Dungeons, Dragons and Chainmail Bikinis: A reconsideration of women’s fan experiences with D&D

Author: Elisa Josephine Armstrong

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 26 Aug 2024.

Armstrong, Elisa Josephine, 2022 Dungeons, Dragons and Chainmail Bikinis: A reconsideration of women’s fan experiences with D&D, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Women who play the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) face harassment, exclusion, and toxicity, but nevertheless they have persisted. Their voices are often silenced in popular culture and the research literature due to sexism and the perpetuation of misogynistic methodologies, epistemologies and ontologies. The original contribution to knowledge made through this thesis is the inclusion and magnification of women D&D players. Women and their experiences playing D&D are absent in existing D&D research, which tends to focus on men and ignore gender completely. Fandom and tabletop roleplaying game research has suffered from a lack of feminist research that goes beyond the white straight men that dominate stereotypical geek, nerd, and fan cultures.

Four research questions focus this thesis:

1) What forms does women’s exclusion from D&D and fandom take?

2) What purpose does women’s exclusion from fandom serve for other fans?

3) What barriers do women face when playing D&D and participating in D&D’s fandom?

4) What are the consequences of women’s exclusion from D&D?

Chapter 1 established the methodology used for this thesis with a robust discussion of the challenges faced in conducting the research. Over 44,800 survey responses were collected from a wide range of D&D players, providing a rich source of qualitative data. A study of this scale has never been undertaken into D&D and tabletop roleplaying games. Feminist autoethnographic methodology was combined with thematic analysis to investigate the survey responses. Quantitative analysis was undertaken to provide a profile of the survey’s demographics. This approach to fandom studies was novel and an original contribution to knowledge.

Chapter 2 demonstrated how pop culture’s presentation of D&D’s history has led to the erasure and/or villainization of the women that were part of the game’s development. Popular history frames and shapes a version of history that enables exclusionary fans to justify sexism and gatekeeping. By making women historically absent (when they were not), gatekeepers justify women’s contemporary exclusion.

Chapter 3 built on the understanding of how popular cultural histories can be weaponised or employed to advance a narrative through nostalgia. D&D’s history has been heavily romanticised with modern players lusting after ‘the good old days’ of D&D, wearing vintage t-shirts, and re-enacting through Old School Renaissance products. Nostalgia is a tool used to bury D&D’s problematic histories and pave over the contributions of women to D&D’s development. Nostalgia was found in this doctoral research to be a significant driver for D&D players’ engagement with the game, challenging the commonly assumed dominance of paratexts in bringing in new players. The social experience around the table and the people involved in D&D in some form, such as friends and family, are powerful factors in the emotional attachment players often form with the game. D&D then becomes a facilitator of nostalgic recollection – playing the game is linked inextricably with fond memories of the people (when the experiences were positive).

Chapter 4 presents a profile of D&D’s community built from the survey results to explain the desirability and benefits of fandom membership. This chapter moves beyond the historic and legacy research of Jenkins, Hills, and Bacon-Smith to provide a more contemporary understanding of fandom. Fandom activities are described, and the purpose of these practices clarified. This outline of D&D’s fandom is important, as it challenges the representational centrality of the white, straight, cisgender man as the core fan. The enjoyment that fans get from participating in fandom and the impact it has on their gameplay is crucial to understand so that the gravity of exclusion can be appreciated.

Chapter 5 introduced the wide range of paratexts that exist for D&D and how these can impact play. Paratexts influence players at every stage of their experience – from learning about D&D’s existence, deciding to play and the actual activities of play. The perspective offered on how paratexts influence how players play D&D is an original contribution to knowledge. Whilst there has been media reporting on how streams like Critical Role inspire emulation, there has been a lack of thorough academic investigation. This thesis fills that gap in knowledge and extends the current understanding on paratexts’ relationship with D&D.

Chapter 6 establishes the mechanisms of gatekeeping, exclusion, and group member identity as they apply to D&D’s fandom with a gendered focus. Gatekeeping is the primary tool used to discourage the presence of women in D&D’s fandom, and it takes a multitude of forms. Issues such as the term ‘fake geek girl’ and the devaluing of women’s contributions and knowledge are covered. Chapter 7 then builds from this foundation to show the consequences of gatekeeping for women as they play D&D and engage with the fandom. The experiences and testimony that women shared in their survey responses include feeling unwelcome, sexual harassment and even the rape of their characters. It can be incredibly unpleasant for women at the D&D table, and even dangerous. Methods for managing gatekeeping and mitigating discomfort were also discussed. The theme was that women were responsible for altering their approach and choosing where they played – to enable their safety and comfort - rather than the community being held responsible at a collective level.

The original contribution to knowledge configured and confirmed in this thesis lies in the use of feminist autoethnographic methods, the volume of rich data from the more than 44,800 survey responses, and the revisioning of a contemporary fandom study. This thesis created a vital insight into the experiences of women who play D&D at a moment in time where D&D is being considered as an educational and therapeutic tool. There is a need to understand how gender affects women’s fandom experiences, and this thesis offers an approach that can be activated to the understanding of other marginalised groups and other fandoms.

Keywords: gender, harrassment, sexual harrassment, feminism, D&D, Dungeons & Dragons, roleplaying games, roleplaying, fandom, fan studies, gaming, women, gatekeeping

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Tara Brabazon