How many women do I get to play with, compared to men?

by Gil Hova

I’ve always felt that there are more men in gaming than women. It’s been something that’s been scratching at me for awhile, like an itch. I met one board game publisher who insisted that women prefer lighter games (would I love to introduce him to some gamers I know!), and I’ve seen many board games whose art skew towards the male demographic. There seems to be a self-selecting bias here; since many more men play board games than women, allegedly, the games should appeal to those men.

But how true is that premise? Are there really more men who play games than women?

Well, I can’t speak to video games or RPGs, as I don’t play enough of them to really mean anything. But I do play a lot of board games, and I play those games with a pretty wide variety of people. So at least I can answer the question for myself: what’s the gender breakdown in the people I play games with?

So, I did what any self-respecting nerd would do: I started keeping statistics on the gender breakdown of my gaming partners. Here’s what I found.

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It’s a little depressing at first, but there’s an important detail I have to call out.

First: over the course of 37 games and 117 opponents so far this year, I’ve played with 74% men and 26% women. Almost three-quarters of my opponents are men.

However, I am a board game designer, and I had noticed that the world of board game design is pretty male-oriented. So I split my playtests out, and that was a revealing number.

Looking at only my playtests of my games and other designers’ games (20 games, 68 opponents), I’ve played with 82% men and 18% women. And most of those women were not designers themselves. Truthfully, I’m surprised it was even as high as 18%. This is not a statistic I’m crazy about.

But things get better when I look at my games without playtests skewing everything towards men. Out of 17 games and 49 opponents, I’ve played with 63% men and 37% women. That’s not quite 50/50, but it’s a lot closer.

(One minor point: I was curious if the occasional game I played with my girlfriend skewed the numbers towards women. Taking games with her out along with playtests, I’m left with 10 games, 14 opponents, and a 64% male, 36% female split, which is close enough that I can say that she hasn’t weighted the numbers any.)

So what can we make of this?

First, keep in mind this is just people I personally play with. This is not meant to be an exhaustive survey with sweeping results. Your results will most likely be different.

Second, I don’t really play at game stores or public places. I occasionally play at conventions, but I mainly play at my house or other people’s houses. I’ve found anecdotally (no numbers yet, sorry) that women are more likely to play at private houses than at conventions or game stores.

And if you’ve been to many conventions or game stores, you’ll know why. Harassment is very much an issue for women gamers, and you never know who you’re going to play with at a convention. Might be a down-to-earth person. Might be a deranged lunatic. For someone who is statistically more at risk to be assaulted, I can see how this would be a turn-off.

Game stores are even worse. I used to run a group at a newly-opened game store. Its ambiance descended into that of a boys’ middle school locker room pretty quickly. Most game stores I’ve been to are exactly the same. Kids buy lots of games, so they run the shop (sometimes literally – some of the loudest, most annoying kids were the ones behind the counter). It’s a pretty unpleasant environment for anyone who thinks of himself or herself as an adult, let alone a woman who has to keep hearing the kids’ misogynistic taunts.

So I run a gaming group with vetted invitees out of my own apartment. It’s a much safer, more tranquil environment. I wonder how much different my numbers would have been 10 years ago, when I was playing mostly at game stores and conventions.

What can we do to change things? (And yes, I want to change things; I don’t think the board game business should be alienating people simply because they’re the “wrong gender.”) All I can do is try to provide a quiet, safe environment for my women friends. I’d like to make games I design appeal to all genders, but I am not a publisher, and these decisions are usually not in my hands; publishers who offer me a contract have final say over a game’s presentation and art.

I will definitely continue to keep track of these stats, and will probably update them every month on Twitter. In the meantime, here’s some interesting reading:

No Girls Allowed – A fantastic piece on Polygon about the video game industry’s insistence on marketing to males.

Women and Gaming Preliminary Research Report – A promising bit of research by Dr. Erin C. Davis polling women gamers, primarily board gamers. It’s preliminary, so the sample sizes are small. I’m very eager to see the report with more women polled. Already there are some fascinating results, especially the section on women reporting on balancing gaming with their perceived responsibilities (pp. 8-9).