Playing Safe: Making Women Welcome

You walk into the gaming hall after buying your pass. You're brimming with excitement. What games will you play? What new system will you try? What new gamers will you meet? What new dice will you procure? As you walk in, you're met by the cacophony of gamer voices, coming at you from all sides as people roll dice, mark up character sheets, and proclaim victory. You smile. It's where you're meant to be. You look at the tables around you, all filled with excited people. The first table is all men. You look to the next. All men too. As you begin to glance around, you notice a few people looking at you, and at least one leering. Then you realize: you're awash in a sea of people who aren't like you. You're one in a small group of others. You're a woman.

If there's one question I get asked a lot, besides "Really?" when I refer to how much harassment women receive in the gaming space, it's "But what can I do?" This question is incredibly common in anyone who's used to benefitting from the problem and therefore doesn't super see the problem. It's people who are willing to say "yes, I see that there's a problem" but have no idea what the steps are towards making a difference.

When I was more involved in political activism, this was the question I constantly got, too. You could talk to someone for less than five minutes before they'd agree that the Harper government was a big fucking problem but they'd follow it up, almost every time, with "Well what can I do?" It was the same when I was speaking about philosophy and post-modernism. The common question about everything that feels insurmountable is "What can I do?"

Now, to be clear, I'm speaking about women in the gaming world and space. I am being specific about this because the gaming space is unwelcoming to a lot of people (it's getting better), including trans*, non-binary, queer, People of Colour, differently abled people, and pretty much anyone who isn't part of the popular demographic. I'm not speaking to those experiences because I am not those people and do not want to say "This will make PoC feel welcome" when I'm not a PoC. I'm a white woman. Which is not part of the popular demographic of straight, perceived white and perceived male people.

There is nothing wrong with that demographic. I have loads of friends who fall into that group. And yet, somehow, amongst them lurks this sense of entitlement and privilege that can lead to some of them being less than stellar at the table and in the community. From in-game rape, to out of game harassment (and yes, sometimes rape there too), to snide comments, and the jokes about women and gaming, the popular demographic has left a foul taste in a lot of women's mouths when it comes to gaming.

So much so that when we tried to get more women GMs to our tables, they said they felt uncomfortable because often they'd been running for all men, and that past harassment had left them nervous or anxious. When you want to include more women, how do you do that and provide safety and a good space for them to be in? Regardless of if you're including women or trans* people or PoC, there has to be ways to make them more welcome.

What do I look for when I enter a gaming space?

1) There are women facilitating/organizing
If I walk into a gaming space and it's all dudes behind the desk, odds are, there are a lot of dudes at the tables. If there are only men organizing and only men running games, odds are there are a lot of men at the tables, because they feel comfortable. Every time I sit down at a table where it's all men, I'm anxious. Because I'm always only a moment away from someone being gross. Or exclusionary. You want more women? Have women on your organizing team and do the thing that most people don't: treat them with equality and respect. That means listening to them, not asking them to prove everything they say, and not second guessing everything they do.

Recently Rach went to Queen City Conquest* in Buffalo with Rob. One of the first things she said to me about it, besides it being a good time, was the distinct lack of women GMs. All the GMs were perceived male. She noticeably felt it. She did say there were women players, and that she noticed it. Of course she noticed it. It's easy to notice when you're the Other in the room.

*Clarification: There were in fact a few female GMs at Queen City Conquest. It was an early observation that I had not spoken of since and I apologize for the misinformation to everyone and to the awesome folks at QCC.

2) Harassment Policies Exist and Are Clear
When I'm perusing your website and glancing to see what events you have and who your organizers are, I'm going to look at your harassment policy. If you don't have one, I probably won't be attending. If you have one but it's vague and hard to find and not obvious on your website, I'll be iffy on going. Maybe you've never had an issue, that's entirely possible. But no harassment policy means that your organizers are likely the kind of people who don't worry about inclusion or harassment, which doesn't guarantee they're from the popular demographic, but it does mean that they're more likely to be part of that group.

I need to know what to do if there are issues, and if something happens and I don't have a policy or I don't have who I should be going to, then I'm concerned. While there's a certain naïveté in someone who thinks they don't need a harassment policy, it also means they're likely one of those "What? Really!?!" types that are exhausting to deal with.

3) There Are Tools Available to Increase Safety
At Breakout in March, and in Toronto Area Gamers, we have a policy on having an X-card at the table. Many, many people have many, many thoughts about this. Not to be brash, but I don't give a fuck about other people's thoughts. Why? Because as an organizer I've seen such good things coming from having a visible reminder that inclusion is more important than anything else at the table. I've been sitting six tables over at a public space and heard a woman ask "Where's the X-Card?" at a game of all dudes. I've had women GMs come up to me and thank me for having the X-Card on their table and say they wouldn't have GM'd for us if we hadn't have had those cards because it made them feel safer.

