A white man's lips bound with a zipper that is halfway unzipped. The beginning of this week saw the hashtag #metoo trend to increase awareness about how many women have been harassed in their lives.  On my Facebook feed alone, I’d estimate that around 85% of the women I know posted something. The actual number of women who have been harassed is higher than that, based on the stories I know about and was told about in private chats,  but not everyone felt comfortable talking about their experiences on Facebook or Twitter and a person’s experiences are theirs alone to share. Talking about that sort of thing can be hard, and it’s uncomfortable all around. Talking about a constant problem that you could be the potential victim of feels like inviting that problem into your life. Having any part of your identity attacked (even if it isn’t a personal attack) can trigger feelings of self-defense and a desire to stand up and say not me. These are just SOME of the things that make talking about issues of harassment, gender, race, equality, or anything else that really matters hard to do. Likely prompted by the #metoo posts, Jessica Price tweeted about interactions she had with Frank Mentzer. So, while we're talking about missing stairs in our professional communities, let's talk about Frank Mentzer.   If you’re unfamiliar with the expression, a missing stair is a problem everyone knows about, but works around and never fixes. I just learned that phrase in our staff gnome discussion chat. The tweet chain unfolded a story about Frank Mentzer contacting Jessica Price with a flirtatious message, and how Mentzer communicated his opinions on another post of Price’s about a woman getting groped on a Seattle bus.   A few others have talked about issues, and reactions have been strong. Mentzer’s Empyrea Kickstarter (which we posted an article and Q&A about earlier in the month) was cancelled last night, possibly due to low funding and probably because of backlash from this incident. With the backstory of the events prompting this article down, let’s talk about these issues.

This is an issue for our hobby, and for every male dominated industry — which is all of them, but we need to talk about the one we’re a part of

 Talking about a constant problem that you could be the potential victim of feels like inviting that problem into your life. 
Nerddom isn’t super kind to women, and it never has been. We can’t take umbrage at that, it’s a truth. Football isn’t kind to women either, neither is the business world, Hollywood, or any other industry that exists. For a woman in most industries or hobbies, there are many more struggles to gain acceptance and equal standing than there are for men in the same arena. This is partially due to how these systems have evolved (and been guided) over the years to keep people in power, and it is partially because we participate in those systems since dismantling and rebuilding them would be harder than trying to fix them, although what we often do is ignore the issues. Nerddom has its own particular issues, and tabletop gaming has its own unique issues on top of that. Try finding as many non-sexualized female characters to cosplay as there are non-sexualized male characters to cosplay as. Look at the amount of art still being created that shows the female version of any monster as a sexy version of the monster. Read through the developer list on any book and see how many more males there are than women, look at how many of those are on the highest positions or are likely getting paid royalties in perpetuity. Mention an issue like that and wait for someone to say “But that’s because women aren’t as interested in games” in response, or to have an instant push-back on any exposure of an issue that exists in the industry. Look at the stories of women being harassed openly at gaming conventions or gaming stores, or just listen when someone makes a joke about women around a gaming table and how you would feel if you heard that joke from a group of women talking about men.

One of my favorite D&D novels, with art and armor that could do a whole lot more than it currently does.

If you want to focus in on issues that are less speculative, here are 3 of many that I’ve heard about from friends in the past week. This morning while riding the bus I saw a female friend of mine,  a PhD student who just took an opportunity to do some brand work with a nerdy company. She showed up to the first event to find that this work involved wearing a mid-riff bearing costume, not the sort of work she thought was going to be involved based on her training and the initial talks about social media and networking.  One of my friends told me that, while sitting in a group of friends at Gen Con, everyone assured them that a certain friend was all right and everyone vetted him, despite every woman in the conversation circle expressing discomfort about that certain friend’s behaviors. I was messaged by a friend and told that they won’t attend a certain small convention if some people (guests of honor) that we both know are present at them. They’ve brought up their issues with the convention runners, but gotten the same “he’s harmless” kind of responses. I’d love it if I only had a few stories like that, but I haven’t even pulled a cup of water out of the well of stories I’ve seen personally or heard about harassment and how much it has been ignored. Our gaming hobby has a ton of positive things going for it, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have bad areas as well. Sadly, we don’t need to feed those bad areas to make them grow, we just have to ignore them. I don’t believe anybody set out to be a misogynist asshole when they drew the first piece of gaming art that could be considered “chainmail bikini” art. That sort of art was inspired by the art of Sword and Sorcery movies of the 70s, which pulled inspiration from the shocker movies of the 50s and Star Trek’s sexy green women, which pulled inspiration from 30s and 40s pulp noir covers, which pulled inspiration from . . . on down the line. It doesn’t matter their intention wasn’t to cause any distress, it was a product of the conditions that existed at the time and the people creating the products not going against a status quo.

