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WOMEN OUT OF CHARACTER

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Women In The Industry

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Women have always been present and producing content for gamers to enjoy, though more have joined as time has marched on.  In the earliest days of D&D, Alarums & Excurions, the first periodical focused only on RPGs, was headed by Lee Gold. Adventures in the 70s and third party publications were written in whole or in part by women.  Women produced their own games for the first time in the 1980s but were largely published by small presses, which limited their reach and reputations.

The first D&D player Gary Gygax recruited to work at TSR was Jean Wells.  She encountered difficulties with the all-male insular staff, being kept out of games or asked to play only male characters.  Her first module was rejected for reasons which remain suspect, and she was relegated to a secretarial role. Nonetheless, she and other women were producing and aiding in game development, art, and so on, whether they were credited properly or not.  These women have been uncovered in recent years as people have turned to chronicling the history of the hobby, but it is crucial to understand that they were always part of the industry. For more names and credits, see this article.

The move to freelance developers led to more female names in tabletop games across the board. Centralized offices produce their own cultures, and in the early days, these cultures were unabashedly male-dominated and driven. As writers have been taken on due to need and at distance, gaming company cultures have become more mutable and less imposing. The expansion of third party products that came with the OGL and d20 license after 2000 began to open the gates for more women to write for the games they loved.  Recently, platforms like the DM’s Guild and other player-based publishing sources have pushed the gates even wider. Women do not face as much immediate rejection from those in power and have the chance to release content and be judged on its merits.  

And it must be noted that a number of gaming companies have sought women’s voices on purpose, through targeted recruitment.  This has not occurred without backlash, but it has encouraged women who would have otherwise remained silent to speak up and take more places in game creation.  The monetary rewards for such work are not what fans may think, and the fan rage directed at “reverse sexism” can be demoralizing, but women have persisted because they are as in love with the hobby as anyone.  All told, these purposeful and accidental opportunities for diversity have led to more content for everyone to enjoy, and more role models for women and girls who see a future for themselves in game design.

I must also put in a word for myself at this juncture.  I began writing my web sites for the World of Darkness and D&D in the late 90s and early 2000s because I love to write, I was developing content for my games that I felt was worth sharing, and I have never been afraid to love what I love.  I have not hidden my gender, though I understand why some women do with pen names, and I have woven women, femininity, and diversity throughout my offerings on instinct. My D&D site led a young third party gaming company, 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, to contact me in 2009 with an offer to write for their books.  I still have the email I was sent out of the blue and though I had a demanding day job, I was glad for any chance to contribute to their offerings. I had no experience with Pathfinder at the start, but I was more than willing to learn and to bring a touch of Kismet to everything I was asked to do.

I learned so about mechanics, organization, explaining complex processes, and more through my work for 4 Winds.  I was able to think in newer, focused modes than those which were demanded while I was developing content for my personal games or sites.  I was thrilled to be able to bring my knowledge of mythology and the ancient world to modern gaming tables through my Hetaera class. I was glad to have the chance to expand and explore planetouched races even further than I’d had the chance to do here on this site.  And when 4 Winds was sold and Purple Duck contacted me about my own drow project, it was a dream come true. I have been blessed in that I have asked for nothing and received much, and I know that others must struggle greatly to achieve the same.

But I have also continued to do what I want to do by offering much for free here and elsewhere.  I have not abandoned my devotion to women in fantasy, or the use of sexual themes in mature games, or the exploration of uncomfortable topics via play.  I have let my work stand as it is, even with its flaws, for any women out there who need inspiration to offer the fruits of their labor. I have been overjoyed to get to know female game developers via Facebook and to follow their journeys and struggles in production.  If women developers have taught us anything, it is that we must be what we are and bring every ounce of ourselves to our creations, come what may. This is true for developers no matter their demographics but the time has come to acknowledge the additional stumbling blocks minority groups have faced in gaming and to open the hobby as wide as imagination allows.

Female Tabletop Roleplay Players

The question is often asked: How many women are playing tabletop RPGs?  Numbers have been notoriously difficult to come by for a number of reasons.  First, not all players attend conventions, where easy numbers can be gathered.  Secondly, polls that are held in small bastions online will be influenced by their usual audience; if women are gaming at home but are not active in online outlets, they will not know their input is being sought, and will not be counted.  In 2016, there were more female than male presenters at Gen*Con for the first time, and that was considered big news.  It is safe to say that more women have been in groups and at conventions in the last couple of decades.

