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Do Tabletop Games Reflect the Same Gender Bias as Video Games?

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A playable character from the game Boss Monster

My brother and I have always loved games.  When we were young children, we used to put all of our board games together, forming one mega-board game that stretched across our family room.  When we were older, we discovered Magic: The Gathering, and the Pokemon trading card game.  My brother spent many weeks worth of allowances at the local hobby card shop.  I rarely did.  Even as I kid, I hated to part with money. Every now and then, he would participate in store-run tournaments.  I didn’t.  I didn’t think I was good enough, and interacting with the adult men who often played in them made me uncomfortable.

 

Anita Sarkeesian and the Gamergaters have brought sexism in video games to the forefront of public consciousness.  But what about tabletop games?  Both families of games have been pillars of nerd culture for decades.  They both shape the culture and are shaped by it, and this cross-pollination can make their influences very difficult to separate.  However, while the misogyny that pervades the video game industry often infects the tabletop world, it is less entrenched, and, as I argue, less insidious.

To understand why, we need to first look at the differences between the two media.  Tabletop gaming has been around in some form since before there were tables.  Ancient civilizations played with dice, cards, and boards.  Modern board games like Monopoly date to the early twentieth century.  Conversely, the technology that allows video games to exist has only been around for a few decades.  Video games started out being marketed to a diverse audience, but without thousands of years of history saying otherwise, it was relatively easy for advertisers in the 1980s and 90s to create the narrative that video games were always meant for boys and young men.

Historians now blame the great video game crash of 1983 on the ubiquity of low-quality games in the late 70s and early 80s, which lead to the loss of consumer confidence.  However, regardless of the crash’s actual cause, video game marketers in the 80s scrambled to reinvent their product, to portray it as something they could sell.  Their analytics showed them that more boys than girls were playing games, so the advertisers ran with it: they doubled down on selling video games to that particular demographic, hoping that targeted messaging would lead to better sales.  The strategy worked.  The gaming industry slowly began to recover from the crash, but there was a dark side to the recovery.

When corporations began marketing video games exclusively for boys, it lead developers to design games specifically to appeal to straight, male, and generally white players.  More and more games portrayed male power-fantasies.  Female characters were scarce, and tended not to be playable.  After all, why should developers bother with female playable characters if only males play video games?  Of the few women who did appear in the games of the 80s and 90s, the majority were either damsels to be rescued, background decorations designed for sex appeal, or some combination of both.

The unfortunate result is an entire generation of men who grew up never knowing a world where they weren’t at the center of video gaming.  An entirely new medium for storytelling grew up around them, becoming more and more mainstream, and the only stories being told were about them.  Stories are everything.  They are the basis for our personal and cultural identities.  It’s not surprising that those aggressively gendered games at least perpetuated a deeply misogynistic gaming culture.  We’re still struggling with this culture today.  Game companies created games that catered to male players, who went on to become developers who created more sexist games and hired people like themselves.

While tabletop games exhibit the same sorts of sexist tropes that proliferate across all media, they simply don’t have the same history of ingrained sexism that video games do.  It’s hard to imagine Milton Bradley suddenly deciding that Monopoly is for boys only and covering the game board with scantily clad women.  Board games have existed relatively unchanged for millennia.  Gendered board games do exist, of course, resulting from the same kind of targeted marketing that affected video games.  The difference is that the medium itself is not gendered, despite what The Big Bang Theory has to say about Dungeons and Dragons.

I believe there is another reason that sexism in video games is more pernicious than it is in tabletop games.  Tabletop games can certainly be sexist; in fact, nearly every sexist trope can be found in one MtG card art alone (I’m looking at you ‘evil demon seductress’ and ‘why’s the girl always got to play the cleric?’).  The same tropes can be found everywhere we tell stories, from books to movies to television and beyond.  What is it about video games that makes their sexist tropes so problematic?

The answer is found in the very nature of the medium.  Modern video games, with their high-res graphic and real time decision making are quite possibly the most immersive form of storytelling humanity has invented.  The written word can come close.  Books let readers see through characters’ eyes and experience their thoughts, but they are not interactive.  They don’t allow their audience to step into the characters’ shoes in the same way that games do.

