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Many years ago, more than half a lifetime by now, I took my first steps into gamer girl territory. Except I didn’t really see it as being a gamer girl. To me, I was simply a gamer, full stop. Now that we’re nearly at the 40-year anniversary of the classic Dungeons & Dragons cartoon series, I want to show you what went into that making.

Finding the path in the early 1980s

In the early 1980s, finding information was almost impossible. YouTube and social media weren’t even blips on the radar yet. Neither was the consumer internet as a whole. If you wanted to have an electronic conversation with another person while on the go, you got a primitive pager that could only communicate little blips of information at a time. In that case, you probably worked in the healthcare field.

Incidentally, that’s why Gillian asks Kirk in Star Trek 4 if he’s a doctor with a “pocket pager” when his communicator goes off. Even in 1986, this equipment was very rare. I knew exactly one kid in 1987 in my high school who owned one. And even he had one because his parents were both doctors.

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Star Trek 4, pizzaria scene

So if you wanted to find out about new toys and games as a kid, your options at the time were largely limited to visits to toy stores and whatever you gleaned from the newspapers your parents got. Or visiting other kids whose parents were quicker on new trends.

For an extremely precocious early reader like me, those routes failed to yield fun new hobbies and pastimes. My head was largely in the clouds. I’d grown through my single-digit ages fed by Star Wars and fantasy novels. I’d giggled through the early Xanth books by Piers Anthony, wept at the sheer tragedy of The Last Unicorn, and dreamed of living in Bag End and going on adventures. I collected comic books like The New Teen Titans and Dial H for Hero.

Considering the Satanic Panic to come, this now sounds like an unusual place to find gamer stuff

I had a lot more luck at the PX on base. A PX, or “post exchange,” is a store in a military base that sells stuff like beauty products, booze, video games and electronics, and even clothes. If you’re wondering, its grocery store gets called a “commissary.” Though these stores particularly aim to please younger adults, families shopped there as well.

My sister and I found Dungeon! at the PX. (The name includes the exclamation mark at the end. I’m not just excited to be sharing its name.) It was a board game first published in 1975 by TSR, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons at the time. I ran across it around 1982, I think. It sounded very cool to us, and the play inside the box lived up to our hopes.

We’d amassed some very high hopes, too. By then, a number of cultural forces had shaped both of us.

The forces awakening gamer kids back then

By then, my sister and I were both avid watchers of the lamentably-soon-ended Saturday morning cartoon series, Dungeons & Dragons. There is no way and no how it should have gotten any airtime in the early 1980s. It had to be completely defanged to exist. And yet in the spaces where the fangs had once been, especially in the iconoclastic, realistically-untrusting character of Eric the Cavalier, many kids just like me realized what it was missing—and yearned for it.

Though we were getting just a hair too old to get excited anymore about Saturday morning fare, our mom could always wake us up for Dungeons & Dragons.

This was also when Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books became fantastically popular with kids. Starting in 1982, TSR had a line of these as well, which they called Endless Quest. My sister loved them, but I preferred the canonical CYOA-branded books. (#18, Underground Kingdom, is my absolute favorite.) For either set of books, we had to talk our mom into taking us all the way to Mobile’s little shopping mall to get them from a chain bookstore like Waldenbooks.

Rated for the 7-14 reader level, CYOA books were way below my reading level at the time. But the idea of making decisions to influence a story grabbed me hard.

Also, this was right when Atari 2600 gaming consoles became equally fantastically popular with kids. Science-fiction and fantasy themes dominated the titles I played and loved the most, like Space Invaders and Mountain King.

So Dungeon! was right up our alleys. We could, and did, play it into the wee hours whenever we got a chance. We loved that board game to literal pieces.

I tell you all of this to reveal that by the tail end of 1983, my sister and I had managed to annoy every kid within three years of our ages in a three-block radius of our home in Mobile, Alabama with Dungeon! invitations.

Through that board game, though, I finally found Dungeons & Dragons.

A gamer girl awakens

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, or DnD) was also sold in the PX. Already vaguely familiar with the concepts involved, and intrigued by the idea of a board-game-but-without-the-board, I wanted it the moment I saw it. I begged my mom to get me a boxed set containing everything one needed to play the game. I think it included a Dungeon Master’s Guide, a Player’s Guide, and maybe something about monsters generally.

It also included cheap plastic dice and a white crayon for coloring in their numbers, which were merely stamped on without color. If you wanted to see them clearly, you had to get white wax into them with the crayon.

