Personal Essay by Amanda Kay Oaks
Kaye Galondel, a Half-Elf Druid, flicks her wrists to summon vines, which reach out and grasp her foes. Her long auburn hair blows in the wind as she focuses on the spell, holding the enemies at bay while her companions take them out with weapons and offensive spells. As the enemies escape the grasping vines or fall, she changes tactics, releasing concentration in order to shift her body into that of a wolf, snarling into melee combat.
The party victorious, they head to the bar for a night of drinking. Kaye attempts conversation with the locals to gain information, but fumbles her way awkwardly through words. She is a woman of the forest, not accustomed to such conversation.
That, and the woman behind the character just rolled a Natural One. That’s a critical failure, meaning the character not only fails to do what they intended, but fails hard. It’s no coincidence that I chose a druid, with an abysmal charisma score, as my first Dungeons & Dragons character. I’ve been real-life failing charisma checks for as long as I can remember.
“Did you watch DBZ last night?”
I’m eight years old, riding the bus to Fairfield West elementary, and my ears perk up as the boys in front of me chatter excitedly about the latest developments in Dragonball Z’s Cell saga, which I’ve been following religiously as it airs on Cartoon Network. I yearn to chime in, share my feelings about Android 18’s choice to join the heroes, fight alongside them to defeat her former ally, Cell.
I have become obsessed with Android 18, the first strong female character I’d encountered, who could keep up with the boys while also not wearing a skirt and sporting impossibly long, flowing locks that would undeniably be a disadvantage in battle. I tape a printout of her on my Composition notebook alongside the faces of a hundred and one cartoon boys I have crushes on. She stands out, a strong female character in a sea of guys.
The boys on the bus don’t talk about her much. They’re far more interested in Goku, Vegeta, and the goings-on of the men the show primarily focuses on. No matter how much I have to say about these characters or the overlooked Android 18, I can’t make the words come out. I am shy–I can’t count the number of minutes I’ve spent in agonized silence, rehearsing a single phrase in my head in the hopes I can get it to come out my mouth, only to see the conversation skate along past the point where my carefully calculated comment would fit.
This was my childhood: watching shows like Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh!, listening to the guys on the bus and at lunch and recess, wanting but not knowing how to join in. My composition notebook was a carefully crafted message that screamed “I am a nerd, too!” with its photos of characters from Yu-Gi-Oh!, Dragonball Z, X-Men: Evolution, Lord of the Rings, and Digimon. I brought it with me everywhere, setting it in plain view, just hoping someone would do me the favor of striking up a conversation.
I’m just old enough to have spent my younger years without the internet, so I couldn’t log on to forums and find the conversations I wanted until high school, when I started writing fanfiction and learning how the internet can be a beautiful balm to the socially anxious nerds among us.
The thing was, I didn’t meet another girl who liked that stuff until I was older, and even if I was incredibly passionate about nerdy “boy stuff,” I was also undeniably 110% boy crazy. Regardless of what I watched or read, even when romance was the least priority, I found couples to ‘ship, picking up the smallest threads of potential romance and clinging to them. I also spent a lot of time watching shows in which there was nearly always a guy best friend who was secretly in love with the main female protagonist (the plot of many a Disney Channel original movie, not to mention shows like Kim Possible and Lizzie McGuire). As a result, I was terrified to talk to boys, because the cute ones were too cute and the ones that weren’t would almost definitely develop an unrequited crush on me. As far as I could see, it was impossible that I could just have guy friends.
Kaye Siondel, halfling druid, walks alongside her wizard companion, shooting sparks of lightning into the sky to underscore his passionate speech. Boffin is another halfling, though he has disguised himself to appear more menacing than stature would suggest. Still, Kaye felt a little help from the elements would be in order if they planned to sway the crowd in their favor. She is silent, knowing that speech is not her forte, but focuses her energy in the shocking blasts that leave the crowd mesmerized. If they can convince them this lynching is against the favor of their gods, then maybe, just maybe, they can save these innocent people from death.
Thankfully, the dice roll is in her favor. I sit on the couch in a circle of friends, staring down at the mat where our game master (GM) has sketched out the town map. We move our minis along this grid in combat, indicating the allotted movement. For a hobbit like this version of my druidic character, that’s never very far. I’ve been playing with this group for a while now, and Kaye has gotten our party out of a few scrapes here and there, but for all that I’m still learning to play this game. I’ve been listening to a podcast dedicated to this tabletop RPG, Pathfinder, so I feel more confident about the rules, more willing to speak up and suggest outlandish ideas. I’m learning to ask “druid questions,” like “Would you say there’s vegetation in this area?” or “What’s the weather like at this moment?” and loving it.
