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.
Then game companies began hiring more freelance developers, which led to more women in tabletop games across the board.
Central offices have their own cultures, and in the early days, these cultures were unabashedly male-dominated and driven. But then the industry began to shift in major ways. In 2000, the OGL and d20 licenses opened the gates for third party companies and products. Small game companies couldn't afford main offices or many full-time employees, but the internet had also matured to the point that freelance designers could be hired as needed, at a distance. Gaming company cultures became more inviting, as well. All of this opened the gates for more women to produce games. Recently, platforms like the DM’s Guild and other player-based publishing sources have pushed the gates even wider. Women aren't immediately cut off by those in power; they can 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 hasnn't happened 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 opportunities for diversity - accidental and purposeful - 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 should 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, and I was developing content for my games that I felt was worth sharing. My D&D site led a young third party gaming company, 4 Winds Fantasy Gaming, to contact me about writing for them. I had no experience with Pathfinder at the start, but I was more than willing to learn, and they gave me a chance. I was able to take some concepts I started on this site and approach them in new ways. Later, when 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 chances that others struggle greatly to achieve.
But I have also continued to do what I want to do by offering material for free here and elsewhere. I haven't 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've let my work stand as it is, even with its flaws, for any women out there who need inspiration. 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's that we must be what we are and bring 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.
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 aren't active in online venues, they won't know their input is being sought, and won't 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's safe to say that more women have been in groups and at conventions in the last 20 years.
It's also safe to say that demographics vary greatly, depending on a number of factors. The local game scene is one factor, but as more game stores have closed, there have been fewer opportunities to encounter tabletop games "in the wild." If women don’t have friends who play and talk about it, they might not have the chance to learn about it easily. Gaming groups can become insular quickly, so some groups might not have female participants, or welcome them, or know how to find them. (This comes into play when male gamers refuse to believe there's 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 the World of Darkness brought more women into the hobby in the 90s than D&D had been able to draw in all the 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, concern about female gamers makes sense: The more women play games, the more money companies will make. For a niche industry like tabletop roleplaying games, the lucrative benefits of inviting women to participate are even greater. Anyone with expendable income is a potential customer, and what gaming companies provide isn't cheap to make or buy. Simply put, drawing in female gamers is healthy for the bottom line, and companies can't afford to ignore them due to gender bias. But gender bias does exist when it comes to women playing games; some women have even embraced these attitudes and kept away from the hobby. How so? Let’s continue.
Cultural myths can affect how many women become engaged in tabletop roleplaying. Mainstream ideas about games, women, and gamers are floating in the aether and are presented as being true, whether or not they are. Oftentimes, these ideas are socially enforced by those around us; sometimes we accept them simply because we don't want to face consequences for going against the grain. The more social pressure women face about gaming, the harder it will be to give it a try. Old stereotypes about male gamers and gaming groups can also be off-putting to women who hear them. None of this is fair or best, given how wonderful tabletop gaming can be and how much the hobby has grown. But many of these myths are the direct result of misogynistic rules about what women should be and what they should do, and sexist attitudes about how women (and men) are.
Tabletop games - especially D&D - have become more mainstream than ever in recent years. Some of the old rumors about games and gamers, like the ones below, have lost a lot of their power because of shifts in the hobby.
For decades, the male gaze has dominated the way gaming art has been produced for books. For decades, most of the artists were male, and the indended audience was heterosexual teen boys and adult men. Given the fantasy nature of the books and the fact that sex sells, it should be no surprise that female characters were placed in barely-there costumes and set in come-hither poses, even in the midst of combative scenes. While this may have titillated the main audience, it didn't provide a representative view of what female characters could be in games and didn't instill them with an equal aura of competence. No doubt, this approach soured some women on the hobby. Female gamers who wanted more variety called attention to these practices for years at great cost and were attacked for being prudes, kill-joys, and so on.
