Thursday Freebie: anti-harassment policy resources

[This is not a paid post for a lot of reasons. The tl;dr is that as far as my work that I will cite here, I’ve been paid for some of it, and the rest was the result of time that I donated to local organizations. I didn’t feel right “double dipping”, as it were. Not to mention that with #GamerGate still incomprehensibly a thing, I want to avoid anything that even resembles being a “professional victim”. That said, if you want to support me in doing this kind of work, becoming a patron would certainly help.]

The ongoing climate of fear, intimidation, and harassment sparked by GG has certainly put gaming’s problem with women in stark relief. If there can be said to be any good that has come of GooberGate, it is that gamers who have previously tried to “stay neutral” in such debates are realizing that there is no such thing as “neutrality” when it comes to hate movements[1].

So I felt like this would be a good time to talk about anti-harassment policies, because working to implement harassment policies is a concrete step that can be taken to make women feel safer at conferences and other large events.

First: What is an anti-harassment policy and why should our event have one?

An anti-harassment policy is a policy that clearly spells out types of behavior that will not be permitted, steps that event attendees can take to report harassment, and how the policy will be enforced. Anti-harassment policies are a key part of creating a safe environment, because they help to set an expectation that harassment is an issue that will be taken seriously by event organizers.

If you’re just getting started learning about anti-harassment policies, The Ada Initiative and the Geek Feminism Wiki are excellent resources, albeit more tech conference-focused. For a (mostly tabletop) gaming-focused take on the issue, the incomparable John Stavropolous has written this excellent guide called How to Run Safer, Accessible, and Inclusive Game Conventions.

Second: What are some examples of robust anti-harassment policies “in the wild”?

While DragonCon has had problems with regards to uneven enforcement of convention policies and bad optics over their decision to ban Backup ribbons, they still have one of the best-written anti-harassment policies that I’ve seen. The language itself is worth using as a template, although hopefully event organizers would use DragonCon’s actual implementation of the policy as a cautionary tale and not as an example to be emulated.

Pelgrane Press has an official anti-harassment policy for 13th Age events that I was paid to work on, along with Ash Law. I quite like this as an example of a policy that not only spells out inappropriate behavior but also spells out the things that event attendees should be able to expect as part of a positive and open gaming environment.

Anti-harassment policies don’t have to be limited to geek events, however. They can, and should!, be written for pretty much any kind of volunteer-run organization. After working on the 13th Age policy, I helped to adapt some of that language in the implementation of an anti-harassment policy for a local amateur theater company that I am a part of.

Third: How do I notify attendees of an anti-harassment policy?

Well, personally I’m a huge fan the approach that New York ComicCon took:

Photo taken from BoingBoing – found here

GIANT-ASS VERY READABLE SIGNS.

Your organization might not have the budget for such large signage, but prominently placed, clearly worded signage is definitely the way to go. At the very minimum, the anti-harassment policy should be posted in a high-visibility area near your event’s registration area and outside each entrance to the dealer’s hall, if you are running an event that has one. A lot of harassment actually takes place in convention dealer halls and is largely directed at cosplayers.

Which is why, if you are running an event that participants are likely to attend in costume, you should also consider posting “cosplay is not consent” posters in high traffic areas of your event space.

Lastly, it can be very difficult for convention staff to know how to handle harassment complaints in the moment, especially as many gaming and other geekdom conventions are at least partially staffed by volunteers. However, it is critical that convention staff know how to conduct themselves when approached with a harassment complaint, so as to avoid making an already terrible situation even worse.

So here is an example of a concise document that can be used to train staff in how to talk to someone bringing forward a harassment complaint, as well as guidelines for how to responsibly take action. This was something that I wrote for that same local theater company, but could easily be adapted to fit the needs of a conference or convention.

Fourth: what can I do to push event organizers to implement harassment policies?

If there’s an event you’d like to attend that doesn’t have an anti-harassment policy, contact the event organizers directly and express your concern about the lack of a policy. Most of the time, event organizers who are running events without anti-harassment policies aren’t doing so out of malice. The problem of convention harassment is something that has pretty much always existed, but been kept silent.

