How many women…? August 2014 update

by Gil Hova

Over half the year has gone, and I’m still diligently tracking the genders of the board gamers I play with.

These numbers are fascinating.

Women gamers August 2014We’re now at a total breakdown of 74% men, 26% women (out of 299 games, 664 opponents). That’s 3/4 of my opponents being male. It’s about what I expected, depressingly enough.

But it’s the splits that are really interesting, and that are starting to confirm my earlier hypotheses. If I look at only playtests of unpublished games (125 games, 299 opponents), the ratio jumps to 80% men! Whereas if I look at only sessions of published games (174 games, 365 opponents), the ratio drops to 70% men.

It’s honestly not as much of a difference as I was expecting, but it’s still a sizable 10% swing, and it confirms my casual observation that the world of board game design tends to be even more male-dominated than the world of board game play. More on that below.

The next split, public versus private, is just as revealing. In public (162 games, 369 opponents), 77% of my opponents are male. But in private, that drops to 71% (137 games, 295 opponents). Again, not a large split, but big enough to show that women prefer to play in private settings.

Now that I’m looking for this, I see it everywhere. I saw one of my friends, a woman, play against two men I’d never met before. This woman organizes board game groups and has a deep, enthusiastic love for games. And yet when she played with the two men, they kept stopping the game to detail out all her strategies for her. This wasn’t just someone helping out a new player; it was talking to her as if she’d never played a strategy game before.

She’s a tough woman, and I could see she’d developed coping mechanisms for this. It bounced off her skin, no doubt like it has many times before. But how many women would have been pushed away by this behavior? How many women would have asked the men to let them play their own games? How many women are tired of having to do this every time they sit down with a new group?

I know the men didn’t mean anything nasty by this; they were just trying to help. But it does show casual, unconscious sexism in action. My girlfriend doesn’t play many board games, and when she does, she admits that she feels left out, like she’s sitting in on a “boys’ club” and that she isn’t really taken seriously by the rest of the table.

My biggest regret about this anecdote is that I was in a position to do something, and I didn’t. I kept quiet. I saw my friend take it all silently.

Would my speaking up have changed anything? Would it have alienated the other men at the table? Even if it was just, “Guys, she knows how to play the game. Let her play her own way”?

I don’t know. But I know that if I want to be a better ally, I should start speaking up. And if more of us recognized this behavior in action, no matter how well-intentioned, and we spoke up, even if just to politely ask some people to correct course, would we eventually start to see these numbers get closer to 50%?

EXTRA SPECIAL BONUS PROJECT: What about women board game designers?

My flight to Gen Con a couple of weeks ago was delayed, so I had some time to work on a project I’ve been meaning to mess around with. I downloaded the BoardGameGeek Gen Con 2014 preview using the BGGXMLAPI, parsed out all the names of the board game designers, and figured out if they were men or women.* Using this, I got a representative (albeit not very scientific) percentage of male to female board game designers.

There were some designers of non-American nationalities whose genders I couldn’t figure out, and who didn’t have enough of an internet presence for me to gain a definitive answer. So the number I’m about to give you may be biased a little towards American designers. Nevertheless, it’s a number, and the first I’ve seen in the space:

Of the 284 designers from the 2014 Gen Con preview whose genders I could discern, 16 were female. That is 94% male, 6% female.

6% female.

Now, you might be wondering how this stacks up to other game design forms. I haven’t been able to get a list of female roleplaying game designers yet, but I did find some interesting data from the video game space. According to a 2014 study, 22% of all video game developers are female, up from 11% in 2009.

(Note that video game developers and board game designers are not exactly equivalent. A “video game developer” could be a dedicated game artist, a level designer, a coder, a producer, etc. But it’s close enough to be interesting.)

So, by my rough numbers, 22% of all video game developers are women, but only 6% of board game designers are.


That’s something for me to try to tackle in a future post…

* I know that gender and sex are not simple binaries, and there are plenty of people out there who don’t fit into the neat male/female dichotomy. I’m deliberately choosing the word “gender” instead of “sex” because I find it easier to go with what people identify with, instead of what they’re born with. So in my research, I would consider the legendary game designer Dani Bunten Berry (of M.U.L.E. and Seven Cities of Gold fame) as female, because that’s who she identified as.

I also know there are genderfluid people out there. But I haven’t been able to cleanly identify any of them in my research. Maybe this is due to social stigma regarding speaking out about one’s true gender identity (EDIT: by “true gender identity”, I mean the gender a person identifies with), maybe it’s the awkwardness of the conversation, or maybe it’s my own lazy research. Maybe it’s all of the above!