As someone who’s been involved in gaming from primarily a tabletop perspective, it can make me laugh a little when I compare the issues surrounding gender in board/hobby games and the tabletop gaming community to those of, say, video gaming as a whole. But it’s all relative – the size of our hobby and how popular it may or may not be doesn’t diminish the experience of women and other minorities in the hobby (and of course, I am only able to speak from my perspective as a woman, not from any other). If you know me, I’ve been fairly vocal about this over the last few years of being active online talking about board games & the hobby overall (either on Twitter, here on my blog, or shows/podcasts). I’ve been tinkering this post for a while – many parts of it are influenced by occurrences over these few years to paint a larger picture of my experience. I mentioned my intention to publish it soon on Twitter, and internet pal Matt Thrower reached out to me, saying he’d been thinking about writing on a similar topic – but felt the perspective of someone living the experience should be heard, rather than his.
We chatted back and forth a little, and Matt shared with me what he’d started with and I’d like to share this particular section to illustrate a number of things: the excitement about games and play that anyone can experience, the despair at not feeling included when acting on that excitement and my hope that this can change. Because I was a wee kid like Matt’s daughters once, who loved LEGO and Barbie and Masters of the Universe and the Goonies and the Babysitters Club and.. You get the idea. We’re complex creatures with enjoyment that transcends our gender identity. So, here’s Matt:
When I told my daughters about HeroQuest, I could see the fires being lit behind their eyes. I described how I’d pretend to be an evil wizard and how they’d explore my dungeons, defeat my servants and plunder my treasure. I explained the story would span from game to game and the characters would slowly gain power and unveil mysteries. They couldn’t wait. Then, when I got the box down from the loft and they looked at the cover and rummaged through the figures, disappointment. Where, they wanted to know, were all the girls?
When I was younger, I played a lot of card games and board games like Monopoly, Game of Life and Scattergories – fairly innocuous, but still generic where there were representations of people (especially the heteronormativity of Life). I didn’t truly get into gaming until I was a couple of years into University and a friend of a friend asked if I’d like to join them for a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Having grown up a fan of fantasy and adventure stories, I fell hard for D&D for its theme and the rich opportunities for play. After a while of playing in campaigns run by friends, I found my university’s gaming club – not only did that expand the group of people I played with, but also my exposure to gaming beyond ‘what’s in the box’. More source books, more campaigns (even like the worldwide campaign Living Greyhawk) as well as art and miniatures. The latter, combined with a primarily male gaming group, led me to some realizations about gender and gaming – both in game and out of it*.
While most of what I experienced was positive, it was easy to see where D&D as a game could fall into stereotypical divides with representation – some of the earlier book art and other visual materials** leaned quite heavily on women being busty, or scantily clad. Not quite the sexual violence that has popped up in RPGs and tabletop miniature games since, but I do recall the frustration of trying to find miniatures that I was okay with using for some of my characters. One early rogue of mine was based on a famous female pirate Mary Read and it was tough to find an analog for her and her appearance among the chainmail bikinis and flowing (yet revealing) magician’s robes.
While those issues would come and go, I never really had much issue with the way the D&D core rulebooks treated or represented women, and Wizards of the Coast have only gotten better at using more inclusive pronouns/language, a variety of illustrations and the like. And throughout all of my RPG experience (mostly D&D, a few one off games of All Flesh Must Be Eaten, Werewolf & the like) I never got the impression that these games were made for men. I may have been lucky thanks to my introduction to the hobby – it was quite rare I was the only woman in a game – but I do think that due to their malleable nature and large settings, inclusivity in-game wasn’t a tough goal, and the open nature of play and role playing (as well as running games) wasn’t targeted quite so squarely at men.
So, whereas D&D had been so customizable with the type of character you played (how you wanted to represent them, their skills and quirks, and the like), board games were quite a different experience for me in the early 2000s when I first tried Settlers of Catan or Carcassonne. They tended toward European/Medieval sorts of settings with primarily white (often grumpy) men on the covers & in the art. I enjoyed the games, but those artistic elements were far removed from what I’d seen in D&D. With a more open format tabletop game, there’s so much that you can you to include different types of people (even when based on historic places and periods – because surprisingly there were women and people of colour in those, too!) – but I didn’t see that with board games so I stopped looking.