For instance – after I approached GenCon organizers about my concern regarding their lack of a policy and related my experience of being harassed at GenCon, GenCon subsequently implemented an anti-harassment policy, which was even mentioned in the opening ceremonies at the beginning of the convention. (They could still do better with signage, but they’re working on it, which is hugely encouraging.)

It can be a bit scary broaching such a topic, but remember that it is in the best interests of event organizers to ensure that their attendees feel safe and welcome.

Lastly, should you be blessed enough to possess sufficient status within your community to be invited as a panelist or guest of honor at a convention, please strongly consider following John Scalzi’s example in refusing to attend events without an anti-harassment policy. By setting such an example, you can make things better for everyone.


[1] Either you side with the people being abused, or you side with their abusers. The idea of this as a conflict with opposing “sides” is victim-blaming of the worst sort, because it makes speaking out against abuse somehow morally equivalent with ACTUALLY ABUSING PEOPLE.

GenCon 2014: The bad and the needs improvement

While I have some posts coming up that are prompted by interactions I had at GenCon, this will be the last post I write explicitly about my experience at GenCon itself (at least for the next little while). I’ve talked about the things that made me excited, as well as specific crappy things observed in the dealers’ room. But I didn’t address negative things outside of the dealers’ room, so here are some observations about things with varying degrees of crappyness.

Bad: Some dude mansplained my shirt to me

One of my birthday gifts this year was a shirt that said “FAKE GEEK GIRL: REAL GEEK WOMAN”. So of course I wore it to GenCon. I mean, how could I not?

Friday morning, I got dressed in The Shirt (and also pants) and headed out to get breakfast, bleary from a late night of awesome awesomeness. As I was standing in line, two guys spotted my shirt. One of them looked excited and said, “oh wow, that’s an awesome shirt! My wife would love that shirt? Where did you get it?”.

Pleased, I said that I did love the shirt but that it was a gift and I didn’t know where it was purchased. And that’s when Complimentary Dude’s mansplainy friend chimed in with, “but you’re not fake”. Which led to the following conversation:

Me: I’m… not a girl.

Mansplainy Friend: But you’re not fake. You’re–

Me: Not a girl. I have a toddler. I pay taxes. I am a woman.

Mansplainy Friend: Yes, but you’re not a fake woman.

Me: Okay, but you’re getting bogged down in the definition of one word. Do you not understand that this shirt is commenting on a larger social phenomenon where women like me have to fight to have our interest in geek culture seen as valid?

…at which point Mansplainy Friend tried to continue the argument, but thankfully Shirt-Complimenting Guy got him to shut up and I collected my breakfast and left.

And I suppose that I really should have expected something of the sort to occur. After all, I did wear the shirt rather expecting that hanging out primarily in tabletop RPG areas would mean that it would provoke some kind of a reaction. Still, in my defense, I don’t think anyone can be entirely blamed for being surprised when someone attempts to mansplain their own clothing to them when they are still in a severely under-caffeinated state.

Bad: I didn’t X-card the jokey sexism in a game that I ran

I was a GM at Games on Demand this year, which turned out to be tons of fun for all of my games except one – a game of Zombie Cinema. (Zombie Cinema is exactly what it sounds like – it’s a fun little game that creates zombie movie plots. It’s eminently replayable and never leaves my bag at conventions, in case I ever find myself with spare time, friends, and desire for a pick-up game that lasts about two hours.)

The problem with that game? There were six people at the table, including myself, but I was the only woman. And three of the six players were, well, the bro-iest of bros. Still, because some of the random character gen options specify gender, we wound up with three female characters, so I was hoping things would turn out well.

Early on in the game, however, the bro players started tossing out stuff about “protecting the women”, which was irritating. I jokingly had my character, a middle-aged mom and secretary, call them on it. At which point it promptly became a running joke throughout the rest of the session. And not the friendly sort of running joke, a “oh this clearly bothers you, so now my character is going to keep doing it” kind of running joke.

At the time, I just thought that it was a B- game of Zombie Cinema. There were some amusing jokes, like how the zombie plague came to be known as “raibola” (rabies/Ebola), but mostly it was a slightly sub-par but still amusing enough for the price of a generic ticket game of Zombie Cinema.

