Harassment in nerd spaces, and encouraging honesty

by Maddy Myers

The following piece of writing will tell an old story. It is a prologue to this story that I wrote about local fighting games meet-ups. I wrote most of this before I saw this video about "con creepers", which has been going around the internet this week. I didn’t want to publish this story before, and I still don’t want to, but it’s an important story.

I hope this story encourages more people to talk seriously about experiences they’ve had at conventions, at gaming meet-ups, at comic book stores, or any other male-dominated spaces that (however unintentionally) end up housing predators and “creepers” who make people feel unwelcome and uncomfortable. People should feel like they can talk about their experiences without having to use jokey euphemisms (“creeper”) or make supposedly-satirical-but-sort-of-serious videos like the one linked above.

“Creepers” aren’t well-meaning men who don’t understand that what they’re doing is wrong or don’t understand that they’re making people uncomfortable. In my experience, “creepers” do know that they’re making women uncomfortable and they don’t care, because in their estimation, women shouldn’t be hanging around “nerd spaces” in the first place.

I attended Anime Boston in 2011. I had a media pass, and I meant to write about the convention for the Phoenix. I did write about it, in fact, but never published what I wrote. I'm going to write a variation on that piece again, now.

I didn't attend many of the con’s events, which was part of why I felt like my piece wasn’t good enough to publish. I went to a panel about anime, the only panel on the schedule that interested me at all, and I did not understand any of it. I went to the Masquerade and sat through as much of it as I could stand.

The original Masquerade host for that year, a male comedian, had been kicked out of the con for (rumor has it) punching a female fan in the face because she was “annoying” him. His replacement seemed as unprepared and nervous about hosting the show as one might expect. I include this anecdote as a counter-example of Anime Boston doing The Right Thing. I think this convention tries, as all conventions try, to do the right thing when it comes to harassment. But when a convention gets big, it gets more difficult to keep tabs on everything that occurs within its walls, especially since a lot of these cons are staffed by volunteers and unpaid staff. I work for a con called ConnectiCon, and I have friends who work for other cons, and I know exactly how hard it is to keep tabs on everyone, especially for big cons that have grown too fast for their staff numbers and volunteer numbers to keep up. I also realize how difficult the problem of con security has become, especially as conventions have gotten bigger and bigger in the past decade; even cons with great security policies have trouble following their own policies due to staff shortages and/or poorly trained staff. But that obviously doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to talk about this and solve this. The problem persists.

I spent almost the entire rest of the con in the gaming room. I like video games, so I figured this room would be my best bet for having a great time at Anime Boston. Not so much, it turned out.

The gaming room at Anime Boston that year had very few functional overhead lights, little air ventilation, and plenty of video games. Mortal Kombat 9 had just come out, and the gaming room had multiple TVs available with that game. They also had Tekken and Street Fighter and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and a ton of other stuff; I stuck to the fighting games area, mostly. The game room staff had organized a big Marvel vs. Capcom 3 tournament on that Saturday. One of my friends planned to enter, along with at least 50 other competitors, maybe more. There were so many people entering the tournament that the original bracket plans had to be changed to accommodate the bulk. The game room seemed understaffed, although it was hard to tell who was on staff and who wasn't. I could tell the guy running the Marvel tournament was on staff, but he seemed overwhelmed, and I wasn't sure who else was helping him.

The fighting games area was full of men and boys. There were a few women in the gaming area, but they weren't playing any fighting games; they played DDR, or stood on the outskirts of the room talking to each other, coming and going as opposed to getting into the thick of it all and hunkering down for hours-long stretches. The dark, sweaty room ranged between having 50 to 200 people in it playing games over the course of the day.

I wasn't wearing the sort of shapeless baggy clothes that I usually cloak myself in when I go out to a game store and try to get taken seriously as a gamer who happens to be a woman. I was dressed for the occasion of Anime Boston, but not for the more specific occasion of a convention's gaming area. I wore a black ruffly shirt with puffed sleeves and a knee-length black-and-red flowered dress with a tulle tutu underneath, black stockings, and red high heels. I had my hair up in two buns, with one bun wrapped in a silver flower hair barrette. The outfit, inspired by Lolita fashion, allowed me to fit in at the rest of the con … but not in this particular room. I stood out even more than I usually do in a male-dominated game area. This shouldn't matter, but I think it did change the way people treated me. (I can't "prove" that, of course.)

A friend of mine was playing Tekken. I went over and watched him play. He said hello to me as he picked out his characters, and he apologized for being in the middle of a set of games.

