Women occupy a unique role in gaming. Because gaming has long been a male-dominated hobby, women often come face-to-face with prejudice and stereotyping. The purpose of this article is to illustrate the challenges female gamers face as well as the many positive things that gender diversity brings to the gaming experience.
Gaming might be viewed by some as a “boy´s club,” one in which many young women are uninterested. Many female gamers are introduced to gaming in college, when the natural broadening of horizons of the university experience brings more women into contact with it. There is nothing inherent in gaming that suggests that men are any better or more suited to it, but due to social conditioning, many women do not become involved in it. More and more intrepid souls are breaking out of this mold, taking a journey into unfamiliar territory. Today, some young women are coming into gaming earlier than was common in the past, and discovering that it is as natural a joy for them as it is for men. In the coming years, it is possible, if not likely, that the ranks of female gamers will swell, but as events such as Gamergate have illustrated, not everyone is on board.
The journey of women into gaming is not always a smooth one. Some male gamers can have difficulties interacting with women. Whatever the cause, the presence of female gamers can shake up the structure in some groups. While this can have numerous positive effects, there is certainly the possibility of trouble. Some gamers cannot separate their own personal desires and feelings from that of their characters. Male gamers can develop feelings for female gamers—idolizing them or even worshiping them to a lesser degree. While this can cause in-character problems, its more serious effect is out of game. When a female gamer joins a gaming club or group, it is rarely with the primary intention of finding a spouse. Unfortunately, some gamers cannot cope when their romantic advances are ignored or unwanted. This may not only create an awkward and unpleasant atmosphere for the female gamer (and sometimes the other male gamers), it can also lead to jealousy and serious tension. Thus, it can be very difficult for women when a great deal of attention—often conflicting between multiple sources—is thrust in the way of their general enjoyment.
Some lucky couples do meet through their mutual gaming hobby, due to similar interests, personal chemistry, and a variety of other reasons. As gamers are human beings—despite what some may wish to believe—romance certainly can and does develop between them. The very presence, however, of a female gamer does not mean that she is interested in dating any of her gaming buddies. If she is, that’s fine, but it can become very uncomfortable for everyone if sexual advances get in the way of the game. Frequently, romances between players in the game—especially when rocky—can result in tension between the characters. Similarly, those who are rebuffed in their advances may play rather coldly (or aggressively) toward female gamers.
Another issue that female gamers face is sexism, often in the form of misogyny. Just as some male gamers feel the need to hit on female participants, others harbor deep-seated resentment toward them. There are a number of possible source for this resentment, but it always results in an unwelcome atmosphere. Some men view women only as sexual objects; others see them as child-bearers and mothers with no other purpose in life. Many male gamers are used to roleplaying being a boy’s club. They may revel to a certain extent in their geekdom, and they may feel uncomfortable and question their self-esteem while in the presence of a female gamer. This shouldn’t happen, and this is not the intention of the vast majority of female gamers, but it sometimes does.
While there is no denying that a certain degree of tension can occur any time men and women are involved in a pursuit that exposes their emotions, this does not mean that male gamers have a license to be jerks. By the same token, negative gender stereotypes can be perpetuated by and directed toward both men and women. Both men and women can be victims of social constructs that force them to behave in gender-restrictive ways. As Emma Watson made so clear during her speech at the UN, these straitjackets hurt us all. The embrace and welcome of women and other gamer minorities in a game can only help to loosen the bonds that prevent people from truly expressing themselves.
In general, it would be best if both male and female gamers checked their sexual issues at the door. During the game is not the appropriate place to deal with these problems. Female gamers should be treated the same way as everyone else in the group. Like all members with individual strengths, weaknesses, and perspectives, their interests should be honored and perspectives embraced. People play games to have fun and express themselves, not to be the victims of sexism and misogyny.
