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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/

Representation in Video Games, A Male Perspective

TT_NotTheFandom

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I was pointed to this post on tumblr recently and asked if I’d throw in my 2.346 cents (Canadian).  The entire thing, both parties, touch on exactly the sort of problems with having this type discussion about representation.  Both are using emotional responses to support their argument, and both are using analogies that are flat out wrong.  Let me preface the rest of this article by saying that I think it’s great when developers want to add more characters, male, female, trans, gay, straight, black, white, asian or anything in between.  I also support devs that don’t; that want to keep their period-accurate middle Europe game true to the time it’s set in, and I do not condone people who pressure developers and artists to change just to fit some notion of morally acceptable art.  That’s really the bottom line here, games are art, and artists do try to balance what the market needs and wants with their creative vision.  I don’t think there’s some nefarious plot to keep women out of video games, or make games just for guys.  I don’t think there are meetings where developers discuss how best to make sure an entire demographic is offended, but I do think meetings happen where a list of ‘requirements’ are looked over and boxes are checked just to fill some quota in hopes that they can avoid the drama that could make or break a game.  That, to me, is the worst way to go about any creative process.  But, back to the example above.

I’m an old gamer, compared to many who might be reading this.  I started on an Atari 5200 and I remember when the biggest games at the arcade were Tron and Galaga.  I was getting started as a gamer when computers weren’t even in homes yet for the most part, so when I see examples like the one above, both of them, it makes me tear my hair out.  No, video games are not like a department store that only has men’s clothing, and is suddenly being asked to make women’s clothing, and no, it’s not like a department store that only has lingerie and bikinis in the women’s section.  Gaming used to be quite genderless, and commercials featured whole families, mom, dad, brother and sister sitting around to play Defender, or Pong.  Arcade ads featured young men and women both enjoying Pac-Man or Space Invaders.  Back then the popular games were not male or female oriented, my mom loved Centipede, and my favorite game on the Atari was Super Breakout.  Gaming is like a department store that started out making very generic clothing that anyone could wear, and putting out commercials that tried to get everyone in the door.

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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:

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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.

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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Don’t stand in the green stuff and heal the tank…

When you first approached me about the topic the idea sparked a lot of immediate emotions. Both as a gamer and a game developer it kind of angers me a bit that women still aren’t really ‘meshed’ into the community just the same way men are.10514580_869880693025644_7412229315058129210_n

For a guy to come into any game room and start playing is no big deal, depending on their skill level. For a woman to pop into a game room, they are unfortunately faced with a vast array of reactions. Everything from neutral, ‘hey, sup?’ reactions all the way to the creepy stalker gamer who tries to follow them out of the game and onto Facebook and from there potentially in to real life. It’s a really scary thought process.

As a guy, when a woman comes into a game I even still do my own analysis. Primarily my reaction is to sit back and watch how others react. I of course offer a general greeting, but I’m automatically on the defensive FOR them. Not that they need it, but more so that I don’t want a community where I spend a lot of my time to turn into a sandpit of 2 year olds throwing dirt at the girl in the boys club – it’s ridiculous. Of course I’m assaulted with male reactions of, ‘oh wow, finally, a lady joins the fray of insanity!’. I think that the initial thought process anyone has when a male OR female joins a game is entirely naturally theirs, but how they voice it or express it – is a choice.

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Damsel in Distress

Awhile ago, I asked on our Facebook page if there were any blog posts that our fans wanted to see. One fan mentioned the representation of female heroes in video games. Considering that I made that post months ago, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I’ve kept it in the back of my mind. You see, this one particular thing stuck out in my mind so well for a very specific reason; a reason I haven’t shared with our fans or followers until now. Well, now I’m sure you are very curious as to that reason, so I’ll tell you. I’m 8 months pregnant and I’m going to have a baby girl.

So, now I am sure you were going to go into this post with one mind set, but shift gears with me for a moment. I love video games, obviously. I have played games where the female character wanted to be a supermodel or an actress. She was the damsel in distress. She was raped at some point in her past. Funny thing is, I’ve never played a game where a male character wanted to be a supermodel, an actor, was in distress or raped in his past.

Now, to point out how I think about it. I want to share my love and passion for this amazing art form with my daughter, eventually. As does her father. Do I want her think that the only way she can become a hero is if she wants to be a supermodel or an actor? That she needs to play the damsel in distress to win? I can’t even think of the last part.

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