Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem
I am a gamer. I followed the call of Cthulhu and ran in the shadows with hackers and shamans. I traversed the ancient lands of Greyhawk, Faerun, and Eberron with companions new and old. I swung from an airship and buckled swash over London for the Kerberos Club. I threw dice and flipped cards and ground men into dust playing table-top wargames.
I don’t do that anymore.
Since July of 2015 fans of the game Malifaux have been attempting to overwhelm me with death and rape threats for no other reason than I am a woman who has opinions on the game. Wyrd Miniatures is silent on this matter and hangs up whenever anyone attempts to discuss the harassment. Given that a large number of threats identify the senders by name as Wyrd staff members, I do not find this surprising.
But that’s not what this article is about.
This isn’t the first time I’ve received an avalanche of threats from pathetic and insecure men. It isn’t the second time or even the third or fourth. At this point, I know that if I speak out against the abuses myself and my friends have suffered as a result of our participation in the “friendly gaming community” I can expect to be silenced with extreme prejudice. Section 83.01 of the Criminal Code of Canada defines terrorism as an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” and with the intention of intimidating the public “…with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.”
Astute readers will note there is no specific provision for internet harassment, although death threats are one of the most prominent and effective ways of driving women and POC from communities. While the topic of online harassment has centred around white women, it is not uncommon for any minority to receive death threats and other forms of intimidation when they express their concerns with the gaming community’s acceptance of racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted behaviour.
I am thirteen years old and in a game store for the first time. I examine their selection of dice and take them to the counter to pay.
“How old are you?” asks the balding, middle-aged man behind the counter.
“Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed!” he chuckles in glee. The Warhammer 40K gamers at the table behind him take up the refrain. “Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed! Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed!”
Make no mistake that this is terrorism. The men who e-mail me rape threats have a vested interest in anyone perceived as “lesser” being expelled from the community. And the tragic thing is that it works.
Law enforcement is woefully unequipped for dealing with the multiple-jurisdiction headache of online harassment. Most police are unwilling to file a report without a name, address, and IP number and many regard “cyber-bullying” as unimportant. When combined with the sexist attitudes towards women and sexual assault, reporting rape threats is almost impossible.
I am at Keycon, waiting for a friend to finish her Shadowrun game. One of my male friends hands me a pepsi. I take it and thank him.
I wake up in a hotel bed I don’t remember. A man’s hand is inside me, jabbing and painful. I try to scream but nothing comes out. I try to move but I cannot. After what feels like a lifetime, I stagger away, ripping his hand out of my jeans. The convention whirls around me like a nightmare kaleidoscope as I beg for help. Eventually, someone takes me aside.
“This is a safe convention. We have a reputation to protect. If you go to the police, we’ll say you were never here.”
I nod numbly. I think I am crying, but no tears fall. I stumble into a bathroom in the lobby coffee shop and sob until I can’t breathe. When I am calm, I call the police and report the attack.
“You sound drunk. Were you drinking? I’m not filing a report for some drunken slut.” The officer hangs up.
I have no more tears.
Many men are under the fallacious assumption the police exist to serve and protect the population. They do not. They exist to keep the peace. Often this means intimidating women out of filing reports or pressing charges. I have no idea why this is the case. I only have twenty years of attempting to report gendered violence and having my concerns ignored. This is not a well-kept secret and the terrorists know this. They know that any woman attempting to report harassment or assault faces uphill battle and they count on it.
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.
It is 2015 and I am reporting the harassment to the RCMP.
“Is this like that WaterGame thing?” asks the officer. I smile in relief.
“Yes. Yes, it’s a lot like that.”
The officer sighs, “We’d have a lot less work if women just stayed away from dangerous, psychopathic losers.” I look at the evidence in front of me. I don’t disagree.
In every discussion of online harassment you will find men telling women to call the police. What you don’t hear is the police telling women to stay away from gaming communities for their own safety. What would gamers say if they knew that police told women to avoid game stores the same way they avoid frat houses?
“Why is this so important to you, anyway?” The officer is blunt, but I appreciate it.
“It’s my hobby. I love it. I’ve been doing this for twenty years.”
Her response cuts me to my core, “Find another hobby or you’re going to die.”
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!