Furthermore, games do something that no other medium can: they incentivize particular behaviors.  Gaming can work a lot like a chemical addiction. Taking an addictive drug or getting an achievement in a game can both cause the brain’s reward pathways to activate.  The brain then reprograms itself to repeat that outcome, resulting in a behavioral shift.  So, when video games incentivize, for example, violence against women, there is a real risk of players’ brains physically changing in ways that could result in violent behavior in the real world.  While all games have mechanics that could incentivize certain behaviors, video games are particularly worrisome because of their immersive nature and the misogynistic history of video game culture.  While paper and pencil RPGs also have mechanics, and are also very immersive, the difference is that when the game is unlinked from graphics and technology, the stories are more open ended, games are more adaptable, and customization options are nearly infinite.  Ultimately, with TTRPGs, the players, not the gaming companies, control the content.  An individual campaign may be sexist, but the medium of tabletop roleplaying does not, itself, encourage sexism.

Both the video- and tabletop-gaming industries have a lot of work to do when it comes to combating sexism.  The in-person nature of tabletop gaming competitions can unintentionally exclude women who would prefer to cloak their identity behind a digital avatar.  Sexist comments can be found in the chat-channels of even the safest of online gaming spaces.  Writers and developers can help by consciously hiring diverse employees and writing three-dimensional characters of all genders and backgrounds.  The rest of us can help by looking critically at the games we play, and inviting our female friends and family members to play with us.  It will be a difficult journey, especially where video games are concerned, but the view from the top will have been worth it.

 

References:

http://www.themarysue.com/sexism-at-magic-tournament/

http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/bossmonster/images/c/c0/BMA006_Seducia.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20130211012442

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1154384/sexism-industry

http://www.polygon.com/features/2013/12/2/5143856/no-girls-allowed

Crash Course Games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPqR2wOs8WI&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtPTrc_yg73RghJEOdobAplG

Feminist Frequency: https://feministfrequency.com/

Unity Promotes Women with Workshops

Unity Promotes Women with Workshops

CiLi4fcWEAAUzCxIt’s no secret that I’m a big proponent of encouraging more women to get involved in the gaming industry. While I lack the education and computer know-how to start making games myself, I applaud the women who are able to pull through the negativity of the media constantly telling them “it’s a man’s industry” and do what they love.

That being said, Unity has launched a series of free and open global workshops, called “Women in Gaming,” in an effort to empower women and encourage them to pursue careers in the video game industry.

These workshops discuss many of the issues women face when attempting to advance their careers in gaming. At the same time, they allow for the people in attendance to network with each other and learn from each other. Other topics covered in the workshop include organizational dynamics, leadership skills and strategic thinking.

The first two workshops have already happened. The first took place in Amsterdam on June 1st. The speaker was Fiona Sperry, the founder of Three Fields Entertainment. The second workshop was in San Francisco, CA, at UC Berkeley with Professor Dana Carvey.

The next three workshops are below:

  • July 28 – Shanghai, China. Special Guests: Amy Huang (AVP at NetEase Capital), Evelyn Liu (CTO at Firevale), and Yanyan Xiong (Founder of Shenzhenware).
  • September 22 – San Francisco, CA. Special Guest: Nanea Reeves (President and COO of textPlus)
  • Early November (date TBD) – Los Angeles, CA at University of Southern California. Special guest: Professor Tracey Fullerton.

1441576529unity-logoEach of the special guest speakers has been successful within the gaming industry. In the workshops, they will be sharing their experiences and insights with those in attendance.

While I wish we didn’t need to have initiatives like this within the gaming industry (and other “male-dominated” industries such as computer programming – see Girls Who Code), I applaud Unity for taking this step. As a woman myself, I can attest to how many times I’ve been told, “but that’s for boys,” in regards to video games or other nerdy things that I enjoy. Initiatives like this not only bring us just a little bit closer to eliminating that negativity in the world, but also gives young gamer girls strong women to look up to.