It is also safe to say that demographic representation varies greatly depending on a number of factors.  The local game scene is one such factor, and has time has progressed, there have been fewer ways to encounter tabletop “in the wild” via game stores and the like.  If women don’t have friends who play and discuss it, they might not have the opportunity to become interested in trying it for themselves. Gaming groups can become insular quickly, reaching out only to known parties, so some groups might not have had female participants, or welcomed them, or known how to begin acquiring them.  (This can come into play when male gamers express disbelief at stories of sexism in gaming because they haven’t seen it personally, but more on that later.) Gamer lore says that certain systems draw more women than others and it seems to be true that World of Darkness games brought more women into the hobby in the 90s than D&D had been able to draw in all its years prior.  

There has been data gathered by the video game industry showing that half of video gamers are women, and there has even been statistical breakdowns of which genres women seem to prefer.  From a business perspective, this concern about female gamers makes sense: The more women play games, the more they will spend to acquire them.  For a niche industry like tabletop roleplaying games, the lucrative benefits of inviting women to participate are perhaps greater still. Anyone with expendable income is a potential customer, and what gaming companies provide is not cheap in time or production value.  To ignore or discount half of the species due to gender biased thinking is foolhardy at best, and financially disastrous at worst. But gender bias does exist when it comes to women being associated with gameplay, and some women have embraced these attitudes and kept away from the hobby.  How so? Let’s continue.

Myths and Realities that Turn Women Away from Gaming

There are free-floating myths and attitudes which can affect how many women become engaged in tabletop roleplaying.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is one that I have cultivated after reviewing many sources and threads over the years.

Teen girls have too much else to do; they have more social options: This notion is not entirely a myth, particularly now.  Parents often keep their children busy with day to night scheduling and leave little room for searching out their own interests.  Likewise, there is a vested interest in keeping teen girls busy, as they might become pregnant if they are not. This might not be a fair assessment but it is in the aether of society and must be acknowledged.  Many teen girls do have more social options but quite a few do not, and regardless of their cliques or activities, teen girls have much to gain from games of imaginative fantasy. We have branded teen girls as vapid, self-absorbed, and limited to caring about makeup.  If teen girls do encounter RPGs on their own and become interested, they might not have a source to turn to for clarification - and that will be far more our failing than theirs.

Gamers are all super nerdy with a lack of social skills: It is believed by many that women will be turned off of gaming due to the rudeness of people who already game.  The explosion of “nerd culture” means that people from many walks of life are gamers; the old image of the mouth-breathing basement-dwelling virginal male who doesn’t know how to handle females hardly represents many gamers.  Such a view is not fair to men or women, but the negative reputation of male gamers persists in some areas and might keep women away. It must also be said that if new female gamers encounter rude receptions at the table, they will be unlikely to return, and that is a human reaction.  Being faced with constant sexual advances, innuendo, and fawning can turn off any modern person who just wants to play a game and excel in it. While some might consider romantic advances to be positive, a compliment to the one receiving them, they can quickly become overbearing, disrespectful, and intrusive.  And being vastly outnumbered by males at events can trigger the warnings that women are taught from their earliest girlhood, making them uncomfortable and withdrawn. So long as players exercise actual concern and social skills, these worries can be rendered obsolete - but there are plenty of examples to the contrary, and women who might have otherwise become lifelong gamers have left rather than endure disrespect or outright abuse.  

Gaming isn’t for girls: The notion that a wide swath of games are not appropriate for girls has been more destructive to the hobby than many others.  Some of this sexism is tied to ideas about the intelligence of women, especially when it comes to mathematics and logic. Women have been treated like they won’t or can’t understand the mechanics of games, whether or not they have shown incompetence, whether or not they are new to the system.  Other (ostensibly male) players have taken over women’s character sheets, talked over them with explanations they didn’t ask for or need, and even taken over what their characters have been allowed to do. This kind of disrespect can be infuriating to anyone, particularly women who have been playing for years but whose experience is not asked for or honored.  

