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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

I Was Teenage ConBait

Hilary Doda
February 21, 2001

My father took me to my first convention at the tender age of eleven. It wasn't a gaming convention, although I'd been playing for four years at that point. Rather, it was one of those generic Star Trek cons that were really nothing more than an extensive dealers room with an actor giving a speech every so often, and then charging your life's savings for an autograph. Regardless, I was hooked, and through my teen years I was (and still am, in some cases) a regular fixture at a large number of the Toronto conventions, gaming and otherwise. I wasn't just another one of the swirling masses, though, at least in my adolescent mind -- I went costumed, often in some sort of pseudo-gothy, flesh-baring concoction, and I was sure that I was hot shit.

So what's the problem with that? Nothing that I could see at the time, that's for sure. I was enjoying myself thoroughly and, if I may be so terribly immodest, I like to think that one or two other people enjoyed the view as well. I certainly received a lot of attention, some of it complimentary, some of it a bit frightening (and no, before you ask, I didn't include any of the reactions I received then in the Manifesto. I understand why a lot of that happened) -- but all of it went towards the same thing: convincing an already confused adolescent that the only thing she was truly valued for was her body.

Caught in the grip of what seems to be the standard female mid-teens self-esteem free-fall, the general reaction to my sleazy clothes and flirtatious attitude served only to reinforce the message that I had already internalized from a thousand sources -- 'what you look like is a thousand times more important than anything else, and any attention you're getting is only because you're showing skin.' Hardly a message that anyone, especially someone barely out of childhood, can deal with sanely. Over time I grew more and more uncomfortable with my actions; I'd like to say that I grew up, but there are some who would say that I still haven't...

When're You Gonna Live Your Life Right?

Now, when I go to conventions and see girls and women dressed in slinky outfits and provocative costumes, I experience a whole series of mixed emotions. I can't deny that my first, brief, knee-jerk reaction is often the sort of thing I myself used to crave -- a flash of attraction. I am, after all, only human. But I never quite know where to go from there. It would be absolutely unfair to categorize all of these women as insecure or somehow lacking self-confidence; a great many of them are surely perfectly comfortable in their bodies and in their choices... the same way I once believed myself to be. On the other hand, I cannot imagine that I was the only girl who felt this inward pressure to find acceptance through self-display, especially with the undeniable pressures of the modern culture of body-worship that we see so amply displayed in advertisements and the mass-media.

Conventions, along with providing a fantastic place to meet new people who share your passions and to blow your budget on tons of new swag, also seem to be the perfect forum for the insecure to find some kind of superficial fulfillment. In the 'Great Outside', we're all geeks and dweebs -- we spend hours trying to convince our grandmothers that we haven't become Satanists simply because of the games, days trying to talk significant others (or potential ones) into trying out a game or two -- at a con, whomever 'they' may be, They Understand. It gives us a chance to cut loose a bit, to play with new (and hopefully interesting) people and to learn about all kinds of new games and systems we never would have found alone. Whether it be bragging about characters past and present, great games you've run or bought or written, or about how long you worked to create that perfect Amazon Warrior costume, there seems to be an undercurrent of welcome and understanding that can be addictive. When you're part of a group, no matter how superficially connected, approval and attraction from other members of that group can be more thrilling than from that random guy/girl on the street, because of that ephemeral sense of connection.

Even beyond the booth bunnies plugging the latest game, though, cons create an atmosphere that not only accepts but seems to expect more promiscuous outfits and/or behavior from the women who attend. Whether it be the presence of cleavage posters that we get in gaming and comic stores, the Xena effect, or the simple fact that many of the women who populate the hobby have very strong personalities and an incredible self-confidence that comes from staking out their claims in a very niche hobby, you can sometimes see more chain-mail bikinis at a gaming con than a RenFaire. Not unnaturally, these women get a lot of attention, if not mainly than at least at very first for their undeniably physical presence. And girls pick up on this. Coming into a convention for the first time, maybe a bit intimidated, maybe a bit shy, girls may well see the bulk of the conversations -- over the gaming table, at a booth, on the floor -- directed at the woman with the least on/most showing, and so the seed gets planted. If I want to belong here, this is what I've got to do. If I want to be accepted and appreciated here, this is the easiest way to get noticed.

You're Still Number One

Is there anything that can be done to reduce the number of kids who feel pressured to put themselves up on display? Is there anything that should be done about it? On the one hand, there's a pull to try to save people from themselves, to try to convince girls to accept themselves as they are, and not by the kinds of reactions they get from others within their hobby. On the other hand, that kind of forced intervention would be not only unworkable but downright insulting. It's like any destructive behavior, really -- I can remember friends who tried to tone me down, and I thought they were being ridiculous. I can only imagine what I would have said or done if a stranger had tried to convince me of the damage I was doing to myself, or told me I was setting some kind of bad example.

Not only that, what could we do? I can't imagine a con trying to institute rules about age limits for revealing costumes or -- heaven help us -- emotional age exams for those who want to show more than a prescribed square footage of nudity. I don't even think (please correct me if I'm wrong) that there are any states or provinces in North America which have age requirements for certain states of dress... nor, really, should there be. Clothing is an expression of ourselves, or, often at cons, the way we imagine ourselves to be, and beyond certain basic limits of decency (and weather protection!) should not, to my mind, be regulated. Who am I to judge someone based on one day's clothing choice and decide whether or not they're 'emotionally stable enough' to deal with lewd comments?

If direct intervention or influence is discounted, then, what are we left with? A few kids who may or may not regret their actions or behavior in the future. Some confident women and men who truly enjoy their convention personas. Some of us, caught in the middle, remembering what it was like to feel worthless on the inside and shallow on the outside. A hobby that, directly or indirectly, encourages people both to grow confident in themselves or to act as though they were, a hobby that is outside of the 'mainstream' and draws those who may not feel that they belong anywhere else. And an issue that is not going to go away.

In The Morning Light

I cannot abide censorship as a rule, nor do I feel that policy has a place in deciding what people should or should not wear in general (establishments which require uniforms as a matter of course are somewhat different). What I wonder is this: what responsibility should each of us take for perpetuating the atmosphere that leads to this specific kind of self-destructive behavior? Is the drive to put oneself on display driven by the kind of reactions we tend to give to those who do?

We are a species which tends to make snap judgments based on appearance. I cannot imagine a time when we no longer base any of our ideas about a person on the way they look (although the Internet does go some way towards making a start); even though we have these instant reactions, however, we do not have to act on them. we can be aware of that almost instinctual reaction, though, and be prepared for it. We can try to look beyond the exterior and perhaps begin to make some changes; begin to appreciate those who are confident and sure of themselves, and extend a warm and welcoming hand to those who are asking for our acceptance more than anything else.

Hey -- a girl can dream.

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The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

Other columns at RPGnet

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