FemCon: Gaming Girls and GenCon
FemCon: Gaming Girls at GenConby Jane Pinckard
FemCon: Gaming Girls and GenCon
FemCon: Gaming Girls at GenConby Jane Pinckard
FemCon: Gaming Girls at GenCon
By Jane Pinckard
The fact that I'm a gamer and I'm a girl doesn't normally mark me aberrant, except sometimes when I step into a cohesive, well-established, largely male-oriented culture. My first time at E3, for example, when there were more females working as booth babes than there were attendees, was an interesting experience. Collecting that much testosterone together creates a feedback loop of masculinity. That's not necessarily a bad thing, of course -- I'm in favor of testosterone as much as I am pro-estrogen. But when you're the only XX in a room full of XY, well, you tend to notice it.
But it's the quality of the XY that matters. My afore-mentioned forays into events like E3, and into electronic gaming circles in general, had shown me the competitive aspect of the male gamer. The guys who talk smack at Halo multiplayer, the guys who gleeful rip your head off in Tekken, the guys who can't stand getting beaten by a girl in Soul Calibur - I have nothing against them, to be sure, but I didn't exactly feel completely at ease with them, either. I knew GenCon wouldn't be like that exactly, but I had never been to a convention like that, so I didn't know what to expect.
For one, although there is a competitive edge, the atmosphere is extremely convivial. Everyone is there to check out the games, have fun with friends, and maybe score some free t-shirts. In that environment, all are welcome, from geeks and non-geeks,boys and girls. It's a lot less macho than E3 - guys at GenCon don't seem interested in proving their masculinity to anyone, they're just there to see that new Rio Grande game or snag a free limited edition Magic: The Gathering card. And if a girl wants to demo a game with them, so much the better!
I came to GenCon to do the same - have fun, check out games, get some free stuff. But I was also curious about what brought other women there. I didn't think it was as simple an explanation as "they're accompanying their husbands or boyfriends." I wanted to find how women fit themselves into the loose conglomeration that is gamer culture, and how they formed their own unique subset of gaming. And therefore I set off with this as my mission: to seek out the gaming girls of GenCon, and to discover their stories.
Girl Without a Name: Young Gamer
I didn't have to wait long to meet my first gamer girl. She was sitting next to me on the van ride from the airport to the hotel. I knew she was going to the Con because she looked like she belonged there: long darkish hair, simply pulled back into a ponytail, a little yellow t-shirt, a backpack, long pants, sensible shoes, and the requisite glasses. So I peered at her over my own glasses and asked her what she was looking forward to in the next few days.
It was her third GenCon, said this girl from New Jersey (I neglected to ask her name). "The first time here," she said, pointing in general at Indianapolis. (We had just passed a sign advertising something called "Holiday Land" in a town called Santa Claus.) "I went to the ones in Milwaukee, before." She hadn't recognized me yet as one of her kind -- or maybe she didn't want to assume that I was a fellow gamer. So she spoke carefully, and solicitously, avoiding potentially confusing acronyms.
She got more comfortable I think as I started asking about D20 systems and her favorite campaigns. Evidently she's been in a long-running campaign for a few years, although she couldn't have been more than nineteen years old. "Do you like to play male or female characters?" I asked.
"Always female. Definitely female. And I think guys who play female characters -- it's creepy. There's something wrong with that." She smiled to take the edge off her words, but she was very serious. Role-playing, for her, obviously had close ties to identity and self-expression. And I suspect she'd also had a run-in with a creepy female-playing guy. Hey, we all have. And I respect her attitude. But I like playing the occasional dude, although I generally prefer playing female if I have a choice. My experience, however, is mostly in electronic games, where no one knows if you're really male or female, so maybe it's easier. I suspect that being online lets guys who want to play female really experiment with being female, flirting and being hit on and all the stuff that women experience. In fact some guys say they understand what women go through in online games much better after having tried playing a female character, and they become better, more considerate, more sympathetic players as a result.
But that's not as possible in a table top game, because all the other players know what your real-life gender is. It's harder to pretend and make it seem nuanced and complex. It's harder to take role-playing risks when you're face to face with your buddies. It's easier to simply not role-play at all, or to draw very broad strokes with some humor and maybe grossness as defense against your masculinity, perhaps playing with a high silly falsetto voice or making your character an exaggerated sexual being. Of course, these are also strategies for having fun in a game. Who hasn't had fun exaggerating the dumbness of a half-orc barbarian, for example? But if there are women in the gaming group, they might feel as my fellow passenger did, a little creeped out by the characterization of a woman by a man. I can only imagine how much creepier it'll get when people start playing with Valterra's upcoming Book of Erotic Fantasy, the D20 rules for intimacy.
I would wonder about this for the next few days. What did it mean to role-play? Did it mean something different for men and women? What does role-playing have to do with identity? And why are more women in general drawn to the role-playing aspects of gaming rather than the strategic or competitive sides?
