Women in gaming vs. invisible ropes

by Gil Hova

I’m almost done with my year-long project to record the genders of all the people I have played with. It’s an interesting project, and it gains a new and interesting context with all the awful news going on around the video game world. I guess it’s a good thing that we’re finally talking about women in gaming, although I wish it didn’t have to take death threats against some of our bravest designers in order to start the discussion.

We’re lucky that there isn’t usually such overt sexism on such public display in the board game world. Nevertheless, I think we can do better. My gender project has taught me to pay more attention to women in board gaming. There’s more than meets the eye.

During this time, I’ve been able to see board gaming through my girlfriend’s eyes. She’s a newcomer to gaming, and while my friends try to welcome her into gaming, she doesn’t feel welcome. Through her, I’ve noticed that boardgaming, while not overtly hostile to women, still has a bunch of invisible ropes that keep many women from enjoying the hobby.

Before I go any further, let me be clear: I am a straight white guy, and I’ve led quite a privileged life. I can’t claim to speak for women. No one can, because there is no monolithic generalization one can make about half of the human population. So please don’t think I’m attempting to speak on behalf of all women everywhere. I’m writing this because I think my perspective can be helpful when we try to figure out why there are so many more men playing board games than women.

Another thing I must make clear: a lot of people usually take this kind of thing to mean offensiveness. They think there’s a line between “offensive” and “inoffensive”. If you’re on the “inoffensive” side, everything’s fine and peachy, but if you’re on the “offensive” side, then you’ve just insulted every single woman (or whatever non-straight-white-male demographic you’d like), without exception.

But I’m not talking about that line. We in the board game world don’t really have to deal with overtly offensive stuff, thankfully. Instead, I’m going to talk about  invisible ropes.

An invisible rope is something that most people in gaming don’t notice, but that can turn off someone just entering the hobby. They start walking to us, but then they get stopped by one of these invisible ropes. They turn away, and try to approach from another direction, and hit another invisible rope. Then they try another approach, and hit another invisible rope.

And that’s it; they turn away. All these ropes add together to tell them: Gaming is not for them. They can’t tell us why, because they can’t easily see the ropes that kept them away.

Again, this isn’t about one huge wall keeping people away from gaming. This is death by a thousand tiny cuts. It’s a bunch of tiny actions we perform.

And we can have the best of intentions. We can be thinking that we’re all for women in gaming and inclusivity, and still be responsible for keeping these invisible ropes up. That’s why I don’t think this is a matter of simple offensiveness; that always winds up with apologies and accusations, sometimes sincere, sometimes insincere, none of which really get to the bottom of what’s going on.

Here are some examples of invisible ropes in gaming. For these examples, don’t consider a woman already in gaming; she’s already gotten past the ropes. Instead, consider a woman new to gaming. Think of a woman who is going to a game convention for the first time. Maybe she’s never played a modern game before; maybe she’s only got a couple of games of Settlers or Munchkin under her belt. What invisible ropes will she run into?

More men than women. Anyone familiar with the craft of game design will recognize a positive feedback mechanism, and we have one here. It’s unfair, but there we are. A woman will notice when she’s the only woman in the environment. And it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

Some react by disregarding it; others can’t help but notice it. The latter is not a fault of character, of course. And I’m sure it’s an irritating feeling to feel so singled out.

Representation. Perhaps our hypothetical subject has found a group where she’s not the only woman. Perhaps she’s decided to ignore it. So she goes ahead and plays one of the top 25 games on BoardGameGeek. And it has a guy on the cover.

I went ahead and checked. The top 25 games on BGG have a total of 58 featured characters. Of those characters, only 10 are clearly women. That’s 17.2%.

Some more stats…

  • Of the top 25 games, 22 have featured human characters on their covers. (If you’re curious, Dominant Species, X-Wing Fighter Miniatures, and Race for the Galaxy have no featured human characters.)
  • Of these remaining 22 games, only two have women exclusively featured on their covers: Android: Netrunner and Caverna. And only two others have at least as many women featured as men: Agricola and Battlestar: Galactica.

