Tabletop gaming is the gaming community's older but not necessarily wiser sibling. From Dungeons & Dragons to Munchkin, Magic: The Gathering, Settlers of Catan, and countless other "titles," board games, role-playing games, and card games have spawned an entire adjacent subculture of geekdom ranging from casual local game nights to intense convention tournaments.
The tabletop gaming community doesn't necessarily overlap with the massive, amorphous communities that make up online video game culture. Because of the separation between the two, tabletop gaming has largely sidestepped the discussions of misogyny and sexism that have contributed to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Gamergate movement.
Tabletop gaming, harassment, and "white male terrorism"
During the first weekend in April, a lengthy Tumblr post by Canadian tabletop gamer Emily Garland gained some traction within the tabletop community. Garland's post, "Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem," is dated March 23, 2016, and blends commentary about geek culture's long history of harassment with a narrative of her own horrible experiences within her personal gaming circles.
Garland speaks of facing harassment from a young age, receiving death threats after winning a historic victory in a 2014 lawsuit involving sexual harassment at the game store she worked at, and being raped while attending a Canadian sci-fi convention. She starkly describes her experiences; her condemnation of what she identifies as the "white male terrorists" of the gaming community, as well as what she sees as tacit support for their views, is unequivocal:
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.
Garland's post identifies three major areas of concern for women and genderqueer tabletop gamers:
- There's the issue of sexual harassment and assault going unchecked and not being taken seriously by either individual gamers or law enforcement when it happens in gaming contexts.
- There's the question of excluding women who complain about unfair or marginalizing treatment from the tabletop gaming community, instead of attempting to make the community more inclusive and willing to listen to them.
- And there's the failure of the gaming industry as a whole — encompassing both video and tabletop gaming — to take major action in response to Gamergate, despite the international media attention the issue has received.
"If gamers didn’t think the harassment was justified or warranted, they would speak out against it," Garland writes. "That the community and industry as a whole choses to remain silent in the face of widespread public condemnation of its bigotry speaks volumes."
Since Garland's Tumblr post first picked up momentum, it has gained thousands of comments and hundreds of reblogs and shares on other social media platforms, provoking considerable discussion from all around the tabletop community.
So what prompted Garland to write the post to begin with?
Garland's post was generalized, but her experiences involved this niche board game community
Speaking to Vox by email, Garland explained that she wrote the Tumblr post partly as a response to ongoing harassment in the tabletop gaming community as a whole, and partly as a result of tensions within a specific tabletop gaming community — the one surrounding Malifaux, a horror/fantasy war game played using collectible, customizable miniatures. Garland describes Malifaux as "a lot like three-dimensional chess with magic powers."
After winning a harassment lawsuit against a gaming store in 2014, Garland told Vox she was "frozen out of one game store and harassed/threatened out of another." She began trying to discuss the issue of women's safety in the tabletop community on the forums for Malifaux's parent company, Wyrd, but said that just led to more harassment, this time from the Wyrd community.
Garland said she had tried to raise concerns within the Wyrd forums about a particular Malifaux player who frequently told sexist jokes and was moderated for describing winning games as "raping" other players. Meanwhile, among the Malifaux community generally, friction had been growing over several controversial female characters that had been added to the game. One of these characters, Nekima, raised concerns from many community members that her design was sexist due to her large breasts and skimpy costume.
Garland and many other fans of Malifaux were disappointed that so many of the game's new characters and models were either male or women who were overtly sexualized. Throw in a few other similar incidents, and tension in the forums was high.
Talking about harassment can lead to more harassment
The situation in the Wyrd forums reached a boiling point in July 2015 when Malifaux's co-creator, Nathan Caroland, created a "Soapbox Thread" to discuss the new characters and other issues that had created conflict in the community.
"Folks have derailed topic after topic over religion, sex, racism … you name it," Caroland wrote. "Here you go. The soapbox has been pulled out, step on up and voice your thoughts, concerns, gripes, major complaints or anything other that you feel you just have to get out of your system."
