Why Women Won't Game
There comes a point in every gamer's life when he thinks back on all the roleplaying groups he's been a part of since he first picked up a d20 and a character sheet. He recalls great campaigns, beloved characters, favorite stories, and fellow players who became his friends for life. But when he considers those players more closely, he wonders "why is it that so few women get involved in what I know is a great hobby?"
There comes a point in every gamer's life when he thinks back on all the roleplaying groups he's been a part of since he first picked up a d20 and a character sheet. He recalls great campaigns, beloved characters, favorite stories, and fellow players who became his friends for life. But when he considers those players more closely, he realizes that most of the time a certain kind of player was missing from his groups. Out of all the players he's known, it's quite likely that very few of them were female. "Why is it," he wonders, "that so few women get involved in what I know is a great hobby?"
He might be surprised to learn it has something to do with him.
Making a simple real-world Perception check immediately reveals that women constitute a tiny minority of all roleplayers. The reasons for this aren't always obvious at first glance. The problem isn't, as many people assume, that women aren't interested in gaming. I have been a gamer since the mid-1990s and a female since I was born, and over the years I've encountered plenty of fellow "gamer chicks," some of whom have been playing since the earliest days of D&D. But for every dedicated gamer chick I've met, I've run into even more women who played for one or two sessions of a campaign, then disappeared from the hobby entirely. (This is a shame, because I think most male gamers would love to have a gamer chick in their group, whether that stems from a desire for a new perspective on gaming or far more nefarious purposes...) When I ask them why they quit, they rarely reply that it was because they found out they hated roleplaying. Rather, their reasons for leaving usually have more to do with the way the men in the group treated them.
I don't mean to suggest that all men, or all male gamers, are insensitive jerks who are always doing women wrong. There are plenty of polite, respectful male gamers out there who go to great lengths to make every fellow gamer, male or female, feel at home in their group. But there are also quite a few whose utter lack of common courtesy toward women never ceases to amaze me. I'm not here to tell you which of these categories you belong to. I am here to remind you that women have many hurdles to overcome if they want to fully participate in this hobby - and that most of those hurdles are placed there by their fellow gamers.
The female ex-gamers I've talked to have many reasons for leaving the hobby. But the central fact behind their reluctance to game seems to stem from one simple fact: Women stop gaming when the men they play with treat them like women first, and fellow gamers second. Many male gamers have a skewed perception of female gamers that is based on false generalizations. This can lead to female players being treated differently than male players of the same skill and experience level, which is a surefire way to cause a gamer chick's abrupt departure from a group.
Some male gamers seem to operate under the misconception that women are incapable of understanding gaming without a man explaining it to us. Women are often at a disadvantage when we first learn to roleplay; since RPGs are often seen as a stereotypically male pastime, few of us get even the passing familiarity with "that D&D stuff" that most men learn at some point. But just because some beginning female gamers might take a little longer to grasp concepts that seem very basic to you doesn't mean we're stupid. Answer our questions if we ask them, but don't patronize us, either. It's better for you to speak too quickly and have us ask you to slow down than for you to explain things in virtual baby talk and insult our intelligence.
An even more dangerous (and, sadly, more common) assumption is that every female gamer is in the hobby to get a boyfriend. Some male gamers even believe the opposite - that we get into roleplaying only to break up gaming groups and basically put men through hell. Here's a radical idea: What if gamer chicks don't really devote all their time and energy to senselessly meddling with people who are supposed to be our friends and cohorts? What if our resistance to your advances means we're not interested, not that we're playing hard to get? What if we don't find it flattering to be stared at when we walk into game stores, or asked out with pathetic pick-up lines by every third gamer we meet? What if, God forbid, we keep showing up at your Friday night sessions because we really just want to roleplay?
The truth is, women who game rarely have secret plans or ulterior motives, no more than male gamers do. We put up with a lot of garbage that men never encounter, and it's all because of a few ridiculous stereotypes that don't even need to exist in the first place. Over the years I've dealt with with everything from sexist GMs to icky pick-up lines delivered by fellow players to having my female characters never be taken seriously, but I've stuck it out for the sheer love of sitting down with my friends, rolling some dice, eating some pizza, and telling a fascinating story. But I've been lucky; my good experiences with gaming far outweigh my bad ones, and there are plenty of other would-be gamer chicks who can't say the same.
After hearing all this, I would hope that you're wondering what you, a male gamer, can do to get rid of these ideas and make the world of RPGs more welcoming to women. The answer is simple: Take a good long look at yourself and your behavior toward any gamer chicks you may know. Do you treat them with the same respect you would give any other player? For a moment, imagine yourself as the only man in a gaming group made up entirely of women, all of whom treat you the same way you treat female gamers. If you would be comfortable in a situation like this (and not just because you'd be surrounded by women!), then you're probably doing fine. But if the thought of being on the receiving end of your own actions makes you cringe, it's time you revised your behavior until you treat the women in your gaming group with the same respect you would give to men.
And you'd better do it quickly. In recent years the number of active female gamers has skyrocketed, as a look around any convention or game store will tell you. Women are flocking to gaming in record numbers, especially to newer types of RPGs such as LARPs, MUDs, and MMORPGs. Whether or not they stay very long depends on you. You have the opportunity to change the face of gaming forever by welcoming a new demographic with open arms. So please, take a good long look at yourself and do what you have to do to make yourself the kind of person female gamers will point to as part of the solution. If all goes well, I think that someday that experienced gamer will have another moment where he says to himself:
"Isn't it strange that when I first started out in this hobby, women hardly ever gamed at all?"