asked people a lot of questions and met a lot of people fast. (Usually I’m an introvert–not at cons!) After that I was part of the board of that con and was representing it at other cons, and that made it extra easy to meet people and feel welcome elsewhere, though I think it would have gone well regardless. It does feel like at some cons people are used to approaching people they don’t know wherever the common areas are, and at others they don’t talk to you unless they know you already–there’s one where I don’t feel like I’ve figured out how to be part of the socializing, but I don’t feel unwelcome either.

      I only felt unwelcome once. I walked into a game I’d signed up for, most of the players–all guys–were already there, and they just stared at me with very odd expressions, then asked dubiously “do you know what [the GM’s] games are _like_?? I’d met the GM and knew he could be pretty crass but had heard he was an excellent GM, so I said I knew what he was like and sat down. But Got filled in on his “evil” games and how crude and drunk this particular group tended to get, but they said that they were out of alcohol so it wouldn’t be as bad as usual! Weeell, I definitely had the vibe that this was not going to be awesome for me, but I decided to stick it out. The GM put me on the spot, which always makes me freeze up and look stupid, so I didn’t appreciate that but apparently he does that to everyone, male or female. It wasn’t a great game but had its interesting points, and I was proud of myself for hanging in there. And _much_ tamer than I had imagined given their alarmed looks when I first walked in (thank god for the lack of alcohol!). The guy next to me was an industry professional and did a lot to try to help me feel less like the odd-person-out, and one other made a bit of an effort to be friendly also. Anyway, this is the ONLY time I’ve been made to feel like an outsider–it stands out for me because it was so incredibly different from any other con game I’ve played.

      I’ve sometimes felt like a bit of a curiosity, albeit a welcome one, for being a woman with a non-gamer husband. That always floors people for a sec. Oh, and at the second con I went to several guys I didn’t know felt a need to police their buddies around me–I’d talk to someone and some random friend of theirs would check out my ring and somewhat loudly announce to the guy “Dude, she’s married!” even though I was certainly not under the impression that the person in question was flirting. Happened 2 or 3 times with different people. Weird. Hasn’t happened since; I guess people have gotten used to me.

      I should also say that I usually feel very safe because the guys I know tend to be a little protective of me, though not annoyingly so. They make sure I’ve got someone I trust with me if I’m going somewhere and it’s late. It would be hard for anyone to get too out of line with me without one of my gang stepping in (if I couldn’t handle it myself), and I think people know that.

      Anyway, upshot is that overall I’ve felt very welcomed, more than I feel welcome in most non-gaming places. It’s _much_ easier to talk to people than elsewhere, and I can’t even say how much I appreciate that atmosphere.

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