If life in the new millennium has taught us anything, it’s that virtually everyone plays games. Regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or creed, games—be they video, tabletop or even Live-Action Role-Playing (LARPing)—have proven to be a vital outlet for people all over the world. Life in the internet age has also taught us that some people get a little too possessive over their hobbies, to the point where they target and harass anyone who doesn’t match their image of a “gamer” or “geek.”
Usually, that target is women. Harassment campaigns, death and rape threats and general acts of misogyny are so commonplace for women and LGBT people that it’s become white noise—or something far worse, like a matter for the police that requires people to leave their homes.
But women are here in gaming, as they’ve always been. Statistically, they make up roughly half, if not more, of the people buying and playing video games. Seldom have we seen their voices so beautifully on display as in Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers, a collection of comic book-style vignettes from a variety of women artists and writers, all connected by the simple fact that gaming has profoundly affected their lives.
The name is ironic, of course, and perhaps off-putting at first. “Some people have questioned my choice to name a feminist anthology after something sexist,” the book’s editor, Hazel Newlevant, tells us. “But I think the term “chainmail bikini” exists to point out and ridicule sexist costumes in media. I was trying to think of a well-known phrase that immediately evoked both games and women, without being specific to video games, because the book spans an array of gaming types and subcultures.”
In the book’s 200 pages are stories about the excitement, mystery and release that gaming provides. Its clear and resounding message is that everyone is connected in gaming, even if it’s just because we all experience the same rush of emotions.
In “Here Comes a New Champion,” artist Kinoko Evans relays her discovery and lifelong love of fighting games, with their array of characters (including plenty of women fighters) and heady, fast-paced action. “In the comic, I tell my story of loving arcades in the 1980s and again in the early ‘90s as a young art school student,” she explains. “I especially vibed with the game Virtua Fighter and it became an educational and motivational tool as I began studying kung fu.”
But Chainmail Bikini isn’t purely about video games. Many of them express the joys of tabletop role-playing and the sense of inclusion that comes with finding a group of likeminded souls. Anyone who plays tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragon or Vampire: The Masquerade will relate to the nervousness of starting out, meeting other gamers and finding community. One especially touching sequence tells the story of a transgender gamer for whom RPGs offered an escape from the stress and abuse of the real world, a place where they could just be themself in a way no other outlet provided.
Another story is about women toughing it out in LARPs long enough to see real changes in how they’re perceived and accepted within the predominantly male pastime. There are a lot of stories here, all different yet with the same underlying message: that games matter in ways far more intimate and important than most give them credit for.
“I tried to think of times when games served up a perfect metaphor or commentary for what was going on in my life,” Newlevant says. “As a homeschooled-only child, games were absolutely huge for connecting with my friends. In Diablo 2, our paladin [characters] strengthened each other when we fought as a party and perished alone—a heavy-handed metaphor for how we sustain each other with friendship, but that’s what happened!”
In another Newlevant story, she shows how games can be used as a mechanism for attraction, even seduction. “I loved how under the pretension of ‘It’s just a game’, I could explore a real-life attraction,” she says. “And the role reversal was priceless—I was roleplaying a powerful, sexy vampire seducing an unsuspecting human, when really it was the dungeon master, my best friend’s older brother.”
The artists in the book come from a range of backgrounds, providing an incredibly eclectic set of voices. “I started by inviting cartoonists who I knew were interested in gaming,” Newlevant says. “I also went out of my way to invite women who make games. That’s how I got Anna Anthropy and Merritt Kopas involved.”
There’s even a superb feminist take on Portal 2—a fascinating alternate view of the game’s story and a surprisingly good introduction to feminist theory. Yet another standout is a simple one-pager from game developer Merritt Kopas and artist Mia Schwartz, which shows how intimate connections can bloom over a shared passion.
Chainmail Bikini should be required reading for gamers of all stripes. The book is a testament to why gaming matters to so many, whether it’s a lifelong passion or just something that was there when they needed it. Newlevant sums it best: “I was braced for harassment, but Chainmail Bikini has been found by people who say ‘I needed this. I was waiting for something like this and didn’t know it.’”