Athena Talks
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Athena Talks

For Good Men To See Nothing

I specifically AM addressing this piece to the people of “my tribe”: white, heterosexual male gamers who wouldn’t dream of grabbing anyone in a non-consensual or sexual way in public, and find descriptions of these kinds of acts inconceivable, because they don’t happen in front of us.

Our starting point is an article by Emily Garland, who won a judgment from a Canadian court about entrenched sexism she experienced as a customer at a game store. It’s the “Tabletop Gaming Has a White Male Terrorism Problem” piece that came to public notice in early April 2016. To our credit as human beings, it’s gotten a lot of positive responses — positive in the sense of “Yes, this is believable, and we’ve got to do something about it.” However, it’s also gotten the “I think she’s making it up to get attention” backlash that’s common when discussing sexism.

No, guys. She isn’t. And as long litanies and lists of licentious license being taken won’t convince you…I’m going to pose this a different way:

What does it cost you (yes, you!) to assume the women coming forward are telling the truth?

Why do you demand they “confront the person they have a problem with” rather than bother you by asking for help?

Why, with your pride about being smart, can you NOT see the pattern here?

I’ve seen sexism in gaming, both in stores and at conventions, for more than twenty years now. Here are a handful of the stories I’ve heard from reliable witnesses. They illustrate the thought process women go through, and I can say that I am certain that all of these have happened.

“Hey, I was at a table, and another player made a crack about having a gang bang on the tied up dark elf villainess. It made me very uncomfortable. I asked the GM and the other players to walk that back; they told me ‘It’s just a joke…’ and ‘Hey, all gamer chicks LOVE bondage sex!’”

“Oh, there’s two seats open, and the table is all guys. Do I know ANY of the guys at the table? I’ll pass…”

“I was gaming and the guy sitting next to me kept trying to put his hand up my skirt. When moved to the other side of the table, fifteen minutes later, he got up and took the chair next to mine. And started feeling me up again. I didn’t want to cause a scene by yelling at him, because I didn’t know how many of the people at this table were his friends and would take his side.”

“I hate going into game stores, because the customer service is either ‘stare at my shirt’ or ‘I’m invisible’ — I’ve had customer service reps simply ignore me because I didn’t ‘look like a customer’ to them.”

“I’ve learned to always carry a microbaton on my keychain, because I can bruise someone’s hand unobtrusively with it at a convention when they try to grab my breast, or wrist, or hand.”

“At GenCon [2012], there was a guy, dressed in standard gamer blue jeans, tee shirt, beard and backpack, who nonchalantly followed me into the women’s bathroom. Acted like he had every reason to be there; he waited outside my stall — with a half-dozen other women in the bathroom. I called 911 from the bathroom, set my phone on speaker and gave a good description of him, then asked one of the other women in the restroom to get the name off of his badge. He left, and I never saw him the rest of that GenCon.” (Author’s note: This incident was relayed to me in 2013 about the prior year’s GenCon — it predates the “North Carolina Bathroom Bill” by four years.)

Here are two that happened with me present:

A woman was posing in a costume at WorldCon in Spokane. I’d demo’d my game to her and taken a few photos with her permission. Another fellow came up and asked if she would pose with him. She graciously said yes; he handed me his phone to snap the shot. While she was standing there, he moved his hand down from the back plate of her armor costume to squeeze her ass-cheek.

She told him “No photos for you. You do not grab my ass in public, no matter how many people you think can’t see it. Ken, please delete the photos you snapped.”

He mumbled an apology, picked up his phone and walked away. She needed to sit down behind my display and talk herself out of what looked like a panic attack. She was trembling.

I went to a game store in September of 2015, and heard three guys playing in the back having a LOUD conversation about who gave better blowjobs, Scarlet Witch or Black Widow. The counterstaff (female) looked disgusted and helpless: she knew if she rousted those guys out of there, or protested at all, they’d say “Oh, it’s just a joke…” and they’d probably try to gaslight her to her boss. While she was sure her boss would take her side, she didn’t want the hassle, or to cost her boss these guys as semi-regular customers.

I went back and told them to shut it. If they want to discuss blowjobs, they can do it in their car, or somewhere where they can REASONABLY expect to only have other interested guys involved in the discussion. If they wouldn’t have that conversation in the romance section of a bookstore, they shouldn’t be having them in a game store.

(I’ve been told that that only happens in comic stores, or that because they were talking about blowjobs from comic book characters, that it’s “OK” somehow. The fact that 80% of game stores also sell comics, or that women also buy comics, doesn’t seem to change this perception.)

You simply wouldn’t believe what my female colleagues on the digital side endure.

What does this cost us? Well, from my wholly selfish perspective, this kind of sexism costs ME customers.

Male gamers get into the hobby and stay in it for a decade or more. Most female gamers come into the hobby and leave after three to five years.

Has it ever occurred to you to ask the women who used to game with you why they stopped showing up?