To make matters worse, there are players out there who do not welcome female players into gaming groups simply because they are female.  Being singled out for negativity and rejection due to a factor beyond one's control is never fun, and can sour women to the gaming scene swiftly and irrevocably.  But there is nothing about tabletop roleplaying games that isn’t for women. Grasping complex mechanics can be difficult for anyone but good teaching can remedy that. Taking on different personas and roles can be exciting and downright theraputic for anyone.  The benefits of a social, imaginative, and long-term hobby are healthy for women, and in many cases, desperately needed by overworked mothers, daughters, and female breadwinners.

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Female characters in gaming art are oversexualized and off-putting: For decades, the male gaze has dominated the way gaming art has been produced for books.  Female characters have been placed in see-through or barely-there costumes regardless of their roles or adventuring needs. They have been poses in come-hither, look-at-me stances even in the midst of combative scenes.  The vast majority of female characters have been drawn with impossible proportions and flawlessness. Some women have called attention to these practices at great personal cost, being attacked for prudery and many other things, warranted or unwarranted.  Others have accepted the fantasy nature of the art and found no insult. Many have admitted the desire for some titillation in gaming art, which is not out of line for adults to want.

Yet few gaming-related discussions become cruel as quickly as those about art in gaming books.  I have found this to be the case across platforms and decades, and perhaps it is no mistake. Sex sells, and no one likes to feel put down for enjoying some titillation.  Furthermore, female objectification in art has been the status quo worldwide for millennia; to have it threatened makes it feel like something beloved is being taken away.  And it must be said that tabletop games are heavily based in fantasy, which means that realism is not particularly a goal for many gamers. So why have it be a goal in art for fantasy worlds where elves and dragons exist?  

But few have said suggested that all gaming art must be realistic. The art portrays what women are and can be in settings, so diversity in styles, poses, and roles is not too much to expect. When female warriors are housed in metal armor that leaves their midriffs exposed while everyone else is fully covered, it seems ridiculous with half a thought, and it should.  When female characters are too busy posing for prettiness in every piece, the repetition becomes suspect. And yes, gamers can become tired of the same old thing. A number of gaming companies have gone out of their way to rectify this limited view of women in art, and rightfully so. While some may complain, “Men in gaming art are always ripped and perfect, too!” that just means that there is more to be done.  We can have our cheesecake and more - we can embrace diversity in art as an expansion of what characters can look like, do, and be.

Limitations based on gender turn women off: Some groups offer limited roles for female characters (such as only being fragile healers or wizards) based on a number of reasons, including historical or setting-related ones.  It is true that in the Western European medieval world, few women were engaged in combat or allowed to travel freely. Yet there are always exceptions, as historical research has revealed, and player characters tend to be exceptional, so historic restrictions can be explained away. It is also true that women are equal participants at the gaming table in the modern world, and deserve to have their desires catered to along with other players.  If a DM cannot come up with a way for a female character to be a warrior or otherwise go against the grain, that is a fault in their imagination, not a fault in the player for wanting more.

Women are “too sensitive” to jokes and caricatures of females in games: Every gaming group has its own culture based on the members, venue, and so forth.  This is to be expected. Some groups have in-jokes and other merriment that mainstream society would frown upon, but long-standing members understand and accept the boundaries of taste for the group.  This is natural, as well. When a new member joins, however, it is not out of line to expect the group to fully and respectfully consider their comfort zone. Women who hear constant sexist jokes are likely going to feel targeted, particularly when they are outnumbered.  When women see female characters portrayed as nothing more than ridiculous sex objects, they are not out of line for feeling insulted. Such a limited view of women as PCs and NPCs speaks poorly of players and GMs alike, and bodes poorly for women players who want more for their characters.  Cheap shots and cheap thrills are just that - cheap. It costs a player dearly to go against the tide, so some women keep quiet and leave rather than threatening the status quo or trying to find a more accepting and acceptable group. And the hobby as a whole is poorer for their loss.

At this point, we must realize that many groups are inviting, accepting, and kind.  There are more such groups and venues now than there ever have been. But when women gamers encounter sexism in gaming, they are probably going to be turned away from the hobby unless something or someone else intervenes.  This is not a weakness or problem on their part; no one should be expected to stay or participate when they are disrespected or discounted, in real life or in fantastical metrics.