Responses were civil and ranged from a thoughtful discussion of inclusivity to a collection of boob jokes. Garland said she felt belittled: "My concerns and the concerns of other women were dismissed in favor of defense of sexual harassment, jokes about what breasts are really for, and accusations that I was lying about rape for fun and profit."
Members of the community argued that her complaints and reports of harassment had no place in "miniatures" tabletop games like Malifaux, and Caroland himself suggested that she take self-defense classes and start a ladies-only game club.
The conversation remained polite, but Garland said that ever since she posted in the soapbox thread, she'd been the target of ongoing harassment by fellow Malifaux players — which included a death threat sent anonymously through Tumblr but signed as though it came from Caroland. Her attempts to hash out the matter with Wyrd were unsuccessful — Garland alleges that Wyrd either ignored her emails or hung up on her when she called.
"All I wanted was confirmation that Wyrd was not behind the attacks and did in fact care about the safety of their female players," she said. "Rather than give me that, they refused to speak to me."
Meanwhile, the harassment continued until Garland says she reached a kind of "event horizon" in mid-March and decided to speak out in her Tumblr post.
When asked for comment, Wyrd spokesperson Kelly Brumley told Vox that while the company couldn't address specific allegations due to privacy concerns, "We can assure you that any employee engaged in such despicable acts as threats or harassment would not be tolerated. It is never acceptable behavior." Brumley continued:
As a company, Wyrd believes in the value of a safe and respectful community that actively fights against harassment and other actions that create a hostile environment ... We have a code of conduct for our community organizers that they must adhere to, as well as strict forum rules.
The company also responded tacitly to Garland's Tumblr post with a public post from Caroland noting that Wyrd "[does] not tolerate or condone any behavior that harasses, makes uncomfortable, insults, or otherwise diminishes another person." Coincidentally, it also released a few new previews of female characters that will be added to the game.
Finally, Wyrd sent Vox a screencap of a Facebook post published by Caroland on a private Wyrd Facebook community. In it, he characterizes Garland's forum discussions as "vitriol," alleges that she harangued him and his fellow employees, and denies that he or any employee sent her abuse:
As this issue is almost a year old at this point [July 2016] and I’ve yet to see any evidence to date, nor [have] been contacted by authorities in any manner, I can only assume that someone is wanting to stir the waters and get attention. I neither know this individual personally nor what has happened in their history, what I do know is what she has tried to do to this company and community with zero evidence of any misbehavior from anyone at Wyrd.
Garland says she reported all the evidence she found of harassment to authorities, both anonymously through the anonymous reporting tip line for police, Crime Stoppers, and in person at her local police department, but never had enough evidence to prompt an investigation. Her last post in the Wyrd/Malifaux forums was in July 2015, right before her exit from them. She noted that she had reported the harassment to authorities and that it was part of a disturbing pattern.
"I'm now 3/3 wargame communities where I have experienced direct, targeted harassment aimed at driving women out of the hobby," she says. "Are we going to accept that there's a problem?"
The way Garland describes her harassment has affected people's reception of it
In addition to generating considerable discussion about the issue of sexism in tabletop gaming, Garland's Tumblr post has garnered dismissal from both sides of the gaming cultural divide — the socially progressive side pushing the culture to be more feminist, diverse, and inclusive, and the more socially conservative side that resists, in their view, extreme and unnecessary change.
Due to the dramatic way Garland describes her experience with harassment and assault, several social progressives who would otherwise be supportive have joined Garland's detractors in wondering if she's a troll. For instance, here is how she recounts her first experience in a game store:
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!"
The question of whether Garland's account is believable has led to heated debate in reblogs of her post. Garland clarified that her intention in documenting these recollections was to evoke the experience of each incident.
"I wrote the flashbacks the way I did so that people who have not survived these events can know how they alter you permanently," she said. "I wrote the flashbacks as I [continue to] experience them — as PTSD flashbacks that interrupt your life and erode your sense of safety and normalcy. I refuse to apologize for my trauma not meeting some asshole's arbitrary credibility test. I was there. They weren't."
