The ‘Chainmail Bikini’ Success Story: Challenging Sexism in Gaming and Comics

A growing array of writers are challenging previously dominant tropes of misogyny, sexuality, and whiteness; 40 of them can be found here.

“It shouldn’t be controversial for women to have an equal say as players, makers, and critics of games,” writes editor Hazel Newlevant in the introduction to Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers. “Too many men see these games as their exclusive domain, and act out the same old sexism that’s already prevalent in the real world. To play a game is to voluntarily take on a challenge, for fun. No one should be additionally challenged because of their gender.”

Even people who might not have considered themselves gamers would find that the stories and identities of gamers in the book resonate with them.

Chainmail Bikini is the tremendously successful comics anthology about, by and for women gamers. It was inspired, produced and edited by cartoonist Hazel Newlevant. The anthology was funded entirely through an online Kickstarter that blew its target goal in three days and went on to raise several times that initial goal. Published in September 2015, its modest distribution strategy initially involved contributors selling copies themselves, but thanks to the eager interest of publishers and distributors it started popping up in comic shops and bookstores as of April 2016. It is, in short, an inspiring success story.

Even more impressive than its commercial success is the quality of the collection itself. Newlevant brought together 40 contributors, all of whom share comics inspired by games that have impacted them. The comics styles are as diverse as the games. Ranging from straightforward autobiographical narrative, to fantastical dreamscapes, to whimsical and imaginatively sketched memories, the pieces touch on everything from Live Action Role-Playing (LARPs) to old-school D&D, to video games and online RPGs.

Also impressive are the range of identities represented. There’s trans narrators, queer narrators, narrators from China and narrators from small-town USA. Their stories demonstrate the often important role gaming played as they grappled with other issues in their lives, from gender identity and sexuality to bullying, discrimination, and mental health issues. For the most part, the stories convey a heartwarming and positive message: gaming matters. They also depict a world of gaming far more diverse, and complex, than is often represented in mainstream media.

It’s a remarkable collection, and the growing interest in it isn’t surprising. I spoke to Newlevant about the collection and the issues it raises.

Challenging the Representation of Women Gamers

What inspired Newlevant to produce an anthology of women gamers?

“I had come across a lot of people doing short stories using games as a metaphor for other things that were going on in their lives, or about how that fantasy influenced their reality. I thought that it was just a very fertile ground for storytelling… And I wanted to do comics by women about women gamers. I wanted to represent particularly the experience of women gamers… I think the media around it is changing but when somebody says ‘gamer,’ usually the image of a girl or woman isn’t what leaps to mind. So I wanted for a group of artists to flesh out the variety of different ways that could be.”

Newlevant recruited about half the contributors directly, either because she knew of their work personally, or had seen their material online and thought they might have something to contribute. She then put out an open call for contributors, and recruited the remaining artists that way.

The team that resulted reflects a broad diversity of identities — genders, sexualities, ages and gaming experiences. Reviews of Chainmail Bikini have frequently commented on the broad diversity of identities represented by its contributors.

“I think that just came pretty organically out of what the gaming community really looks like,” reflected Newlevant. She noted that although the collection presents itself as a collection of women gamers, it was important for her not to reinforce narrow definitions of what that means.

“I’m not trying to uphold binary gender but at the same time I’m trying to uplift the experiences of women, so the way I decided it was anybody who is comfortable under this banner and is comfortable contributing to something that’s centred around women, even if they themselves are non-binary, is cool with me. I think that any gender-focused project does have to grapple with that to a certain extent. But I thought that that was what made sense for this anthology. Because of course the perspectives of non-binary people in the world and in gaming are even less shared than the perspectives of cis women. So it’s totally in line with my agenda of uplifting both less heard cartoonists and voices in gaming, to include different genders.”

A Smash Fundraising Success

Rather than seeking out a publisher for the collection, Newlevant opted to self-publish the anthology and to raise funding through an online Kickstarter campaign.

“I went to Kickstarter because there were already a lot of models for success with comics anthologies and women-driven comics anthologies. I’m thinking specifically of some of the ones that Spike Trotman has edited, like Smut Peddler. She was the one who first came up with the model that’s now widely adopted by a lot of Kickstarters, which is that if the Kickstarter does better, the contributors get bonuses. Which I think is a really equitable way to divide up the money that can be raised and also is very motivating to people who might want to pledge.

“I have found that people are more stoked to donate a lot or share something or push for something to happen when they know that they’re supporting their favourite artist. That’s more of an incentive than a gold-foil poster or other things that can be offered. It’s also pretty great for anthologies because every artist has their own group of friends or people who follow them or fan base, so when you have forty people pulling for the success of your project, it makes for a really good Kickstarter.”

Another benefit, she noted, is that a successful Kickstarter increases the public excitement for a particular project, which can be leveraged into commercial support. In the case of Chainmail Bikini, it led to offers from other publishers.