I said, "Don't worry about it. I'll watch. You just focus on your game."

His opponent turned to him and grinned wide. "Wow, man," he said, "That's awesome, you've got your own cheerleader right there."

I yelled at this man. I don't remember the specifics, but I know I told him I wasn't a cheerleader, that I was there because I liked games and that my name was Maddy, and that if he wanted to talk to me instead of about me while I was standing right there he should feel free to do so, but that there was no need to be disrespectful to me before we had even been introduced.

Of all of this, the man was most surprised that I played games. He kept asking me to clarify this point. He did not believe me.

My male friend was not surprised by my outburst. He refers to me as a "strong woman," sometimes. It's his euphemism for "feminist." I don't mind it so much, even though that phrase doesn't tell the whole story. It's his way of saying that he likes that I'm not willing to take shit.

Even that depends on the day, though. Some days I do sit there and take it because I just don't have the energy for an argument with a stranger. Some days I'm not so "strong," I guess. I wish I didn't always need to be.

I wanted to play fighting games, too, but I didn't feel like playing with a bunch of jerks, so I stood around and waited to see if the outlook would improve. I wasn’t sure what might indicate this to me, but I hung back and watched anyway. As I watched, men would cut in front of me, assuming that I wasn't in line and never asking first. Larger men would physically push past me and stand right in front of me, even if I were clearly watching a game. From what I understand, this happens whether you're a woman or not; lots of line-cutting and pushing for fighting games happens at conventions and fight nights everywhere. It's one of the many aspects of fight night culture that I don't like. It goes hand in hand with the necessity of repeating over and over to everyone else around that you’re in line, that you have next game, and so on.

When my friend finished playing Tekken to his satisfaction, we stood by the gaming area and caught up with one another. We hadn't talked in a long time. As we talked, other men kept coming over and talking to me and my friend … men who I did not know, men who barely knew my friend. At first, this confused us. Eventually, my friend realized: "They're only coming over to talk to us because you're here. I don't even know half of these guys. They just see me talking to a girl and they want to come meet you.”

I had been invisible while I stood looking at video games, but now, I had suddenly become visible again. My friend had broken the ice for all of these other guys, thus giving them free range to also try to talk to me, I suppose.

Eventually, a Super Smash player showed up and wouldn't leave us alone. We said we had to go to the Masquerade, but he kept following me. Eventually, my friend had to tell him in no uncertain terms to leave us alone because we wanted to go to the Masquerade by ourselves. The Smash player seemed angry and affronted, as though my friend were "hogging" me, the only girl who was willing to stand next to the fighting games area and talk about fighting games. Again, this was a guy who was a stranger to us both. I just stood there, uncomfortable, not involved in any of the invisible social transactions occurring all around me. The Smash player stormed off and my friend and I went to the Masq for a while. Then, we went back to the game room again.

My friend went back to gaming, and I saw another guy that I knew. This guy worked at a local gaming store. He had hit on me in the past and I had rebuffed him. He was there with a cute girl, and both of them had been drinking … a lot. They had a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels in a backpack. The girl had a big crush on this guy. He was willing to keep her around, it seemed, and keep her drunk, but he wasn't going to take advantage of her, or so he kept insisting. This girl was not 21. I don’t even think she was 18. There weren't security guards around to notice them drinking.

The three of us talked about Mortal Kombat for a while. Without warning, the guy leaped forward and slung me over his shoulder and ran all around the game room. I screamed, but everyone else in the room interpreted my screams as playful flirtation, I suppose. So I stopped screaming and stayed silent until he put me down. I looked in his eyes once I was on the ground and saw that he was so drunk and hazy that trying to reprimand him would have been pointless. We walked back to the other girl in awkward silence.

I did my best to make the girl feel certain that this guy wasn’t worth it. I think I had her convinced, by the end, or so I reassured myself.

Eventually, the guy said to me, out of the blue: "Hey, wait, I just realized you're wearing a dress. Sorry I picked you up before ... I guess everybody saw your underwear."

"Yeah," I said. "I really didn't appreciate that." I knew that my black stockings were opaque, but I wasn't sure how opaque and I didn't want to think about what had just happened. I was trying to laugh it off.

As the three of us talked to one another, a couple of other strange guys walked up and joined our conversation. I didn't pay these two newcomers any attention or even look at their faces. I felt exhausted, burned out, and depressed.