So sure, there's a valid reason to have good discourse around the X-Card, but when it comes to public gaming, to make people feel safe and included, having tools available to help your minorities feel safer fucking matters. I went to Jiffycon in the summer and noted the lack of X-Cards. It made me uncomfortable simply because I'm accustomed to having that tool. It's not awful to not have one, but it does help. And I've had multiple minority GMs approach me to say as much. Or worse, tell me stories of when they wished they'd had an X-Card. My heart breaks when I hear those stories, because it means I've failed as an organizer to make the space safe for people in the past. If the X-Card isn't your bag, try having a text-for-help function, where a GM or member can text you while at an event if they need assistance or crap is going down. This way you can appear and back them up magically.

Word of Caution: After Breakout, the organizer of another gaming convention not too far from us said they would be interested in integrating the X-card into the convention. There were a lot of questions about that, so several female organizers and myself went over and patiently explained all we could. One guy argued at every turn, and so I asked him point blank if his game was more important someone feeling safe, and he said yes, it was. At that point, the organizer messaged me and told me to tone it down, and admitted openly they did not ask that of the other participants in the conversation. The organizer decided against having the X-card because of backlash. Several participants in the conversation called the female organizers liars, and were basically attempting to silence us. One of the women's partners called out the organizer on the abuse going on, and so the organizer deleted the comments by one man and apologized to that specific woman. A notable game designer in the scene also got angry when several women spoke up about their experiences at the convention as gross and abusive, and he deleted all of us as friends and blocked one of the women. It was so intense that another designer approached me at Fan Expo to apologize for what happened in his community to me. Wanna make minorities feel included? Don't do this shit.

4) There Are Women Guests
And I don't mean the token woman. I mean there are women whom the facilitators have actively sought out and invited to the convention to talk about their games and run their games. They're engaged and featured as much as the dude guests. The thing behind this is, many women game designers have what's been lovingly called Imposter Syndrome. In my years of game con organizing, it's rare I find for women to approach me about being a guest. Most often, I hear from a male friend of theirs that they want to come.

I used to sit back and let guests come to me. Now? No way. I want women there. I want them there so badly I go hunting and reach out to people who are beyond my reach because they are awesome and should be asked. I would rather spend money bringing women to my con than another man. Not that men aren't valuable, but so many women message me after going "wow, I didn't think you'd want me there" or "I was trying to build up the courage to ask" or another phrase that's "Really? Me? I haven't done much..." I've never had a man I messaged about attending say any of those things. I find that interesting, and I'm by no means saying that men don't feel that way. Because I know they do. The numbers are just startling sometimes on how many women feel like they're not wanted or valued at conventions.

5) The GM Takes Steps to Be Inclusive
When I sit at the table, it's time to see what kind of game I'm about to be in. If the premise starts with a woman being killed, a woman being kidnapped, or any other stereotypically noninclusive material, and there are ever moments where my legitimacy is questioned because of my character's gender, I'm probably done. I was playing Serenity and the GM kept describing what the women looked like and what they were wearing. They were all... wearing not much. I finally complained and he said "Fine, they're all fat and ugly then." Which was a terrible way to go about that.

When you're making your content for your game, keep in mind that it's not being run for just dudes. Have inclusive characters, make diverse NPCs, and keep your storyline interesting but also inclusive for all folks. This means stereotypical tropes are inverted or explored in meaningful ways. It means you don't have scantily clad damsels. It means you make eye contact with me and if people are assholes, you call them on it and tell them to back off or remove them from the game. GMs are also accountable, and need to be held to an inclusive standard.

6) There Are Other Women Gaming
Honestly if you take some of the steps I've talked about here, and back up women when they complain of harassment and own that shit, you'll get more women gaming. When I glance around a room and I see multiple women gaming, I get very excited. At an RPG meetup recently, we ran at almost parity, with 10 perceived male, and 9 women, trans*, or non-binary folks. It was great. We were excited.

If I walk into the room and see it's all men, my anxiety rises. It's an instant sense of being alone. I've had people message me saying they'd play any game, but didn't want to be the only woman at the table. So making an effort to make women feel welcome and included will go a long way in getting women players, and thus, eventually, women GMs.

7) There Are Women GMs
Are all your GMs dudes? Why? No women coming forward? Guess there's not much you can do then... Except that's a lie. Gamers tend to be passive and reactionary. I was too, for a long time, until recently Rachelle made it her goal to have better parity in our events. We had to go out into the community and say we're looking for non-dude GMs. We had to talk to people one on one, assure them of safety and harassment policies, and sign them up individually rather than sending out a mass call and taking what we got.

It's a lot of work. But it's worth it. And the idea that you, as an organizer, are too busy to place value on having a diverse volunteer base says a lot about you and your organization. If diversity and inclusion matter to you, you should be taking action to show that, and part of that is recruiting women and minority GMs.