“I had some publishers approach me after the Kickstarter was already midway through, to see whether I wanted to do a second edition with them. But that would never have happened without me and the other creators taking the initiative and demonstrating that this was something that a lot of people already wanted. It’s definitely a lot to do — all of the steps of editing and preparing a book for print and doing the PR and shipping it out — but…I didn’t really need to hand off any of that responsibility to a publisher, because I already knew how to do it. If I do it this way, it keeps the money between me and the other artists. The services that a publisher provides weren’t something that I needed to pay for, when I could put in the time and effort and when I knew how to do it myself.”

The fundraising effort exceeded all expectations. The initial goal of $16,000 was met in three days, and by the end of the campaign a total of 2,375 backers had raised a total of $67,427. The project raised 518% of its initial goal.

“It made the artists who I was working with really happy, and that made me really happy,” she laughed.

Just as the fundraising campaign exceeded expectations, the book’s success has been growing steadily in the months since it was released. It was debuted for public sale at the Small Press Expo in September 2015, and for the next several months Newlevant and the other contributors sold copies online, as well as at conventions and other public appearances they made. A few months later she was approached by Alternative Comics, which offered to distribute the collection more widely. Thanks to that arrangement, the anthology hit a wider array of comic book shops and regular bookstores in April 2016.

“That’s the big barrier that keeps a lot of self-published comics from going more mainstream — not being able to get into those catalogues that regular comic book shops will see and be ordering from,” she said. “I was really happy to get with Alternative and have them help me distribute it a lot more widely than I could on my own. There need to be more options for distribution [of self-published comics].”

Pleased though she is with the success — particularly for the exposure it’s given some of the contributors — she says it’s the personal sales, and the connections and stories that accompany them, which she treasures the most.

“It’s great that people can see it on the shelves or stumble upon it in a bookstore but my favourite thing has definitely been selling it at conventions and meeting people face to face. People who are like ‘I really enjoyed this’ or ‘I backed the Kickstarter’ or ‘this part made me cry,’ or who are just feeling inspired in any regard by it. I mean I would take one person talking to me in person and telling me that they’re excited about it over twenty Goodreads reviews or Amazon reviews or whatever. That’s just the best response to me, is whenever somebody personally tells me they like it.”

Redefining gaming?

In a review of the anthology published earlier this year on Geek Girl Gang Madison Butler wrote that Chainmail Bikini helps to “redefine gaming”. Her point is that people who might not have considered themselves gamers would find that the stories and identities of gamers in the book resonate with them.

Newlevant reflected on that point.

“I think it definitely puts forward a lot of narratives that aren’t within the traditional scope of what people call gamers. A lot of people would say that somebody who plays portable games, that’s not a gamer, or if you went to LARPing summer camp, that’s not. But I think the definition that I like of what are ‘gamer’ games, is anything where you take on a role and step into some sort of fantasy world, or some sort of other identity. That’s how I defined it within the anthology, and why I chose to represent the games that I chose…But that is a broader definition than some people would allow.”

It’s important to reflect on who it is that’s been defining gaming, she adds. Previous definitions have often been deliberately constructed so as to exclude women or other groups, or to maintain men’s dominance.

“I was on a panel about women gamers a while ago, and I had a kind of hilarious experience where we were talking about how according to some statistics, at least 50 percent of people who play video games are women. This guy stands up and he goes ‘well I go to competitive gaming events and it’s way less than 50 percent — there’s hardly any women there, so it really depends on what your definition of a gamer is.’ It was hilarious to me because it’s like — that’s exactly why. It’s because it’s an unfriendly space for women. And he’s trying to say ‘Oh well if just as many women play video games I have to redefine the boundaries, I have to draw the boundaries in,’ so that being a gamer is defined in a way that can be male-dominated again.”

“So I don’t know if Chainmail Bikini is… redefining games or gaming, or maybe it’s that men and male gamers have tried to redefine gaming themselves into something that excludes games that a lot of women play, or ways in which a lot of women engage with them.”

The Importance of Gaming

Many people might remember childhood admonitions from adults that games were a waste of time — an unproductive diversion at best, an escapist obsession at worst. But the stories in Chainmail Bikini reveal a very different side to gaming. The authors demonstrate that gaming played important, beneficial and productive roles in their lives: from helping them grapple with issues of identity, to coping with bullying and discrimination, to forming strong social networks and learning to interact and engage with a diversity of other people. A clear message emerges: games are important.

Newlevant agrees wholeheartedly.

“I think that there’s a wide presumption that the things that happen within games don’t matter, because it’s ‘just for fun’ or ‘just play’, but I think that the fantasies that we take on or the ways that we interact with each other through games are important components of our lives.”

Newlevant points to the work of Jane McGonigal, and in particular her 2011 book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.

“She talks a lot about how it’s an important interface for people to interact and how games involve setting goals and challenging yourself inherently, and oftentimes working together… it definitely inspired me about all of the good that playing games can do in people’s lives, and that there’s really valid reasons why we’re so consistently entertained by games. It’s not necessarily bad or a time-sink or any of these other things that people paint it to be. Especially video games, because it’s a newer form of media they naturally get a worse rap.”