Amid the rise of lone wolf terrorism it is important for the ethical, responsible members of the gaming community to address and put a stop to it before anyone is harmed. Credit for foiling a potential mass shooting at the Pokemon World Championship goes to an unnamed forum moderator who had the sense to notice the dangerous, violent rhetoric of his posters and alert the authorities. How many sexual assaults could be prevented in the gaming community by men extending that same concern to women?
White male terrorism is the white underbelly of the gaming community, meant to terrify and disrupt the lives of those who threaten the status quo by race, gender, or sexuality. It succeeds because the majority of men in the community are too cowardly to stand against the bullies and the terrorists. At best, these cowards ignore the problem. At worst, they join the terrorists in blaming their victims for the abuse. The point of online terrorism is that it is endless, omnipresent, and anonymous. I have no way of knowing whether the person with whom I’m gaming is safe or the person who wants to “slit [my] throat and fuck the gash until [I] drown in cum”. Knowing that the person sending those e-mails could be anyone and the community will not support me if/when I am attacked keeps myself and many others from the hobby.
The majority of gamers do not engage in online terrorism, but are instead complicit in lower levels of harassment. It is almost impossible to convince gamers that sexist and racist jokes are unacceptable and that they make others uncomfortable and drive people off. Indeed, raising this issue at all often results in threats and more terrorism. It is unsurprising then that people with conscience have come together to create Hater Free Wednesdays/Saturdays—a master list of comic and game stores and their relative safety for women and minorities.
Gamers bemoan the loss of the local game store while ignoring their culpability for its demise. Amazon is blamed for the death of local game stores, but few gamers stop to question why so many people are choosing to buy social games in such an asocial manner.
It is 2009 and an aboriginal woman is looking at the metal miniatures on the wall. My co-worker helps her as I stock the display shelves.
“Do you have any models that look like me?” the woman asks.
“We only have normal models,” my co-worker titters, “I can order you the noble savage.”
The woman leaves. We never see her again.
It is 2010 and a young black man with a backpack is talking to me about the comparative merits of Pathfinder vs D&D 4th Edition. I tell him we have drop in games and wave him over to a group currently playing.
“Sup, my n*****!” the white men shout.
I apologise but the man is already out the door. I report the incident to the owner.
“I’m not throwing away good customers just because someone is oversensitive.”
It is 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and hands are on my ass and breasts and all over my body. Groping, fondling, feeling whatever they please.
The smell of print comics gives me flashbacks now.
It is May and I am discussing the problem with gamers and harassment with friends over dinner.
“It’s strange to talk about a moral event horizon,” my friend says as he sips his beer, “but when this dude invited me to his house to play Pimp: the Backhanding that was the end of the friendship.”
Another man nods, “I used to really enjoy trading card games, but the community is so hateful I can’t bring any of my friends. Why play a game with people you can’t stand, right?”
“Everything changed when I had a daughter,” says a third, “whenever someone makes a joke, I think about them directing it at her. I can’t let my daughter grow up around those attitudes.”
It is 2005 and I am arguing with my future husband about women in gaming.
“Women game as much as men,” I say, “they just don’t do it in public and don’t game with self-identified gamers because it’s too dangerous.”
“That’s not what my experience in the hobby has been.”
“Wait and see.”
It is 2008 and women who have never gamed fight for a spot at our table. We play with a politician, a lawyer, a chemist, and many others. Most of us are women, although some are genderqueer. We commiserate over stories of groping and sexism at our “friendly” local game stores and laugh at the notion that women don’t game.
In 2014, when I can’t run games anymore, they splinter off into several different groups. They buy everything online and never set foot in game stores. They’ve learned the hard lessons.
It is 2007 and I am discussing the comparative merits of the Circle Orboros versus the Legion of Everblight when I hear a loud crack and a sharp pain in my rear. I jump and shriek in fury.
“Relax, it’s a compliment,” says the Pressganger.
I curse out the offending player.
“Look, you can’t play with us if you’re going to get emotional over every little thing.” The rest of the players nod in agreement.
I leave. It will be a cold day in hell before Privateer Press gets any of my money.
The prominence of white male terrorism in the geek community is obvious to everyone except straight white men. Gamergate, Sad Puppies, and the necessity of the Cosplay is NOT Consent movement, to name just a few, have brought to light the dangerously retrograde ideas espoused by the gaming community. If gamers didn’t think the harassment was justified or warranted, they would speak out against it. That the community and industry as a whole choses to remain silent in the face of widespread public condemnation of its bigotry speaks volumes.
