Harassment and board gaming

I’ve had this sitting as a draft for a good long while, now. And I just figured I should get it out here and hope it helps. I am not in any way claiming this is an exact, comprehensive guide on dealing with harassment. I do hope it sheds light on things, however.

Alrighty. So you’ve heard about women being harassed and assaulted in the hobby of board gaming, and you might be wondering a whole bunch of things. There are, and remain to be, issues with racism and classism in the hobby on top of this, but I have focused in somewhat on gender-based harassment here. Let’s just get this out of the way before anything else: yes, it happens in this hobby. Of course it does. It happens in the world, and this isn’t a magical bubble that keeps it out. Anywhere that people gather, it’ll happen. Which is depressing, yes, but realistic.

TL;DR: Harassment is real, and we need to do something about it for the hobby and the world at large.

Read on:

What is harassment?

What is the issue in board gaming?

“I don’t see it!”

Where it happens

What can I do in the moment?

What is harassment?

Thank you to my HR teachin’ pal Mandi for providing this comprehensive definition!

Harassment is improper conduct by an individual that is directed at, and offensive to another individual in the workplace/an event/ a location and the individual knew or ought reasonably to have known would cause offence or harm.  It comprises objectionable act(s), comment(s) or display(s) that demean, belittle or cause personal humiliation or embarrassment, or any act of intimidation or threat. Based on the prohibited grounds i.e., race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital or family status, disability, pardoned conviction and conviction for which a record of suspension has been ordered. Harassment is normally a series of incidents but can be one severe incident which has a lasting effect on the individual.


NOTE: Harassment is about impact on an individual and not the intent of the other person.

What is the issue that is getting so much attention right now generally, and in board gaming as a hobby?

Of late, following a much larger revelation thanks to the #MeToo movement, issues of sexual harassment and abuse are being spoken about more generally. Within board gaming specifically, women have not necessarily gone public with their specific accounts, but instances of harassment and abuse are certainly being discussed. (These instances are certainly in the spotlight right now, but there are also broader problems of sexism, racism and homophobia and transphobia.)

While there are more women in the hobby and attending events than ever, we’re still seeing a gender disparity in board gaming (not just among gamers, but their representation, too). While this is not deliberate, it can have the effect of making the hobby seem intimidating, or unwelcoming, depending on the situation. Gil Hova wrote an incredibly insightful piece on the issue of “invisible ropes” that keep women out of gaming in 2014, and it’s still relevant today.

So, between the fact that the smaller demographics in the hobby seem to be on the receiving end of harassment and abuse disproportionately and also the fact that there has been a rise in our culture of discussing #MeToo and issues of sexual harassment and violence more openly, that’s why we’re seeing this get so much attention in our circles, especially on social media. I’d like to link to this great little comic that is a great summation of what it feels like to try and talk about harassment – or not.

Let us not diminish the fact that these are just a portion of instances – that generally, women may (and do) experience this harassment elsewhere. More importantly, this is a society-wide issue. It’s a “pyramid” held up by every type of action:

Misogyny isn’t a sliding scale of harm where jokes are situated at the low end and rape at the other. Rather, it functions like a human pyramid, where minor acts support the major by providing, at best, a foundation of blithe indifference, and at worst an atmosphere of amusement at the denigration of women. (Pitman, 2018)


“I don’t see it!” – then you’re not the target (plus: info about false accusations)

While men can certainly be the target of sexual harassment and abuse, most are women. If you don’t see it happening to women, it’s because you most likely don’t recognize the signs or you’re lucky that you run in circles where this isn’t as overt or as present. You might miss it, too, because, based on the Canadian legal definition, consent cannot be given in a situation that involves an abuse of trust, power or authority (among other things) – and there are a great deal of men in positions of power in the board game industry, and there is often a gender-based power imbalance due to the gender disparity discussed above. Consent is frequently missed in discussions of social and sexual interactions – and while the Canadian law of consent is of course not applicable in other countries, the contents still remain relevant.

These statistics for self-reporting and police reporting (which honestly comes with its own issues of being scared or not being believed) are relevant: “Women self-reported 553,000 sexual assaults in 2014, according to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey on Victimization. … Although both men and women experience sexual assault, women accounted for 92% of victims of police-reported sexual assaults in 2008.” The person who has been harassed or abused is not responsible for this occurrence – the perpetrator is. And like it or not, due to men more frequently being perpetrators of this harassment and abuse, this means we’re likely talking about men rather than you seeing men do this.

