Getting Women To The Table

 Posted by on February 3, 2014  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments
Feb 032014

GenderGapOne of the things I’ve often been asked as a somewhat experienced GM who’s run games with lots of players is “How do I get girls interested in my games?” It’s an interesting question, and one that is really quite painful to a lot of the tabletop games hobby, since we do miss a lot of the female market share. Part of the reason that we miss out on that market, however, is that we explicitly hound female gamers, trying to get as many of them as possible, without remembering the core principles of gaming.

Gaming is, first and foremost, an enjoyable activity. I don’t entirely buy into the premise that we enjoy what society tells us to enjoy, but there is truth in that certain demographics participate in certain activities more than others, and gaming is an alternative to other leisure activities. If someone wants to go and hang out and get their clothes-shopping done (to use a horribly cliched example) while chatting with a friend, they’re not going to necessarily prefer to go and roll dice while chatting to a friend. The role of leisure is often overlooked in modern day studies of the human experience, but gaming is far from the only way to meet the need, and women often prefer to do things with their preexisting friends, enjoying something which to a mainstream American male seems like a task to complete efficiently and without joy or socialization.

However, gaming is also an investment. When I had a prospective player who I didn’t particularly want to have join my game, I’d talk about reading stuff for my games. Saying “Yeah, I went back and re-read all 1000 pages of Eclipse Phase back in January” works well as a loyalty test. It’s a difficult hobby, and while I don’t think there’s anyone who participates in it who thinks that games should all be shortened to five or six pages, you also need to consider that anything too complex represents a pretty respectable amount of knowledge and learning, and even if you have a GM handling most of the rules and players only need to learn thirty or forty pages worth of rules and content, players still wind up with a lot of responsibilities.

You want to make sure that all players at your table are valued. This isn’t as difficult as a lot of people think, but it’s also not something that most people do naturally. If everyone wants to get together and have the gaming equivalent of a drunken brawl, but consider whether you’re doing it to hang out with your friends or if it’s really the gaming experience that matters. This is why a lot of games actually last a session or two and then fizzle out; they’re a means of hanging out but they don’t actually generate value for the players other than the experience of hanging out. If someone doesn’t want to hang out with you just for the sake of hanging out, especially in our society which tends to be rather gender segregated in terms of our social activities, you need to consider the fact that you need to offer something more than just hanging out. A lot of people say “well, cater to women,” but that’s also a fallacy. What are you going to do, paint all your books pink? Not only is that so shallow as to border on the offensive, but it’s an entirely wrong viewpoint. Consider what your game offers, and what a prospective player wants. Don’t make gender the main goal.

At the same time, it’s also important to look at the subjects and topics you’re discussing. Avoid sexually charged topics, and remind players to keep their behavior civil. Particularly with men, a lot of players don’t understand sensitive topics. When they’re talking about “Charisma scores” and the attractive elven waitress, they’re directly alienating female players. Having worked in a service industry, I’ve been able to see the way that a lot of my female coworkers were treated by male customers, and quite frankly it’s disgusting. You don’t want that at your table.

It helps if your gaming group is socially defined. I have never had a group in which the players have not been friends and acquaintances with each other. If your social circles are predominantly composed of people of a certain gender, your games will be also. Don’t hunt outside your social circles to meet an arbitrary goal, like saying “I have to get a girl for my D&D campaign.” I’ve had luck with introducing gamers outside my social circle to my games, of both genders, but you don’t win someone over by saying “We want to play with you because you’re a girl.” Barring the creepiness factor, it’s important to remember that humans are intelligent, and seeing that one’s presence is exclusively for the sake of novelty is a major turn-off. Even if you don’t know each other, do activities outside gaming that are less rigorous. You don’t need everyone together to go see a movie and have a night out, and you can have a lot of fun and improve your game by having social activities outside gaming.

