The180·The 180

Why Dungeons and Dragons is a source of female empowerment

Writer, movie critic, and D&D player Tina Hassania argues that despite the stereotypes, role playing games should be considered a source of female empowerment.
A wizard casts a spell in this promotional image for the Dungeons & Dragons novel Adversary. (Wizards of the Coast/

Our culture offers up many purported role models for women. Sometimes it's celebrities, like singer Beyoncé, or Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, or to some, political figures like Hillary Clinton.

But for Tina Hassannia, a writer and movie critic in Toronto, those examples never really clicked. What did provide Hassannia with an inspiring, empowering role model, was when she created Magaga Moonshadow, a half-elf rogue/thief in the world of Dungeons and Dragons.

Dungeons and Dragons is a team fantasy role-playing game, played mostly in the imagination, using characters created by the players.

After she wrote this piece, The 180's Jim Brown spoke with Hassannia on the connection between celebrity pop culture, icons of empowerment, and imaginary Dungeons and Dragons characters.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

There are some stereotypes associated with Dungeons and Dragons. Nerds and guys and basements. And those stereotypes describe the opposite of a game that provides a source of feminist empowerment.

Right, however I think as nerd culture has become more mainstream, lots of women are starting to starting to show their support and the fact that they themselves are nerds in many areas, whether it's Star Trek or playing Dungeons and Dragons, whatever it is they're nerdy about. They do exist, they just don't seem to dominate the public perception of nerd culture in the way that men do. Or boys do.

When you're playing Dungeons and Dragons, who are you?

Her name, or I guess my name, is Magaga Moonshadow. I used a D&D name generator to come up with that gem. My friends call me Lady Magaga, of course. I'm a half-elf rogue/thief, and I try to be a bit of a con artist in the game. And one thing that's really common with people who play role-playing games, is they try to make a composite character based on things and people they've seen in pop culture. So, I was thinking of female con artists and honestly I wasn't coming up with too many, so the only person that I really based my character on was Jean from The Lady Eve, which is an old Hollywood movie, and she's played by Barbara Stanwyck. So a little bit of that charm is in my character.

So compared to icons of female power that people put forward, what do you get out of creating this character that celebrity icons don't give you?

I think the interesting thing here is we are entering a new age of feminism, and we have so many role models for women to look up to. There are so many women out there that we can look up to, but so many of them are tied to values that are honourable.

I think female empowerment is more than just looking up to a woman that's good, it also means coming up with your own character and experimenting with different roles and ideas and attitudes and behaviours- Tina Hassania

They have intelligence and a nobility, and the things they do are just... good. They're trying to do good in the world. And what I am trying to do by playing D&D and playing this rogue/thief, is essentially trying out female characters that may not exist, or if they do exist, are scarcely available in our pop culture. I think female empowerment is more than just looking up to a woman that's good, it also means coming up with your own character and experimenting with different roles and ideas and attitudes and behaviours and maybe being naughty once in a while.

And if you look at pop culture in general, men tend to have the more active roles, and they get to have more variety in the roles they get to play. Whereas women are assigned really narrow archetypal roles, like the mother or the slut or the shrew. And we've begun to change that, but I think that instead of passively watching a Beyonce video you can come up with your own idea and your own character and play it out in the safe confines of a basement with a few other people as well. 

Does that teach you about yourself, when you're playing in the Dungeons and Dragons world?

This is something that's really interesting about playing a role-playing game. In deciding what kind of character you want to play, and defining that character in every game you play, when you're deciding whether to kill someone, or do this, or save this family or whatever, you are building that character slowly and slowly, and I think it can start to tell you things about yourself. I have a lot of bloodlust, for example, when we're doing battles. At first, I have to say, I was a little put off by how enthusiastic I was getting about it. But then I thought about it and realized that what I want is to be more assertive in my real life. And who would've thought that D&D would've shown me that, but it did. 
Cover art for an early Advanced Dungeons and Dragons module (Clyde Caldwell, cover for AD&D module 11: Needle by Frank Mentzer, ©Wizards)

Make the case, if I'm a person looking for a way to discover who I really am, what my strengths are, why should I give role-playing games a try?

It challenges you to be creative, use your imagination, and when you're doing that certain things start to come out of your subconcious. Things you may not be aware of. And when you're playing this game, whether you're saving a family from a dragon or defeating some Kobolds, in the process of doing these battles and playing this adventure, you really start to learn more about yourself. Or at least what an imaginary version of yourself might look like. And that can offer room for self-reflection, and in the end teach you something about yourself. And if you have to be living in the moment and think quickly on your feet, that's when your mind really becomes active and you just start throwing stuff out there, and you never know what's going to come out.



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