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© 1998-2001 Dru Pagliassotti
All rights reserved.

Gamer Grrlz


I was in college when the stranger came into the gaming club and said he was going to run an AD&D game. We tried to welcome newcomers, so a group of us brought our characters over to his table to play. My character was Gwydion Lir, a male elven bard, good-looking, a bit of a vain fop. Not too long into the game, the DM declared that Zeus had seen Lir, fallen in love, turned him into a woman, spirited him, er, her off for a night of passionate lovemaking, and then returned him, er, her back to the party—pregnant.

As a female gamer, I learned a few things from that.

• Never bring a character I care about into a stranger's game.
• There are men who feel threatened when women play male characters.
• There are male DMs who will use PC pregnancy as a sort of punishment for gender transgression.
• That particular DM didn't know much about Greek mythology. (Since when was Zeus picky about the gender of his lovers?!)

I could have declared it an "alternate-world" episode, which we did sometimes when random things occurred to our characters outside a campaign setting. The DM never came back, after all, and everyone agreed it had just been a stupid session. In the end I didn't, though, and Lir remained female long enough to wean the child and then got himself turned male again. (Naturally, Zeus isn't paying child-support, the cad.)
Being a feminist woman gamer isn't easy. I've been a woman playing RPGs since the 1970s, and over the decades I've formed a few generalizations about gender differences in gaming. For better or for worse, here they are—a list of some of the problems female gamers face participating in a male-dominated hobby. I present them understanding that by challenging the majority I'm about to be labeled sexist myself ... at best.
The Male Game Culture. I don't know if anyone has actually surveyed RPG players to find out what the exact M:F ratio is, but by my rough guess I'd say face-to-face RPGing averages 5 to 7 men to every 1 woman (at least in Southern California). What this means for female gamers is that they are usually immersed in a male-dominated gaming culture. I have found that this generally implies the following:

• Combat is more highly valued. This isn't to say that men can't roleplay extraordinarily well, but most male players I know don't feel like a game session is complete unless their PCs have gotten into a fight. Most female players I know can happily roleplay all day without every drawing a weapon or raising a fist. I would generalize that more men see RPGing as a form of competition against each other or against the villains, whereas more women see RPGing as a form of collective storytelling, and that may be one cause for the difference. I'd also venture the suggestion that in childhood most girls play make-believe games more often than boys, and most boys play competitive games more often than girls, which could also be responsible for this trend.

• Romance is treated more casually. Again, that isn't to say that men won't roleplay torrid love affairs or marry their characters off, but in general, and especially among the younger set, male players like to engage their characters in one-night-stands, whereas female players prefer to roleplay a committed relationship.

• Sex is treated more casually and more violently. For some reason, I find that male players are more likely than female players to use sex-changing magics, random pregnancies, and rape in a game. Usually sex-change is male to female, and that change, pregnancy, and rape are all viewed by the male players as punishments or nasty tricks of some type. More male-played mages develop Impregnate or Abort spells than female-played mages. (I shudder to think of what a campaign that uses those spells could be like! Why do I not think they're used by friendly midwives trying to help their community?) In general, a culture of violence surrounding sex seems more common within a male-dominated game than a female-dominated game. Having a PC raped can be especially traumatic for a female gamer, especially if she's been subject to sexual violence before. Male gamers don't seem to have quite the same sensitivity to this as female gamers.

• Women are more likely to be victims than heroes or even random NPCs. In male-dominated games, female NPCs will seldom hold nontraditional positions in the campaign setting, and will usually occur as prostitutes, barmaids, wives, daughters, mothers, fashion models, secretaries, etc. Female NPCs will also be more likely to be the victim in an adventure plot. (How many plots involve a powerful woman hiring the adventurers to find her kidnapped husband?) In women-dominated games there is more likelihood of gender equality, although it's by no means a given.

• Characters are more likely to be heterosexual than homosexual. Most male gamers I know prefer conventional sexuality and sex roles in gaming, whereas most female gamers I know are more likely to experiment by playing PCs or NPCs with different genders, sexualities, marital arrangements and sex roles. This can make some men uncomfortable and lead them to put pressure on the woman to bring her characters back into conformity.

