In Praise of Pink Sneakers

Amina Mae Safi wrote a guest post at Geek Feminism Blog about having a Ladies D&D Night.

Last night, we had our first meeting. We began the processes of picking out our characters, and, obviously, learning much about one another in the process. We drank cheap wine, discussed who we’d take to the Yule Ball, made esoteric references to Tim the Enchanter, got excited about speaking Draconic and hacking shit up in dungeons, all while feeing free enough to admit excitement over planning our characters’ costumes and buying pretty dice.

No one derogatorily accused anyone of being “girly” the entire night, despite swooning over a couple notable nerd-girl heartthrobs (Han Solo, Sirus Black) or waxing nostalgic on old boy band crushes. It was the most comfortable I’d felt around a larger group of nerds in years. I was free to be a girl, in my own sense of the word, and free to be a nerd, in my own sense of the word as well. There were pumpkin Rice Crispy Treats and there was a suggestive drawing of Matt Smith on the walls.

What I’m trying to say, rather wordily, is that I felt actually a part of a community for the first time in my geeky life.

I love geek women. I’m married to one. She probably likes playing D&D more than I do. She doesn’t make Rice Crispy treats, and she isn’t all that fussy about clothing, either. She does, however, get excited about speaking Draconic, hacking shit up in dungeons, buying cool-looking (“pretty” doesn’t really enter her vocabulary) dice, and Sean Cassidy (We have to count him in the category of “boy bands” don’t we?). I think she leans to Han in preference to Sirius, she tends not to like facial hair. Although head hair of the fabulous red persuasion is quite to her liking. However, she’s taking ME to the Yule Ball, thank you very much.

For some reason, I associate geek women with pink sneakers. Not the really fashionable ones, but the big clunky ones that go up to your ankle. They are meant for srs bznss! If you are woman and a geek, and you don’t wear pink sneakers, I’m cool with that too. I’m sure there are lots of you, I’ve worked with many such women. Pink sneakers take something which seemed to denote a “boy”-hightop basketball shoes – and claimed it for girls, too. In my mind, it’s simultaneously a stupid, gross oversimplification, and a fun metaphor. And for the record, I don’t think Mrs Darkwater has ever worn pink sneakers, but I could be wrong on that.

I played one long tabletop campaign in the Call of Cthulhu system with four women, one of which was only there for part of the time. There were three other men playing, too, and the GM was male. We each had multiple characters, typically switching between them depending on which part of the plot we were advancing. One of the characters Mrs Darkwater played was male (we call that “gender bending”, it’s been part of my RP since the beginning.) Another woman also had one character who was male.

We once spent one entire run in Paris in 1926 while the women characters in the group stopped and shopped. The male characters represented the patient and the impatient. One of the women players had some books of fashions in that day, and we had a glorious time. The run ended with one character, the young actress, missing the train (The Orient Express, of course) and having to hire a motorcycle with a sidecar to catch up to it.

That run turned out to be one of the most memorable of the entire seven years the campaign ran, even though there were no cultists, aliens, or dark gods to be seen. Those would come later.

I would say that I don’t understand why any man would not want women at his RP gaming table, but I think I do know. At least, I think I can think of at least one reason.

To be a man is to have your masculinity always in question. People will be eager to tell you that you aren’t a “real man” and that they can show you how, for a small fee. Or if you will do their dirty work, that will make you manly, too.

This masculine insecurity drives men to find activities that signal that they are men, rather than “not a real man” (I don’t really think that “not a real man” is synonymous with “woman” by the way.). One of those activities might be Dungeons and Dragons. It’s happened that way for a lot of men, I think. They first played in their youth, when most activities were gender-segregated because of, “OMG COOTIES”.

That wasn’t what happened to me. I first played D&D in grad school, with a woman GM, and a group of male players that flipped a coin for each character to determine its gender. (At least one of those players, I found out later, was gay as well.)

We had a rocking good time. The GM had some romance subplots, but they weren’t front and center during the run. When we played women characters, we tried to make them as believable as we could, and we were probably about as successful as we were with the male characters.

But we had fun. For me, fun with D&D and later with MMORPG’s has always involved women. Sometimes, sexual feelings do come up, and I’d bet that that’s true for women, too, in most any mixed group. Sometimes.

But that wasn’t the point of our group, so that stuff didn’t get any oxygen during our sessions, out of respect for our group. (I know of several relationships that started over D&D or MMORPGs).

To me, its fun to have different viewpoints at the table, and the true joy of tabletop RPG is getting into a group head space. It’s like a great big canvas that the GM has sketched an outline on, and we’re all filling it in and embellishing it. And I mean that not just in terms of character, but in combat, too. Combat is character. (If you don’t know what I mean, try watching “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” again with this in mind.)

Sometimes, other players will bring in some twist that will take everyone’s breath away. You can almost think of it as a derail, but really, we embrace it as an embellishment. This requires a DM to be pretty flexible about plots, though.

And so, people who are different than you are become an asset. As long as there is accord on the basic social contract of the campaign, diversity adds to the enjoyment of the game, it doesn’t subtract.

So men, relax a little. Brace yourself to ignore the catcalls of “not a real man”. If anyone tries to shame your masculinity, give them the Braveheart treatment (shown above). Well, at least in your imagination. You’ll feel a lot better. They have an agenda, and it isn’t to your benefit, count on it. They are trying to drive you away from something that you love! If there are women at your table, DO NOT hit on them, not there, not during the session. That breaks the social contract of an rpg session, which is to focus on play. It will irritate everyone else. And don’t shame them for doing stuff that you wouldn’t do. There might be consequences, it’s true. Know that the consequences might make the story more interesting.

To women, I say “show up”. If you’re new to the game, listen and read. Ask questions. There’s a lot going on, and some of the advice you’ll get is really useful, others not so much. But feel free to play your character. Don’t worry about “being a woman”, be yourself, and know that it’s ok. A little mental Braveheart for you might be good, too.

What everyone needs to do is find some accord on the basic social contract of the game, and that goes for all groups, not just the mixed gender ones. The group needs a few ground rules about how the game is going to work, and logistics. A few such possible rules:

  • Explicitly say that you’re going to let players make mistakes and have failures. You can expect them to learn from these, but have a good time with it. Laugh when things go wrong. It makes a better story.
  • It’s probably best not to bring sexual material into the game unless you are really, REALLY sure that everyone’s ok with it. I mean REALLY sure. No, not that sure, even more sure than that.
  • Don’t allow unlimited cross-table advice during combat. We use a mechanic called “idea roll” which is INT based if someone wants to suggest a course of action. Or they can shout out something short ON THEIR TURN. Otherwise, they can shut up. Maybe the new girl (or guy!) has a dumb idea, but maybe it isn’t that dumb after all.

Finally any group needs a shared goal or focus that will pull the characters together. It might be rescuing kittens, it might be toppling evil overlords (Did I say “overlord”? I meant “protector”!), it might be pulling a heist. As long as everyone is on board with this, the group can tolerate an enormous amount of diversity. The way RPG’s usually work, as long as that stubbled-cheeked, cowboy-boots-wearing, mass-murdering psychopathic lunatic is helping you, they get a pass. Why shouldn’t the same go for the bubble-gum-chewing, pink-sneaker-wearing, fashion-conscious psychopathic lunatic?

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