[The last part of my series on writing inclusive games is still in progress! Have no fear. But in the mean time, it’s spring, that wonderful time of year when a geek woman like me begins to think of conventions, and by extension convention harassment. Be warned that I will mod comments on this post with extreme prejudice and without fucking mercy.]
Decide mostly on a whim to go to a large gaming convention in a nearby city with your husband and a male friend from your gaming group because you like games and it sounds fun.
Lurk nervously around a game designer you desperately want to talk to while he runs a demo, clutching a manila envelope while you feel stupid for being such a fangirl. Feel bad that you are making your husband and friend wait for this. Talk with another game designer at the booth while you wait, who drags you over to the game designer you’re here to fangirl over after you drop a reference to a fan animation you made. Feel simultaneously embarrassed and thrilled when he interrupts his demo to enthuse about the fan animation and exclaims happily about the fanart you give him.
Have your luggage stolen from the sketchy motel you stayed in outside the downtown area to save money. End up crashing (along with husband and the friend) with friends of your friend (all male) for a few hours before driving back home the next day, two days on your convention badges unused.
Have your father get diagnosed with incurable cancer while applying to move to Canada. Move to Canada anyway.
Express a desire to attend the convention next year, despite the much-increased distance. When your husband decides to pass, buy a badge anyway.
Email the friends of the friend who let you crash on their floor after last year’s luggage heist. Be angry when they won’t let you buy into their room because you’re a woman. Make lots of half-jokes about cooties.
Angrily post on the gaming forum that you’re looking to buy a spot in a room with people who don’t mind girl-cooties. Find a spot in a not-outrageously-priced downtown hotel with four men, two of whom are moderate-level Big Names in the indie tabletop scene. Feel nothing other than relief that you’ll have a place to stay.
Arrive after 11 hours of driving. Sleep in a (king) bed (at opposite ends) with a man you have never previously met or spoken to. Afterwards, say truthfully that your only complaint was your bed-mate’s unbelievably potent snoring.
Make lots of new friends, play lots of games, talk to a lot of game designers. Resolve to come back the next year.
Win a setting design contest on the gaming forum. Turn it into a hack of a popular game by the game designer (not the one you fangirled at, the other one) you met at your first time at the big convention. Playtest, develop, and publish it. Insist that you’re not actually a game designer.
Spend two consecutive years pitching your game as a publisher at the big convention. In your second year of doing this, manage not to punch a smug male game design celebrity when he tells you that he thinks it’s so cute that women are designing games now. Feel disgusted that you actually give him money for a copy of the game that made him famous even after that.
Continue attending the big gaming convention. Each year you attend, reconnect with friends you made in previous years.
Become friends with the game designer who you’ve never stopped being a fangirl for. Develop a habit of always going for lunch together the years when he attends.
Make new connections each year and stay in contact after you go back home. Look forward each year to seeing this group of friends you only see at the big game convention. Begin to describe them as your tribe. Etch the spaces of the convention deep in your subconscious, to the point where walking into the convention center feels like home.
Become part of a vibrant community of artists and game designers who are passionate about games. Learn to call yourself a game designer, if grudgingly. No longer feel self-conscious that you have so many friends who are game designers and publishers.
Meet someone new. When they ask how many years you’ve been coming to the big gaming convention, look embarrassed when you realize that you don’t know. Five? Six? Maybe?
Share rooms with men you have never met in person previous to the convention every year you attend the convention. Continue not to think this is weird. This is part of convention life. Explain to friends who are concerned for you that you have a black belt and could snap pretty much any of those nerds in half whenever you feel like it anyway.
Start a blog about sexism in gaming. Expect it to have a very small following, if any. Be flabbergasted when you start getting thousands of views each month. Try to understand why so many people think your loudmouth opinions about gaming are worth reading.
Have another lunch “date” with the game designer you are a fangirl of. Confess that you and your husband want to try to start a family in the next year or so. Be surprised when he asks if he can hug you, feel genuinely happy afterward.