While Garland's depiction of the events she describes may sound over the top to some, Garland emphasizes that that's kind of the whole point. After all, she was able to win her aforementioned lawsuit against the gaming store she used to frequent precisely because "the sexual harassment and misogyny in the gaming community is so normalized and so pervasive that … none of the gamers interviewed by the defense thought the sexual harassment was out of the ordinary. 'Old enough to bleed; old enough to breed' is tame in comparison."
Writing about the numerous doubts and subsequent dismissals that have been cast upon Garland's post because of her writing style, one outside observer concluded on Facebook that debates over Garland's dramatic presentation are derailing the issue at hand:
Regardless of what the Tumblr writer has done, what they've said, none of that matters. The issue at hand, and the one that should have been the focus for all of the discussion taking place on my Facebook page and on Twitter, is that THESE EVENTS ARE HAPPENING.
It doesn't matter whether they happened to one person, or several, virtually every woman who games will be able to give you examples just like these, where they have been made to feel uncomfortable or even frightened in the company of people just like me.
This sounds like a case of "same shit, different geek community." Are things actually changing?
Garland said she's been gaming since the age of 9, and that after her early game store harassment at age 13 she "relied on older friends for gaming supplies because it was open knowledge that it wasn't safe for a girl under 13 to go into a game store alone." She says she used to like video games but that she was "harassed out of that hobby in my early 20s."
Now nearly 30, Garland says she sees the same subcultural divide threatening tabletop gaming that has in recent years become a major issue in nearly every other geek subculture: the question of inclusivity and diversity.
"As gaming becomes more varied and available, there is a growing schism between decent people who want an inclusive hobby and jealous Kylo Rens angry that Rey gets a lightsaber too," Garland explained. "These 'orthodox' gamers are becoming more and more threatened that a hobby that previously catered entirely to them is becoming more diverse."
Garland's husband, Chris Taggart, who still participates in Wyrd's online forums, noted that Wyrd in particular has made important strides toward encouraging inclusivity and diversity, but that the problems faced by the tabletop gaming community are more widespread. "I think that is the thing about Wyrd," he told Vox. "They are the best miniatures company that I've found for [diverse] representation, but the people who play it are the same as those from any other tabletop game."
Despite the prominence of this cultural issue, Garland says that on the whole, the reaction she's seen to her Tumblr post has been "overwhelmingly positive, aside from the abuse." Perhaps surprisingly, she even credits "Gamergate and their high-profile harassment of Anita Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, and Brianna Wu" for "chang[ing] the way the law responds to threats and to gamers."
Garland told Vox that 2015 marked the first time she was able to talk to a police officer about gaming harassment incidents "without being insulted, threatened, or belittled." Her personal experiences with law enforcement include an incident described in her Tumblr post in which she called police to report being raped and police allegedly called her a drunk slut and hung up.
"I'm still really angry about that," Garland says, noting that her own experience, combined with incidents like the Jian Ghomeshi trial and the history of Canadian law enforcement and missing and murdered indigenous women, led Garland to conclude that police do "not view women as worth protecting." But she also thinks things are starting to change.
"While I'm very critical of the justice system in my post, police are getting better," she allows. "The officer I spoke to [after she reported the Malifaux forum incidents] treated me more like a domestic abuse survivor trying to leave a hostile situation than the victim of a crime, and I do not disagree with that response. Gaming communities can be insular and cult-like and I'm glad law enforcement is learning to work with women, even if it takes an infuriatingly long time."
Still, Garland made it clear that despite the slow steps forward in the larger culture, she's reached a breaking point regarding her own experiences of gaming harassment: "Abuse in the hobby is omnipresent and does not stop until we stand up, call it wrong, and FORCE it to end."
Regarding the response her Tumblr post has received, she added, "My life is the same whether I post [about] it or not. The only difference is that now everyone else going through this doesn't feel alone."