But gaming companies finally began to respond. While the vast majority of characters in fantasy games are still drawn with idealized proportions and paler skin tones, many changes have been made. More body types have been included, including those showing more muscle tone in women. Most female characters are now shown wearing costumes and accoutrements that make sense for their roles and surroundings. A wider range of facial expressions has allowed us to see rage, curiosity, and other emotions in women; fearful and enticing glances are rare. There are few purely cheesecake poses but still plenty of appealing characters. This means that women and girls who are looking for competent role models in the books have a good chance of finding them. It also means that gamers who are looking for a variety of character types will have an easy time of it. It may also mean that those who want to be titillated will be disappointed - but we're talking about gaming books, not porn, and in the age of the internet, it's not like it's difficult to find arousing material.
Some groups (and game bookss) have restricted roles for female characters (such as only being healers or wizards) based on a number of reasons, including historical or setting-related ones. Historical accuracy was often cited as a main concern, but as we've learned with recent scholarship, there were always exceptions to the rules imposed on women by various societies. Some women faced these limitations when they tried to join groups; some went along with it so they could play, while others likely walked away. These kinds of gender-based boundaries have become far less common, however. Mainstream games pulled away from them years ago, opening up all options to all characters. The drive to offer players options helped to ensure that women players had more to choose from, as well. While some groups and games might still impose old limitations, they are few and far between.
Other myths have been weakened in some ways and strengthened in others.
Some people believe that women will be turned off of gaming due to the strangeness or rudeness of those who already play. But 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 encounters with girls and women is generally obsolete. That doesn't mean the basic concern has gone away. The negative reputation of male gamers persists in some areas and could keep women at bay. It must also be said that as more of gaming culture has moved online - and as online discourse has become more polarized - the risk encountering rude responses and gender-based insults remains. Unpleasant interactions aren't just confrontational in nature; they can include sexual advances, innuendo, and fawning. Some might consider romantic advances to be complimentary and offers to do favors for female gamers to be beneficial, but they can quickly become overbearing, disrespectful, and intrusive. Women participate to play, excel, and be respected like anyone else at the table, not necessarily to garner extra attention or find romantic partners. So if they continue to find gaming interactions unpleasant, they might stop participating, and that's understandable.
Concerns about safety in private homes and at conventions should be noted here. Being vastly outnumbered by men at events can set off alarms instilled in women from early girlhood about dangers of sexual assault. If a group of men have allowed toxic norms - making fun of women, sexualizing them, and ignoring their voices - then women are likely to feel unwelcome. In enclosed spaces without other women nearby, female gamers can become wary, but positive norms and interactions can soothe these fears. Threatening or dismissive behaviors, however, will have the opposite effect, and they should, because no one deserves to be treated that way. It can be easier to withdraw from a game session than a convention, however; game sessions are often local and free, while conventions may involve travel and costs. Pressure to be welcoming, to network, and to party at conventions also make it more difficult for women to have their boundaries respected or to speak up when something makes them uncomfortable. It's even worse for women in the industry, who rely on making connections and establishing their reputation for future work. Conventions have been responding to reports of sexual assault and harassment of women with stricter policies and more security personnel, which is both good and a sad comment on how much more work we have to do for women to be equal in gaming.
This notion isn't entirely a myth, particularly now. Parents often keep their children's days fully scheduled, leaving little room for seeking out their own interests. There's a vested interest in keeping teen girls busy in particular, as they might become pregnant if they get bored and "fall in with the wrong crowd." This might be unfair but it's a real source of pressure in the lives of teen girls. It's also true that some girls may have a variety of activities and cliques open to them, but some girls don't, and all girls can benefit from games that engage their imaginations and offer chances for friendships to develop. But there are many stereotypes about teen girls that work against seeing them as gamers. If we view all teen girls as vapid and self-absorbed wannabe women who are obsessed about things that don't matter (boys, fashion, makeup, etc.), then we might not even try to expose them to games and fandoms they'll enjoy. And even if girls are interested in fashion and romance, that doesn't mean they won't also love fantasy worlds and creating stories. If teen girls do encounter RPGs on their own and want to learn more, they might not know who to ask for clarification - and that will be more our failing than theirs.
