Thursday, June 23, 2011

Shared Fantasy - Women in Gaming

I expect this topic to be a bit controversial, and possibly to involve some serious discussion.

I have been reading Shared Fantasy by Gary Fine.  You can check out my previous posts here and here.  In the latter half of Chapter 2, he devotes quite a bit of space to the curious lack of women gamers.  He offers three explanations as to why that is: characteristics of women; the process of recruitment into the gaming world; and reactions of men to the presence of women players and female characters.

First, as previously noted, recall that this book was based on research done between 1977 and 1979.  The nature of our hobby and the generally accepted theories of gender roles have changed since then.  I think that several of these points still ring true, however.

Characteristics of Women

According to Fine and his sources, there is a general difference between "male" play and "female" play.  Specifically, "boys tend to write longer and richer stories than girls do, and their fantasies are more likely to include aggression, self-assertion, and material objects."  The first part indicates that women do not have the attention span for four to eight hour gaming sessions.  The second, that women generally aren't interested in killing things and taking their stuff.

Personally, I'll strongly disagree with the first part.  I am going to point to one community in particular that is largely dominated by women, most of whom succeed in writing very rich and long stories: fanfic.  Now, I am willing to concede that my counter-example probably is not sufficient to disprove the cited psychological studies.  But, I think that it is evidence that either those studies are flawed, or gender roles have changed so radically in the intervening decades that the studies are no longer relevant.  (As a note, the study that prompted the quote above was published in 1943, though most of the other studies in the chapter date from the 70s.)

I will concede the second point, though.  I will add the caveat, though, that we are talking about very broad generalizations.  Eighty percent of women might not be interested in standard gaming pursuits, but self-selection could well mean that eighty percent of "gamer girls" are.  When I look at fiction produced by and for women, though, I have to admit that most of it revolves around themes of love, family, and emotional drama.  Very little of it focuses on war, exploration, or high action.  So, we may need to admit that the majority of women are not going to be interested in the same sorts of stories commonly told in RPGs.

As an interesting note, Fine quotes a study that young boys actually engage in less imaginative play than young girls, preferring physical play.  However, RPGs, most particularly the older sort that are closer to their wargaming roots, actually represent that physical play.  "The physical role-playing of childhood [is] tamed into a verbal activity."  I must admit that this is a factor that I had never considered before.

Recruitment of Women

This is, I think, a fairly obvious problem.  Gaming originally grew out of wargaming, a hugely male-dominated hobby.  It is now linked to video gaming, also, until recently, male-dominated.  Further, it is generally tied to fantasy and science fiction.  In the 70s, those were heavily male-dominated genres, though that is certainly not true any more.

So, the typical paths of recruitment into the hobby are from other hobbies that also have lower percentages of female participation.  I'm fairly sure that if someone could develop an RPG (that wasn't called an RPG, to avoid existing stereotypes) that drew off of soap operas and prime time dramas (e.g., Grey's Anatomy), it would have a disproportionately large female fan base.  Especially if you could market it to draw on the existing internet community.

The lack of female role models in genre fiction is another contributing factor.  As Fine points out in the book, the best female warrior role model at the time was Red Sonja.  Even today, the lack of strong women in the fiction is a matter of much discussion among fans.  With no such role models to draw women into genre fiction, it becomes harder to interest them in role playing in the genre.  As science fiction and fantasy has moved much more into the mainstream, that has changed somewhat.  I've heard more than one report of wives becoming interested in giving D&D a shot after watching Game of Thrones.  But, it is certainly still a factor.

Finally, of course, you have the self-reinforcing factor that women tend to mostly socialize with other women, and men with men.  When it is hard to get even one woman involved in a game, it becomes very difficult for the idea of gaming to spread to other women.  I have noticed, personally, that a disproportionate number of female gamers profess to not like other women.  Since they tend to break the trend and socialize as "one of the guys," they are more likely to be exposed to gaming.  (The fact that many women get introduced to gaming through a significant other is a factor that we will see more of below.)

One of the interviews in the book summed it up incredibly well:  "They're not invited to get involved, so they don't get involved."

Attitudes of Males

Okay, there are a lot of references and anecdotes in this section that I find incredible.  I have never been in a group that would have tolerated this behavior, even the group where the DM was a misogynistic gay man.  But, from what I have heard from other women, these groups do exist, and in greater numbers than I would believe.  My faith in humanity ebbs just a little more.