Elizabeth: Booth Babe
It was easy to find other women to ask these questions of, because women stick out at GenCon. That's partly because a good portion of the women are dressed to stand out. Apart from the requisite chainmail bikinis (and there are always a few of those), there is a whole coterie of LARPing girls dressed in strappy black dresses, or Ren-Faire types in tight corsets with sometimes an eye-boggling amount of spillage. At least half of those ladies are "booth babes", and are probably meant to be the most visible contingent of women at GenCon. After all, it's their job to stand out, stand up, and sell product. I have the utmost respect for booth babes, or for anyone who has to deal with that much customer service in one day. But while at E3 the booth babes are professional models with little or no interest in gaming beyond what they're paid to emote, many booth babes at GenCon are passionate gamers. And therefore they are quite interesting to talk to.
At the Diana Jones Awards on Wednesday night, I met Elizabeth. I spotted her sitting at a table by herself eating chips and salsa and reading James Clavell's Shogun. The Diana Jones Awards, as I only found out the night I attended, are an industry-only people's choice awards ceremony, in which one thing, be it a game, a company, a trend, whatever, is awarded a glass pyramid with the remainder of an old Indiana Jones rpg game encased within. It's called the "Diana Jones" because the original cover was burnt, and only "-diana Jones" remains.
"I'm a booth babe," she laughed wryly when I asked what brought her to the event. "I dragged myself up here from Ohio, and two days from now I'll have to cram myself into a corset and stand around."
She was also studying for her PhD in anthropology. "Primatology, specifically," she said. She wanted to do her field research in South America, or possibly the Ivory Coast. But for now she confessed she was obsessed with CCGs. "I spend way too much money on them. And a graduate student's budget is not that big to begin with!" She doesn't really get into role-playing games, live-action or otherwise. I ventured that it was a bit unusual to find such an avid female fan of CCGs, but she shrugged noncommitally. It clearly wasn't a big deal to her.
She was waiting for the people who'd hired her to show up. She asked the waitress for more salsa. "I'm on my last forty bucks, I got to make it last." She'd met the company at another gaming convention. She was such a big fan at their booth that they offered her a place to stay if she'd come work for them at GenCon. She just had to get herself there. So she did. She'd never been to GenCon before, and she didn't know anyone except the people who hired her, but she seemed excited to be there. She's at school in Columbus, where she says there is a significant gaming population. She's also into anime and tried to teach herself Japanese. "But I'm so lame," she smiled, not sounding lame at all, "I'm lazy so my method of learning was just watching fansubs."
She was bright, funny, and -- like many of us -- had a sense of herself as an oddly-socialized person. "I'm weird," she cautioned me. I wanted to say, "That's okay; so am I."
In fact I had a wonderfully stimulating time talking to her. Like many gamers I've met, she was highly intelligent and wickedly funny. She'd grown up in Bakersfield, a small flat town in Southern California, where she'd been a total geek. Though as an adult she was obviously very happy being a geek, I can imagine that growing up, she might have come to the conclusion that she was a misfit. And yet here she was, dressing up to play the role of "booth babe". Real-life role-playing, I suppose? It must be annoying to have to repeat the same spiel over and over again to customers, but what if you made a game of it? You could try on different booth babe personalities: ditzy babe one hour, surly babe the next, then maybe just for fun sultry babe. No one would have to know you were a misfit.
The beautiful thing about GenCon, though, is that everyone is a misfit. You can't not fit in! Even the booth babes!
Jennifer: Adult Gamer
But it's not just proud uber-geeks and booth babes who also happen to be geeks at GenCon. I spotted Jennifer, from Montreal, resting on the floor, waiting for her friends. She had recently completed graduate school in education and was getting ready to become a teacher. She'd only been a gamer for a few years, and had only gone to GenCon a couple times. She didn't seem to think that there was anything odd about her, a woman, being into games. She games ones a week with about eight other people, including two other women. She got into it because her boyfriend had a gaming group, and she started hanging out with them. "I play male, female, whatever," she answered when I asked about her gender preferences. I guess that's the point of role-playing? I ventured. "Right!" She smiled.
Her gaming is primarily social - it's another activity to do with her friends, like watching a movie or going to a club or playing Cranium. The way she was talking about it, you'd never dream that D&D had once been blamed for all kinds of societal maladies. She had normalized gaming.
While I see this attitude happening in electronic games, as every household becomes a console-owner, it's still relatively new among paper role-playing games. Paper role-playing games are still considered extremely geeky by gamers, especially electronic gamers, who don't have the patience to fuss around with dice and pencils. But Jennifer's gaming habit was the most normal thing in the world. Of course, why wouldn't you get together with your friends once a week and play some D&D? There's nothing weird about that! And there shouldn't be.