If these problems can be dealt with, or avoided altogether, the presence of female gamers can work to the advantage of traditionally male-oriented groups. This creates a great opportunity for all gamers. Even though male players play female characters, their internal monologue is still coming from a different place. The greater the variety of perspectives in a game, the richer it will be. It is also possible that the presence of a more diverse group of gamers might open roleplaying possibilities that would be uncomfortable in the restrictive and sometimes macho atmosphere that can be created by a homogenous gender group.
Female gamers, like any other gaming minority group, face a number of challenges. If approached properly, a more diverse gaming population is beneficial to all gamers. If viewed through the lens of prejudice and bias, it will only lead to conflict and dissatisfaction. It is up to each gaming group to decide how to approach these challenges. Like any other gamer, female gamers should be treated with respect; their individual differences should be seen as matter of adding new perspectives to the game, not a reason for discrimination and harassment.
More important than anything, all gamers, men and women, should feel safe and welcome when playing. No one should experience threat or fear because they take part in something they love. While some, when faced with change, retreat within or lash out, kicking and screaming to hold on to the status quo, we have more opportunities than ever before to break the bonds that seek to pigeonhole and typecast us. We should relish the opportunities to shatter unreasonable gender-based expectations and restrictions on both men and women.
7 thoughts on “The Many Faces of Gaming: Female Gamers”
Very interesting read!
We never saw girls playing RPG’s when I was a kid, and only rarely did I run across female gamers as a younger adult.
I’m happy to say I’ve seen, and played with, more female gamers in the last few years than ever before and I think it’s great! Having both genders in a gaming group adds a new dynamic and a great deal of depth to the game!
Recently, we had a game where goblins (I think they were goblins anyway) were attacking a house with a family inside. The males in the group were all battling the goblins, trying to keep them from setting the house on fire etc … you know, typical heroic stuff :)
But when a few goblins were about to attack a small child who had been hiding in a corner, it was the female gamer who jumped on the child, literally covering his body with hers and acting as a human shield to save him. It was funny, as guys, we were all taking the more aggressive stance of “kill all the goblins so we can save the family”. It was the female gamer who never swung her sword once and had the more selfless (dare I say ‘maternal’) impulse to risk her life to actively protect the child.
Although that encounter was hardly ground breaking, we all talked about it afterward. We all found it fascinating and refreshing to see how folks of different genders approached the same problem.
This was really, really well written. Great work.
Thanks! Miranda, Wolfgang, and Shelly have been really gracious in getting this up here.
I have seen both types of gaming groups. A few years ago my wife tried to join a group to play Shadowrun. She was kicked out after about 2 sessions when she made it clear she had no interest in sleeping with anybody in that group. They said having a female at table was too distracting.
On the other side of the spectrum half of our current group is female. And only one of the women is interested in the stereotypical healing role. Even then she is less of a “stand back and heal character” and more of a “I’ll heal you once i’m done stabbing this orc.”
Thanks for sharing, Geoff. That’s just more evidence that women do indeed face continued discrimination, but that it’s also not possible to generalize about the personalities, interests, or play styles of female gamers, any more than it would for any other gamers.
I have never understood some of the things that I hear in horror stories about these gamers who are offended by the presence of a female in their gaming hobby.
Where I grew up in the 90s, tabletop games were unheard of by all but the nerdiest people ages 30+, and in my tiny little high school (’02-’06), males and females both were all known at some point to have played video games, and it was never questioned that a girl might be more into a video game than a boy. In fact, I can remember at least one girl who was quite popular and good at Halo, whose status was only raised by that fact.
My girlfriend is my closest gaming friend, and occasionally we do 1-on-1 Pathfinder games because we don’t have a regular group.
The whole gamergate thing is truly alien to me, and in just about every other case, I would say that my one-horse town is as backwards as they come. Guess I have one thing to brag about for them.
I’ve heard stories from the girls I game with, which does make me very self-conscious as a GM. Any time something bad happens to a female NPC or she does something evil, there’s an eye-roll or a comment. Communicating respect is very difficult for an introvert. I am constantly relying on my wife for help in that department.