It wasn’t until I ran into James Stuart, the “new” proprietor of Story-Games, fellow GoD GM, and one of the not-bros at the table for the game, that he helped crystallize my annoyance by asking if I was okay with what happened in our game. He said that he was reluctant to X-card them since I seemed okay with it, but at the same time it seemed pretty gross. And at the time I was like, “oh yeah, I was okay, it was just kind of irritating is all”.

But since then I’ve examined that reaction and now I regret not X-carding the jokey sexism once it became a nasty little running joke, because it was a joke that made the game less fun for me. I got trapped in the mindset that because Games on Demand was paying for my badge, I was obligated to provide the players with a fun game. But I forgot that my fun was also an important part of the equation, and the “ha ha girls suck” running “joke” throughout the game definitely made it less fun for me.

And all of this despite an excellent all-hands meeting on Thursday night that stressed that GMs had to consider their own fun as much as their players when deciding what to X-card! So it’s not even like this was a possibility that hadn’t been addressed.

So that’s something I think I’ll need to work on being more aware of next year.

Bad: Casual harassment

I didn’t experience as much of it this year as I have previous years, there was only one creepy dude on the street of the “oh god avert your eyes, don’t make eye contact, stick close to your group” variety that I encountered this year, although he was a doozie. (He started singing at me and pelvic thrusting, although thankfully he didn’t approach me and I was able to give him a wide berth as we passed him on the sidewalk.)

But let me turn that around and say that this year was the best year I’ve had in terms of street harassment. So the fact that I go to GenCon expecting to be creepily harassed and made to feel unsafe by at least one dude while at the convention? That’s messed up.

Another insanely not-cool moment was my very first night at the convention, at a party where I was going to head back to my hotel with my hotel roomie and her boyfriend. On the way out, she stopped at a table to say hi to someone that she knew, and a dude literally grabbed her hand and started trying to pull her into the booth. At which point I started hovering very visibily while wearing my best “we need to leave because I need sleep face”.

And, you know, generally my friend and convention-roomie is a super capable woman and I would trust her to be able to handle her own creeps. But at the same time, Creepy Arm-Hauling Guy was large and I wanted to at least try to shame him into letting go. (Which he did, though probably not because of me, and we made our escape, and that was the end of that.)

And maybe it was because we were at a party? But you know what, fellas? Being drunk is not an excuse for harassing women, even if it’s just because you want to get to know them. Calm the fuck down, and if you can’t behave yourself around strange women when you’re drunk, then DON’T FUCKING DRINK.

Needs improvement: Convention harassment policy signage

One of the things that I forgot to mention in my post about good things about GenCon was the fact that the opening ceremonies of the convention specifically mentioned the harassment policy and that harassment was not okay, and that anyone feeling threatened or uncomfortable should seek out convention staff who would take the situation seriously. WHICH IS GREAT. The fact that GenCon has gone from having effectively no harassment policy to having a well-written policy that staff are being trained on? That’s awesome.

HOWEVER.

The only signs spelling out the complete policy were in the badge registration area. There weren’t any in the dealer’s room area that I or any of the people that attended the Women in Gaming panel had spotted. And I didn’t see any outside of the main convention center, either.

And that’s a problem! If nothing else, there needs to be at least some basic “cosplay is not consent” posters in the dealers’ room, because that’s where a whole lot of cosplay is happening.

The other problem is that a whole lot of people just don’t need to go to the badge registration area. Because I was running through Games on Demand, I picked up my badge from the GoD staff without ever having to go through the badge line. And for the most part, trips to the dealers’ room to acquire specific items were the only trips that I made into the convention center itself. The one panel I was able to go to (all the others overlapped with my GM slots! Curses!) was in the Crowne Plaza – all of which were areas that didn’t have any sort of signage to raise awareness of this policy.

It’s also worth noting that a lot of people don’t attend the first day of the convention, or don’t manage to be awake in time to hit the dealers room in time for the opening ceremonies, or aren’t able to stand close enough to hear what everyone else is saying.

This is something that is important. If you want to change the social norms around toxic and harassing behavior at conventions, you have to change expectations and raise awareness, and signage is an important part of that. GenCon is just too big an event to do it in a more individualized way.