I loved that silly white crayon. Back then, I think we all did. Coloring in those numbers made me feel like a marathoner tying on their shoes before a big race. Like checking my air tanks before a SCUBA dive. Like a guy putting a condom in his wallet before the Prom. At the time, I knew nothing of any of these activities. But I did know I was entering into something remarkable.

Alas, my sister lost interest in D&D fairly quickly. That left me with nobody to play with. Knowing what I did about what the neighborhood kids thought about Dungeon!, I knew better than to ask them about D&D.

Gamer Girl arrives on the scene!

Somehow, in one of my classes, one of the nerdy guys at school caught wind of me having the game. Maybe I was reading one of the books that had come with the set or something. We’d been decently good friends for a while by then, mostly bonding over shared membership in our middle school’s official math team. He extended an invitation to play D&D at his house that weekend.

For a while, our small gaming group comprised all boys except for me. We attended the same school and were in the same grade. Aside from that, we had little in common. They didn’t read the same books I read. Nor did they seem to like the same movies or TV shows. But we did all enjoy D&D.

It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was the only girl any of them knew who played and loved this game. After all, soon enough my mom began to insist that I take my little sister along to gaming sessions. She didn’t particularly enjoy the game, as I said. She wasn’t thrilled about being there, either.

My mom may have had her own reasons for wanting both kids out of the house for a few hours every weekend. At the time, though, I interpreted her demand as making me take along a snitch who’d tell on me if anything off-limits happened. (Nothing off-limits ever happened. The worst thing we ever did was set fire to pencils.)

For two glorious years, our group met together faithfully every weekend to play D&D. I was heartbroken to leave them behind when my family moved to Houston, even as I rejoiced at finally leaving Mobile.

‘These happy golden years’ with a new gaming group

Houston turned out to be transformative. At first, I was heartbroken. I’d lost my gaming group, and I had no idea how to find another one.

While I entered 10th grade a complete, un-self-aware nerd, I ended it a Casual Corner preppy. The next year, I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) at the recommendation of my former gaming group’s leader, Steve. He said it’d be as perfect for me as it’d been for him, and he was right. The folks I met there guided me to a new gaming group. About half the players were women just a bit older than I was.

By the 1980s, the Satanic Panic had reached its most strident and virulent form. My family wasn’t immune to it, unfortunately. My mom, a fervent Catholic, was briefly drawn into the hysteria of the age by a busybody coworker. She even made me watch Mazes and Monsters, a movie that capitalized on the moral panic. (It starred Tom Hanks in his first leading film role!) But thankfully, she finally trusted me not to get involved in anything injurious or potentially life-ruining.

In a lot of ways, I had finally hit my stride. Things were going great—until I converted to fundamentalism. Obviously, a group of zealots who condemn all movies, TV, pageants, and organized sports isn’t going to be all that fond of tabletop roleplaying games!

Slowly learning that the gamer girl was considered something of an oddity

It would be many, many years before I finally returned to gaming at all. By then, as an adult in my mid-20s with responsibilities, that mostly meant PC games and online games, particularly MUDs. But at last, I finally found another real-life gaming group in Kansas, and I didn’t look back.

This time, I was now the group’s leader. And I was in hot demand as a Game Master (GM), with a waiting list of about a dozen people waiting to join my group. (I didn’t like big huge groups, because then it got too difficult for me to keep everyone occupied and having fun.) Sometimes we played old-school D&D, other times Changeling: The Dreaming, other times still Fairy Meat or board games. Gaming culture had discovered weird, offbeat board games by then, as well.

I also began reading my then-boyfriend’s back issues of Dragon magazine. Long the mainstay of D&D players, it contained all kinds of info and articles of interest to me.

That’s when I discovered that sexism had been a longstanding problem for many women in gaming.

One of the Dragon issues contained an absolutely huge letters-to-the-editor section. The editors explained that a recent issue had explored sexism in D&D players’ ranks, and they’d been inundated with letters as a result. So the next month, they’d decided to greatly expand their usual letters column to include some of them.

This letters column was a real eye-opener for me. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone discussing women in tabletop gaming. Some of these women described some truly heartbreaking and infuriating treatment they’d received at the hands of their male counterparts.

The gamer girl in digital space: It wasn’t all sunshine and roses, of course

I’d never faced anything like what they described, at least not in real life.