Perhaps most discouraging is the vitriol that is turned against women and those who speak up on their behalf at the slightest “provocation.”  Cries of “not all men” and “not all groups” drown out the real, lived experiences of female gamers who are striving to be heard. Every conceivable excuse under the sun can be summoned to dismiss any woman’s concerns, or even her personal and bodily safety, whether in private or in public, at homes or conventions.  It is this toxic tide that we must fight against as steadfastly as any horde threatening a fantasy realm. All gamers deserve to be heard and recognized fairly at the table and at the greater table of the hobby, and those who would attack women or anyone else into silence must be confronted and downvoted at every turn. There is much to be learned about acceptance from fictional games, and much to be brought into reality for the betterment of real world humanity.

Women as Game Masters

Women run games and have for decades, and they have encountered problems due to their gender while in the GM’s role.  I say this not as an impartial bystander but as a female who has run games and encountered such resistance. I have had a few male gamers see fit to question every judgment I made, particularly as a new GM, not because I was unreasonable but because I was a female in power.  I studied books laboriously. I made all my rationales reasonable and transparent. It didn’t matter. I have taken power and control my entire life, regardless of blowback, so it did not discourage me - but not everyone has a history of fighting against all odds to do what they wish.  I have heard of female GMs being disrespected for decades for no other viable reason than their gender and the sexist ideals attached to it. I am here to tell everyone that anyone who is brave enough to take the GM’s role should be given a true chance and real respect. The more who are willing to take on the responsibilities and challenges of the GM’s chair, the more players will get to play and everyone will have the chance to learn.

Women as Girlfriends

In the earliest decade or two of D&D, women near the table were expected to be girlfriends of the men playing, and many were. Quite a few women have been brought into the hobby through their romantic partners, with varying levels of engagement. While some might have participated to humor their significant others, others became involved for their own reasons. Some did not take the time to truly learn the rules, but the same can be found in male gamers, and plenty of women studied the mechanics so as not to bog down gameplay. Problems arose, when women were treated as nothing but girlfriends. Even more issues were revealed as gamers expressed their beliefs that girlfriends would be favored over other players at the table because of their romantic connections. It did not help that some GMs did favor their girlfriends, giving them unfair advantages out of affection, or made excuses for poor playing habits rather than trying to correct them. Rather than pointing fingers at poor GMs, however, too many resented women for their potential to "disrupt" the balance of the game.

The dismissive label of "gamer girlfriend" has haunted women in game stores, at conventions, and so forth. I have been treated as an inept outsider in game stores and asked if I was looking for something for my boyfriend, when in fact I had been running games for years. I confronted the assumptions directly by informing store crew that I was seeking materials for my own gaming purposes only to find lackluster, disbelieving responses. (It is not a mistake that one such store has long been out of business, and others have changed their tune.) I encountered this more than once, in more than one store, and other women have, as well. It is a passive insult and hardly a good way to gain a customer.

Finally, there are girlfriends who resent their boyfriends's hobby. Some feel that it takes too much time away from the relationship. Other women can be as controlling as men when it comes to their partners and seek to dominate all of their significant other's time. In such cases, a gaming group becomes caught in the middle of the relationship's problems and players are warranted in feeling resentment. I have seen this first-hand when a player's girlfriend expressed a desire to see our game but did not want to take part. I tried to convince her to take on a character so she would get the full experience of the group and because just watching a game can be boring, but she refused. As I suspected, she did not want to actually be a peaceful audience. She was examining our play to find fault with it and draw her boyfriend away from something he enjoyed without her. She succeeded, too. She sighed loudly throughout the game until she told her boyfriend she was bored and asked him to take her home. Later, she began demanding that he call her during breaks and would start fights with him to ensure he would leave and tend to her. (When she dared to yell at me once when I tried to intervene peacefully, I gave her a hot earful for it.) But her conduct was her own, and not indicative of most women I've seen, in game and outside of it.