Naturally, these are all generalizations, and I've known men and women who defy such stereotypes. However, the majority of male and female gamers I've known fit these generalizations, and I've had other gamers tell me they've observed the same patterns themselves.
What can be done? My current core gaming group consists of three women and four men (two are married couples). We've all learned a lot from each other. For example, our male GMs have learned that the women in the group want a chance to roleplay—politics, romance, friendships, rivalries, all of that. They have learned to build opportunities for such roleplaying into the game and to let it happen instead of trying to rush past it to "get to the adventure." Our female GMs have learned to accommodate the men who can get impatient with too much talk and not enough action and, as a result, to run combat more deviously and efficiently. I think that all of us have played characters with different genders at one time or another, which also opens the game up to more gender equality and diversity. I think that the key for male and female gamers is to keep talking to each other, to accept criticism without becoming defensive, and to try to learn to accommodate each others' gaming preferences.

The Male Gaming Culture. The game culture is what goes on within the game; the gaming culture is what goes on outside the game. The gaming culture is also dominated by men. This can cause even more problems for women. After all, what happens within the game is ultimately fiction, right? What happens outside the game is real life.
For example, when women are outnumbered by men in a gaming group, especially in the younger set, they will often find themselves asked out on dates. Although there's nothing wrong with intergroup dating, if the woman doesn't want to date or if romantic tensions in the group get high, the woman can feel frustrated, intimidated or even threatened. (See also Five Problems with Gamers and Dating.) Female gamers can also experience favoritism from men who are either protecting them or courting them. This can be just as bad, especially for the other players who are not being favored.
A lone woman in a gaming club might find that her opinions are ignored or devalued by the men around her, especially if she tries to challenge traditional gender roles. I often scoff aloud at the sexist art or word choice in many RPG publications, to the collective eyeball-rolling and sarcastic comments of my male friends. However, I'm blessed to be in a progressive gaming group in which most of the men are feminists (although they'd deny it to their dying breath). A woman in a more conservative group might find the resistance firmer and more oppressive.
Women gamers must also learn to cope with gender differences in speech behavior. Research indicates that men are socialized to speak more loudly and interrupt more often than women. Women have been socialized to believe that dominating the conversation by shouting, talking loudly or interrupting is rude. In a talk-oriented game, that means that male players will tend to dominate without even thinking about it. Unless a woman asserts herself, she will become the silent character lurking in the background. (As an aside, MUDs and PBEMs may provide extremely shy or quiet women with a better RPG experience.)
Female gamers can also find themselves subject to sexist assumptions. Most women—especially older women—who have entered an RPG-oriented gaming store have had the experience of the shopkeeper asking if she's shopping for her boyfriend or son. I know one woman who never returned to her local gaming store after the owner made such a comment. I've been gaming for decades, I run this site, and I still feel an invisible wall pressing against me when I enter some RPG shops ... a sort of "sorry, hon, you've wandered into the wrong store, Nordstrom is down the street" sort of reaction composed of sidelong looks, raised eyebrows and lack of customer service. I've received terse answers to my product questions from male RPG shop owners who will discuss products at length with my husband or male gaming friends. I've never understood why a shop owner would consider that good for his business, especially since I buy far more gaming supplies than my husband ever has! As a result, I spend my money in the shops that don't treat me like a freak of nature.
Some of these sexist assumptions are no doubt buttressed by the male-dominated culture of RPG publishers. As I wrote earlier, I often read sexist passages in RPG rulebooks aloud and snort with disgust at images of scantily clad women with gravity-defying breasts the size of their heads. (How do those women aim a gun or use a sword?) "It's fantasy roleplaying," my AD&D-playing male friends tell me. "Whose fantasy?" I reply. Not mine! Some newer game systems have finally gotten a clue and are taking steps to embrace gender equality in writing and in art—Deadlands is one example—but others are entrenched in sexism. Okay, we women may be a minority in the market, but does it make financial sense to turn us off when it would be so easy to make a game woman-friendly? I teach editing; believe me, nonsexist writing doesn't take that much extra effort! Or how about tossing in as many pictures of women whomping monsters as there are of men? And maybe some of those artists could take a look at some real women's physical proportions for a change?

originally written August 6, 1999
Illustration by Skydancer

 

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