Sunday, August 2, 2009

Dugeons & Divas

I've heard that the gaming industry is the heaviest industry in the world... as in it's consumer base average weight. Well, that's not necessarily true these days as the hobby attracts more... attractive people. Out of Portland, Oragon, comes the Divas of Dungeons & Dragons...

MY NAME IS AARON, and I play Dungeons & Dragons.

I'll admit it: I've been tossing 20-sided dice for over two decades. And yes, I'm fully aware that D&D is probably the world's most mocked hobby (it's pretty hard to argue with that sentiment once you've been shunned by Trekkies, or snickered at by stormtroopers).

As much as I'd like to rail against the stereotypical perception of D&D geeks, let's just be honest: Mine brethren and I are the cliché. We do spend our Friday nights huddled around a table, talking about clerics' healing powers and debating the best way to slay gelatinous cubes. We do chug vast amounts of over-caffeinated sodas, we do power-load slices of pizza, and we doponder such things as which is hotter: an elf in a chainmail bikini, or an enchantress... in a chainmail bikini.

Recently, I started to hear rumors of a group that was defying the stereotype of D&D nerds everywhere. So just as Frodo Baggins set out on an adventure to save Middle-earth, I too embarked on a quest—one in which I sought to find these possibly mythical saviors of the world's nerdiest hobby.

RIDDLES IN THE DARK

The moment you walk into Guardian Games—a gaming store hidden deep in industrial Southeast Portland—you realize it isn't your older brother's hobby shop. Forgoing the stuffy darkness of most nerdery supply stores, Guardian Games feels like a place you can take your grandmother, assuming your grandmother is into slaying orcs.

As they do with every customer, Angel May, 33, and her partner, Michelle Wright, 37, greet me with enthusiasm. I saunter to the counter and present my problem: I'd heard more women than ever were enjoying nights of dragon slaying, booty hoarding, and funky-shaped dice. But where?

May gives me a look I've seen far too many times from far too many women—the one that says, "You're so cute when you're confused." I begin to explain further, but she mercifully interrupts me.

"Just come hang out with the Dungeon Divas," she says. "They play here every Wednesday."

An entire gaming group of women? Victory is mine. Huzzah!

I arrive early the following Wednesday, just in time to see the first of the Divas arrive. Susan Taylor, 32, enters with a confident stride, and I ask her why, with the role-playing game industry now almost 40 years old, it took so long for women to join en masse.

"Hard to enjoy a game where the imprisonment or raping of your gender is a basic plot device," Taylor quickly replies, and my urge to respond with a humorous retort is quickly repressed.

She's right: While some game publishers are improving gender equality within role-playing games (RPGs)—they've dropped gender-specific pronouns in rulebooks, for example, and present more realistic presentations of the female form—the objectification of women is still present in many books and games.

"Tabletop RPGs always felt like a boys-only club," adds Sarah Soud, 20, as she joins Taylor at the table where the Divas play. "Most of the publishers didn't help, with their images of slutty women in chainmail bikinis and heaving tavern wenches." The remaining Divas, as they join the table, nod in agreement.

Soud's sentiment might explain why so many women gamers stick to online RPGs like the immensely popular World of Warcraft (WoW). Guardian Games' Angel May chimes in, "Games like WoW act like a gateway drug to most female gamers." Michelle Herrmann, 39, who acts as the Divas' dungeon master—the player responsible for running the game—agrees. "That's what drew me to RPGs."

Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind WoW, backs up that sentiment—Blizzard's statistics reveal that almost 45 percent of WoW players are female. Since online RPGs likeWoW emphasize gameplay before gender, tabletop games like D&D have some catching-up to do.

"We're gamers first, and women second," Herrmann continues. "As gamers, we share a lot of common traits. Focusing on our differences to include us and make us comfortable is fine, but if that's all that gets the focus, then it emphasizes our differences and excludes us."

Acting as a group's dungeon master takes smarts, so it's no surprise to learn that when she's not playing with the Divas, Herrmann teaches chemistry and physics at OMSI. As the Divas settle in for their game, she quickly recaps the events from last week's session: All is not well in the town of Cauldron, the fantasy setting the Divas call home. The townsfolk are nervous about an ancient evil rumbling under the streets, and to make matters worse, the mayor's son has been kidnapped.

BOOBS DON'T HELP WITH DICE ROLLS

As Herrmann pretends to be the mayor's frantic wife—and as the Divas try to discover clues about her son's whereabouts—I ask May why she offered her store to the gaming group.

"Short answer? I wanted to be able to play," she says. Like the Divas, Guardian's owners work to break the stereotypes associated with gamers. "I wanted to create an environment that encourages human interaction," May says. "Hopefully, Michelle and I have created a location where anyone can sit down and play, veteran player or newbie."

RPGs are a cooperative form of storytelling, and the friendly atmosphere within the store obviously encourages interaction. As the night wears on, more and more men approach, curious about the game; with the same affable camaraderie they show each other, the Dungeon Divas tell them stories of high adventure and humorous missteps.

It seems the guys are genuinely happy to see the Divas playing, and when I ask the Divas if they thought their interest was just an attempt to meet some gamer chicks, Beth Lyons, 43, answers, "Maybe a little, but not much." She continues, "I think male gamers like what women bring to the gaming table—we have a whole other perspective, and that makes for a richer gaming experience."

"Gender doesn't really matter," says Ted Dagonia, 30. "A good group will always want the same thing: a fun game."

Dagonia is the one exception to the Divas' all-female gaming group—having never playedD&D until he found the Divas online, he was welcomed with open arms. Taylor is quick to jump in with a joke. "Although it'd be nice if you didn't notice our boobs as much," she says. "Yes, they're there—but they don't help with dice rolls."

Observing how Dagonia interacts with the Divas, I feel Taylor isn't targeting him specifically, but rather joking about the stereotypical perception of the male gamer. But here—regardless of their gender—are gamers who personify everything about the often-misunderstood world of gaming. Here is a group of friends that love to share stories of action, adventure, loss, and redemption. This is what gaming is supposed to be like.

But as promising of a thought as that is, it is hardly these gamers' most pressing concern. Dungeon Master Herrmann taps her pen on the table, bringing the Divas back to more important matters. "Ladies," she says, "you still need to rescue the mayor's kidnapped son."