I recalled what I'd heard about board games in Germany - that there's a culture of family and social gaming which doesn't really exist in the United States anymore. I remember when my sister and I used to play The Game of Life - an absolutely terrible game, to be honest. My dad taught us Poker and we used to play that as a family, too. I remember also some marathon Monopoly sessions with friends, especially when we went up to Tahoe, or some other place without a television. But in the United States - and I suspect in Canada, too - television has replaced much of family gathering time. It's now family passive entertainment time.
I was impressed and a little surprised that Jennifer stuck to her gaming group's schedule of once a week. I'm a fairly obsessive gamer, but I can only make time for paper role-playing games about once a month. You'd have to be a dedicated gamer - and Jennifer didn't seem that rabid - or a gamer who has enfolded gaming into a lifestyle, a habit, like drinking coffee in the morning.
But some women make it their work.
Tami was waiting on someone in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying. I was reluctant to approach her at first, because she had an air of queenly self-possession which kept the curious at bay. But I'm so glad I did. This was her ninth GenCon - she's been gaming for twenty years, she said, since she was around twelve. She started with pen and paper role-playing games, and then moved into board games. "Have you played Puerto Rico?" she said with a gleam of excitement in her eye. We had a brief bonding moment over the excitement and fun of that great game. And then she got into LARPs. (It's no coincidence that she's also an aspiring actress in New York.) I commented on the fact that a lot of girls seem to be attracted to the live-action role-playing. "That seems to be how a lot of girls get into gaming these days," she reflected. "Because it's like acting. And hey, that's great for me! The more girls the better."
But now, she's at GenCon as an exhibitor. She's started a game company, Pixie Dust Games, and she's working on her first RPG: The Zero Movement, a dreamily urban mystery that uses custom-designed Tarot cards. "Ooh, Tarot cards!" I love the Tarot - the mysticism, the symbolism, the history. So I went by the booth to check it out. In a cute reversal of the booth babe thing, Tami's booth had two boys with fairy wings strapped to their backs, showing off the preview copies of The Zero Movement. The art on the cards is marvelous, a re-thinking of the Tarot in an urban setting, using new mythologies and new symbols. I spoke with one of the game designers, who, it turned out, worked at the electronic game company Game Lab, which I knew well. He was helping the assign powers to each Tarot card, and to come up with some of the underlying concepts behind the art.
It may be a start-up company, but the first product shows promise, and it excites me to think of new generations of female gamers who will start making their own games. Will they be different from the ones that men design? I do think that one of the most attractive things about D&D or the D20 system in general is its adaptability, its flexibility. People can create a variety of modules, and play in a range of styles from the hardcore min-maxer to the Method role-player. Perhaps that's why girls have been more attracted to the story-telling, narrative-heavy aspects of RPGs.
And it's entirely likely that women want to tell their own stories.
A friend had told me about the NASCRAG tournament, which runs at GenCon every year. NASCRAG stands for National Association of CRAzy Gamers - and they live up to their name. They run wildly funny campaigns in which puzzle-solving and role-playing count for more than min-maxing your stats. I had great fun in my session, and I got to observe briefly a session DMed by Carole Bland, the organizer of NASCRAG, whose 11-year-old son was co-DMing with her. "That's great!" I said. She smiled. "He does the sound effects!"
Carole got into gaming through war games, as I found out through a follow-up email interview. "Yeah, I know its not the usual way a 'girl' gets involved with gaming, but I liked the strategy involved." She's been going to GenCon since 1987. That makes her an uber-gamer, in my book. She plays all kinds of games, not just RPGs - board games, war games, card games, computer games - at least, when she can find the time. Like Jennifer, it seems she's incorporated gaming into her social routine. "When we get together with friends we will play games like Settlers of Catan, RA, Apples to Apples, and some of the railroad games like Empire Builder. We usually play several times a month and will often try a new game for variety."
They often bring the kids, who make up their own adventures and sometimes. "Gary (he's 11 years old) is just getting into gaming. This was the second year that he sat behind the GM screen at Gencon. The rule is that he cannot sit behind the screen with me or my husband unless he has read the module. He is not involved with our regular campaign, but we bring our kids to the gm's house and they end up making up their own adventures. My son really likes writing his own modules. He likes playing Apples to Apples and Settlers of Catan with the adults."
Wow. What must it be like to have gaming parents? I wonder if I would have thought that was cool or not when I was eleven? I love the image of family time D&D games. The family that slays together, stays together?
But the bulk of Carole's involvement with gaming these days is in an official capacity, organizing the NASCRAG GenCon event, making sure that other people are having a good time. She puts together the huge module, with the help of some other long-standing judges, and then they rigorously play-test them to make sure they are fun, funny, and balanced. I wonder if she mentors other young budding GMs - say, her son, for instance, who is growing up totally okay with D&D, and comfortable that women are fully involved in gaming!