All of the workshops are free and open to the public. If you’d like to register for one, click here.

 

The Flip-side of the Harassment Coin: Being Too Eager

The Flip-side of the Harassment Coin: Being Too Eager

TT_NotTheFandom

TooEager

Click to Enlarge

I came across this image in my Twitter feed and it got me to thinking: I see this thing a lot.  Usually from over-eager guys that want to be allies, or support women who game.  Some people like to point and laugh at the obvious awkwardness of it, or call it desperate or whatever, but I rolled it around in my head for a bit and wanted to write something to show that there’s a part of this that is an issue for the gaming community and how we move forward as we continue to grow and more people get into gaming.

No one really denies that harassment happens.  It happens to men and women all the time online.  The type of harassment and extent/severity can vary depending on the community, platform, gender, age, and countless other variables.  It’s a shitty fact of life that we wish would go away, accept that it won’t, and do everything we can to help improve for everyone.  On the flip-side of that, to me, are people who are way too eager to please.  They want to be some sort of counter-balance to the negative, and in my opinion wind up just being another negative.

First, before we get into the meat of it though, I just want to touch on the last bit.  We don’t know Brian’s last name, and while I saw a picture of him with this image I left it out.  No need for us to identify Brian, but Brian, dude, you gotta relax with the ladies.  I find that the women in our community, the gamers and geeks, they tend to be very nice folks.  You don’t have to sell yourself, or say things like ‘Don’t be intimidated’ (which some of them might find an insulting assumption).  You don’t have to say you’re not stereotypical, you’re not setting up a date here.  Just be you, they’ll find out who you are that way.  Don’t assume they’re going to assume anything about you, whether it be your stance on the kitchen or your level of intimidation.  And, Brian, I hate to break it to you but while you say you aren’t a stereotypical guy, you kinda are here.  You’re the stereotype of the awkward geek guy who doesn’t know how to talk to girls.  Just relax and be you, man.

So, all that aside that wasn’t my real problem with this but it did come up when I started asking around to make sure it wasn’t just me that saw this as a bit of a issue.  I’m a guy, and while I can empathize, if I’m going to write an article I want to make sure I’m not assuming how this comes off to the women in the community.  I could guess, based on what I’ve read in the past, but it’s always best not to guess.  What I’ve found is women in our community that I talk to want to be accepted for their skill, how fun they are to game with, and the love of gaming.  Saying “I added you because you’re a female gamer” seemed to me to be almost as insulting as “I’m not going to play with you because you’re a female gamer”.  If you’re gaming and find out one of your squadmates, teammates, or someone else in game is a woman she most likely doesn’t want you to take notice because of that.  I know it’s still not that common to come across women in some genres, like FPS games, but fairly common in RPGs and MMOs.  Even then the last thing that they want to hear on voice is “Oh, it’s a girl! Yay, look everyone it’s a girl!”  They probably want to hear things like “Nice shot,” “Thanks for the assist,” and “Move your butt, we’re dying over here,” just like every other gamer.

While the reaction pictured above isn’t harassment, it’s the other swing of that pendulum that doesn’t help move us down the road.  Most of the gamers I know, men and women, want the community to be a place for everyone and anyone that wants to be a part of it.  I’ve often said, more games, with more gamers to play them with.  Just like women often don’t ‘come out’ in-game, or use voice because of harassment, I know some who would also feel just as uncomfortable with a reaction like the one above. I asked around just to make sure that I wasn’t making any assumptions, and not only do the women who game want to be taken more seriously than the image above, they also have a great sense of humor about the whole thing.

And two quotes from the Facebook group I brought this up in where I asked if it was just me or did the image come off as too much, and just as bad as looking down on female gamers because of their gender:

Ugh. “Don’t be intimidated”? Rude. Definitely not just you.

And:

Eh it’s 50/50. I’ve seen guys that are so extremely supportive of female gamers they go overboard with it. It’s happened to me a lot. They just want to make up for the rest of the community. Also hearing girls talk during matches is rare. It gets mistaken for intimidation but it’s typically just removing yourself from a potential situation due to pay experience. The kitchen comment might be am awkward nerds way of trying to be smooth. Open mouth, out falls dumb.