Gamers want to believe that they are logical, sensible, and rational. But there is nothing logical, sensible, or rational about making your peers and customers run a gauntlet of bigotry for the dubious privilege of playing a game in a space where people like you (and the people sympathetic to you) are despised. When confronted with bigotry in the community, it costs nothing—indeed, I argue it is the moral imperative of the community—to shut it down clearly and unequivocally. “We are aware that some of our fans have had negative experiences in the community. Let it be known that Company/Store does not stand for any racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted behaviour. We care about providing a healthy and competitive gaming scene for everyone. If we see or hear any abuse, the offending player will be reprimanded, and, if necessary, expelled for an indefinite duration.”
Feel free to steal that, gamers. You don’t even need to credit me.
Harassment in nerd hobbies has been quantified and studied and the results are appalling. 25% of the respondents reported harassment, 13% reported unwelcome sexual comments, and 8% reported groping, sexual assault, or rape. If 13% of SDCC attendees receive unwelcome sexual comments, that’s over 17,000 people being sexually harassed every convention. You would have to be an idiot to think none of these people are going to talk to each other, and cavernously evil to dismiss everyone as lying. As for sexual assault? That’s over 10,000 people being groped at SDCC, and it doesn’t count people who are groped more than once. Many of my friends have given up their once-beloved con circuit because they can no longer deal with, as one prominent cosplayer put it, “men handling me like a piece of meat”.
It is 2005 and I am at I-Con. I duck into the wargaming room looking for a demo and a place to spend my money. I lean over a table to get a better look at the game in progress and feel a hand slide up my skirt. I scream and turn around, but everyone is staring at their tables, heads down over their games.
“Someone grabbed my ass!”
The man doing the demo rolls his eyes, “Quit making stuff up. You don’t need the attention.”
I roll my eyes back and leave. That night, I find a constellation of five bruises on my ass.
Men can shout all they like that #notallmen harass women, but as long as gamers defend their bigoted behaviour as a “sense of humour” (implying that women who don’t like being groped are somehow at fault), #allmen are complicit in the harassment. Predators rely on other people thinking they’re joking, and when gamers make jokes like “sleeping girls can’t say no”, those predators feel safe and welcomed in the community, while their victims are forced to flee for their safety. Even if the woman does press charges, the police report goes nowhere without the rest of the community willing to testify on her behalf instead of protecting their rapey friend. Predators know this, which is one of the many reasons “Go to the police!” is the constant refrain to shut down ANY discussion of safety in gaming.
Even though it always results in a deluge of threats, I am committed to speaking about my experiences with sexual assault, harassment, and rape in the gaming hobby. The most heartbreaking thing is that every time I do, I receive dozens of messages from men and women who have endured the same and do not feel they can speak up because the community is so hostile to their reality. I’ve heard from several people who, when trying to discuss their sexual assault, have it treated like a joke and laughed at by members of the community. I can’t think of better evidence that the gaming community is far too tolerant of goddamn monsters.
When the majority of gamers refuse to speak up in support of those marginalised, they send the message that the hobby is full of bullies and they like it that way. “There are assholes in every group” is the rallying cry, yet that statement is nonsense to anyone who has spent the barest amount of time cultivating a healthy community. “Asshole behaviour” only persists because the majority of men are too cowardly to call the assholes what they are. The women who speak up against bullying and assault are treated as solely responsible for their safety, while cowards pretend that “staying neutral” is a virtue instead of tacitly condoning the rampant harassment and bigotry. The gaming community has some of the worst excesses of rape culture outside of a Duggar convention.
But if you can’t hear it from a woman, maybe you can hear it from a man.
What can men do? They can support and believe women, POC, and anyone else marginalised by the hobby at large. They can refuse to stand for assholes in their community. There are good men who know their friends’ stories, but are fearful of sharing them lest their friends receive harassment. You don’t need to share the details. You only need to share that you know it’s a problem. (The aggressive digging into trauma is a bullying tactic meant to further silence and traumatise the victims. Do not fall for it.) I truly believe that if the good men in the community have the courage to stand up for what’s right, they can change the image of a gamer from a slavering neckbearded rapist anonymously e-mailing women death threats to something more positive.
As for Wyrd, despite this egregious and dangerous misstep I want to believe their hearts are in the right place. Call them at (678) 355-5055 or fill out a feedback form and let them know that you want a game free from harassment. If only they spent as much effort protecting their female fans from harassment as they do themselves from criticism.