It must be said that there are concerns to be had when gaming with couples that are romantically involved, or when gamers connect romantically due to discovering each other at the table. When couples fight, sometimes they continue their quarrel wherever they are and disrupt gameplay with jabs and other out of character snits. I have witnessed this online and offline, and it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with - but it is a problem with the people involved, regardless of gender. Poor relationship skills and gaming habits are just that. Likewise, I have had a game fall apart when relationships fell through and exes could not be expected to return to the same table to move forward. No one wants a fun game to deteriorate because of circumstances beyond their control, but these things can and do happen. They also occur due to work schedules, illness, death, and other human experiences. To single out romance as the worst says more about the gamers who refuse to game with couples or women for such reasons than anything else.

But Kismet -

I can hear some players’ and readers' thoughts; call it a super power of mine.  

“But Kismet, I don’t want my games to be political.  I just want to play!” That’s nice. It’s also an idealistic impediment to true support of the hobby.  Everything that is personal is political and vice versa; there is no escaping it. You don’t have to have blatantly real-world politics in your game to examine your own behavior and ideas, to modify your approaches to others, and to welcome all gamers equally.  

“But Kismet, I’ve never seen anything like this sexism you describe!  They must be lying or exaggerating!” Oh my sweet summer child! Your small circles might be great, but they are desperately limited in ways you are not considering.  Region, gender, age, and so forth - these things matter in our experiences of life and gaming. Adventure beyond your boundaries. You may yet see what others have faced at every turn and be a hero as you alter your conduct.

“But Kismet, you’re attacking me!  I’m a loyal fan!” If you have gained nothing else from my site than this, my decades of writing and thinking will have been worthwhile: Not everything is about you, just like not everything in a gaming setting is about the PCs, and where there is discomfort, there is an invitation to analyze and grow. There is a wider world at work, with greater forces - malicious and benign and everywhere in between - and we cannot ignore or deny it.  I love my readers. I am grateful for my fans. I encourage everyone to dig deeper into the hobby. But I will not stand aside and let smaller groups be ravaged for the comfort of those of us who have been safe in the hobby for years. It is not my intention to attack anyone; it is my intention to categorically reject belittling, isolating, and aggressive attitudes and behaviors that make some gamers less welcome due to their demographics. I also intend to work against denial, apologism, and other reactions which allow poor behaviors to continue. I regard bias against gamers to be disrespect to the hobby as a whole, and I will never excuse disrespect to the hobby that has saved and enriched my entire life. It can and should save and enrich the lives of countless people across the world, without impediment, and it is our duty as conscientious participants to do what we can to ensure that it does.

"But Kismet, I didn't come here to be preached at about feminism! How am I supposed to respect you now?" As with everything on this site, I practice what I write about, and I write about what matters to me. You can decide what matters to you in relation to that, and that is your right. You can feel however you wish about the F word, this article, and about me. All I can do is strive to convince you in my words and deeds that what I have to say is worthwhile. I have been meaning to write this article for many years because such discussions continue to arise and matter, and not just to me. This has been a long time coming but its moment has arrived. I have received a lot of feedback about my discussion of women on this site over the years, much of it grateful for measured, thorough, logical thought on the matter. I believe that this is just as measured, thorough, and logical as what I have produced before and that my examination of women in gaming cannot be complete without it.

It is not out of line to expect gamers to review conduct and communicate about places where people and groups fall short. Everyone must be invested in the enjoyment of their fellow gamers and be willing to speak up when breaches occur. Some of the saddest stories I've heard over the years have come from women who were left alone at the table to be abused and disregarded. It is understandable that people do not want to fight with their gaming groups and convention games make it even more complicated because one is often playing among strangers. It is also reasonable to want to hold back from ordering people to believe or feel a certain way because you don't want to impose foreign values on them. But gaming is a social experience, and the silence of one's peers speaks loudly to those who are being treated poorly. We must speak up for each other not only to keep play fair but also to change cultures of exclusion. All participants deserve respect, agency, and welcome until they prove with their actions that they are not worthy of such things. Men are not the only ones who are responsible for this; women should defend men as readily as men defend women. But for the hobby to be its best, we must all accept responsibility for making it so, even when it means challenging friends to change their behaviors.

If this is preaching, so be it. If I lose your respect, so be it. But to respect myself and others, all of this must be said and practiced.

"But Kismet, I agree with you and see what you're trying to do here!" Awesome. I hope you liked the article and will share it with others; you never know who needs to see something like this.

 
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