Most of the attitudes are not so harmful.  Existing gamers may feel that their masculinity is threatened if a woman comes in and is better at the game.  (Incidentally, I find the early strip of KotDT to be a great example of this attitude.)  Men may make jokes that are fine when it's just the guys, but put some women into a difficult or uncomfortable position.  Some guys may even turn it up a notch, as a way to either put the possibility of sex on the table (really? apparently so) or just because having a girl there adds a whole new dimension to previously tired jokes.  (I think years of sexual harassment training have given all of us an idea of what kind of behavior this is.)  Finally, of course, women will often encounter the blank stare and "YOU play D&D?" attitude.  While not really insulting, usually, it's also certainly not welcoming.

Female gamers also have to struggle against another stereotype.  Most women get introduced to the hobby through a boyfriend or husband.  When they show up to the game, they are generally specifically viewed as an appendage of that significant other.  Given some of the other sociological realities of the type of woman who is likely to be in this position, especially one in her teens, most gamers will have had some really bad experiences with visiting girlfriends of their friends.  As such, there are stereotypes of the Distraction, the Whiner, the Manipulator, and so on.  When a woman shows up who is legitimately interested in gaming, she already faces an uphill slog through some very unkind assumptions.  A lot of women are unlikely to consider the game worth the effort.

Some attitudes that women encounter are harmful.  First, you have men insisting on reinforcing medieval attitudes toward women.  Women are property, with no rights of their own.  I think that you see this attitude far less these days, especially as gaming companies have deliberately gone out of their way to make female characters viable in every setting.  But, I'm sure it still crops up from time to time.

Second, as noted in previous chapters, sexual conquest, usually involving rape, was a frequent theme in the games that Fine observed.  Some choice quotes:
"Because a lot of people I know go in and pick up a woman and just walk off. ... Some people get a little carried away and rape other people [in the game]. ... Well, I've see a lot of players just kind of calm down because of [females]."
"Dan and Alvin are talking about having their characters find a barmaid for the night.  Alvin comments about his character's sexual prowess: 'I'll drown her in my squirt.'"
"Tom yells: 'I'm screaming at [the priestesses], 'Stop and be raped, you goddamn women!''  After all six are killed, Tom, still excited, suggests: 'Let's get gems and jewels and panties.'"
Fine's own commentary after this last quote is also telling:
While Tom's reactions are extreme, he is never sanctioned by others.  Given these examples, it is perhaps not surprising that few females participate in these games. ... Although females were not present when these comments were made, it is not surprising that male players do not invite their female friends to play. ... If female players were present, men would likely consider the game less 'fun,' and possibly make negative attributions to the female player.
To which my only possible response is, "Really?"  First of all, I deeply hope that the attitudes shown above are at least significantly less prevalent these days.  Second, how can you possibly hope to attract women to your games when you allow your fellow gamers to spew filth like that?  I just really have nothing else I can say.  I'm flummoxed.


  1. "While Tom's reactions are extreme, he is never sanctioned by others. Given these examples, it is perhaps not surprising that few females participate in these games. ... Although females were not present when these comments were made, it is not surprising that male players do not invite their female friends to play. ... If female players were present, men would likely consider the game less 'fun,' and possibly make negative attributions to the female player."

    I quite agree with Fine's observation from my own experience playing with two women in my multicultural group of Americans, Europeans, and Mediterraneans. The onus is firmly on the women to prove they can take it. The loose talk of sausage fests is just untame lips working before brains, but the jokes that require deliberate set up can be offensive. It is all the more surprising because this conscious behaviour comes from married men of median age 30 with female babies of their own.

    The current game is an extended fetch quest roll play, attesting to the "physical role-playing of childhood tamed into a verbal activity" with its incharacter/masked jibes. The women are attracted to a new campaign that will centre on a political story (you mentioned Game of Thrones, which is an example I will re-use here). While the males want to go off to battle and man or "level-up," the females favour a story.

  2. "The onus is firmly on the women to prove they can take it."

    I'm not entirely sure I understand this attitude. First, why do the women need to prove they can take it? Why can they not be legitimately offended by the comments? Second, why is it up to women to be offended? Personally, I'm offended by a lot of the examples I quoted above, and most of the guys I've played with over the years would be too.

    There is a certain amount of innuendo and joking that is perfectly fine. And, within those borders, I've generally heard most of the women I know give as well as any of the guys. But, there is a definite difference between "I bet that ogres have really big penises, ha ha" and "I bet when an ogre rapes a goblin she just explodes, ha ha." Maybe it's just me, but I've never found the latter funny under any circumstances, let alone in a fantasy game.