I could also be wrong

So guys, be supportive of the women who game, don’t look down on them because of their gender, but also don’t go so overboard that you become the other extreme.  They are gamers first, and the vast majority want to be treated just like every other gamer.  Don’t be jerks to anyone really, but also don’t treat them like they’re special unicorns that are only seen under a full moon.  You’re not helping any more than the guy that laughs at the idea that girls game.

Representation in Video Games, a Female Perspective

People complain that feminists call “misogyny!” about everything. The truth is, misogyny and sexism are so systemically ingrained in our culture that both men and women actively participate in patriarchal values, without realization or intention. Many people either don’t see it or they simply disregard it as “the way things are” and make no move to change it. That is why I wholeheartedly agree with the second argument in the image below:

12523068_1013354742043386_5317664473959621765_n

The analogy rings quite true. As a female gamer myself, it is often extremely difficult to find representation in the gaming world. And, to be quite honest, representation is actually extremely important. Not only is a lack of female characters telling me that my demographic isn’t important enough to warrant thought, but it is also depriving young girls and other minorities of role models they can relate to. When children are growing up, they choose people to look up to. If they are constantly seeing characters who look like them being excluded or portrayed as inferior, they start to feel inferior and thus internalize misogyny (or other forms of bigotry like racism and homophobia), which can sometimes be more dangerous to their well being than external discrimination.

In the current market, the majority of video game role models are white male characters. Do only white males play video games? No. So why do video games and consoles continue to be marketed almost exclusively to them?

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The Big Question

*Trigger Warning*

So, I was following a rather misogynistic comment on a friends Facebook page when a mutual friend commented about her daughter being very excited about an awesome looking weapon she got in a game and her son was more worried about raiding. I responded back that I am always excited about the awesome looking gear I get AND the prospect of raiding, which I never have.

However, this lead to a bit more and I was asked something interesting: As girl gamers, other than the oddly represented female characters, what would you change about games? Or is it more a marketing problem? Or the attitude of male gamers towards female gamers?

I told her that I dedicated a group and a website to those very questions, but as I thought about it more, I realized: I, myself, have never answered those questions directly. I am sure they have been asked of me a million times over and I know that I answer them, but not directly. I will tell people I created RWoG (Real Women of Gaming) for that reason, but isn’t that dodging the question? Yes, yes it is. It’s a non-answer and if I’m going to be the Captain of this particular ship, I had better answer some questions and these are the biggest.

Let’s start from the beginning. This may shock you, but I wouldn’t change very much about games. The changes I would ask for might not even be noticed by other gamers. I don’t have an issue with a male protagonist and have happily played many a male protagonist (for one I LOVE Ezio in Assassin’s Creed), but I would like some female protagonist games also. The amount of female protagonist games are on the rise, with titles like Lara Croft, Life is Strange and Final Fantasy in your AAA title games and The Ritual on Weylyn Island, The Park and Fran Bow as some of the indie games, also you have your options in Fable 3, Mass Effect, Fallout and Destiny.

However, games are a vast majority of male protagonists and when there is a female protagonist (even the female characters, from party members to NPC), they are treated like crap. Let’s go back to Lara Croft, one of the most well known females in gaming history. She started out with the shortest shorts possible and unreasonably large breasts because that’s what archeologist look like? It was obvious that she wasn’t built to attract the female gamer, even if the marketing department said otherwise. Speaking of popular female gaming icons, Princess Peach and Zelda were constantly getting kidnapped and hauled off to be rescued. Yes, Zelda recently got a badass makeover, but it only took 20+ years? People had a fit when it was revealed that Samus of Metroid was a girl! Our 8-bit badass Goddess was rewarded for that hard work with an absurd costume change in Metroid: Other M with the Zero Suit to show girls that you, too, can save the galaxy with a skin tight suit on so that we still know you’re a female. That’s what is most important here. I’m not even going to mention the heels. Lastly I’ll pull out Quiet from Metal Gear Solid. Are you kidding me? I’m honestly shocked she isn’t in heels. She is a feared assassin in fishnets. What makes this worse is they actually tried to explain her lack of clothing. She can only breathe through her skin following a parasite treatment needed after serious injuries. I’ve heard 1st graders make more sense.