As I roll the dice to determine the success of Kaye’s next move, I try to imagine what the younger version of me would think if she could see me now.
While I didn’t have much of anyone to talk to at school, at home I’d sit with my kid brother and play videogames on our N64 and PS2. I loved any game where I could swing a sword, do magic, or shoot a bow and arrow, but my special favorite was a little game called Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. I loved it for two reasons. First, the roleplay aspect allowed you to create your own character, meaning there was more than one option for a playable female avatar. I might be dating myself here, but that was hard as hell to come by when I was a young nerdlette. Second, it was one of the few RPGs at that time with a two-player mode, so Josh and I could fight together. While we had fun with him watching me kick butt on solo runs through Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy X, my best memories of growing up with a sibling were undeniably these runs through the dungeons of Baldur’s Gate, my Dark Elf Archer fighting alongside Josh’s human warrior. Little did I know that the game I loved and devoted hours and hours of my adolescence to had a predecessor in the form of tabletop RPGs.
I don’t quite recall when I first learned of the game called Dungeons & Dragons, but from the moment I heard about it, I wanted to play it. It didn’t matter that, as I grew up, this type of activity was increasingly considered ‘uncool.’ I was already a lonely kid who didn’t have a lot of friends, and ‘cool,’ for a chubby girl with glasses who could barely string a sentence together in the presence of classmates, was an option I’d flown right past long ago.
I didn’t know anyone in my day-to-day who played Dungeons & Dragons, so I settled for my RPG video games and my fantasy novels. Eventually, I’d join color guard and make some friends, even occasionally get invited to parties. There, if given the chance to get my hands on a console controller, I came alive. I would gain unprecedented attention as I sat surrounded by the boys, reigning supreme amongst them as the Super Smash Bros champion.
If I’d had even a hint of charisma, I could probably have dated any number of those guys. I knew from the uncomfortable experience of browsing the shelves at Gamestop that I was nerd-boy kryptonite. Between 7th and 8th grade, I’d lost 50 pounds and, freshman year, gotten contacts. I was a walking She’s All That transformation, minus the part of the makeover where I magically also gain confidence.
There were two types of reactions to my presence in Gamestop. The best case scenario was that the guy working there would follow me around, being entirely too helpful and standing entirely too close. I’d read the cases of the latest RPGs and fighter games, steering clear of your Call of Duty and Halo, as I wasn’t very good at first-person shooters and hated to feel like I fit into the “girls aren’t good at video games” stereotypes.
The second type, I loathed. Sometimes, the guys would be combative, quizzing me, daring me to reveal that I was just there to buy something for a sibling or boyfriend, or only interested in Dance, Dance Revolution (a game that, admittedly, had contributed a solid amount of my weight loss). When I did play Halo with my brother or boyfriend, I learned that I had to mute my mic, or stop playing a character with a pink or purple suit–otherwise, a chorus of “Are you a girl?” would blare through the speakers, followed by mocking if I failed to rack up kills.
This gatekeeping made me feel unwelcome and made me worry that I could never, ever find a guy who’d teach me to play Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons & Dragons. As a girl growing up in the early 2000s, there was a price to being a beginner. That price was mockery. If they had to be angry, I much preferred the rage borne of being “beat by a girl” to the self-righteousness of a guy who knew anything in nerd culture better than I did.
In high school, I had a couple of close guy friends who would occasionally play video games with me. Once, I even got invited to a LAN party, where I came close to winning the Super Smash Bros tournament. These were beautiful moments, few and far in between. As my brother and I grew up, we grew apart–he leaned towards the first-person shooters popular amongst his friends, while I hid in the basement playing Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts whenever I could get him to let me use his PS2. Once he got the Xbox, I was able to co-opt the older console, even taking it with me to college where I’d spend lonely hours playing through Kingdom Hearts II much to the confusion of my roommate, who rushed a sorority.
They say you’re supposed to find “your people” in college, yet I didn’t, not really. I made some friends in the Creative Writing and English majors, who’d talk to me about books and writing. My social anxiety still reigned supreme, but I broke through now and again and made a solid, small group of friends by the end of my sophomore year. Yet there was an absence, a gap. I knew that, somewhere, there were the right kind of nerds, playing tabletop RPGs and video games. I even knew where they lived–in the boys only dorm that smelled like sweaty socks and Doritos. But, once again, a gate I couldn’t pass through (or, more truthfully, one I didn’t dare to approach).
I graduated from college in 2014, which was also the year of Gamergate. By this time, I wasn’t playing video games much anymore, since the PS2 in my dorm room had proved too much of a distraction from my studies. Still, I remained engaged at the periphery of gaming conversation, following a few key personalities on Twitter. So, I saw enough vague tweets about this “Gamergate” to pique my interest.