Carole really inspired me. I had played around for a long time with the idea of running my own D&D campaign, writing up the modules, imagining the world. I already had stacks and stacks of maps and notes on fantasy worlds I'd built as a kid. And I had this fascination with the idea of running an all-female campaign, just because I'd never been in one. It's only recently that I found a gaming group that has another woman besides me in it. I was itching to go check out some girl-girl role-playing action. I had a feeling I knew where I'd find it.
In the long registration line Saturday, I saw a dedicated young gamer waiting in the hot sun, with a beautiful half-finished tatoo on her back. Carrie was from northern Indiana, and she came to play at GenCon on the weekend. I asked her what she was into, and she answered, "LARPs. I only play LARPs."
I had noticed in my gaming past that while many D&D and D20 games seemed to attract maybe one or two girls per session, the LARPs seemed to fairly brim over with female energy. In high school I had a few female friends who dressed in low-cut black velvet and mooned around the Palace of Fine Arts pretending to be vampires every Saturday while me and the geek guys played Call of Cthulhu. Well, I may have secretly made fun of them but now I would try to figure out what it was all about.
I tentatively stuck my head into a seminar called "Intro to LARPing". It was a cold drafty room but I was warmly welcomed by a long-haired woman wearing little pointy ears. "How many of you have never LARPed before?" she asked. A number of hands went up, including mine. "Oh, boy," she muttered, but not in an unfriendly way. "Well, it's really easier than it sounds," she said encouragingly. She then proceeded to break down the Changeling system for the uninitiated. But all the talk of glamours and bunks confused the hell out of me. This was supposed to be simpler than rolling dice?
One very fey-looking young man got up to speak. Wispy curly hair framed a delicate face, with large expressive eyes. I'm not sure he was wearing elf-ears, but he might as well have been. He steepled his fingers together and said, "Some people play this as combat. We don't encourage that. Basically, in my view, if you get to the combat, then something's gone wrong."
Hmm. Situations I was supposed to talk, not fight, out of? I could get into that.
And the Changeling premise intrigued me. The idea is that changelings are fey, caught in between the fairie world and the mortal world. Day to day they disguise themselves from other mortals, appearing to look like them and talk like them, while at heart they hold many powers and mysteries of the Dreaming unknowable to mortals. A changeling can slip into the mortal world entirely by losing contact with the fae, becoming more and more banal until they forget everything they knew and die, just another mortal; conversely a changeling can lose touch with the mortal world and go mad, experiencing auditory hallucinations which are really just the fae world manifesting in the mortal environment. "It's like pretend LSD," explained elf-boy. And instead of DMs you have storytellers, which fit my idea of the kind of narrative player I'd like to be if I ever ran a campaign. And I thought the world did a very neat job of explaining fantasy in a modern setting.
But I was intimidated by the idea of staying in character. And besides, I'd forgotten my fairy cloak at home. I think having props really helps leave the mundane world behind - if that is what you want to do. I showed up to the World of Darkness LARP anyway, sans costume, because the people running the Intro had been so friendly. But it turned out to be a little too deep for me. I was about two hours late, and the story had evidently progressed quite far. People were sitting around tables talking about a plague which had struck several of them already. I sat down at a table, unnoticed, in between a tall man with long hair who spoke in a Russian accent (the LARP was taking place in Moscow) and a shorter man with blond hair, pointy ears, and red marks painted in lipstick(?) on his face. Sure enough, there were several women here, girls, too, including two who were probably around fourteen. They were dressed in little cocktail dresses, and pointy ears.
Another woman came wandering in, with a smart flapper-style bob and the slinkiest, tiniest dress I've ever seen - it barely covered her hindquarters. She was also barefoot. I marveled at her ability to withstand the Moscow winter in such an outfit, but her pointy ears also betrayed her fae nature, so she was probably just fine.
After an hour or so of milling about and trying to figure out how to play my character (Katya the ballerina), I finally left. Maybe it wasn't time for me to LARP yet. Like any activity, it probably helps to have friends around to give you pointers and make you feel welcome.
I won't deny it, sometimes it's good to be a girl. At GenCon, it was great. I think everyone would have been friendly and positive towards me no matter what my gender or what I looked like, but being female gave me an in with other women. I met some fascinating people and expanded my idea of what gaming culture is. I tried some things I've never done before and saw even more that I'll try next time. And, as increasing numbers of women are drawing to gaming of all kinds, I'll have even more material to think about next year. Who knows? I might even get together that all-girl D&D session.
And, I'll definitely remember to bring my dress-up clothes!
Author Bio: Jane Pinckard is editor of GameGirlAdvance, a website tracking game culture. She started her gaming habit playing burly barbarians but now she prefers sneaky rogues. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.