But even though I wasn’t actively looking, I started to notice that – primarily in the fantasy or horror genre games that were being produced more and more from the time I started board gaming – there were finally some women being portrayed in games. And, unlike I’d experienced in the variety of D&D, it was all fairly samey – busty white women who were scantily clad, and yet still not a great leap forward in actual, playable women characters. The cultural commodification of women’s appearances was being used liberally without much thought to women who may actually want to play the games***.
None of the people I played with ever really discussed this, and the treatment I got was certainly nothing less than welcoming during that period for me – it was a great campus gaming group with a few other women (so at least I wasn’t totally alone) and mostly friendly folks. I continued playing D&D, and getting to know a few more board games. I played casually for a few years until I left university and wasn’t finding the time I needed once I didn’t have the game club at my fingertips. It was never the people I played with or the games I played that provided anything that I could blame on stopping gaming – I just had no time. (Ah, something every gamer can identify with!)
As years passed, I was still consuming a lot of geek cultural output that arguably had the issues of representation that I see now in boardgaming. Comics, even great indie comics, had a lot of driven, strong men and occasional super women. Films for nerds like me didn’t really offer a lot in the way of women to be inspired by (and I’m glad I didn’t think about those films passing the Bechdel Test at that point), but somehow I expected all this – expected it why, exactly? Because of the pervasive narrative that these things are for men. “Comics have been made for men, why do you think the women look that way?” and “Women wouldn’t see these movies, why do there need to be strong (or any) female characters?” are the types of things you’d see floating to the surface of discussions online.
I never, ever thought I’d hear this sort of thing in the tabletop gaming hobby. Even though I was a minority due to my gender back in my D&D playing days, it was never once stated to me that D&D was a “guy’s game”. I think my only memory from the early 2000s with an indication that I didn’t belong was the time I walked into a Games Workshop store and every one of the male employees didn’t know what to do with themselves when I was browsing, asking about games, chatting about Bloodbowl. That didn’t exactly encourage me to spend any money on Games Workshop products, but I still felt tabletop gaming as a hobby didn’t buy into the idea of gendered games.
Slowly, slowly it filtered through to me. Starting with assumptions on the games I’d like to play without asking me. Thinking that because I was a woman who wanted to play board games there would be themes more interesting to me than others, or that I’d need a lighter/easier to understand game. I brushed it off at first, as I was meeting some great people as I got back into the board gaming hobby. A close group of friends who were like-minded and shared my hobby. Every time I would join a larger group, there’d be these offhand comments – as time went on, I became almost attuned to them, picking them out in conversations near me between other gamers.. The attitude became hard to ignore, expressed as constant microaggressions**** towards myself and other women in gaming.
As I became further invested in board games once again as my hobby, I looked for people on social networks to chat about games with, too. I had long been on Twitter & the likes, following the streams of my interests to where they’d take me and to whom they’d take me. I found a lovely and growing community of board gamers on Twitter. Many folks were just enthusiastic in their interactions and it was great to connect with them – I also found a lot of other folks who were out there creating board game media content on a regular basis, and it was astounding to see the number of shows and podcasts discussing gaming. Mind you, these were primarily created and run by men in the hobby – not surprising to me, but disappointing. I was looking for news and info on games themselves and not the context in which they are created and exist. (Not yet, anyhow.)
[June 13 2017 – Note: the next few paragraphs are really being used here as contextual examples. I didn’t name anyone because I don’t feel like it’s necessary – I’m not out to point fingers, just use the discussions as examples of how pervasive stereotyping and these sorts of things are. Thanks!]
I was unsurprised when, a while back, a live video show hosted by a panel of primarily male gamers started talking about the game Rococo in gendered terms. While a couple of the male panelists did make a point that it shouldn’t matter that the game centres around dress/clothing making and it’s ridiculous that “men get scared that they’re doing something feminine,” it was insinuated that one of the female panelists liked the game so much simply because of its theme. One (male) host questioned why a publisher would make a game with that theme seeing as the primary audience for board games is male, and when it’d be easy enough to make a game about farming or mining for resources. Later, another of the panelists decided to mention Brew Crafters as a great example of a game for “manly men,” again creating assumptions of the interests of board gamers based on their performative gender. I think the real issue at play here is not having “themes for men” and “themes for women,” but just interesting themes that gamers can decide upon themselves. We have enough “manly” themes like (according to some) farming and mining and brewing, why would publishers need to market more? If they want to diversify their audiences and sell more games, wouldn’t providing something different help?