That little rant was just about clothes and appearance. I’m not talking about the fact that their back stories suffer drastically for lack of substance and are filled with trite nonsense (like a deep desire to be a supermodel or an actress). Worse, when they aren’t filled with meaningless crap, they put in abuse or rape (even multiple ones) to spice up a backstory when the comparable male character is revered as hero and a man’s man. Cause little girls grow up with a burning desire to play rape victims in video games, you know cause that shit isn’t real.

I want women and men to be treated equally. I wouldn’t notice as much if I encountered a male with a backstory of wanting to be an actor or supermodel as much as I do women or even a male who suffers abuse and rape in their backstory as much as they do so with women. Equal.

Also, if you are going to do multiplayer, make sure you have some female options *clears throat*AC:Unity*cough cough* It isn’t hard. You want four options, two of them can be female. HELL, ONE COULD BE FEMALE! That is an improvement. In watching my husband play Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 I can’t tell you how shocked I was to see two females, not exaggerated. Like legit women. This is me, floored and with much respect.

That was a long answer for one question, but I could go on and on about it. It isn’t asking a lot.

grrm on women

Now, the other two questions are a bit more simple.

Is it a marketing problem? YES! It is a huge perpetuation of gender bias. When video games were starting to be marketed they had to pick a section to go in. The boys toys or the girls toys because this was a toy meant for kids. They picked boys and marketed for boys and that never stopped. Tastes changed so they changed with the taste and we all know that sex sells.

Marketing to males, they made the women as sexy as possible and, at the time, you didn’t market for both genders. Yes, there were ‘girl games,’ but they were very few and very far between and plus, only boys played.

Now with the gaming population being around 50% of each sex, they are stuck in old ways and are too stubborn to change (to quickly) and don’t want to risk pissing off who they think are their core market (males). Specifically, with reactions to GamerGate and Girl Gamers. They pay attention.

Recently, I had a long time fan post a picture on our Facebook wall. It was of two twitch feeds. The top one was featuring a full screen of a game, then a small block was of the webcam pointing at the guy playing. The second half was of a full screen of a webcam pointed at a female and a smaller block was the game she was playing. The fact that it confuses anyone why that angers me only angers me more. His followers are watching the game, her followers are WATCHING HER! She is the entertainment, not the game! Yes, as streamers/YouTubers, we have to be entertaining, but that isn’t what’s going on here. Of course, it only happens because we have a society where women are objects for entertainment, BUT we as women need to collectively put our foot down to stop that. Fear of harassment online can lead women to do a lot of different things, including objectifying themselves for the sake of their male viewers or not show themselves on screen at all. We, as women, need to put that fear aside and do what it is we want to do. We have to understand that there will always be trolls/harassers/perverts, but we can’t feed them by giving them what they want.

That leads into the last question. Is the attitude of male gamers towards female gamer a problem? Sometimes.

I say sometimes because it isn’t ALWAYS bad. It isn’t always great either. I’d like to say that I am treated with respect, and I am, but I realized something important. I’ve closed myself off to the open world. I can see you are confused, so let me explain.

I play online often and I love it. I play with people. I play with a specific group of people and I don’t open myself up to talk to people. When I do talk, I don’t do so verbally most of the time. I type. If I play online multiplayer, say Halo, I play in a party chat with W1k3d_0n3. No one else in that battleground knows with 100% certainty that I am female. I don’t make it hard to figure out, but I don’t have to hear it when they do. Why do I hide? Because I’ve heard it all already and I don’t want to hear it again. I’m afraid if I let that wall drop for even a second, it will start. Now, when I do get brave and do so, I’m usually ready for a fight or trash talk and I will mute someone and even report them. I do so often; it is why we have the report feature. It can be hell to go through. I’ve been harassed online to the point of wondering if I should call the cops because I was afraid. That is a horrific feeling. The person who harassed me was male and was timid when other men challenged him, but I was a female so he would attack me and continued to do so for a long time.