And that’s all I have to say about that

How to get sexually assaulted at a gaming convention [TW]

[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.

Panic.

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.]

Why I won’t be going to PAX any time soon (and why that makes me really, really sad)

This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while but haven’t because I don’t want to be That Feminist Who Only Writes About Rape Culture. I’ve been wrestling with the fear that if I talk about rape culture too much that people will stop listening to me because I’ll be seen as an embodiment of every strawfeminist stereotype out there. “Yeah, yeah, wundergeek. We get that you’re obsessed with rape. So, like, can you please just shut up already?” Ultimately, though, I feel like this is important enough for me to “risk” not being taken seriously.

So as I’ve mentioned before, I had a pretty serious experience with sexual harassment at last year’s GenCon. As such, the issue of convention harassment is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Like many other events in male-dominated nerd subcultures, harassment is a real problem at gaming conventions. Unfortunately, while other male-dominated nerd subcultures (ie tech, skepticism/secular activism) have started to engage with the issue of harassment at conventions/conferences and to implement anti-harassment policies, the attitude toward this problem by gaming event organizers is, shall we say, less than helpful. For the most part, event organizers would rather bury their head in the sand than take this on a serious issue.

And sure, I get it. Harassment is absolutely a shitty thing to have to deal with, and it sucks having to make plans for how to deal with it. But hand-waving and saying “it’s not your responsibility” or “it’s not a real issue” just isn’t an adequate response. The lack of harassment policies at major gaming conventions is something that is harming real people, and organizers need to get over their discomfort and start implementing serious policies to deal with the problem.

The notable exception to all of this is PAX (Penny Arcade Expo). PAX Prime and PAX East not only have harassment policies, they also have Enforcers on the show floor available to enforce the policy as incidents occur. Even more encouraging is their (sometimes controversial) ban on booth babes, something I’d love to see at GenCon but frankly don’t expect to see ever.

Recently among the indie tabletop tribe, attendance has been shifting away from GenCon due to a number of factors mostly related to the ever-increasing cost of being an exhibitor on the show floor, and PAX has been picking up a lot of that slack. While not originally a convention that included tabletop gaming as part of its focus, there has been a growing interest by attendees in tabletop gaming and a lot of independent designers and smaller game companies have been quite happy to take advantage of that interest. So between their progressive stance on booth babes, their serious anti-harassment policy, and environment that doesn’t price indie creators out of the show economy, PAX should be a convention that I would be happy to support, right?

Well…

Were PAX not affiliated with Penny Arcade, I would be delighted to go, or to tell other people to go. Unfortunately, the creators of Penny Arcade have repeatedly proven that when it comes to rape culture, they Just Don’t Get It. All of these efforts to make PAX a welcoming and safe place for female attendees aren’t because Gabe and Tycho care about whether women feel welcome and safe. It’s about business and not alienating a very large potential customer base. Gabe and Tycho themselves have an, unfortunately, long and checkered past with being openly supportive of rape culture.

Most notably there was the whole, long, sordid dickwolves fiasco, which I mentioned in a previous post here on GaW:

There’s a Really, really long summary here, but in a nutshell they made a comic that joked about rape, then made fun of the rape survivors who complained about the comic, then SOLD SHIRTS based on the rape-joke comic, then stopped selling the shirts when it started hurting attendance at PAX but never really properly apologized. Or rather they did, but it was a “we’re sorry you were offended” sort of apology, which actually isn’t a real apology at all.

 (For the record, I was in the camp that thought the original comic was funny but that their subsequent response to objections was completely unacceptable and Not Okay.)

 Anyhow. The point they were making with the original comic was a good one. Did they need to make that point with rape? Nope. Not at all.

If that was the only instance of this kind of bullshit, I might still have been inclined to roll my eyes and look past their misdeeds and their faux apology. Unfortunately, more recent events have proven that the Penny Arcade creators haven’t really learned much of anything from their experiences with the backlash against the dickwolves comic and t-shirts. Last month, there was a Kickstarter for an awful tentacle rape card game called Tentacle Bento that got pulled due to violations of Kickstarter’s TOS. And then Gabe then came out as being against the pulling of the Kickstarter, because, you know, freeeeedom.