A girl walked up and asked if she could take a photo of me. I felt cautious, having experienced plenty of humiliation already from strangers in the game room. She explained that she had a blog online about Lolita fashion and wanted a picture of my outfit, since it appeared to be Lolita-inspired. I agreed, she shot her picture, she thanked me, and she went on her merry way.

Right after that, a strange man next to me put his arm around me, yanked me into his chest, and told his friend to take a picture of us embracing. I screamed and pushed him off of me. I shouted, "Who are you? Why are you touching me? You don't get to touch me!"

He laughed in my face and told me to calm down. After all, that other girl had just taken a picture of me.

I could tell he knew the difference between what that girl had done, and what he had done. I explained the difference anyway: she had asked for a picture. And she hadn't touched me. Don't touch strangers, I told him. I couldn’t believe I was bothering to tell him something so simple.

The guy told me he was only 16; he brought up his age so immediately that I got the impression he had used it as an excuse in the past. He said he just wanted cool photos from the con. That was all. No big deal. Why was I being so mean?

I kept up conversation with this group of people for a little while longer before realizing I had to get out of there. The 16-year-old guy wouldn’t leave, no matter how cold I was towards him; he kept standing too close next to me and talking at me, saying he didn’t understand why I was “so mad”. I left, and I watched to be sure no one followed me.

As I left the room, the full impact of the day kicked in. I called my boyfriend, and then I called my best friend, and I talked to them as I walked out of the con. It soothed the rising acid in my stomach to recount it all and hear them say, "That sucks" and "what the fuck!?!" and so on.

I didn't bother trying to tell security about anything that had happened, from the bottle of Jack Daniels to the non-consensually cuddly 16-year-old. For one thing, I hadn't seen a security guard all day. For another, I wasn't sure what I could accomplish. Maybe I would get a couple friends-of-friends-of-friends kicked out of the con -- or maybe, more likely, I'd waste time trying to track down a security guard who wouldn't care and/or wouldn't believe me.

That one staffer in the game room who seemed to be too busy running a huge tournament to pay any attention to anyone ... would he have listened to me? I have to assume that he would have, and that if anything like this happened to me again, that talking to him would have been worth it. But I have my doubts. I have pretty strong doubts.

At the time, I just wanted to get out, and I didn’t want to “cause trouble.” I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by pointing any fingers. I just wanted to go home.

Looking back, I still don't know what "the right thing to do" was. I only wish that I had yelled more. Yes, more. I already had yelled at lot, but I held back some reserve of anger because I had worried about what people thought of me. Yes, even these people, even these jerks who had offered me no respect. Why did I care about being “nice” to them? Would I care now, if all of this happened again?

I went back to the con the next day. I wore jeans and a T-shirt and a sweatshirt this time. Dressing in a way that's coded as "masculine" as opposed to "feminine" may have afforded me some small leg up in the legitimacy department. I should be able to walk into a game room in a ball gown and be taken seriously. But, sadly, that’s not how that goes.

The game room had fewer people in it this time. It was Sunday, the last day of the con.

I saw my friend from the day before, the one who had played Tekken. He played some more Tekken (big surprise), and he introduced me to a different friend of his.

I talked to this new guy for a while and considered whether I wanted to bother playing any games myself. I ended up playing some Marvel vs Capcom 3. This guy seemed surprised that I game, as everyone else had been, but he didn't seem as rude about it as some of the other people I'd met the day before, so I kept talking to him.

I told him that I hadn't gamed yesterday, although I had wanted to, and that I'd had a bad time. I told him that people had been "rude" to me, and briefly mentioned the guy who called me a "cheerleader."

He looked shocked at this, even more shocked than he had been at the news that I played games.

"The fighting community is so welcoming," he assured me. "I've never heard of people being that rude!"

The fighting community had been very "welcoming" to me indeed ... if touching me without my consent, alternating between interrupting my conversations and refusing to leave me alone or completely ignoring me to cut me in line, assuming I don't game and acting over-the-top surprised about it when I say that I do, or referring to me as a "cheerleader" without so much as a "what's your name" count as being welcoming … which, they don't.

But I didn't say that.

I just said, "Yeah, I always hear that it's a welcoming community. I'm not sure what the problem was yesterday."

This guy said the same argument that I have begun to hear all the time, since writing about my experiences with playing fighting games in public: there are "a few bad apples." "A few bad seeds." "You just have to ignore them."

He also told me that some people act rude and exclusionary to "everyone," not just women (as though that makes it better), and that some people are "salty" … a euphemism for "unapologetically assholeish" that I've heard tossed around a few too many times by local fighting games fans. Just call the behavior assholeish, you’re not fooling anyone. French fries are salty. These guys are not salty; they are exclusionary, elitist shits.