    I do find it interesting that your experiences with physical vs. non-physical stories corresponds with Fine's theory. As a note, I was doing some more thinking on this subject the other day, and realized that this may be why World of Darkness (Vampire, Werewolf, et al.) was seen as appealing to women. The core stories were generally political or mysteries, as opposed to the traditional quest format. The urban fantasy/goth motifs may have actually been a secondary concern.

  3. Hi Marshall,

    I'm not a prolific writer as you can see from my time stamps but I intend to respond to your replies. Hopefully my intention is not held up in purgatory while on the road to hell. LOL

    "I'm not entirely sure I understand this attitude. First, why do the women need to prove they can take it? Why can they not be legitimately offended by the comments? Second, why is it up to women to be offended? Personally, I'm offended by a lot of the examples I quoted above, and most of the guys I've played with over the years would be too."

    Well, I don't mind in-character (IC) sexism. As a DM, I must be guilty of being offensive once in a while IC because I play so many of characters, villains and louts, and not all should be nice. But it is different out-of-character (OOC). Or should I say when I re-assume my character; who I am “out-of-game.”

    The explanation why "women need to prove" may be explained in the cultural dimensions players bring to the table OOC. We are North American and find sexism offensive; yet we North Americans may not treat women as harsh as the male newbie at the gaming table, which is inequitable from another's perspective. (I just encountered something similar to this on my girlfriend’s Facebook account.) But, take it from me, ours viewpoint is but one perception. We can agree ours is the "right" value but that judgment is based upon our shared cultural value(s).

    This is really emphasized when you play with a variety of people from different cultures.

    Group dynamics state that the formation of groups undergoes stages of storming, norming and forming. It may be the bitter taste and blind fold of a fraternity or ritual college hazings but it happens. I think it’s all so childish but, then again, I do not belong to any groups I do not control. One female player left our group while another stayed. I understand the reasons why the one left and even agree with them but the other who stayed is treated like a sister - which is interesting. Maybe both were treated like sisters, meaning in the cruelest childish manner of sibling relations – without the violence.

    Both are pretty women: the former, a married Bulgarian-Polish businesswoman (35), and the latter, a single American student (23). Poland is a masculine culture compared to America. The demographic thumbnail gives you an indication of the individual's self-image. One woman was not going to take it while the other thought nothing about it.

    This works for the men too. I am 44. When I heard about the sexist comments (I was not at that game) I was upset. I was embarrassed because I had invited this person to join. Those under 30, Mediterraneans by the way, did not express any emotion sensitivity towards the female. The other Canadian, 20, did however.

    I remember when the Canadian joined, our youngest player. He was verbally hazed. I was at that game and thought it was offensive. He had VERY limited experience with D&D and I really thought the group made a poor showing of itself for his first game. I also felt offended because this was my group, I did the searching to put it together, so I took the group’s behaviour personally like the parent of unruly children. But this behaviour calmed.

    The storming behaviour has calmed with our female gamer too but the insensitivity towards inappropriate jokes continues. This suggests enculturation to me rather than intentional oafishness.

  4. I will certainly accept that sexism, and nearly any other sort of -ism, can be appropriate in character. However, there are lines, even there, that I don't think should be crossed. Most especially by the players, who theoretically should be playing heroes. Not because it's "wrong" necessarily, but because making the other players uncomfortable is no fun.

    Of course, there is always an exception to every rule. If your party is the crew from Firefly, the player of Jayne pretty much has to be crude, sexist, and generally ignorant. That's part of his character. But, part of the party dynamic is also meant to highlight just how wrong Jayne's attitudes are. If your group is on board with something like that (as a player, it would be poor form to spring it on them and expect them to roll with it), and are mature enough to handle it with grace and humor, that can be fantastic.

    I'll say that, in my experience, it backfires nine times out of ten. Lovely in theory, poor in practice.

    My disposition, and hence my advice, is to start out as inoffensive and inclusive as you can. Add comments and innuendo as you become aware of the tastes and hot buttons of your other players. After all, there are whole worlds of humor, character, and engagement that do not rely on dick and fart jokes.

    Of course, I do recognize that not everyone feels that way.

  5. Your comment on storming, or hazing, is interesting. I hadn't really thought of it in those terms. Of course, I don't really get hazing as a concept, either. It's always seemed terribly counter-productive to me. It's pretty much the whole reason I didn't join a frat.

