This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2019

A thank-you note to Gen Z D&D gamers

With appreciation for making gaming more inclusive

K. J. Aiello

Illustration by Sara Sarhangpour

Picture this: Kurt Cobain, 20-hole Doc Martens, plaid shirts, and Jurassic Park—the first one. Then there was me.

I was the only girl in a 10-person Dungeons & Dragons campaign reeking of pimply closet-nerds. If this picture reminds you of something, it should. Those kids in Stranger Things are adorable, sure, but there’s something hauntingly accurate about the Duffer Brothers’ quartet of Demogorgon-fighting anti-heroes: they’re all hetero cis-males.

What I’m saying, dear Gen Z-er, is that the fantasy role playing, campaign-driven game has come a long way, even before Stranger Things. That’s thanks to you. Playing D&D isn’t pariah-making social suicide, but rather, its popularity has skyrocketed. In 2017, Wizards of the Coast saw their highest sales in history.

Of course, in 1993, representation never occurred to me because I was taught that I had a role to fill—one that was reserved for girls framed in the male hero construct. Add rural town to the mix (cue Satanic scare memes), and this was not a recipe for social success.

Desperately seeking a place as a girl player, teenage me flipped through the glossy pages of my brother’s tattered Player’s Handbook—kind of like the bag of holding for all things D&D—trying to decide what race I wanted to play. What would be good for a girl?
I really wanted to be a kick-ass fighter or a powerful wizard. But all the depictions of those characters were beefed-up hyper-males, and the women looked like something out of Conan the Barbarian, with chainmail armour cut to string-bikini size. Because women need vagina armour, right?

Sadly, I usually settled on the meek healer or a retreating-into-the-shadows thief, the irony of which shouldn’t be lost on you. Claiming space as a girl, after all, would be stealing space from boys.

So, what’s the draw today? You are, young Gen Z-er. GeekGirlCon—the Gen-Z all-women gamer organization—fought for inclusivity, because the decades-old need for a wider net of players who demand a place at that popcorn-strewn table was no longer avoidable.

This group of all-girl Gen Z-ers is you, gamer friends. You’ve taken something that was so patriarchal and heteronormative, and gave it the makeover it desperately needed, glitter bombs and all. And then you gave it a warm, fuzzy hug because toxic masculinity lived between each Dorito-stained page of the 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. Do you hear that? That’s the tears of hetero cis-males realizing they can actually play healer gnomes.

You didn’t stop there when you introduced the first gender-fluid race. Yeah, you heard me: you can now play a gender-fluid elf. This makes me tingle. In the 5th Edition, players are no longer constrained to binary standards. The once cis-normative game has made substantial gestures to welcome LGBTQ2S+ players, because why wouldn’t they want to play? Woman characters are no longer relegated to sexualized damsels in distress, heaving bosom and all, but can play those kick-ass fighters decked out in full battle armour and horrible helmet-hair.

Teenage me is swooning.

It’s been years since I played D&D. Life took over, as did adulthood and the misperception that D&D was only for kids. But lately I find myself yearning for the days
of 20-sided dice and the excitement of the board. But I can tell you this: I don’t miss feeling out of place. I don’t miss being the weaker one, the character conforming to the male gaze in desperate need of saving. But those parts really aren’t what the game is about, are they? The game is about fun and fantasy, role-playing and comradeship.

And now, thanks to you, we can all play.

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