I want to say I was surprised by what I found when I read about Gamergate, but, unfortunately, I was not. That there was a targeted harassment campaign aimed at female developers in the video game industry was nothing shocking to a girl who had on occasion been bullied out of Gamestop or away from a particular game at the party. Guys rallied behind the hashtag #gamergate, writing in opposition to the very same increased diversity of gaming content and representation of gaming identity that I’d been thrilled to experience over the past few years. The proliferation of playable female avatars, among other things, was viewed by some as an attack on traditional gaming culture, bemoaning feminism’s influence on the gaming world.
I didn’t follow Gamergate too closely. For one, I hadn’t played many of the games mentioned in the articles I read, and for another, I didn’t need more reasons to feel uncomfortable in the world I secretly loved. I had avoided World of Warcraft and other games that drew my interest because I was terrified of the multiplayer mode, that I would be asked to interact and collaborate with random internet men who would begin their rallying chorus of “Are you a girl?!” which would, more often than not, turn into sexual harassment or outright bullying. To play “like a girl” was my greatest fear, and I wouldn’t let myself be a beginner even in something I loved. This kept me out of massive multiplayer gaming, and kept me far, far away from the tabletop games like Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons that had drawn my secret fascination for years.
Gamergate didn’t scare me so much as it reaffirmed what I already knew. Alongside it, though, was the undeniable wave of actual change. People like Felicia Day wrote TV shows and books centered around the existence of the “female gamer” as a real, valid identity–as real, valid people who could exist in the world as something other than sex object or laughable n00b. I cried listening to Felicia Day’s memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet, overwhelmed to hear an actual female voice talk about nerd culture from the inside. In spite of Gamergate, in spite of having less and less time to actually game, I was beginning to feel, in some small way, seen.
I hate how people constantly tell you “it gets better” when you grow up with social anxiety. But, in my case at least, it did get better. I graduated from college, moved out of my parents’ house, and started working as a Success Coach for community college students. Here, I found my voice. I couldn’t make myself speak up for me, but somehow, when it wasn’t for me, I could. My AmeriCorps group were built-in friends, who taught me to play beer-pong for the first time and always, always remembered to include me. I hung out with two of the guys, easily accepted as someone who knew about nerd stuff and could hold her own in a deep discussion of anything Marvel.
And then, grad school. A newly-minted, mildly less awkward version of me rolled into my MFA program and found my people. While I was undeniably on the more “basic” end of my fantastic new literary friend group, I finally had a way to let loose all my nerdy tendencies. Harry Potter marathons? Check. Playing Skyrim? Check. In-depth film analysis of all the latest Marvel movies? Check.
At 24, I had finally found a group of people who meshed with me so much that I was finally able to let all sides of my multi-faceted personality run free. I felt safe, and normal, and capable of indulging in nerd culture without feeling like the odd one out.
When a large chunk of these people moved away after the program ended, it broke my heart. The golden age of being among “my people” seemed to have passed, and I would have to settle for occasional board game nights with my boyfriend’s friends. And then, as luck would have it, I received an unexpected text:
Mel gave me your number and said you might be interested in joining a D&D campaign I’m going to run?
Was I, a 27-year-old woman now working full time (and then some) at the university where I’d earned my master’s, interested in finally entering the world of tabletop gaming I’d dreamed of since I was a kid?
Hell yes I was!
In recent years, I’ve gotten so used to my routine and my typical people that I often forget I even have social anxiety. It just doesn’t come into play much when you’re running on autopilot, interacting with the same people in more or less the same roles more often than not.
The first time I pulled up outside the house where I’d play Pathfinder for the first time, I remembered. I sat in the car looking at my phone, paralyzed by the reality of a social situation I did not know how to navigate.
It was ridiculous. I knew most of these guys at least casually, part of the broader circle of MFA folks I’d gotten to know during school. But somewhere down in my little nerd girl heart, I remembered the scoffing tones of the guys in Gamestop who didn’t believe a girl could play RPG video games. These unknown entities I was about to play with could be anyone. They could be those guys. My social anxiety brain ran into overdrive–I was breaking a cardinal rule of growing up as a nerdy girl. I was about to be a beginner. In public. In front of men. What the actual fuck had I been thinking?
And then one of those guys pulled up and got out of his car and my brain relaxed a fraction. Oh right, I thought, my friends are here. I dug deep, found some courage, and followed him inside the old house, which I’d been in once or twice before. The refrain of oh god, new people didn’t quite shut up as we made introductions. I pulled up the character sheet my friend had made for me and read the stats, calming my mind with the realization that a lot of this stuff was pretty familiar from my old Baldur’s Gate days. Once I went full-nerd-obsessive mode on D&D culture (in other words, like three days later), I would learn that the games I’d grown up playing actually owed their existence to Dungeons & Dragons, the forefather of the modern RPG. All this time I thought I was walking in as a beginner, but I had all this half-forgotten RPG knowledge to light my way.