I'm not sure why a supposedly "welcoming" community can also manage to have such a reputation for being jerky to newcomers, but there you go. If I've learned anything at all about my local fighting games cliques, it's that they love contradictions ... and they hate getting called out.

Then, this guy told me a story. He began this story by claiming that the fighting games community is really supportive of women. He said that this story would prove this to me.

He told me that he once fought in a tournament. He fought against a woman, a woman who had made it all the way to the end. It was her against him. The crowd screamed her name, giddy with pleasure at her skill.

But then this guy started to take the lead. And what did the crowd do? They began to boo him. Every time he hit her, they cried out in anger and annoyance. He won the match, in the end, and he shook hands with his opponent. The crowd continued to boo him throughout his victory.

I listened to this story in silence, and at the end, I nodded, deep in thought. I hated the story, but I didn't say so, because I wasn't quite sure why at that time.

For one, I didn't like the pressure on this woman. She "had" to win, because she had become some sort of … symbol. I didn't feel like I could ever be that good at fighting games, especially if I had to become good while facing that level of pressure. I felt bad about myself, and my lack of skill, and I felt intimidated and depressed about my chances. I wasn't sure what else bothered me about the story until much, much later.

After I attended the fight nights that I wrote about in the piece I did for the Phoenix, I kept going back to fight nights, for some reason. I guess I thought if I kept going back, I would start having fun. I never did, but I gave it the old college try, every time, as I always do. After the article came out, though, people sent me so many angry emails that I didn't feel like going back anymore.

This surprised me -- how many people I managed to bother, just by writing down basic descriptions of my experiences without much editorializing. "Why did you write this?" "WHYYYY did you write this?" I grew tired of this angry question. Why does anyone tell any story at all? Why do I do anything? Why are any of us here?

I don't know why I write. You could just as soon demand, "Why do you keep breathing?" and I'd be just as baffled. I just ... do this. This is a thing I do.

The final time (as of this writing) that I went to a fight night at GU, I had a conversation with another gamer there. He told me a story. He told me about a very young boy who competes at fighting games, a boy still in elementary school.

"You can't beat him," he told me, "because if you do, everyone will boo you. This kid isn't even good. People say he's a prodigy. But he's not good. People just won't beat him because they don't want the crowd to boo at them."

My smile faltered in that moment, because my brain had called back that other story about The Woman.

Women and children, see. They can't really play fighting games, but it’s so cute that they try, so you have to let them win. You can teach them the steps, and it'll even be entertaining, because they aren't "supposed" to be good. They're prodigies, in the same way that a cat playing a piano is a prodigy. It's funny. It's entertaining. It's adorable. It doesn't challenge the status quo, really, because these are not Real Gamers. These are minorities, flashes in the pan, mascots, symbols, to be held up on pedestals because they are good enough to pass muster and provide a good laugh for the Real Gamers. You know. The REAL GAMERS. With their real, adult tournaments with real, hardcore players who take that shit seriously. Oh, and those real gamers all happen to be adult men. Weird coincidence, right?

Earlier on during that same fight night, another guy had seen me playing a match. He came over to interrupt my match to "teach me" how to play. He taught me some moves I already knew, and when I said I knew them already, he shamed me in front of the surrounding crowd, announcing that I hadn't been using them at the right times or often enough. I felt like a child. I felt like I was supposed to be Honored that this strange man had singled me out, had looked me up and down as soon as he walked in the room and had decided he was going to bestow his knowledge upon me. I hadn't asked him for help; I had stared at him in silence as he sat down and closed my other match and pushed us both into training mode so he could “teach me”.

He was “being nice” to me. Because some of them are Nice, you see, and I should be Flattered. And some of them, like that guy, even want me to come back, even though I wrote an article that made half of them angry and confused. But if I do come back, I have to play by certain rules. I have to smile, and nod, and learn, and be a good mascot, and hopefully keep my mouth shut because, why, WHY would I WRITE about any of this? Why would I keep telling people that even though I go, even though I fight and do my best to learn, I still don’t actually feel welcome there? Surely these men are not meaning to be condescending, surely this is all in my head. I shouldn’t write it down or tell anyone about it. I should just be grateful.

One of the last conversations I had before I left was with the guy who had told me about the child-gamer that no one could beat. He asked me, again and again, whether I'd be willing to play a game on the shop's Twitch TV stream. I told him I wouldn't do it, I wasn't good enough yet to play publicly like that (I didn’t even feel “good enough” to attend a fight night, and I still don’t), and more than all of that, I didn't want to be on camera. I know what happens to girl gamers who play games on camera.