A final note is to look at the convoluted definition of a traditional tabletop roleplaying game. There’s a large crowd of tabletop gamers who approach the hobby with a rules focused mindset because they were first and foremost raised on video games. I’m one of these people. However, people who had their first meaningful gaming experience within tabletop games tend to be more interested in story and narrative, more along the lines of acting, than in the actual game itself, and from case studies I’ve found that my female players are almost always more concerned about the narrative than about the rules, while the opposite is true of my male players, in a rather neat 1:2 ratio either way.

In short, the failure within trying to get women interested in games typically comes from approaching them as “women,” as if there’s some mystical difference conferred by a second X chromosome. Look at them like any other non-gamer, and remember that who a person is cannot be summed up by a stereotype or statistic.

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Kyle Willey

Kyle is a future educator as well as a game design theorist and practitioner, essayist, and reviewer of various, mostly gaming related, things. He can also be found at Kyle's Game Development, which he updates at least four times a week.

  5 Responses to “Getting Women To The Table”

  1. Now that’s thinkin’ with yer Willey!

  2. I wish I could say that I’ve always seen a woman at the table as simply another gamer, but the truth is that I grew up playing the game with my buddies, and a woman at the table had always changed that dynamic for me. I never had any objections; there was simply a subtle shift in how I acted.

    To be honest, this had been a distraction for me for many years – that is, until a buddy’s sister joined us for the long haul. After awhile I’d found that she added a new layer of awesome to the game, since she brought an attitude and point of view that I simply couldn’t match. It wasn’t really her, per se, but my shift in my viewpoint.

    Diversity in gaming is a good thing, as I’ve found that I get the most enjoyment out of gaming when everyone brings something different to the table… and different people bring different things.

  3. I think one of the things that helped me with this is that my first games had women in them, so I didn’t have the sort of barrier that a lot of people build up. I’d wager that half the guys who have difficulty playing games in which women play approach it with a mentality that views them as an outsider, which is really the largest detriment to engaging a female player.

  4. In my experience, getting a good number of women in the groups I run and play in had never been an issue. Might be different in Germany in general, or maybe just the kind of people I associate with, but in the last 15 years I only had a two groups that didn’t include women, and those were the smalest one with only two and three players each. In any other group, we had about one third to one quarter of the players being women. I even had a couple of groups which were mostly women with just me and one other guy.
    Not sure why that is, but here in Germany among the 20 to 30 demographic, women seem to make up easily 15 to 25% of the crowd.

  5. Ahh. The first woman to game with me was my wife, and she played out of self defense to be with me. She has done f-t-f gaming for all games to include Fantasy RPGs, Historical and Hysterical Minis, Sci-Fi RPGs and Board Games. By having her around the gaming table, she became the draw for other couples, married or not, to join in. This also brought in some single women, because they felt comfortable and respected. Which eventually led to my daughters, I have three, joining in when we felt they were mature enough to be at the table…16yo. This drew some of their friends, both male and female into the gaming. Yes, there have been dry spells at our table. Those are the times we concentrate on historical or hysterical gaming. We enjoy going together to local and close-by game conventions where we may or may not play in the same game. If I run a game, she usually assists with set-up and rule explanations.

    My current RPG group with Classic Traveller is a 50:50 mix, and with Rolemaster/MERP 75% female. I have about a 50:50 mix for NPCs and a 25% mix of female monsters. I don’t allow men to play females, because this seems to drive away female players. I attempted to play a female character, and always deferred to the wife about certain “female” nuances to add color to my character play. To use her words, “Too often, men play or referee female characters in disrespectful ways, portraying them as licentious and libertine women to be raped or mauled by the N/PCs all because they have a high Charisma, Presence or Appearance, and sometimes justifying their play be the fact that they have large breasts.” Nuff said.

    Approaching 50 years of gaming real fast. Started with Avalon Hill, and enjoy the simpler times of D&D, Classic Traveller, Rolemaster 1st Ed, and such.

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