“Of course I do agree with everything people say about being critical of games that present different stereotypes or encourage problem-solving through violence, which is a huge part of a lot of games, and we should be looking at that. But something being a game in itself is not harmful, it’s just a way of interacting with the world that has rule-books and goals to keep you fully engaged. A game is just a way to make something into a fun challenge.”

Tackling Misogyny

Juxtaposed against poor media representations of what constitutes a ‘gamer’ is the very violent misogynistic backlash that has been directed at some women who tackle the subject. It was something Newlevant bore in mind as she developed the collection.

“Yes, I was concerned, because people have definitely been harassed or doxxed or otherwise victimised… for having the audacity to say women are a part of this, it’s not yours alone. Or critiquing overall male gaze within games and within gaming communities.

“So yes creating it was absolutely informed by the misogynistic harassment that other people, other women, who write about video games or talk about them face… I mean there’s a big intersection of things here. Bad shit happens to women in comics, bad shit happens to women in games, bad shit happens to women online… I hope that by doing everything that we can to speak out against misogynistic culture in general or any ideas that women are there for men’s pleasure and entertainment and nothing more, I think that has an overall effect in all of these arenas.”

The Personal is Political

Newlevant is rapidly gaining recognition as a cartoonist in her own right. While she’s found herself drawn toward the artistic all her life, she said she chose to pursue comics “because of the challenge”.

“It combines so many different art forms, and I love that. You have to combine writing, drawing, design, print-making sometimes, or book design, flow of information. I like that it involves juggling all of these different skills, and that the result is like, this is my vision, I was able to control every element of this.”

“All the work that I do is very personal. I do a lot of autobiographical comics that try to take pieces of my experience and have people relate to them, and thereby understand me more, and understand themselves more — you know, all the motivations that people have for expressing themselves. Even when it’s not about me personally, I’ve also done biographical comics. I did a series about different queer musicians… so even when it’s not about me, it’s still a story that speaks to some part of my life in a very direct way.”

“I think it’s also ideal for putting stories that are in some way marginalized out there, because there’s less gate-keepers. There’s less people who have to sign off on it, you can just make whatever story you want to make, whether it’s something that personally happened to you or not.”

As a writer who often focuses on issues of queer identity, what does Newlevant think of the representation of queer identity in contemporary pop culture?

“I think that the representation gets better the more that people can do it themselves. The best representation of queer identity that I’ve seen in games are in people making their own art games, or Twine games, which is like this open source choose your own adventure development platform. I think that that’s where the best queer representation really has been coming from — from actually giving opportunities to queer artists to tell their own stories.

“I’m not a big reader of mainstream comics or superhero comics, where there’s more people involved with creating the art so it’s less likely that they’re actually representing their own experience… the best representation comes from people doing it themselves and people being empowered to do it themselves by platforms where they can share their work easily, be it online distribution of games or online distribution of comics.”

With a growing array of writers challenging previously dominant tropes of misogyny, sexuality, and whiteness, some critics have argued that writers and artists have a choice in terms of what content they produce and what stories they depict, and that they should act with a greater sense of accountability. Newlevant reflected on how she integrates these considerations into her own work, and pointed out that familiarizing oneself with what the criticisms and the dominant tropes are, is an important step in writing against oppression.

“I think that I get a lot out of reading or watching pop culture criticism. Anything from reviews of new comics to the Feminist Frequency video series. I try to read a lot in that area so I’m aware of what the existing tropes even are. I think it helps to see them pointed out in other peoples’ work. I think a lot of the reasons that I choose certain stories from my own life are because I feel like something about those particular stories does go against prevailing narratives, and that’s why I would want to write about it in the first place.

“Like I’ve been doing a lot of writing recently — I’m doing a series about poly relationships, it’s like a queer poly rom com, it’s gonna be great — but that has made me think a lot about romantic tropes and representation of different styles of relationships. The reason I’m taking influence from that part of my love life is because I’m tired of tropes like love triangles or ‘who would you choose?’ So that’s an example where there’s something that’s going on in my own life which I feel isn’t represented in the majority of media. So I guess that’s how I try to do representation.

“That’s the same reason that I tried to do an entire anthology about women gamers — because people weren’t talking about that life experience as much, you know it goes against tropes of what a gamer is. Or why I do stuff that’s gender non-conforming, or queer, or just any life experiences that are outside the mainstream. That’s what I try to write about and what I really relish reading about. Reading comics is such a great window into other people’s lives, when they choose to share them.”

Newlevant is currently hard at work sharing a significant excerpt from her own life. She’s working on completing No Ivy League, an autobiographical series about her first job as a teenager.

Although she’s very open to the idea of doing another anthology, she says it’s unlikely that there will be a follow-up to Chainmail Bikini.

“I feel I’ve said all I wanted to as an editor on the experience of being a woman playing games. But I wouldn’t rule out editing another anthology. It was a really fun process. I would love to do something on that scale again.”