Would you believe a woman if she told you the reasons, or would you pull on the cloak of “Oh, that can’t possibly be happening! I’d notice!”?

It’s pretty easy to not notice it. The guys who are creeps are a mixture of bold sociopathy and “stay out of sight” social stealth — the woman who talked to me about the guy feeling up her skirt says that he was always aware of when other people were looking at the GM. The woman who had the guy follow her into the bathroom at GenCon said he just walked in like he misread the sign and needed to Pee Right Now, so people cut him slack.

The people who do this are incredibly facile with a plausible explanation for why what they’re doing is “not wrong” or “normal” — “It’s just a joke.” “Oh, she left something with me and I needed to return it to her.” They know that the vast majority of good men (like you, the people I’m writing this to) will accept that kind of explanation rather than act on it.

A friend of mine, New York Times bestselling author Steven Barnes, has a term for these kinds of people: “Smiling monsters.” They’ll smile and be cheerful to your face when you confront them, and expect you to forget them entirely while they go back to whatever it was you caught them at. These people rely on two facts: The first is that their victim doesn’t want to trigger a confrontation: even bold, brave women like the cosplayer I befriended at Sasquan get jittery about direct confrontation. The second is that good men, like you, won’t believe they’re doing what they’re doing, because they can’t imagine doing it. It’s easy to overlook smiling monsters when they give a glib answer and scuttle out of sight.

When you accept the explanation of the smiling monster, you give the victim the impression that you won’t listen to what they have to say. The smiling monster is betting on that, and 99% of the time, he’s right.

A lot of men will say “The victim should talk to someone immediately.” The short answer is that the victim feels like they’re isolated and alone, because nobody noticed the abuse or said anything about it while it was going on. In an ideal world, yes, there would always be someone sympathetic for her to talk to, to describe what happened.

In the real world, her choices boil down to:

Say something to the room as a whole, and be told she’s “too emotional” or “oh, you’re making that up to get attention.”

Say nothing and just see it continue, until it prompts her to leave the hobby, or narrows down her enjoyment of the hobby until it consists only of people she knows well.

Wait until someone gets grabby and scream or protest loudly. And based on things women have told me, even that gets her shushed for “making a fuss.”

Aren’t those a lovely set of options to choose from?

Here’s what’s said to women when they protest about this kind of thing.

“Well, it doesn’t happen where I see it, so I think the accounts are exaggerated.”

“I think these have been embellished…”

“Hey, if she wants to play with the big boys, she should toughen up.”

“She should’ve said something earlier before throwing a temper tantrum!”

“Of course we smack talk at the game table: we’re competitive!”

“Oh, it’s just more chick-whining.”

“She’s a fake geek girl. Did you see what she’s wearing?”

“Of course she’s OK with rape jokes! She laughed too!”

“But she’s saying white male gamers are the problem, and I’m a white male gamer, and I’m NOT one of the pervs!”

If you find those comments unacceptable, consider Lord Acton’s apocrypha: “All it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.”

All it takes for sexism to prosper is for good men to see nothing.

Society teaches men to take action. The issue of sexism in gaming (and in general) is presented as a litany of events that make any listener with a conscience feel uncomfortable. Worse yet, when a problem is pointed out, and no actions are presented to address it, men feel like they’re being blamed for the problem, which makes them feel defensive.

I have a list of things you can do.

Do some or all of these as you feel personally safe to do. You don’t need to be a Hollywood Action Hero to do these. Doing ANY of these things will help.