8) There Are Inclusive Games Being Run
No. There aren't "girl" games and "boy" games. Gaming isn't McDonald's. There are games that have diverse themes, queer themes, and focus on women's experiences. There are games that don't have boob plate and women in suggestive poses. There are games that aren't just about men. And if those games are on a schedule, I'm more likely to attend. For sure, there is always room for inclusivity in Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder, especially if organizers put a modicum of effort into it. But there are also games about non-male experiences.

If you want women and minorities to feel welcome, try to include games that are about them. Run Monsterhearts or Dream Askew. Get into a game like The Watch and play around with gender tropes in your games. Make sure none of your games have women on the cover being killed, attacked, or in ridiculous chick armour.

9) Pre-gen Characters Are Diverse
When a woman sits down at the table, and all the pre-gen characters are dudes, it's another moment of being obviously unwelcome. On top of that, when there are female pregens, they are often in typical female roles: clerics, nurses, lady of the night, etc.. Don't. Do. that. The guideline shouldn't be "take a male character and make it female" but it's a better start than just ignoring the fact that women and minorities exist.

My solution is to usually make gender neutral characters, use the 'they' pronoun, and then ask for the characters' pronouns as we introduce our characters. It makes a space for people to play whatever they like, and lets them play around with gender and says that gender isn't a binary. But that's just me. You can do it how you like, but do try to make sure it's not just a bunch of dude pregens at the table.

10) Harassment Is Taken Seriously
If a problem is reported, take it seriously. If someone talks about an issue at their game, with their gm, or hell, with your own game you've designed, do not instinctively defend it. Stop, listen, and consider. If a woman is saying something, odds are it's because she was hurt by it. If you think about it, any sexist behaviour is participating in a level of abuse. And if a woman is subjected to abuse from her hobby every day, she probably sees it very differently than someone who isn't subjected to that. By reacting poorly or negatively to her claims, you're reinforcing she's not welcome and that it's still a boy's club.

When someone says "This person made a rape joke" and when asked if she said something, she says no, and it's because she felt uncomfortable, you don't then shrug and say "well let me know next time." She's letting you know now. So you can do something about it now. Too many spaces take a relaxed stance on problems, where they don't engage with it, or worse, take it personally and get defensive. I recently was asked to look at a Kickstarter. When I said "It looks cool but all the art is pretty male dominated" the creator got angry at me and it turned into a big thing. I was harassed. It was great. 

11) The Space is Inclusive
Finally, when you're walking into a gaming space, and there are gaming stores and tables for up coming games, and game books everywhere... what does that image look like? If I walk around and there's lots of sexualized art and lots of women in suggestive positions and lots of games that have women being killed on the covers or throughout the books, I'm gonna feel a little like "oh geez. Gaming from thirty years ago."

At Breakout, we make sure the new games we're inviting to playtest aren't exclusionary and are, in fact, inclusionary. Our guests must have the same principles and values that we do, at least, we try to ensure that. You can't police everyone. You can do your best and make sure that everything's in place to support what you're saying. You can't just say you're inclusive. You have to walk the walk. And that means not letting gross banners go up, having a room with boothbabes or other sexist habits.

You may have noticed the biggest theme in all of this is: 

You want to be inclusive? 
Act like it.

This was a lesson I learned the hard way: Get off your ass and make an effort. Stand by your words and your harassment policies. Listen to the minorities and women talking to you. Implement their suggestions. Take steps. You cannot be passive and expect people to just believe you're inclusive. It's the old adage of walk the walk and talk the talk. You're in or you're out. You're making an effort or you're not.

That isn't to say any effort made will be appreciated. Don't expect cookies for good behaviour. You may receive backlash. The key is to try and bring people with you. It's hard and a brutal process, but if you want to be inclusive, you may lose a few people on the way who call you pandering or too PC. Ignore them. The new people you'll get because you're making an effort will make your spaces so much better. Sometimes it's small changes. A harassment policy. Than an inclusive policy. Then actively adding a woman or three to your team. Then encouraging women guests. Then women GMs. Then maybe X-cards (or not). It's slow. But it's so very very worth it.

As for those of us who aren't organizers? Keep what makes an inclusive GM in mind and an inclusive setting. Fuck with some tropes. Don't make classical "girl needs saving" choices. Invert tropes. Make some badass women who aren't in chick armour. Take cues from the new women of Star Wars, from Mad Max: Fury Road, and from Ghostbusters. Make characters, not tropes. Make everyone vulnerable and bad ass and terrifying and afraid. Make them all people.

The excuse of "it's not easy and I don't know what to do" has worn out its welcome. Women are fighting constantly to be included. As are all minorities. 

We keep throwing balls in your court. Give 'er.

None of this is a criticism. It is a series of lessons I have learned in a decade of organizing a community and in the last five years of convention organizing. It's what I've learned being a woman in a male space. It's what I've learned going to conventions and feeling unwelcome. It's what I've learned from feeling unwelcome before I even bought a ticket. It's what I've learned being me. 

P.S. Gencon had gender parity this year. Did your gaming?