This CNN report on global instances of harassment and abuse breaks down occurrences and statistics and is worth looking at, especially for this quote from the introduction: “It may be the words “hey, beautiful” or “hey, sexy,” or being instructed to smile. It may be more intentional: standing in the way or blocking the path in the hope of some interaction. It may get more aggressive, with hands reaching to inappropriate places. The spectrum is far and wide, with one end harboring the potential for things to become more violent with physical abuse or rape.” 

If you’re surprised by any of this happening, you shouldn’t be. If 1 in 4 women in North America are likely to experience some form of harassment/abuse, then it would be highly improbable for this to miss board gaming, as small as the hobby is. If a woman states she’s experienced something like this, it’s unlikely to be a false accusation – this write-up regarding false reporting states, “research for the Home Office suggests that only 4% of cases of sexual violence reported to the UK police are found or suspected to be false. Studies carried out in Europe and in the US indicate rates of between 2% and 6%.”

Where it happens.

It will happen anywhere, anytime – no matter the time of day, or what someone’s wearing. There is no specific venue or event where this is likely to occur more frequently – social dynamics can be different in some venues, and experiences may differ, but the fact remains people are being harassed in these spaces.

At your local game store? Perhaps you’re browsing and receive unwelcome attention, at open gaming and there are sexualized remarks being made over a game.

At a smaller, regional convention? Or perhaps a large, nationally attended convention? The larger numbers of people in an area together and gaming with people you’re not familiar with can certainly lead to circumstances where harassment can fester.

Maybe during demonstrations of games at a publisher’s booth,you’re going to be talked over, or objectified, lose your personal space.

At events held on-site or even off-site during conventions there really is no telling what sort of behaviours will rise up, especially if there is an imbalance in gender and potentially if there is alcohol involved.

And let’s not forget: the internet. Monolith of anonymity. Amnesty International has written how toxic Twitter can be. There’s no doubting that women are harassed and even doxxed due to their visible participation in board gaming on social media.

What can I do in the moment? Be a bystander who can and may intervene.

Be aware of situations around you – body language/physical signs or social cues that can show something is wrong. If you’re not sure, discreetly ask! Don’t engage the perpetrator. If you haven’t discussed an “escape plan” with friends before an event, subtly mention something in conversation to give them an excuse to bow out of a situation if necessary. If you check in and someone would like a companion to walk back to their cars/to the subway/their hotel rooms – if need be, in a smaller group – offer that up!

If you hear someone using sexist, sexually inappropriate or misogynist language – respectfully tell them it’s not welcome in this hobby. We have to start the seachange of attitude somewhere and this is the most basic start to levelling up respect.
Do not speak about anyone’s experience of being harassed or abused unless you have explicitly been given consent to by the target of said abuse. Listen to the experiences of women, and try to not take things personally – this is not about you.

The Step Up program has a great run-down for bystander intervention (especially their 3 “Ds” – direct, distract, delegate. More info in this (very PSA-ish but still clear) video (CW: suggestions of suicide, sexual assault)


Being engaged and being part of the change

It is great to be there for a friend in their time of need or worry, to be there with them if they need support – listen to their needs, and respect their requests. But it’s certainly not enough to just triage problems as they occur – we have to start more broadly bringing up the topic of respect towards women and other minorities. We have to change the idea that men acting a certain way, and that being “the way the world works” is why women are harassed and abused – that’s not fair to men, and it’s not fair to anyone. Changing the status quo means that people can start to feel welcome in spaces where they may not have been previously.

As mentioned above, listen to people and don’t take things personally when the general topic of harassment is discussed, pertaining to the bias of it happening to more women. Believe women and men, and especially trans and non-binary folks, when they speak of their experiences of harassment and abuse. (Terry Crews has been an incredible advocate for male survivors of harassment and abuse if you’re interested in looking into that further.) The stigma of coming forward to discuss traumatic experiences is a huge barrier, and we have to make it a safer environment for speaking about this – should survivors wish to.

This article is an incredibly useful and enlightening read – 101 Guide to Allyship (in coffee and in general). There are many, many people in board gaming who have good intentions and need some gentle guidance and content to help them in their ally journey. If we are to get past simply the discussions and revelations of harassment and abuse and move toward doing something about it, we must all work together. Help people be mindful of their actions. Encourage those who host conventions to have adequate codes of conduct and anti-harassment guidelines so we can move toward an industry standard. All of us in the hobby don’t have to be lost (there are many refrains of “how do I know how to act around women now?”) – it might seem hard given the spectrum of human behaviour. However, we can generally aim for deliberate respectful treatment of each other and reduce the objectification of women, the targeting of minorities and make gaming somewhere that we can definitely sit down and forget our worries and have fun.

I just want to leave you with this, as some food for thought, from the Dandelion Initiative here in Toronto.


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