It’s a pretty well-established fact that role-playing games aren’t exactly popular with women, and neither are the related nerdy activities of computer gaming or board gaming. Recent studies suggest that about 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 MMO players is female. That’s a better ratio than at my kickboxing club, where it’s about 1 in 20 – and that’s in rural Japan, supposedly a sexist society. I’d guess it’s a better male-female ratio than exists in NZ or Australian amateur rugby. However, I’d suggest that the rate of women in role-playing clubs I’ve been a member of has been lower than 1 in 20, on average, and most people who game are pretty aware that the number of women who come to the game is low. For example, the club I went to in London had at most 2 women in a room of maybe 40 men (this happened once!) and I think one of them was a friend of a player and not playing herself.

I suppose also I’ve been led to think about this as well by the controversy over “I Hit it with my Axe,” in which the response to a video of a group of women gaming was really sexist, including such fine sexist tropes as commenting first (or only) on their appearance, setting higher standards of required intellect or knowledge than equivalent male gamers, and judging them on their sexual behaviour (they’re porn stars, so their out-of-game sexual activity became an important part of the controversy). I don’t think many of the people commenting at the Escapist website, or in the other websites during the aftermath, ever stopped to think about whether the women playing might object to being called ugly, or being held to a higher standard of appearance than male gamers, or having their playing style judged, or whether the extent to which this was being done was greater than perhaps might be done for a group of men.

The hobby generally also has a pretty serious set of markers indicating that women aren’t welcome, and although women who game might not care about, or might even appreciate, some of these markers, the fact remains that things like bikini-clad babes, novels with only male protagonists, obligatory skimpy clothing on women, and default mediaeval worlds with default gender relations all serve to tell women “this is a man’s world,” just like the nude calendar hanging in the workshop tells a woman it’s a man’s space, even if she happens herself to appreciate it aesthetically.

So there’s a natural barrier to women’s inclusion in the hobby. Having seen these markers in game stores and computer games and online, the woman who wants to game is going to turn up to a group or a club and walk into a room that is maybe 90-95% male, mostly men who don’t have a great deal of success with women, she’s going to be stared at and ogled (this happens in every public rpg setting I’ve ever seen), and then she’s going to have to come to terms with a complex set of rules. She’s going to have to enact those rules in a social setting characterised by multiple people talking over and past each other, a kind of environment where women are much more likely to be interrupted or overruled by men, and all the while she’s going to be subject to (and probably aware of) a set of judgements and expectations which are probably not the same for her[1] as they would be for a new male player joining. And, inevitably, someone’s going to hit on her at some point, and some other guy who’s not very good with women is going to stare and pander to her too much and make her uncomfortable.

So how did this come about, and is there anything that can be done about it? I think it’s partly an accident of history, in that when the hobby started in the 70s it developed in a very gendered section of nerd culture. Indeed, I think all of nerd culture in the English-speaking world, not just gaming, started off as very male-dominated, maybe because of its origins in science and tech. In Japan, for example, nerd culture seems to be much more gender-balanced[2], and I think this might be a result of it having grown from different cultural roots (i.e. anime) and being more connected to mainstream pop, as well as quite androgynous sub-cultures like Visual Kei. Anyway, so if the hobby starts in a gender-unbalanced subculture, it’s much harder for women to enter the subculture later because the traditions of the subculture have grown up around its gendered history. But beyond this historical accident, I think there is an element of the fundamental nature of the game – 4 or 5 people sitting around a table talking about a topic – which women have traditionally had difficulty dealing with when the people doing it are mostly men. Men in groups tend to unconsciously overrule, interrupt, ignore and belittle women when they speak, and this makes it difficult for women to stick it out in these groups unless they’re really good at mixing it up with men. But this problem is easily fixed.

When I first started studying at Adelaide University in 1991, the student union produced a pamphlet for all new students explaining about good behaviour in tutorials, and a significant part of that pamphlet was devoted to pointing out to new male students how traditional male tutorial behaviour unconsciously discriminated against and excluded women from participation. It also gave a series of tips on how to avoid this traditional behaviour, most of which started from the standpoint of “you aren’t the centre of the universe, even though you think you are because you’re a 17 year old male.” I actually paid attention to this pamphlet and, in my English classes, I could see pretty clearly what was happening. I could also see that some tutors had taken the issue seriously, and would work to make sure that people got an equal chance to speak, and that women didn’t get overruled or ignored. This isn’t necessary for women who speak easily and loudly, but for a lot of women and some men it is.

It’s also easy for men to form subtle, quick alliances against women without even realising it. For example, one of my friends (female) in a tutorial some years back witnessed the following conversation (in a class not oriented around women’s studies):

  • Female Student A: “That’s because of the patriarchy”
  • Male Student B: “You mean like a kind of conspiracy of men? That’s crazy.”
  • Tutor, to male students in the room: “Hey lads, don’t forget to meet me after class to discuss the next stage of our conspiracy against women.”
  • Male students: general sniggers and “okay”s

In this conversation the tutor rapidly orients his conversation to form a kind of alliance with the other guys against a woman’s idea, and the guys quickly slip into form with him, ignorant of the irony that they’re doing exactly what the girl criticised in order to dismiss her point.