For years, though, I’d noticed that some male MUD players lost their ever-lovin’ minds around people they even suspected of being female. On my first MUD, a fantasy-themed hack-n-slash game, one callow youth I barely knew made a crude joke. I don’t even remember what it was, just that I typed a quick chuckle emote (you typed “chuckle,” and the game showed the room: “Cassidy chuckles politely”) and went on my way.

To my shock, the kid began following me around demanding that I tell him the truth of my maleness. I played a female character (as I always have and likely always will), but here I was chuckling just like a guy at a crude joke! No real woman would ever laugh at such a joke! It was intelligible and amusing only to men! Therefore, I simply had to be a man!

So I needed to confess immediately and apologize for deceiving the guy who’d exposed my vile plot to play a female character while being male!

ace attorney: J'ACCUSE!
J’ACCUSE! Image from one of the Ace Attorney stories, now an old-school meme.

But I wasn’t really a gamer girl, in my own eyes

This was an absolutely surreal experience, as well as a deeply unsettling one. After all, a great many of the players in the game said they were women. Female characters abounded. I didn’t understand at the time that he must have had a weird crush on me, which made him feel strange in his no-no region when he began second-guessing my gender.

The joke at the time, indeed, ran like this: “The internet: Where the men are men, the women are men, and the children are FBI agents.” Right then, the joke took on some very special meaning for me.

I suddenly noticed that many people online expected female characters to be played by men. It was like women’s mere existence had been erased. We had become some mythic beast of olden days, one seen centuries ago and whose existence was now in doubt. The gender of every female character, therefore, was in doubt.

But my real-life experiences told me that many women were involved in gaming. We were literally everywhere in real life groups. I knew many online. It didn’t even occur to me to think in terms of being a ‘gamer girl.’

I was simply a gamer.

Wasn’t I?

Some men certainly didn’t think so.

Intensifying anger at the gamer girl

In the mid-2010s, sexist male gamers’ outrage finally bubbled to the forefront regarding female gamers. They had a lot on their mind around then, I guess.

They’d resisted being straightforward about their hatred for a long time. At first, it was stuff like contemptuous memes about their notion of the stereotypical gamer girl. In these memes, young women only played video games to get men’s attention. They only announced their gender online to entice men to give them free stuff or help them advance in the game somehow. As someone who’d often declined excessive offers of help in the past, those memes annoyed me most.

Then, they got furious with Anita Sarkeesian for highlighting sexist tropes in popular video games. She began making games-oriented videos on the topic in 2012, and she very quickly came to sexist gamers’ attention with them. They made their displeasure very clear with countless denunciations and even threats of violence.

Lewis’ Law held very true here: “Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.”

It wasn’t just Sarkeesian’s videos that were making them touchy, of course. I saw numerous veiled criticisms of women in gaming at the time. Many criticisms centered on the different games these men thought women preferred: fun, cute, bubbly casual games for smartphones, not the super-duper-serious arena-fighting and World War II-style combat games the bros preferred. Women’s games did not, in their minds, count as real games. And women themselves, needless to say, did not count as real gamers.

When women and their allies got angry about sexual harassment and abuse in the gaming industry, these men saw those charges as almost entirely made-up to create changes in gaming culture that they didn’t want at all.

Gamergate: The culmination of intense nerd rage at the gamer girl

Then, starting in 2014, Gamergate finally fully pulled away sexist male gamers’ masks.

They even terrorized Felicia Day, who was at the time (and probably still is) the undisputed redheaded queen of Millennial male gamers’ hearts. At the time, I saw some 4chan Gamergate guys angrily criticizing their comrades who’d sent her evidence that she’d been doxed. But their protests meant little; she was still quite frightened.

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The Guild – Do You Wanna Date My Avatar, 2009

It was a scary time to be a woman who played games of any kind. I’d never seen such breathtaking cruelty expressed toward women except in political or cultural venues where men vastly resent women’s progress and so retaliate against them to make them stop asking for equality.

But I did know what it looked like when someone hates something very, very much and finally lets loose with the full extent of that hatred. After many years in fundamentalism, I could identify that explosion of rage very easily.

These guys hated what they perceived as women’s intrusion into their hobby. They hated us. Down to their marrow, they wanted us gone. If women all left the hobby forever, they would only rejoice that we’d finally gotten the hint they’d been sending us for years.

The only gamer girl these guys tolerated told a story all its own

However, women had always been part of gaming. But those men had made it very easy to forget we were there from almost the start of the hobby. For years, they’d even viciously retaliated against any women who even made themselves too obvious on the internet. (The mildest of these retaliations were the infamous “tits or GTFO” demand that 4chan users made of anyone who identified themselves as female on the site.)