There’s a detailed breakdown here, but basically Gabe went from saying that Tentacle Bento’s Kickstarter shouldn’t have been pulled because, you know, censorship, to questioning the mental health of his critics and finally dismissing the issue all together. Because that’s totally a great, PR-minded response from a business person who professes to want to make women welcome at PAX because it’s good for business. Nope. I can’t see how having one of the creators of Penny Arcade, who has already gotten in trouble in the past for making jokes trivializing the existence of rape culture, make jokes and belittle the concerns of people concerned about rape culture in the gaming would possibly make women thinking about attending PAX feel less safe. Nope. Not at all.

That would be bad enough, but I guess Tycho felt like he had to get in on the supporting rape culture action too. Not very long after Tentacle Bento, the new trailer for the upcoming Hitman: Absolution was released, which pretty much shows Agent 47 beating the crap out of scantily clad, overly sexualized assassin-nuns.  Unsurprisingly, this drew a fair amount of criticism, especially as the Hitman games don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to producing women-friendly promotional material. So what did Tycho have to say about people criticizing the new trailer?

Well, he called their complaints “infantalizing chivalry”, for one. He also said that “the swooning and fainting and so forth about this stuff, the fever, is comical in its preening intensity”. And naturally he set up strawmen that completely mis-characterized the criticism against the Hitman: Absolution trailer before knocking down said strawmen as being “a crock of fucking shit”. (You can read the entirety of his post here.)

Wow. I feel really confident that Gabe and Tycho understand my concerns about rape culture in gaming and that they care about wanting to help me avoid repeats of last year’s harassment by marking PAX as a space where rape culture is not welcome! Oh wait, no, scratch that. What I feel really confident about is that Gabe and Tycho care about wanting to make money by increasing female attendance at PAX conventions and that they plan to do that by taking some common sense measures to make sure that women want to go by making sure they won’t get harassed and stuff.

So here’s the part where I feel conflicted. On the one hand, the PAX harassment policy is what I have been advocating to see at other large gaming conventions. There’s anecdotal evidence out there to suggest that harassment is taken seriously and that violators are removed swiftly from the convention. And that’s great! One of the things that I am most sad about with regard to my inevitable return to GenCon next year (pregnancy is going to keep me from attending this year) is the knowledge that I will be constantly monitoring situations for the potential to become unsafe, because GenCon has done nothing as of yet to enact serious anti-harassment policies. So you think I’d be more enthusiastic about a convention that is designed to safeguard the safety of its female attendees, right?

Unfortunately, I can’t get past the continued support that Penny Arcade’s creators have given to rape culture, nor can I get past the persistent scorn and ridicule that they have heaped on those who speak out against rape culture in gaming. Wanting to address the culture that gave my attacker tacit permission to violate my boundaries and know that he could expect not to face serious repercussions is not “infantalizing chivalry”. It’s looking out for my own damn safety. The anger  I feel about the incident I suffered isn’t “comical in its preening intensity” – it’s righteous fucking anger that the trauma that I suffered, and that other women like me have suffered, in a convention space continues to be dismissed as not a real issue, as nothing more than “swooning and fainting and so forth” by us poor hysterical womenfolk.

Gabe and Tycho have a huge audience. They have the potential to use that audience for good, or at least not to use their audience for evil. But instead they take every opportunity they can to mock people who speak out against rape culture and belittle their concerns, and their audience is paying attention. And that makes me sad, because PAX is a good convention that I would like to be able to support, and there are good people going to PAX who I would also like to support. But I can’t countenance giving money to people who think rape is funny and that rape culture just isn’t a thing.

GenCon: it’s time for an anti-harassment policy

A bit of an extended note before I begin here. Due to the extremely personal nature of this post, I will be moderating comments on this post very heavily. If you know, or you think you know, or you think you might have a good idea of who I’m talking about – I ask you to please not speculate. The situation has been dealt with to my satisfaction, and this isn’t about pointing figures. If you happen to think that refusing to point fingers makes me “not feminist enough”, then you can keep those thoughts to yourself. Thank you.

