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