Meet (for the first time, in meatspace anyway) a game figure who is Kind Of A Big Deal. Don’t think anything of it, because you know lots of them now. He is charming and friendly, just like many of your game industry friends. After that year’s convention, add him to the mental file of “guys who mostly get it”, sub-filed under “not creepy mouthbreathers”, sub-filed under “safe to be around”. Completely fail to recognize that this mental filing system exists at all.
Get blindsided by losing your job – the first (and only) job you’ve ever enjoyed – because someone framed you for a mistake you didn’t make.
Be angry when a friend’s wedding is scheduled for the same weekend as the big convention. Make arrangements to attend the big convention for a day, sleep on the floor of a male friend’s room, and leave the next day for the wedding. Grumble about the sacrifice you are making.
Go home to visit the family. Go back to Canada. Come back the next day because your father has been admitted to hospital for the last time. Stay for several weeks while your father dies. Help arrange his funeral. Say nothing to anyone online but “family emergency”. After returning home, swear that you are going to the big game convention come hell or high water, even if you are broke. You don’t care what it takes.
It is six weeks after the funeral. Show up for the convention, then find out the wedding is canceled. Be glad when the friend you were crashing with for one night agrees to let you buy into the room so you can stay for the entire convention.
Be pleased to see Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure when you run into him again. Think nothing of it when he puts his arm around you. It’s the big game convention – everyone is friendly here. This is nothing unusual.
Try too hard to have fun. Mostly succeed.
Make the standard complaints about the discomfort of sleeping on floors. Don’t be surprised when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure wants to help you make arrangements that are more comfortable – that’s what people do here. Fail to think it is weird even when he keeps offering even after you refuse the first few times. Tell yourself that he is a friend who is trying to help.
Finally accede to his suggestion to switch rooms. Continue to think that this is a benign offer.
Discover that the promised bed is not empty as promised. Tell yourself that your discomfort is unfounded. You’ve always been fine before.
Tell yourself that you’re not concerned when he says “don’t freak out”.
Manage to fall asleep.
Become physically confined.
Feign sleep, maintaining exhausting hyper-vigilant awareness of exactly what is and is not being touched. At no point realize that you have the power to say no or to stop this in any way.
Lose track of time.
Wait to hear signs of life outside the room. Pretend to wake up and want to get an early start.
Emerge from the bathroom fully dressed. Manage to claim believably that you don’t want to waste time cuddling when there’s so much to do in so little time. Don’t cringe when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure chuckles and says “how practical of you”.
Intentionally get separated in the breakfast line, only to have him pull you over to be introduced to a woman who is really, really cool. Eat breakfast with the two of them. Pretend nothing is wrong. Manage not to act relieved when he leaves for an early panel.
Go back upstairs. Furtively move all of your stuff back to the room you were originally staying in.
Play lots of games with cool new woman throughout the day and enjoy them thoroughly. Succeed in not spending a single moment of the day alone.
Go through the usual song and dance of figuring out where to go for dinner and who to go with. Be unhappy when Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure wants to join your group in going out for dinner.
Realize that you are not okay.
Pull aside the male friend with whom you are staying. Tell him that you need Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure to not come with you to dinner. Dither over male friend making a scene before giving him permission to say something.
End up sitting on the stairs in a different room with male artist friend of the male friend you are staying with, (unknown to you before this year) who is a super nice guy. Try to hide the fact that you are shaking. Fail. Cry. Hate yourself for crying. Cry anyway.
Talk with male artist friend-of-friend about art as he flips through his sketch book. Be grateful when he pointedly doesn’t ask any questions about what is going on and is very sweet and gentle about the whole thing. Wonder if he knows who this is about. Suspect that he does know but refuse to ask. Become friends with male artist friend-of-friend afterward. Never speak of that exchange again.
Leave with group of people for dinner. Be relieved that Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure is not coming along.