    I do think that if we, the community of gamers, are going to intentionally offend people as part of the introductory process, we are going to have a hard time growing the hobby. I think that your reactions to your group's behavior show that you're in at least basic agreement with this. However, I do think I somewhat understand that there are cultural norms that encourage forcing people to climb a barrier to get in the group. Separating the wheat from the chaff, making sure that the people who do join are not going to start rewriting the norms, etc. I just ... well, think it's all kind of dumb.

    Why is it so hard for us to just get along and be civilized?

  6. Just poking my head in to stave off the monotony of that damned brochure. (Just a comment here while I shirk my duty.)

    “Most especially by the players, who theoretically should be playing heroes.”

    I would correct you on the word should. It is a subjective call on your part. I had a guy who did not want to play a hero. It’s a long amusing story. However, “the hero” of a story is also the main character(s) and that is definitely what players should be playing. The guy I mentioned did not even want to play that.

    “Not because it's "wrong" necessarily, but because making the other players uncomfortable is no fun.”

    Not true. It may not be fun to you, the bullied. It’s great fun, even “scientific,” to those dishing out the abuse. This speaks directly to my comments after your post on the Conclusion of Shared Fantasy. Chronic Rules Lawyering is one mild form of this and precisely what Gary Gygax was speaking out against (on page 111). There are only so many games you look forward to attending where you are constantly told you are wrong or do not fit in with the groupthink. It’s more a pathological reaction (stronger than perceptual defense) than any conscious winnowing, IMHO. [I also think Television programming is crap but people still watch so what do I know?!]

    “I do think that if we, the community of gamers, are going to intentionally offend people as part of the introductory process, we are going to have a hard time growing the hobby.”

    Precisely. However, I doubt there is any raw data to form a statistic that backs up this common sense. Once people get an introduction to a game like this, especially if the offender can hide behind a rule as written (RAW) gaming pretext, they understandably never return. [Most people coming to RPGs for the first time expect to play games RAW because that is their very experience with board games, sports, etc… so why not in an RPG?] Why would people want to play a game they believe have rules meant to offend? It is comparable to a player walking into the Monty Python Argument Sketch who does not want to argue: they leave. They believe the DM is playing by the written rules he claims to be. (The subset of first time experience does not include people who are 100% familiar with the RPGs concept.)

    Marshall, you and I might figuratively kick that guys ass. Me more than you because I claim Rule 0 to be immutable. But you and I are hardly newbie gamers. Consider that RPGs allow players to wear masks. Consider that a bully’s mask may be his OOC “sweet guy” persona rather than his IC “cruel” mask. A newbie thinks this is the way the game is played. If the newbie likes it, the newbie then buys a rulebook. If not, he walks away from RPGs without making an investment and tars the whole industry from the one experience. This is my personal history of which I speak, needing to assure someone that there are different styles of game because of Rule 0. (It’s not all the same Monopoly.)

    “Why is it so hard for us to just get along and be civilized?”

    It’s a reaction to being ignored rather than valued as individuals. We are de-valued. We are written out of the RAW. We get loud and entrench and forget the shared interest that could otherwise move us forward together, collaboratively.

  7. I will admit to certain personal bias here. I think that all PCs should be heroes. Possibly anti-heroes, possibly reluctant heroes, but heroes nonetheless. Also, I refuse to believe that bullying is fun. Most especially, I believe that, as it makes the experience less fun for the group as a whole, it represents the one way you can lose at an RPG. But, in both cases, that is strictly my viewpoint, and not something I can defend in general.

    Also, I feel that your comments simply reinforce our need to label bullying, sexism, and similar anti-social behavior as both aberrant and unwanted in the gaming community. If we simply shrug and say, "Well, yeah, some gamers suck," then there is nothing to discourage the behavior. And, likewise, there is nothing to counterbalance the newbie's impressions. "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

  8. Plus ONE Marshal. But remember that it takes all types to define words like fun. The fun that Fine wrote about in Shared Fantasy is Woebegone Days today, much like his definition of the RPG subculture today is a relic, regrettably.

    From my perspective, maybe a nostalgic or not with the times older man, I think the old style of game that brought people into the game more closely (like a game of Scruples would at a party) is 10 times better than RPG as poor man's video game.

    40 years ago, maybe because there were fewer dark/adult/any fantasy novels around, people mostly played themselves in-game situations, imagining themselves as heroes rather than someone else. The persona mask was permission to be free and express yourself as a hero (AKA main character) same as the people with whom you gamed. It was the social status leveling in the Golden Age of the social misfit; the cliché of Richard Corben's DEN. And bullies had better things to do with their time or, at least, fewer targets who were the ones imagining themselves to be heroes.