Women in Gaming: Five Years Later
It's been more than five years since I last wrote about women in gaming. In that time, we've seen the end of the World of Darkness, yet another new edition of D&D, the advent of World of Warcraft, and (at least in my opinion) much greater involvement of women around the gaming table. When so much has changed for the better, is the topic of women in gaming even worth exploring anymore? At the very least, I have one new piece of advice for male gamers, and one new piece of advice for women in the hobby.
First things first: For those who know me from the earlier days of Gamegrene, yes, I know that I abandoned all of you without warning, and yes, I am very sorry. Earning two degrees, living abroad, getting married, and generally trying to figure out what to do with my life were some of the causes of my mysterious disappearance. Thanks to those of you who have emailed me over the years and goaded me into writing here again. With any luck, I'm back to stay now!
With that out of the way, let's talk gaming again. In the five years since I last wrote for Gamegrene, a lot has changed in the gaming world. We've seen the end of the old World of Darkness and the beginning of the new, yet another new edition of D&D, the advent of World of Warcraft, and (at least in my experience) much greater involvement of women around the gaming table. Women have come to make up a sizable minority within the gaming world, and have even come to dominate some types of gaming such as online play-by-post or journal RPGs. Though my own gaming groups have almost always been made up of at least 50% women, I run into more female gamers in my day-to-day life and at conventions now than ever before, and when I walk into gaming stores the employees don't stare at me like I have a second head (and even, most of the time, treat me like I know what I'm talking about). Certainly, female gamers are still misunderstood or dismissed in some areas of the hobby, but for many of us a major, and very welcome, shift is taking place toward greater acceptance of women in gaming.
"Girl geeks and gamers are nothing special...
I'm not the only one who's noticed the change. For many gamers, women around the table are becoming the rule rather than the exception - so much so that their presence in a game is something commonplace and unworthy of comment. A few weeks ago, a woman posted the following on a roleplaying-related message board I read: "Recently an acquaintance said this to me, 'Girl geeks and gamers are nothing special, they are a dime a dozen.' Agree? Disagree? Thoughts?" Among the expected responses (such as "If there are so many female gamers, why can't I get any to join my group and/or date me?") was one that caught my eye: "I think that the gaming community's frequent and persistent dwellings upon this topic only serve to make whatever divide there is all the more prominent. The more we focus on the gender divide, the more the divide exists."
As a writer who has spent substantial time thinking and talking about the gender divide in gaming, my first reaction upon reading this post was knee-jerk anger. What do you mean the topic I've worked hard to call attention to shouldn't be talked about? And the strategy of "stick your head in the sand and pretend that differences between people don't exist" has never struck me as a productive strategy, in gaming or in life. But the more I think about it, the more I end up drawing something different out of this gamer's post. I will always believe that there are differences in the styles and preferences of male and female gamers, some of which can be attributed to personal preference and some of which can be attributed to gender differences. We could say a lot about those differences - and some of us, like me, have done just that. But in the end, maybe what this poster is trying to say is that the way to respond to gender differences among gamers is easier than any of us have been letting on.
The questions are old and often repeated: Why don't more women game? How can we encourage them to give gaming a try? What do women want out of a game when they participate in it? And, most importantly, how do we solve these problems so that women will want to keep on gaming once they've begun? After five years' vacation from writing about these topics, I've concluded that their answers might really be as easy as saying this:
Women, remember that you are here to game. Men, remember that we're here to game too.
Let's take these pieces of advice one at a time, starting with what I have to say to the ladies. Women (and men as well) who talk, think, and write about gaming should understand that there is really no need for an endless parade of articles on the female perspective on player recruitment, conflict management, dungeon design, or what have you. Gamers of all genders tend to overstate the difficulty involved in finding and keeping a good gaming group while female, or in participating in a fun and successful game as a woman; I've been guilty of this myself in the past. The simple truth is that finding or recruiting a group, keeping it together, resolving conflicts, planning and telling a story, coming up with and playing an interesting and enjoyable character, and still having fun week after week is a difficult task for all gamers regardless of gender. Advice on these topics is necessary and very helpful - but it isn't, and shouldn't have to be, gendered in any way. What makes a good game is as applicable to women as it to for men. (More on this later.)
The same goes for what happens around the gaming table. To be completely blunt, I'm tired of female gamers who behave as though the equipment between their legs entitles them to special treatment when they deign to grace a gaming group with their presence. There are certain behaviors that no gaming group should be forced to put up with from anyone in the name of being inclusive. So I would ask women who game to consider this:
- If you are coming to a gaming session because you want to be put on a pedestal and worshipped by those around you, find something else to do with your time.