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 stereotypes about women's intelligence, especially when it comes to mathematics and logic. And it's true that older tabletop games involved a lot more math and reading many tables. As a result, women were sometimes treated like they wouldn't or couldn't understand the mechanics of games as well as men, regardless of how familiar they were with the system. There's always a learning curve and new players will make mistakes, but that didn't seem to matter. I've heard stories about male players taking over women’s character sheets, offering explanations they didn’t ask for or need, and even taking over their characters' actions to make sure they're "played correctly." This kind of disrespect can be infuriating to anyone, particularly women who have been playing for years but whose experience was not asked for or honored. It could also be demoralizing for women who did have trouble with math or who'd had math spoiled for them by unpleasant teachers. But most women will grasp mechanics as they play, like other gamers. There's also been a broad effort to streamline system mechanics and reduce the amount of math that's needed to play mainstream tabletop games. This makes it easier for all players to interact with these systems, memorize less, and master gameplay faster.
But other standards about women and games are more insidious and have lifelong consequences. There's a lot of pressure on women to eschew leisure time and do something "productive." Historically, the "hobbies" of many women have focused on creating lasting goods (like sewing), having active experiences (like dancing), and building social bonds (often with other women). This pressure is also felt in general as people are told to always look for ways to make extra money and career-based opportunities, even with their hobbies. But there are still particular considerations for women. Girls have been given charge over younger siblings, made responsible for household chores at earlier ages, and told to focus on something socially acceptable (like academics or religion) rather than investing their time in what they want to do. This has kept them home, supervised, and safe from experimenting with anything their families didn't approve of. It's also related to the idea that women simply don't have time to waste; they must be responsible and focused on worthwhile goals at all times - and self-directed recreation is rarely seen as worthwhile. Men and boys, on the other hand, are usually allowed more individual pursuits. They're allowed to go off on their own and just have fun. Since they're expected to work hard during certain times, they're allowed time off, when nothing serious is expected of them. A certain amount of playfulness is expected in them; sometimes their toxic behaviors toward girls and women are hand-waved away as just "playing" or "joking."
While this pressure may have relaxed for the latchkey kids of the 80s, it seems to have skyrocketed in the current era of helicopter parenting. This is an intersection of patriarchal control and capitalistic values that keeps many women from attempting pursuits they'll love, taking time for their own emotional needs, or feeling at ease during their free time. And it's toxic for girls and women to live this way. These standards are inhumane, unfair, and utterly draining. All humans need leisure time to process emotions, relax their bodies, and refresh their mental fortitude. Women also need time to not be responsible for so much. It's still a fact that women work and do the lion's share of household chores and spend more time parenting. They're also suffering from real signs of strain, ranging from anxiety to high blood pressure to alcoholism. And the 2020 pandemic has only made the situation for women worse across the board. They desperately need - and completely deserve - real leisure time, and gaming can provide a healthy escape.
If you find yourself feeling angry because this isn't just about women, that's fine. The drive to keep us constantly busy until we drop from exhaustion affects all modern people, and I'm speaking in broad generalities; there will always be exceptions. But don't ignore the gender aspects of this horrible equation. Really look and listen to the girls and women around you. Seeing that they do a lot doesn't mean that you don't - but they're likely carrying extra burdens you can help with. Instead of being angry at the idea that someone is saying this is real, be angry that this is very real for many girls and women. Look for ways to help and invite them into fun pastimes. Because the only way we're going to change this is why truly teaming up, in every respect.
