There’s Room at the Table

Nerd is a word with baggage (most words existing to shove personalities into a neat and tidy Box of Understanding are). But when I was young, I was a self-professed nerd. I read teetering stacks of books and I studied ravenously because I needed to understand the world. I daydreamed and storyspun and painted and mooncalfed and played. I wrote stories starring my favorite ass-kicking book-heroines before I even knew what fan fiction was, before the advent of Teh Intarwebz (yeah, I’m a drabble-hipster). Instead of asking for the Barbie I’d been mulling over as my good-grades treat, I begged my father to forge my very own Excalibur I could pull from the dirt-pile stone. The day I stood, towel-cloak streaming as I held aloft my magic sword (wait, that sounds familiar), was a proud day.

It seemed only a natural conclusion to carry this penchant for story-smithing and yearning for a fantasy world into other pursuits. For instance, this rad new thing called tabletop gaming. Of course I was interested in D&D and gaming generally. Turns out, it wasn’t an easy thing to make happen. A lot of parents were skeptical, questioning if it was a wholesome endeavor. Another obstacle was lack of raw materials. There was one tiny bookstore in the mall half an hour’s drive away, making gaming guides and accoutrements nigh-nonexistent (and probably waaaaay more coin than my allowance, erm,  allowed for).

My quest seemed to be at an end.

That didn’t make sense to me. Wasn’t gaming supposed to be imagination and problem-solving at its best, the kind of thing teachers would just love to see us doing? Interactive storytelling, camaraderie, and a super fun way to daydream out loud? At least, that’s what I concluded from the eensy bit of information I eked from friends who knew friends who maybe played D&D.

Here is where the story gets weirder. Gaming, apparently, was not only the devil’s work, but a boys-only endeavor. I watched the one gaming group I knew of  hunker at the back of our classroom during breaks while they schemed, sketched maps and spoke in reverent voices of stats and monstrous creatures. How their D-20’s shone like jewels. How strongly I longed to be a part of this.

One day—I think it was a Tuesday—I worked up the courage and asked.

So much NOPE. And the one who laughed me out of the room was, to my horror, another girl. I remember the moment in surround-sound and full color. Young Me confused by the anger and even desperation in her eyes when she crowded me out the door muttering, “Get your own group. This one’s mine.” I went to the girls’ bathroom and cried ’til lunch was over.

I was crushed. I didn’t end up joining a tabletop group ’til nearly 15 years later and even then, I’ve saved the world only five or six times (only one campaign was actually D&D). And I won’t even talk in this particular article about the time I went to the comic book store and was harassed right back out onto the sidewalk or how I gave up a lot of my nerdy interests simply because other nerds scared me off.


Because things are getting better.

I know more gamers these days than I encountered in the first 30 years of my life. More gamers who play for the love, the challenge, the creativity, the inclusiveness, and yes, the fun of it. We are Legion. We exist all over the world, both online and IRL. Most of my women friends are gamers, and they hail from myriad walks of life. While I know that we have a long way to go, this says something to me. Somewhere, somehow, the playing field changed. Women stood up for themselves and guys spoke out against being jerks. People put aside their differences because they realized there was enough win in the world to go around. Gaming at its heart is not about exclusivity, but about walking into an inn where a hooded figure broods in the shadows, a raucous barbarian toasts a nervous-looking bard, and somewhere in the night, there is an unearthly howling.

Today, Grownup Me wants to find that girl from the science room, the one who told me to ‘get my own’ and tell her, “Well, I did.” My own nerd heritage. My own amazing friends, my own half-elven ranger who failed every spot check, but somehow bested an undead pirate king with a rock. I want to tell that angry girl that I understand why she wouldn’t let me in and why she felt she had to defend herself from me. It was different then. The scarcity mentality she and I encountered in so many areas of nerdery, geekdom, and fandom was in full swing. But wonderful people have been out there in the world smashing barriers with +10 Greatswords of Equanimity and Boots of Exclusivity Ass-Kicking, rallying for fairness, and remembering that above all, GAMING IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN. Nobody owns anybody else’s right to dream and play. Scarcity mentality does not serve our ultimate goal: to become that ragtag bunch of misfits destined to save the world from epic horribleness for the eleventymillionth time.

So come in, traveler—come in from the cold. Join us. There’s plenty of room at the table for an adventurer like you.