There’s this perception of nerd culture as a male pastime that permeates a lot of our media culture. From shows like Big Bang Theory to Beauty and the Geek, the assumption is that men are geeks and nerds, and women are… what exactly? I’ve never been sure.
Pretty? Definitely. Boring? Kind of inferred. The problem with this outlook is that women have been geeks and nerds as long as those terms have existed.
I read my first science fiction/fantasy and horror stories when I was aroud 8 years old. My father, tired of constant nagging to go to the bookstore or library, handed me a collection of short stories that included both HP Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” and Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.” In spite of weeks of nightmares, those stories spoke to me, and I moved away from age-appropriate books like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague, and directly into the complete collections of Poe, more Lovecraft, and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit. Around that same time, I played my first video game: Pong from Intellivision.
In junior high, I had a boyfriend who was also a nerd. Some of the popular kids thought it would be funny to make us interact with each other (i.e. shove us into each other in the hallways constantly). We hit it off and started “going steady.” He played Dungeons & Dragons. The minute I heard about this game where you get to pretend to be great adventurers, slaying horrible beasts and finding treasure, it hooked me. I asked him if I could play. He said that he thought that would be awesome, but he had to ask the rest of his group. They said, “No. A girl would ruin it! They don’t understand gaming.” So I drowned my sorrows in computer games on my Vic 20 and Commodore 64.
I would not get to play D&D for another six years.
I’m always a little baffled whenever the media starts talking about female nerds as if we’re some new phenomena.
At 19, I hooked up with a group of hard-partying nerds, and they finally introduced me to the game. In spite of the fact that in my first game the DM (Dungeon Master) had an NPC (Non-Player Character) rape my character, I kept playing. In the next gaming group, the guys treated my character with respect, but one guy spent an alarming amount of time lovingly describing the sexual violence his character visited upon the female character of another guy.
Even that crap could not drive me away. I kept gaming. I married an avid gamer, and we started hosting role-playing games at our house, attending games at a local comic shop and at friends’ houses. At one point between the two of us, we had nine games we were involved in, together and separately. I’ve run and played a lot of gaming systems: D&D, GURPS, Rolemaster (better known as Chartmaster), Burning Wheel, Palladium, Champions, Rifts, Amber Diceless, Little Fears, Monster Hearts, Zorceror of Zo, Don’t Rest Your Head, Warhammer Fantasy RPG. I could keep listing them all day.
Seven or so years ago I put out the call on my Livejournal, asking if there were any women I knew who wanted to play in an All-Women gaming group. I figured I’d get two or three people, and we’d do something fun once in a while.
Eighteen people responded immediately. I let scheduling cut down the numbers, and settled on a group with eight other women. We started a Victorian Vampire game, which ran for about a year and a half. We met once a month, usually at my house, and would spend the first hour sorting out dinner and talking about work and various spouses, boyfriends, and girlfriends. Then we’d settle into serious gaming, about three to four hours depending on how late I could keep my eyes open after a full week of work.
Most of the women in that group had either never gamed, because they hadn’t felt welcome in the hobby, or had gamed once or twice with guys and didn’t want to put up with being inappropriately hit on (in and out of character), having their characters sexually assaulted without any prior discussion, or feeling like they were constantly being talked down to.
I’m a 43-year-old geek girl. I’ve been playing and running RPGs for the last 24 years, as have many of my friends.
So, I’m always a little baffled whenever the media starts talking about female nerds as if we’re some new phenomena. One of my husband’s first DMs was a woman—a friend of a friend. Between calls at the phone company she worked for, she had written this game world for D&D that filled a wall’s worth of three-ring binders. All of my husband’s high school girlfriends gamed. In my crowd, while we rarely all gamed together, there were several girls who played RPGs. We also read comic books and watched Doctor Who. One of the best Warhammer 40K players I’ve ever met is a woman.
If you go to the small, regional multimedia conventions like Norwescon or Rustycon in Seattle, you’ll find probably a 60/40 split between the sexes, and that women are on every convention committee in the area. While gaming conventions skew far more heavily male, even the indie conventions like Go Play NW, there are still visible women active in them. You’ll find them running gaming and comic stores.
Yet the media acts as if nerd girls just sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus about five years ago with the advent of GeekGirlCon. (I am not knocking GeekGirlCon, a beautiful and magical place where nerdy women outnumber men. It’s so welcoming!)
I’m a 43-year-old geek girl. I’ve been playing and running RPGs for the last 24 years, as have many of my friends. I’ve been a video-gamer since Pong in the late 1970s, and at one time had my initials on every Ms. Pac-Man and Centipede game in Boise, Idaho. I have a closet full of comics, shelves full of sci-fi, and an MMO addiction I should properly be ashamed of.
Geek girls have been here this whole time, the only difference is now we can network over the Internet, organize, quit taking crap from the men and boys in our hobbies, and demand our share of the spotlight.
Mickey Schulz is a giant comic/gaming/SF&F geek and Nightcrawler fanatic (ask about her tattoo and shrine). You can read her blog at Geek Girls Rule!
Illustration by Max Fleishman