Online harassment and bullying are, unfortunately, much bigger than we are willing to acknowledge. There needs to be a better solution than hiding.

This conversation ended with a startling thought: she is more a casual gamer that happens to be a woman than a woman gamer, after looking at the site. It made me a bit sad and I sat here and thought about it.

A gamer is a gamer. There are different types. Some will call themselves hardcore; there are professional gamers and casual is one I hear often. Woman gamer… I don’t want anyone to think that you have to identify by your gender. I’m a gamer. I’m not a gamer girl (oh, hells no); I’m a gamer that happens to be a woman, so what? Being a woman gamer doesn’t mean you have to be on some crusade to fix everything wrong with gaming. Be who you want, what you want, why you want. Don’t let other people define something you are. Hell, don’t define yourself if you don’t want to. You want to casually game, then go for it. I will crusade (so to speak) and we can both be gamers, simple as that.

Women were a rarity, A Guest Post

Magic: The Gathering

Hi there, everyone!  I was asked by my friend Crymson Pleasure to write up a guest post about women in gaming. A little about myself first.  I have been playing tabletop RPG’s since around 1985-86, Magic: The Gathering from 1993, and MMORPG’s since 1999 with Everquest being the one I have played the longest.  

What are my feelings on women in gaming?  There aren’t enough!  Gaming of all types is lacking in female representation, and it shouldn’t be as it’s something that anyone can do no matter their sex, age, color, or any other factor.  There is no reason for women to feel excluded from gaming or made to feel like it’s for boys only.  If more guys would put an effort into welcoming women or getting them to try the games it would expand the amount of available players, and bring more creativity to them.  A great example is my friend Kate.  I met her through my friend Justin, and have introduced them both to Pathfinder and the wonderful world of tabletop RPG’s.  We ended 4 books into a 6-book module set, and they were both enjoying it greatly.  It was first time either one of them have ever played anything like it and she is having as much fun as he and I are.  She asked just as many good questions as he did, and got just as mad as any other player when the dice won’t fall in her favor.    

While I was growing up and playing Magic and early D&D games, women were a rarity, and I think that was at least partially the fault of gamers, and also of the companies making the games.  It wasn’t that we were purposely excluding them, but more that it wasn’t “accepted” as much for them to ask about, and join games.  The advent of online MMORPG’s helped break that mold as – unless you asked – you never knew if the persons you were playing with were guys or girls.  More women started playing games and taking their love of them to the outside world and into tabletop/LARP games.  

Pathfinder Table Top Game

When you look around today you can find women playing and running D&D games, and competing at magic tournaments.  Feline Longmore, and Jadine Klomparens are both women who play Magic at the competitive level and consistently get high placings at the tournaments they go to.  I hope to be that good myself one day.  I am sure there are many more that show up at the individual tournaments and Friday Night Magic in their local area, but there is still not enough.

All in all, we as gamers need to take it upon ourselves to bring more women into the games we play, as they are made to be fun and enjoyed by everyone.  We need to share our love of the games with our friends and loved ones.  Maybe they haven’t joined you in playing because they haven’t felt that rush of a critical hit rolled at just the perfect time, or pulling off the perfect play to a win a game of Magic.  All it takes is that one moment and boom you have them hooked.  

-Henry

Be your own block button

Hi, I’m Mike Knapp. Some of you know me as KarlDark or Hida Kenshiro. Crymson Pleasure asked me to write a guest piece for the Real Women of Gaming… and i forgot about it after two weeks of trying to figure out what i could write that hasn’t already been written. She recently pressed me again to finish the piece. She asked me, “Do you think women are treated equally when it comes to gaming in general?” My answer was, “No. Not very often. When they are main characters, they are all too often unrealistic boobtacular badasses that never evoke emotions other than lust or envy. Then, when they aren’t the protagonist, they are plot devices. True, every story needs a plot device and, while i dislike the ‘woman in refrigerator’ syndrome, it would be nice to see women simply exist in a game.”

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