A tutor who had even basic training in how to handle gender issues in class would never, ever have done this: if the girl’s point was stupid (as in this case, I seem to recall, it actually was) he would have found a way to point this out to her without making her feel small and excluded. Feeling small and excluded is not an issue when you’re not in a minority, but if you’re the only person in the room from a particular group, and the means of exclusion is clearly related to your membership of that group, you’ll get the message pretty fast – that you aren’t welcome.

I don’t think that these kinds of interaction problems can be solved by women by themselves. They need the engagement and support of men, or the only solution will be for women to play in separate groups, which is okay I suppose but not, in my view, ideal. I don’t believe that women need different games to men, or even a different gaming environment[3] – they just need men to apply the same standards to them as they do to each other. The games themselves are not naturally inimical to women’s tastes or desires, but they’re difficult for women to enter when the natural, unmonitored social environment in which they occur is inimical to women’s interests.

Role-playing actually comes with a built-in stabiliser to solve a lot of these problems – the DM. It’s the DM’s responsibility to make sure all players are heard, all players get a chance to put their ideas, and all players get equal consideration. If a DM sees some of these things happening in his or her campaign – women being talked over [seen it!], women being talked down to [seen it!], women being told what to do [seen it!], men getting credit for women’s ideas [seen it!] – to a woman in the group more often than the men, then the DM can step in to try and reverse this problem, for example by getting the woman to repeat what she said, or pointing out to everyone that that idea was actually Kate’s, not Bob’s as they’re saying. The DM, removed from the cut and thrust of player interaction, is ideally placed to do this. And not just for women either – shy and new players often need a lot of this sort of help. The problem for women is that sometimes these patterns persist long after they’ve got used to the game and the players, and they happen in a gendered way – i.e. more to the woman than to the other players.

As a concrete example, players often compliment the originator of a good idea after it works out. The Ogres are a steaming pile of corpses, the treasure is in hand, and no-one’s hurt, so the player who suggested using the strap-a-mine-to-a-dog approach gets thanked. But I’ve seen campaigns where, if the idea was the woman’s, nothing would be said. Only men got credit for good ideas. It’s like all the male players had just subtly wiped her from a small part of their in-game manners. So, as DM, it was easy for me to point out to the players whose idea it was and how well it worked, at which point they’d all naturally chime in with thanks and accolades, because they didn’t deliberately intend to exclude her – it just happened that way[4]. So I’ve brought her gaming experience up to par with theirs, without any confrontation or awkwardness.

It doesn’t take much effort for a DM to do this, and to remain aware both of a general responsibility to ensure all players get equal consideration, but to be particularly aware of ways in which women are being treated differently and to redress them[5]. If we all do this, then one of the main barriers to women’s participation – a quite confrontational social environment full of loud men – will be overcome without necessarily even making much effort or changing it much, and they’ll stick around longer, which will make it easier for other women to game. And then the other barriers – the social markers indicating it as a male-only space, the farting, the Body Odour, and the highly sexist bulk-standard mediaeval environments – will fall as well. And in my opinion, that makes the game better for everyone.

I suppose, in conclusion: role-playing is a social activity, and when discrimination happens in social activities, it can only be fixed by people working together, not by the victims bearing up under it and trying to break through. I know a lot of role-players seem to come from a libertarian or quite individualistic perspective (possibly partly driven by their experience of “membership” at high school, which tended to work against us when we were the nerdy outsiders), and the idea of consciously looking at the way your social organisations work is anathema to them, but in this case, if having more women in the gaming world is of interest to us, we have to recognise that it won’t necessarily happen organically. Someone, somewhere, is going to have to work to subtly reorganise those social relations to make it easier for women to join. The presence of the DM makes this social reorganisation easy and hassle-free, if the DM is willing to do a very small amount of work to fix the problem, until the players work out how to change their behaviour themselves, and the problem goes away.

fn1: This is classic “entry” behaviour, as characterised in the old joke that women have to work twice as hard as men to get half the recognition – this is what happened when women first started entering male-dominated workplaces.

fn2: Even the word for nerd in Japanese, Otaku, stems from a polite form of “you” traditionally used by middle-aged women and also adopted by nerdy guys to refer to each other. Or so I’m told.

fn3: Though I think there’s lots of space for this too

fn4: This is an important point here, which gets missed a lot in gender debates. A lot of the stuff men do to exclude women is not done deliberately, and they would stop doing it as soon as they found out they were. This was the central point of the pamphlet I read way back when, and it means that these social elements of the game are the easiest to fix, even though they’re the subtlest, especially if you have a neutral observer – like a tutor or DM – to check them and make them change.

fn5: I’ve seen other ways too, such as when my German player was getting very uncomfortable at the implication that the group he was in was going to commit genocide, and I had to step in to try and guide them down a different path – it’s not like he was generally squeamish, but there are some things that a German is not comfortable with and the game is meant to be fun.

Update: Sysuro in comments has pointed out an error in my original post, based on a misreading (perhaps) of a table in a study (which I discussed previously here). I’ve updated the first paragraph to represent this. The discussion of the error is in the comments.