Trail behind on the way to the restaurant. Tell male friend you are staying with the details of what happened. Hate that you are upset about something that sounds so stupid and petty. Be surprised when male friend expresses disgust, says something to the effect that Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure just wanted to touch a pretty woman. Allow yourself to realize for the first time that what happened was sexual and was not okay.
Rejoin the group at the restaurant. Be grateful when male artist shows you pictures of his then-toddler and talks about happy things. Try your best to be charming and not weird. Be convinced that you are failing. Drink.
Go to bed early (midnight) to avoid running into Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure at the usual after-hours gathering, even though you never go to bed early. Refuse to talk to Kind of a Big Deal Gaming Figure when he relays a request to talk through male friend you are staying with. Drive home the next afternoon without talking to him.
Stop to have dinner with family on the way home. Talk vaguely about having a good time. You don’t know if you are lying.
Tell your husband about what happened. Flail for words to describe what happened. Cry.
Decide that you are going to blog about what happened. Be angry that you can’t ever say who it was. No one will believe that he would do something like that. Know in your soul that naming him would be the same as exile from this community that you’ve built a place for yourself in. Know that you are not capable of dealing with that kind of fallout. Know that you are not able to find out the hard way who will side with you and who will not and not have it destroy you.
Argue with your husband about whether you should blog about the incident. He only wants you to be safe, you are determined not to be silent. Tearfully convince him that you are right. Blog about it with all identifying details omitted. Hate yourself for being a coward.
Have a complete fucking meltdown about losing your job, losing your father, and being sexually assaulted within three months. Yell at a friend. Subsequently feel both terrible and completely justified. Try to apologize only to realize that you’re being weird and creepy about it. Never mention the incident to that friend again.
Become obsessed of the definition of harassment versus assault. Reluctantly decide to call it assault, even though you weren’t raped – mostly because of the physical confinement. Continually minimize your own trauma by telling yourself it wasn’t that bad.
Have panic attacks whenever his name comes up in your gaming-related social media streams, which is often. Learn to look like you are being productive while you are, in fact, doing your best not to hyperventilate.
Get pregnant. Cry. Have more panic attacks. Cry.
Worry that your silence will make you culpable the next time he does something.
Get therapy. Get your shit together. Finally accept that you didn’t say no because your entire life you have been socialized not to.
Become an advocate of anti-harassment policies. Help implement three in one year.
Finally contact him through email. Find out that he has been in therapy, that what happened in that hotel room put him in a downward spiral he is still picking up the pieces from. Derive absolutely no satisfaction from this. Fail to feel anything other than relief that he won’t hurt anyone else.
Return to the big convention after a year off (you were too pregnant to attend the year before). Maintain a constant low-level of your physical surroundings and threat possibilities. Regret that this is your reality now.
Have a great time. Make plans to come back next year.
[You might have guessed by this point that this is more than just a hypothetical piece. I’ve thought many times about telling the story of my experience with sexual assault at a gaming convention, but I wrestled with the fact that I could never manage to wrestle it into a tidy narrative. There were too many caveats, too many “this is what I’d always done”s. This is as close as I can come to making it feel like a story, and even then it is still messy. Trauma is a weird thing. Everything I wrote here feels germane to me, even though some of it (my father’s illness, the job) probably seems irrelevant to readers who aren’t me.
I also wanted to wait enough time that the details of this particular convention would blur from memory. Despite that this experience traumatized me, I have never wanted to punish my attacker. What I wanted was a conversation and acknowledgement of that harm, and assurance that it wouldn’t happen again, which has happened. Writing this piece wasn’t about revenge. It’s about telling my story – a story that I kept silent because I was afraid people would tell me I was to blame for what happened. It’s about me saying that I was not able to say no because the sum of my experience up to that moment in time was me being taught not to say no. And it’s about me saying that the only people responsible for sexual harassment and assault are the attackers, not the victims.]