I gotta say – I don’t like dressmaking OR beer. I love horror and surrealism and suspense and fantasy and bean farming and deep sea adventuring… Well, what I mean is – my interests are varied, as far as life and board games. I love Patchwork, but not quilting. My days aren’t spent building up estates in France, but my favourite game is Castles of Burgundy. There’s nothing about those interests that is informed by the gender I identify with. While some people have been conditioned to understand the world via gender stereotypes, I think that we can do better in the board gaming hobby – pick a game based on your individual interest, regardless of gender – don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise. And don’t’ try to tell anyone else otherwise, if they’re playing a game that surprises you. Let folks try things, let folks find what they enjoy without being guided by assumptions.
In a fairly recent episode of a well-known board game podcast (with one female co-host), there was a discussion inspired by a game review of Kingdom Death: Monster. The representation of women in the art of this game was one of the key points that game out of the discussion. A quick scan over their recent Kickstarter page gives a pretty good indication of what that representation is – almost entirely sexualized and violent – whereas the male characters are portrayed in regular poses and are fully dressed (and by their horror-fantasy nature, reasonably violent also). The cast of this podcast discussed if they felt the representation was okay – there were a couple of comments regarding how unbalanced the visuals of characters was, . A number of comments were made that the women could stay represented that way if the men were equally, also. Disappointingly (to me), the female co-host remarked that she figured there were more important things to worry about than the representation of women in game art. Of course, I have to accept that also, not all women will be bothered because we’re not a homogenous blob of beings.
So – thinking about the fact we’ve come some way (in that yes, there seem to be a few more women showing up in game art), we need to break beyond these sexualized, stereotypical visualizations of busty, feminine women (there have been a number of other minis games pop up on Kickstarter since KDM that have been similar in their sculpts of women – the few women that appear). We can have those women portrayed, along with the huge variety of others along the spectrum of ‘femininity’. Let’s also think about the way we can have women not just be a set-dressing in games, but be part of the story and have more women as playable characters in games! Publishers like Portal Games and Plaid Hat Games are great examples of game creators who are inclusive of gender in their games. There are double-sided characters, so you can play as a man or a woman (for instance, in Robinson Crusoe) and there are games like Dead of Winter that have a huge spectrum of characters to choose from that cover not just a great spectrum of gender, but also age and race. The latter is really important – thinking about gender as a spectrum rather than a binary means a lot to representing all sorts of people. Where are the non-binary characters and people in art in our board games? Not to mention where are the people of colour in our board games? Where are the representations of disabled people in our board games? It’s just not showing up enough.
We can do better, and we can start in the smallest of ways: feedback and thoughtful discussion. When I see the use of terms like ‘whore,’ ‘bitch-slapped’ and ‘pimping’ being used by gamers or even publishers/designers, I point out clearly how these terms are gendered and have a history of problematic use, and are likely to be alienating to any number of fellow women gamers. When I am disappointed a new game has one token female, stereotypically represented, I talk about that with other gamers to hear their thoughts, and I’ll reach out to the publishers. When there is great, sensible and diverse art to represent women (have you seen Ashes, for instance?) I’ll put that out there for other gamers to see as a positive influence to change this hobby. Because while it’s easier to vent about the things you’re upset about, it’s important to find the things that will uplift us and share that.
I believe we’re better than reducing women to caricatures. I believe it should be easy to include women in games and represent them sensibly, as the treatment of men has been – a full spectrum of types. I want to hear more men talking about this, and encouraging a shift to this – and I want to hear all people listen to when women talk about this without dismissing because we’re “taking things too seriously” or “there are more important things”. I’d love to have allies of women speak out about these things, because our voices are often not valued or welcomed. The cultural representation of women has an enormous impact on the treatment of women generally. We can do better in board games – both on cardboard and in life. Let’s make it inclusive and welcoming by its nature. It’s beyond time we saw this happen.
* I even ended up doing an ethnographic study of one of my regular D&D groups based on the play of character genders & how that related to the player genders. Anthropology students, am I right?
** Not always produced by Wizards of the Coast, but peripherals that other companies produced.
*** See also: comics, film, etc – where women may as well be replaced by lamps for all the decoration they do and none of the interaction in the story.
**** ‘a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other non-dominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype’ (Dictionary.com)