  • ASK women about their experiences in gaming. A large chunk of the problem’s persistence is that a woman who gets offended/hit on/etc. and leaves doesn’t actually cause the majority of sensible male gamers to DO ANYTHING. “Oh, yeah, Stephanie…nobody’s seen her in two weeks? I guess she got a new job or something and didn’t tell us.” Smiling monsters rely on your not following up with their victims to get the space they need to operate.
  • LISTEN to what they say. Remember, they’re feeling isolated, and they feel like nobody will believe them over the other men at the table. Don’t accuse them of exaggerating. Don’t “put them in the witness box” — just listen. It won’t be comfortable. Time and time again, I’ve been told that the single most valuable thing I ever did was listen, so that she didn’t feel she was facing this alone. As a guy, it’s REALLY hard to believe that _just_ listening is that helpful, but it’s observably true.
  • WATCH for signs of discomfort. Women take up different body language when they feel threatened. They close their bodies off; they cross their arms in front of their chest as if they expect to get hit. They move to a chair on the other side of the table to get away from someone. They lean away from someone at a table to maximize the space between them or to preserve their personal space. These are all cues. If you see these signs, go back to “ASK” — you can ask “Are you OK?” If someone is getting close to a woman showing these body language cues, ask him “Hey, wait a minute. Do you know her?”
  • PAY ATTENTION to what other people are saying. We get it. Guys in the gaming hobby treat it like an old boy’s club, or chatter in the gym locker room. They can talk about whatever they feel like! They can crack rape jokes. They can crack blonde jokes. They can make comments like “old enough to bleed, old enough to breed.” The uncomfortable woman probably won’t make a confrontation, because she’s unsure if she’s got any support in the room at all. That’s your job. Let her know that she’s NOT ALONE in thinking this is unacceptable behavior.
  • LOOK FOR ESCALATIONS. A lot of guys think that bawdy humor is “just part of gaming.” It absolutely can be with a group of people who know each other well. Unfortunately, at conventions and in game stores, bawdy humor is used by smiling monsters as a way to “gain permission” to do more. The pattern looks like this: Tell an edgy joke, see if anyone looks nervous before they laugh. Wait for people to calm down a bit, and tell a slightly more sexual joke. Repeat, and each repetition, escalate to more sexually explicit humor. Try touching a shoulder to “reassure.” Smiling monsters take laughing at raunchy jokes as evidence that they’re concealed by the social contract. They also get a thrill out of pushing the boundary of the social contract; it’s how they “win the game” in their head.
  • COMMUNICATE with someone who looks uncomfortable. Don’t let them wander off feeling like nobody cares. Ask simple things like “Are you OK?” and listen to what’s said. If they need to go to convention security, get them to convention security. If they just want to leave, separate them from the people harassing them and let them leave on their own, or ask the harasser to leave. It’s the person who’s made uncomfortable’s choice about who leaves the situation, not yours.
  • CALL PEOPLE OUT on bad manners. Explain that bad manners have consequences. Explain that this is a public space, and they can either conform to the expected standards of behavior or they can leave. Or you can threaten to leave — this is a pedal democracy; people show their displeasure by leaving. I’ve told gaming tables “You can have me playing, or your rape jokes. Choose now.”
  • KEEP AN EYE OUT for smiling monsters. Once you learn to spot them, they’re easy to recognize. They don’t make eye contact with other men or figures of authority, until they’re confronted. They tend to have head gestures (nodding or shaking their head) that are completely opposite of what their words are saying. They’re not prepared for follow-up questions. They get nervous when you talk to their prey, and start edging away. They escalate on raunchy humor, like what’s described above. They have a habit of boldly invading the personal space of anyone female, in ways that they wouldn’t do to a man.

If you’re reading this article, you game because you like to be “the one who confronts the monsters.” Here’s a chance to do it in real life, and the things I’ve written above are your weapons and special gear to do the job well.

If you’re a publisher, there are some additional guidelines:

  • DESEXUALIZE THE COVER ART. If the guys are wearing clothes that cover their arms and midriffs and thighs, the women should be too. They’re all facing the same monsters. Most artists working in the industry started out as fans, and they learned their craft drawing art that fits their “view” of the genre, whether that’s the old Deities and Demigods art, or Boris Vallejo covers. If an artist sends you something that you couldn’t show to a third-grade class without someone getting upset, ask for a revision! Really, moving the neckline of a shirt on the pencil sketch phase isn’t that much work!
  • IF YOU MUST have sexualized cover art, make it gender balanced: Every up-skirt shot of an acrobatic “female nimble thief” should be matched by an up-skirt shot of a bold warrior in a kilt. If you’re not into guys, find someone who is to vet the art for you for its sexiness. If the thought of seeing a guy’s ass makes you uncomfortable, welcome to what women have put up with since the succubus illustration in the back of the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide.
  • GENDER BALANCE IS A THING. Try to make sure that groups of characters in game illustrations are at least in the 3:2 ratio in group shots: 3 men to every 2 women. That’s an “at least” — 1:1 is better. Genre needs overcome this: your Napoleonic-era historical game may not be able to hit this ratio if you’re aiming for accuracy. However, your steampunk, sci-fi or fantasy game? Yeah, go for gender balance.
  • NPC ROLES. Women like seeing themselves as the kick-ass heroes of fiction just as much as men do. Maybe even more so. You can make female readers and gamers respond with “OK, I can relate to this; it’s not just BulgingThews McStupidname the Adjective getting all the glory.” When you review freelancer submissions, or write your own content, use this checklist:

1. Are women portrayed solely as romantic objects, or damsels to be rescued?
2. Are women only portrayed as “dead motivators in refrigerators”?
3. How many female NPCs are there? How many male? Does that ratio need adjusting?
4. Do as many female NPCs have roles as authorities as male NPCs? Is the number of villains balanced between genders?
5. Do any women between the ages of 28 and 65 appear in your world AT ALL?
6. Do any of your women NOT look like they could model fashion in Milan or Paris?
7. Are older women only portrayed as the “kind elderly advisor” or the “evil elderly witch”?

Remember. There are monsters out there. They hide in the edges of your social circle, and they’re relying on you to not notice them.

If you see them, you can stop them.



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Ken Burnside

Ken Burnside


Ken Burnside is an award-winning science writer and game designer. His other work on the web is at