I was sexually harassed at this year’s GenCon, and not in a ‘hey, baby’ kind of way or a ‘guys staring at my tits instead of my face’ kind of way. This was a very serious incident that only just managed not to be assault, one that left me feeling shaken, shamed, and damaged for days. Even writing this now, it’s a struggle for me to maintain enough clarity to keep my train of thought.

The reason I say this is not because I want this to be a confessional post about my experience. Rather, I want to use my experience to highlight the fact that harassment is a very real problem at gaming events and conventions. I’ll admit that the thought of remaining silent had its appeal – in a lot of ways I still feel very shaken and not entirely sure that I want to air my dirty laundry, as it were, in public. But if anything, the backlash that I got on my first few posts about GenCon convinced me that speaking out about my experience was the right thing to do.

There are people within the gaming community who want to pretend that sexism in gaming doesn’t exist, or who would seek to justify its existence, or who seek to belittle anyone who tries to speak out against the sexism and misogyny that is so clear and so prevalently on display at conventions like GenCon. And this attitude is not only wrong-headed, it’s dangerous; When you look at the high prevalence of sexism within the gaming community and the high prevalence of sexual harassment at gaming events, conventions, and other conferences, it is entirely fallacious to assume that the first does not influence the second.

People who sexually harass and assault their fellow con-goers are acting in a environment that condones sexism and misogyny as part of con culture. Just as the characters I mock here don’t spring from a magical thought-vacuum, the actions of people who victimize other convention attendees in such a manner also do NOT spring from a magical thought vacuum. The victims of sexual harassment and assault aren’t “asking for it”, they’re not using some kind of voodoo that forces their harassers to take actions they wouldn’t normally.

But, wundergeek, you might be saying. Just because gaming is sexist is no excuse for such behavior. After all, I would never act in such a manner.

And you’re right, it isn’t an excuse. There can never be an excuse for acting in such a horrendous manner toward another human being. But just because you wouldn’t act this way, can you make that guarantee for everyone you know? This epidemic of sexual assault and harassment isn’t happening on its own. It’s a reflection of the community as a whole, and a clear sign that we need to pull our heads out of our asses and start taking misogynist attitudes within gaming culture seriously.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? Well, I think that depends on which end of the convention you’re on…

Convention goers: Don’t waste time trying to talk about how women who go to conventions need to be careful to prevent themselves from being victims. That’s victim-blaming of the worst sort. It’s possible to experience harassment or assault even when one is being careful about the sorts of situations one is placed in. Certainly it was my experience that I was in a situation I had judged to be safe and turned out not to be.

So, no. Take responsibility, do some self-examination. Be aware of when you are in situations that might become sketchy and if you are ever unsure of how you are being received, ASK. Never just assume. For that matter, never assume that silence means assent, because silence can often mean dissent, fear, terror, or anger.

As for people who find themselves uncomfortable and/or threatened, always remember you’re allowed to feel that way. Don’t second-guess how you feel, don’t apologize for their behavior. If you can tell them no, then do so. Even if you can’t find the words in that moment, remove yourself from the situation and confront them later.

Convention organizers: It’s time to start taking the threat of harassment and assault seriously and start implementing clear, consistent,  and enforceable anti-harassment policy. Convention organizers can’t continue to pretend that it’s a problem that doesn’t exist, or that it won’t happen at their convention, or that they can’t be expected to assume any responsibility for incidents of harassment that happen at their convention.

The closest thing that GenCon has to an anti-harassment policy is a small phrase buried within their policies for ethics and conduct:

All of the following constitute grounds for expulsion from the convention without refund:

Threatening, stealing, cheating or harassing others

That’s just not enough. There needs to be a clear policy defining harassment and setting out clearly who harassment can be reported to and how harassment situations will be dealt with. It’s not enough to shove your head in the sand and hope that some vaguely worded phrase in your ethics policy will prevent harassment. Real, serious, and thoughtful policies are needed – policies that have teeth to them.

If GenCon LLC is serious about being a family-friendly space, then this is something that they need to take real action toward addressing. It’s not enough for a subset of convention attendees to try to raise awareness. There needs to be a clear signal from convention officials that harassment and assault is not acceptable convention behavior if this disturbing trend is ever going to see real change.