I did myself a favor designing my first characters, making them quiet, awkward druids who didn’t require much in the way of roleplay out of me. And yet, I soon rediscovered the girl I knew well from the classroom, who had a lot of Opinions and wasn’t afraid to speak them. After that first sesh, I learned about the world of actual play podcasts, and started binge-listening my way through The Glass Cannon Podcast. This gave me a quick and perhaps occasionally obnoxious confidence in my understanding of game mechanics, aided by the fact that I had somehow become part of two campaigns in which I played similar druid characters named Kaye. I knew how to Druid like nobody’s business, and I wasn’t afraid to do it.
In spite of this, my own personal dragon of social anxiety continued to rear its head every single time I drove over there. I would sit in my car, letting the GCP play out, working up the courage to walk through the door, knowing that my fear was utterly irrational and unfounded. The moment I got inside, I knew, I would remember that these were not scary monsters, but in fact, my friends.
It took me a while to figure it out. Why was the social anxiety lingering week after week in spite of the fact that these guys weren’t new to me anymore?
“Guys” here is the key word. Years upon years of social conditioning have made me someone who struggles to feel at ease around men, who is always waiting for the other shoe to drop no matter how much I know it isn’t going to.
The girl sitting on the bus wishing she could join in talking about Dragonball Z never imagined a future where she’d be part of not one, but two groups of tabletop gamers. She never imagined a future where she’d blink and then, suddenly, most of the friends who lived near her were men. And yet, here I am, a 27-year-old whose social calendar is filled, more often than not, with tabletop gaming sessions with two groups of guys I am happy to call my friends.
It’s not that I don’t know, rationally, that I am safe here. I wouldn’t keep coming back for these sessions if I didn’t believe I was welcome there, truly just one of the group. I know it’s okay. It’s just that on some primal level, my brain doesn’t feel like this is my life. Because for most of my childhood, the dominant message was that girls don’t game. That’s why there was only one option in Mario Kart, over-the-top girly Peach, and many more games with no female playable avatar. Hell, even Pokemon games took a while to let you tell Professor Oak if you are “a boy” or “a girl.” And if the looks I got at Gamestop were any indication, the way I’d been brushed aside when I went into a tabletop gaming or comics shop was worse, like this deeper step into nerd territory wasn’t meant, wasn’t allowed, for me. It’s gotten so much better, and yet I’m still working to unlearn that understanding of my place at the table.
Lillian Avarest saunters to the front of the group, a devilish grin on her face. Her bright clothing and carefully made-up face demand attention as she waves her arm in the air, dramatically draws a card from her tarot deck, and reads aloud.
“The odds are in our favor, friends,” she says, inspiring courage in her party as they battle the man who’s come to claim the silver we’ve decided not to give him.
As the battle continues, she reaches into the pocket of her skirts, drawing out one of the coins. “If you want it so badly,” she says, the coin coming to float midair above her palm, “Then take it.” With her mind, she sends the coin flying at the enemy, hitting him square in the center of the forehead, winning the battle.
She takes a jaunty curtsey and grins.
The woman who rolled that Natural 20 smiles, too, learning to be okay with the attention that comes with playing a charismatic Bard. My new character is nothing like me, and lets me step into being someone who commands, demands, and enjoys attention. I’ve written myself a challenge in Lillian, and playing this new character is more fun than I could have ever imagined. I’m getting a taste for what it would be like, to be confident and sure of myself. Maybe I’m learning that in real life, too.
Time and time again, I pack up the purple set of dice I was generously gifted, throw my laptop in its bag, drive all of five minutes to my friend’s house, and coach myself to get out of the car. To walk past the learned discomfort into a space where I know I am, in fact, perfectly welcome. I do this because I’m not a girl anymore. I’m a grown woman, a gamer, a person enjoying a fun time around the gameboard with her friends. I do this because I know that pushing past the lingering discomfort, the sense that I’m doing something I’m not allowed to do, not really, is worth it.
Because I love this game, love stepping into the shoes of characters who can do things I never could. I dream up entire worlds not alone and in my head, like I did as a kid, but in conjunction with a group of friends. We’re imagining out entire scenes, and writing our story together.
Amanda Kay Oaks is a Pittsburgh-based writer and wearer of many professional hats. Her essays have appeared in Hoosier Lit, bonfires, Golden Walkman, and others. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University.
Find her work on Twitter and on Medium, and visit her website at amandakayoaks.com.