At the same time, these guys played upon women’s desire to please them by openly promulgating the meme of the cool gamer girl. The cool gamer girl sounds a lot like the speech from the Gillian Flynn book Gone Girl:

Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding.

Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. . .

There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.

Gone Girl, 2012

This speech also describes the gamer girl that these sexist male gamers grudgingly welcomed. They tolerated these gamer girls precisely because they were Cool Girls. Such girls would never, ever criticize men for behaving in shockingly sexist ways toward anyone, not even themselves, nor ever ask for even a crumb of better treatment.

Gone Girl was first published in 2012. When it got made into a movie in 2014, it caught a lot more attention. Maybe that speech, too, had something to do with the rage of male gamers toward women in their hobby, because it made a lot of women examine that entire trope.

A push to encourage women not to be ‘not like the other gamer girls’

Nowadays, lots of articles online feature women talking about their cringey attempts to placate male sexism by not being like those other girls.

Buzzfeed offers a list of their past experiences, and it contains a number of references to gaming. I’m not even half surprised. Women were so effectively erased from the gaming hobby that when girls wanted to portray themselves as “not like the other girls,” gaming naturally became part of the image they projected.

Other women criticize the trope of the gamer girlfriend that these guys say they want but really don’t. (“I love gamer girls” so often turns out to mean “I hate gamer girls,” to adapt another line from Gone Girl.) Still others critically examine related behavior like “queen bee syndrome,” which is a self-defensive strategy some women utilize in venues that devalue them.

Which reminds me: I knew a MUD developer who refused to hire more than one female admin for his game because he believed women could never get along with each other. When he said this to me, it was on another MUD with a large staff roster of about half women who almost all got along great. The one drama llama in the group who operated with a serious queen bee mindset was all it took to confirm his bias.

To me, the answer was easy: He needed to avoid drama llamas of any gender. But to him, the answer was even easier: He simply would never hire more than one woman for any game he ran.

Women emerge from the shadows

But slowly, things improved. Women themselves began to recognize the soul-crushing indignity of catering to men with the gamer girl trope.

What’s refreshing about all of it is that women themselves have come understand what a big part they’ve played in the hobby. They’ve realized that women were always there, and always in larger numbers than sexist men suspected.

These women aren’t asking for a seat at the gaming table. They’re expecting everyone to recognize that they’ve always been at the table, and that they expect fair treatment.

It’s all happened so subtly that it’s astonishing to see where we are now, versus where we were just ten years ago.

For their part, video game developers seem to be taking female gamers way more seriously.

A sea change in how women gamers are treated

Feminist Frequency has been keeping track of the genders of video-game heroes for a while. Their most recent chart that I know of, from 2020, indicates that in that year, more games offered female heroes than ever before, by a huge longshot: 18%, versus single-digit numbers in previous years. Over half of the games they tracked offered the players choices in gender. For the last five years, only about a quarter of games locked players into male heroes.

Others have examined video game heroes’ genders more recently. One 2022 examination indicates that the equality trend continues apace. It’s worth noting that they only studied games that locked players into a particular gender of hero, which meant only including 46 of the 83 possible games released in 2022. The others either allowed for customization or had no known gender, while another three were eliminated because they were sports games based on real-world teams.

It’s an absolutely stunning turnaround for an industry that used to give women very few options for representation—like Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider franchise. Obviously, more female heroes and customizable options don’t mean fair treatment in and of themselves, but both indicate an acknowledgement that women are, indeed, present in the hobby.

In tabletop, as in online gaming, the conversation continues about addressing sexism both behind the scenes at gaming companies and at conventions and in gaming culture as a whole.

At last, the gamer girl is simply a gamer again

I suspect very strongly that as tabletop roleplaying games reach further and further into mainstream American culture, they’ll draw in more women who never tangled with the messy indoctrination and misogyny that nerdy girls faced in the 1980s and 1990s. Maybe it’s that infusion of fresh perceptions that has led to these new expectations of inclusion and equality.

Between Stranger Things prominently featuring the game to countless podcasts and YouTube videos featuring gaming sessions, roleplaying games have become much more acceptable and accessible to mainstream players. And that definitely includes women, who show up in many of the gaming sessions available online.

At last, the so-called gamer girl is simply a gamer again. It’s what I’ve always hoped would happen, ever since I realized I had been shoehorned into a label I didn’t want or like or feel described me.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...