- If you are coming to a gaming session only because you want to find a date, go to a bar or a singles' club instead. (Though for many gamers finding a date may be a welcome side effect of joining a group, it shouldn't be your first priority.)
- If you are coming to a gaming session and using your gender as an excuse not to pay attention or learn the rules, consider whether gaming is really a hobby that interests you enough to continue.
- But if you game because you want to spend time spinning an exciting and immersive story with your friends and beating down lots of orcs along the way (like most female gamers I know), keep doing what you're doing. You should have no trouble finding a good group of gamers who respect you.
A sad fact of gaming's past gender imbalance is that male gamers can end up over-generalizing about what all female gamers are like based upon one bad experience. Certainly, all you male gamers should open up your minds enough to realize that each female gamer is an individual and not representative of an entire gender, but that's only part of the problem. It may make me a bad feminist to question other women's choices, but I'm tired of women getting a free pass on behavior for which any male gamer would have been thrown out on his ear years ago. Is it really so much to ask that people who come to a game should be there because they want to, you know, game?
(The flip side of this issue, of course, is that just as female gamers shouldn't expect special treatment because of their gender, they shouldn't think that they have to take crap because of it, either. There are so many gaming opportunities out there, at least online if not IRL, that nobody should have to put up with disrespect or abuse just because bad gaming is better than no gaming. Instead, tell those people where to stick it and get the hell out. I don't think I need to say anything more about that.)
Which brings me to the other half of this equation - male gamers. Back when I was still actively updating my website about women in gaming, I could usually count on getting multiple emails per week that went something like this: "Hi gamerchick, my girlfriend/my friend's girlfriend/my sister/my female friend is joining my D&D/Star Wars/Vampire/whatever game soon. She is A GIRL and I have never had A GIRL in my gaming group before. How should I run my game so that THE GIRL who is joining will like it?" Such emails started out charming but rapidly became annoying in their repetition. I don't remember how I responded back then, but here's what I'd say now:
Why not take the radical step of actually talking to your players?
"Look, it's not that easy. Your female gamer isn't going to play a certain way just because she's female. She might want awesome combats to show off her character's fighting prowess, or opportunities for deep roleplaying, or believable simulationism, or a mixture of those things, or something else entirely. Making assumptions about what all women will like in a game just by dint of their gender is foolish at best and downright offensive at worst. Instead of sitting on the Internet looking for a quick fix to your problem-that-really-isn't-a-problem, why not take the radical step of actually talking to your players, both male and female, and finding out what they want out of a game so you can focus on giving it to them?"
This is not to say that female and male gamers are always totally interchangeable. One generalized gender difference that still holds true, at least in my experience, is that women often come into gaming with less knowledge of RPGs than their male counterparts. Many would-be female gamers I've known didn't grow up playing computer RPGs or seeing their friends dabble in "that D&D stuff", and thus require a bit more grounding in the basics before they can get up to speed. With luck, in five more years this may not even be a concern anymore as gaming becomes more popular among young women - but always be patient with your female gaming newbies, as you would be with any new gamer.
But there's more to the dictum of "remember that we're here to play" than just running a good game. If a woman has come to your gaming table, chances are good that she didn't come there to be insulted or harassed or flirted with or treated like a fragile flower or an alien. Rather, she came there to (astonishingly enough) play your game and have fun doing it. And nobody, male or female, wants to play with a GM who's a jerk in any sense of the word. So for God's sake be nice to your female gamers - hell, be nice to all of your gamers. Treat them well, respect them like you would any friend, and do whatever's in your power as a GM or a player to make the experience of gaming fun for everyone involved. Don't be blind to gender, but don't make the mistake of thinking that female gamers are a homogeneous category of people, either.
So where does all of this leave me? If bridging the gender gap in gaming really is that simple, and female gamers are nothing special, is it even worth writing about gaming from an overtly female or feminist perspective anymore? Perhaps it's time for me to shift the focus, then, from being a female gamer to being a gamer who happens to be female. As one poster from the aforementioned message board put it: "I think that finding a good gamer is special. Gender can be a factor (most of the great gamers i know are female), but overall, if you're a good gamer, you're special and treasured." I know that I'm a good gamer and a good GM, and I like to think that 10+ years of experience in weekly games gives me something to say about the hobby we all share. If my perspective as a feminist occasionally comes in to color that, so be it. But in the end, remember: All of us are really just here because we want to game. I don't intend to lose sight of that truth, and I hope that none of you will, either.