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's not out of line to expect the group to fully and respectfully consider their comfort zone, too. Women who hear constant sexist jokes are likely going to feel targeted, particularly when they're outnumbered. When women see female characters portrayed as nothing more than comic relief or sex objects, they're not out of line for feeling insulted. Such a limited view of women speaks poorly of players and GMs alike, and bodes poorly for female players who want more for their characters. Cheap shots and cheap thrills are just that - cheap and unimaginative. It costs a player a lot 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 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're probably going to be turned away from the hobby unless something or someone else intervenes. This isn't a weakness or problem on their part; no one should be expected to stay or participate when they're disrespected or discounted, in real life or in fantasy settings.
Perhaps most discouraging is the vitriol that's 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 is summoned to dismiss women’s concerns, or even for personal and bodily safety, whether in private or in public, at homes or conventions. It's 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 in the hobby, and those who attack women or anyone else into silence just for being who they are 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 run games and have for decades, and they've encountered problems due to their gender while in the GM’s role. I say this not as an impartial bystander but as a woman who has run games and encountered such resistance. I've 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've taken control back from unreasonable people my entire life, regardless of blowback, so it didn't discourage me - but not everyone has a history of fighting against all odds to do what they wish. I've 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's dedicated and brave enough to take on 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 have fun.
In the decades of D&D, women near the table were expected to be the girlfriends or wives 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, other women became involved for their own reasons. Some didn't take the time to absorb 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 didn't help that some GMs did favor their partners, giving them unfair advantages out of affection, or making excuses for poor playing habits rather than trying to correct them. Rather than pointing fingers at 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 myself 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 crews that I was seeking materials for my own gaming purposes only to find lackluster, disbelieving responses. (It isn't a mistake that one such store has long been out of business, and others have changed their tune. Their customer service was just bad.) I encountered this more than once, in more than one store, and other women have, as well. It's a passive insult and hardly a good way to gain loyal customers.
It must be said that 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've seen this first-hand when a player's girlfriend expressed a desire to see our game but didn't want to take part. We 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 didn't really want to be a peaceful audience. She was examining our play to find fault with it; she wanted to 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 in the middle of gameplay. 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 up my considerable efforts to remain civil and gave her a hot earful for it. I was raised to never let anyone yell at me when I'd done nothing wrong.) But her conduct was her own, and not indicative of most women I've seen, in-game and outside of it.
There are also concerns to be had when gaming with couples that are romantically involved, or when gamers connect romantically due to their time at the table. When couples fight, sometimes they continue their quarrel wherever they are and disrupt gameplay with jabs and insults that have nothing to do with their characters. I've witnessed this online and offline, and it can be incredibly frustrating to deal with - but it's a problem with the couple involved. Poor relationship skills and gaming habits are just that. Likewise, I've had a game fall apart when romantic relationships fell through and exes couldn't be expected to return to the same table. 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 issue says more about the gamers who refuse to game with couples or women for such reasons than anything else.
I can hear some players’ and readers' thoughts; call it a super power of mine.
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's no escaping it in this world, and it's insulting to others to insist that their concerns shouldn't matter just because you want to escape. You don’t have to include 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.
Oh my sweet summer child! Your small circles might be great, but they are desperately limited in ways you aren't considering. Region, gender, age, and so forth - these things matter in our experiences of life and gaming. Adventure beyond your boundaries. Listen to the tales of others. You may yet see what others have faced at every turn and be a hero as you alter your own conduct.
If you've 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's an invitation to analyze and grow. We live in a wider world, 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's 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 specific groups of 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. Gaming can and should save and enrich the lives of countless people across the world, without impediment, and it's our duty as conscientious participants to do what we can to ensure that everyone has the chance to benefit from it.
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's your right. You can feel however you wish about 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 meant to write this article for many years because such discussions continued to arise and matter, and not just to me. It was a long time coming but its moment arrived. I've received a lot of feedback about my discussion of women on this site over the years, much of it grateful for measured, thorough, logical discourse on the matter. I put the same thought and care into this article as the others ont his site and my examination of women in gaming cannot be complete without it.
It's not out of line to expect gamers to review conduct they've seen 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's 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's 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. 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.
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