"We could announce online that a girl is playing," he said, "And we'd get a ton of views!"

I said no, again and again, but I think he thought I was joking, because he kept asking. I kept backing away. Eventually, I walked off and played a game with someone else at another game station. Shortly after that, I went home.

I've been continuing to play fighting games by myself against the AI at home, with the occasional friend who comes over ... as I always did, and always will do ... and it's been nice. I had wished that fight nights, and even conventions, could be fun for me. And even now, every time I go to an event like that, I go in with the hope that it'll be different. I don't go in with an assumption that it will be bad. I still have hope. Because, sometimes, I actually do meet people who are kind, so I may as well go in with the assumption that everyone is kind, that everyone will be kind.

But I have been somewhat beaten down, by now, by my own experiences with people who are not kind.

There’s a lot of content to sink into here: stereotypes about gender, and people’s expectations, and redefining what we think about who “can” and who “should” play games, and con security and harassment and environments that make women not want to hang out in game rooms at all… all sorts of bits and pieces that I've been chewing on for years now and trying to put together. I’ll keep on trying to pull some of those pieces together in future writing.

I think I can predict the response to this writing already. I've seen it before. "Don't you want guys to be nice to you?" "What do you want these men to do?" "Weren't we nice enough already? We were trying, can't you tell we were trying?" "This piece isn't very nice. How can you expect people to be nice when you are so mean?"

We are all so very obsessed with appearing to be "nice," but apparently we are not very interested in actually telling each other how we feel, because the truth might hurt too much. If I'm in a situation and I don't feel good, or happy, or like I'm having fun, wouldn't you rather know than not know? And if you'd rather not know ... then you must not care very much about me. That's something I'd like to learn about you sooner rather than later.

And here’s the last question that people will ask, perhaps not out loud: “How do I know if I’M one of these creeper guys?”

I saw a self-identified nerdy guy commenting on a friend's Facebook status the other day to say that he already worried too much about what his female friends thought of him. He worried that they thought he was always hitting on them even when he wasn't. He felt like all this new "feminism stuff" about Nice Guys and Friend Zones and so on just made him confused, made him over-think his interactions with women more and more, and paralyzed him to the point where he could barely think or talk without worrying about messing up. He missed the days when he didn’t have to hear about all this, because it only made him worry about his behavior even more.

The implications of this statement, unfortunately, are that this guy misses the days when women didn’t feel like they could talk about their feelings. He misses the days before feminism, when women still felt miserable and uncomfortable but did not have the platform or the social power to talk about those feelings. He misses the days when he didn’t have to think about the fact that the women around him were not happy, and that he might be the cause of it, and that he might have to change his behavior and ask himself hard questions and worry about his female friends.

To all the guys out there who feel that way, I actually think that I do understand. You know what? The women around you also feel that way, on some level, as bizarre as that may sound. All the people you know? We all over-think our interactions and worry about how we come across. And if we are misinterpreted, we feel terrible. And the more information we find out about one another, the more we worry.

As a person who has social anxiety (a fancy diagnosis for Caring Too Much About What People Think), I can understand the feeling that this worry will consume you and never end. That feeling that you are paralyzed, that you cannot say or do anything at all, because what if it is The Wrong Thing, what if there is some secret social rule that everyone else knows that you don’t, what if you fuck it up and no one ever talks to you again?

In spite of that, I also believe that it can only be good to think and care more, and not less, about how we treat one another. Perhaps this is because I have been born burdened with an overabundance of caring, and I have embraced it – who knows. But, if your worry is consuming you and paralyzing you, then read more, and talk more, and feel more, and express that more and more and more (and maybe get some behavioral therapy). Be human. Be human to the people around you. Even sharing those worries makes you seem more human, less distant, and less of a jerk. Explain yourself, and don’t be afraid of yourself. Make yourself clear. Make others more clear, too.

If you care, even a little bit, about not being an asshole to the people around you, then you're on the right track already, and you probably aren’t even doing the same kinds of harassment that I’ve described above (and you’re certainly not on this level). Keep worrying. And let that worry transform into empathy and love and benevolence and caring about the people around you. Read those people’s stories, and learn from them, either by telling your own stories or by knowing how to call out other people’s predatory behavior when you see it so that you can call them out and kick them out of your world and and make other people feel more welcome in these spaces that are meant to be fun.