We didn’t start the fire, but sometimes we’re caught holding the gas can

These issues didn’t start in our hobby, and they don’t exist in a vacuum, but in our sphere of gaming and other associated nerddoms we have unique problems with them. Many of us,  nerds and geeks of every gender and myself included, come to be nerds because of social awkwardness. We are drawn to the nerdy things at the fringes because we don’t quite fit the normal boundaries that occur around us. We find a kind of camaraderie in being awkward together and expanding our social circles despite not being great at traditional socialization. We tell stories that create avatars that are bigger than life and are analogues for the people we want to be and how we want life to be, and most of these stories (and the associated imagery) over the years are aimed at heterosexual white males and place women in greatly objectified roles. You don’t even need to go to the blatant chainmail bikini art to see examples of the issues we have. Sometimes the messages are subtle – just look at the iconic first Star Wars posters below. While one might argue that Luke and Leia are both baring similar amounts of skin, you would have to ignore that Leia’s costume is nothing like her actual costume in the movie.  Leia has a pose worthy of the Hawkeye Initiative and an exaggerated chest size that is nothing like Carrie Fisher’s. Luke’s pose says look how awesome I am as I’m about to strike down evil, while Leia’s says observe my physical, sexual assets as I bare my neck and legs, also I don’t need shoes. While the Star Wars movies are great, we can’t ignore the sorts of issues they have, and we don’t even have to go to the actual metal bikini of Return of the Jedi. We can’t ignore that this is the sort of message our associated nerd industries have had for a long while. We are very subtly saying that it is okay to objectify women, and that is a subtle message that says it is okay to harass them, or to not believe them when they speak up about it.

No matter what version of this poster you look at, it subtly speaks volumes about how nerddom says it thinks of women.

We may not personally draw chainmail bikini art, we may not run the game that makes people feel uninvited, and we may not have personally harassed anyone (but the chances that we unintentionally did aren’t zero), but no matter what we personally haven’t done we are still responsible for what survives in gaming into the future. When we talk about the gaming industry, what are we talking about? We’re talking about it all, every interconnected bit and what we’ll allow as members of this hobby. If we are participating in the tabletop gaming hobby and we aren’t speaking up about the issues we see with harassment, the issues that we see that disadvantage certain groups of people, the unintentional or unexamined decisions that act as gatekeepers, or the actions of others that make people feel unsafe around us, then we are responsible if those things don’t change as we move forward. And if you think that these issues will continue despite us talking about and bringing them to light, google D&D 5e art women and look at the official art. Talking about the issues over the years has had an impact on what sorts of art gets created, which has an impact on the perception of the hobby and how the hobby operates.

What we need to do

Listen, nobody is perfect and nobody has a silver bullet to end issues like this, but we can always do better. That’s the goal. Do better than we currently are. So, how do we do better? That is always a moving target, but thankfully one that is often moving upwards. There are a few constants we can always work towards.

  • Believe Victims – The first is to believe the stories of victims, especially if the currents of the hobby are usually against them. Bringing to light harassment by someone with a large following of people makes you a target. While Mentzer has a right to tell his side of the interaction, there has been a huge wave of backlash against Price merely for telling her story. In researching the facts of this, I’ve found 4chan boards drumming up support and planning campaigns against Price just by googling the terms “jessica price frank mentzer”. Social and public backlash keeps victims from talking about abuses, so not believing the victims or not providing a safe space for people to tell the stories of harassment cuts off any good that could be potentially done by them telling their story. Sure, we may want to defend the things we love, but we can’t do it at a horrible cost of enabling harassment.
  • Stop The Harassment We See – Stand up for your friends and people that you know that have been victims of harassment or are potential victims of harassment. When you see someone acting in a way that harasses someone, or saying things that make people uncomfortable, call it out in whatever way you can muster at the time. You don’t necessarily need to jump up on a table and tell a person they’re being an asshole, but calling it out and making sure it is known that it is uncomfortable has to happen if it’s going to get better. The grand gesture may not be the best tool to use in that situation, but saying “Hey, that’s not cool to say” and explaining the factors that a person doesn’t see in that moment may mitigate future behavior. Choose how you fight your fight, and choose the best way available to you, but never choose not to fight the fight. We need to stand up and call out harassing behavior whenever we see it, not just for our friends and loved ones, but for the complete stranger who may benefit because you provided some push-back and helped craft a social situation that prevented that behavior in the future. Do it for your friends and for the complete strangers who deserve the same feeling of safety that we all do.
  • Don’t Make It About Yourself – Whenever we encounter these sorts of situations, we need to make sure the solutions and help we provide don’t end up being about us. Every single person is, by innate nature, primarily self focused. That’s the nature of survival and the base way we experience the world, through our senses and our experience with the world, but when someone is having an issue we need to make sure we aren’t making our part of the solution about us. We need to make sure the focus of anything we do is about the actual issue and trying to make it better, not our reaction and efforts to make it better.
  • When You Have a Position Of Authority As The Gamemaster, Make A Safe Space – As a Gamemaster, there is a bit of authority that means you can make the environment safer. Make sure to be open and available to talk with people and listen when someone says they feel uncomfortable. Make a policy that you are there to help if anyone feels uncomfortable or has an issue with something, and if someone in your group comes to you for help, provide that help. It can be scary to be a woman in a world of men, and it can be scary to be the gay gamer dealing with the homophobic slur someone else said while you weren’t around, and it can be scary to just be the person made uncomfortable when anyone else at the table is doing something different. As the game master, you can use your privilege as a proxy to deal with some issues more easily.

None of us are perfect, and none of us live in a vacuum. We’ve all been shaped by the forces of our lives and the hobby that we love, we’ve all been bombarded with messages about what is appropriate and what isn’t, and those messages aren’t always direct. They’ve shaped behaviors that we may not even know we have and they’ve shaped what we find appropriate or what even registers on our radars as inappropriate actions by someone else. We all need to understand what issues exist in our hobby, and those of us of the male persuasion need to understand what it is like for women in a hobby that we dominate and that has catered to us for years. We can listen to people who have been harassed and make sure anyone with a story feels safe to tell it and prevent future harassment. We can stop the harassment we see in our spheres of influence and spread the message that anything less than respect for others isn’t acceptable. We can choose to be the grease that helps our hobby in its switch of gears to becoming a more open and inviting place for everyone to be. We can do better.