So representation on covers remains quite male-dominated. And I haven’t even gotten to the question of realistic versus sexualized portrayals of women yet.

Inadvertently condescending strategy help. Let’s chart this one out mathematically: if x is the number of seconds it takes for a man to think about his turn before the other players start pointing out his possible moves, and y a similar number for a woman, then y < x, especially when the woman is new to the group. Sometimes y < x/2. Regardless of how many games the woman owns or plays. I’d need a bunch of gamers and a stopwatch to confirm this mathematically, but look out for it at a game table next time you see a man play a woman he’s never met before. You will notice it.

The language factor. 20 years ago, I used to think that I could say things like “guys” as a non-gendered word. “Hey guys, what’s going on?” And if we made any significant progress in gender equity in the past two decades, I wouldn’t feel bad using it.

But if Gamergate has taught us anything, it’s that women still aren’t treated as equals. It’s made me re-think how I use language when I communicate.

“Guys” is exclusionary. I can think in my head that it’s not exclusionary when I say it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not exclusionary for the people who are listening. It’s an invisible rope. When I say it, I’m asking women who are listening to re-map the words in their heads from being gendered to being non-gendered. That’s asking a lot, and I don’t think it’s changed in the past 20 years.

Listen, I don’t want to tell you how to speak or write. I hate to sound like the PC police. I will tell you this: I’ve stopped addressing people as “guys” in writing unless I’m sure the people I’m writing to are all men. The rulebooks I wrote 10 years ago all use “he” as a singular pronoun. I now alternate between “he” and “she”, and I’m trying to get my brain to accept “they” as singular (it’s going to take a while).

Also, you’ll notice how I’m writing “women” in this post? Not “females”? I notice a lot of gamers use “female” as a noun. This is a really cold and dehumanizing way to write about half of the population. If you’re writing a scientific study, it might be all right. But in any other setting, use “women”. It comes off much more warmly. (Of course, “female” as an adjective is usually okay: “That female ninja, etc. etc.” Or how I use “female” in the very next sentence.)

And I will urge everyone in earshot to only use “girl” when referring to someone female under the age of 18.

For how I talk? It’s going to take a little longer. I say “guys” all the time. It’s going to be tough to change that behavior. But that seed is in my head. I’m only now understanding how much language matters, and how poorly the status quo is functioning.

Boys’ locker room mentality. Does your game group meet at a game store? What’s its clientele like? What’s its ambiance like? If it’s anything like the game stores I’ve played at in the past, there are a ton of pubescent boys at the store, shouting taunts like “fag” and “pussy” at each other.

Now, if you’re a person who’s obsessed with board games past a certain point, you can let this bounce off you. But not everyone is blessed with thick skin. And a local gaming environment that’s heavily biased towards teenaged boys is going to alienate a lot of women. No wonder I’ve noticed that I tend to play more women in private rather than in public – 21% of my opponents are women when playing in public, 30% are women when playing in private, at the time of this writing.

But if a woman is playing games in private, that means she’s either found a “safe” area to play games, or she’s built one up herself. Not all women get to that point. I’m sure a ton have hit this particular invisible rope and concluded that gaming is not for them.

Societal expectations. We live in a society where, by and large, women are expected to tend to home and family while men are allowed to follow their interests. This is something I don’t agree with and that I would love to see change significantly in my lifetime, but I think it’s important that we mention it.

I’ve mentioned Dr. Erin C. Davis’ preliminary report on women in boardgaming in some of my other posts. Here are some relevant quotes from women gamers she interviewed…

I can’t play a four hour game. Because I start thinking of everything I should be doing. I should be doing the laundry. I should be taking care of the dishes. I can’t play them. I don’t enjoy them because all I do is sit there and think I’m wasting my time. So any game that’s gonna take more than about two hours I really can’t stand…. (30 year old woman gaming for 1 year).

I think that the problem is for me is, when we are playing a game at home, and much to [my husband’s] annoyance sometimes, I am still doing five other things while we’re playing the game. I am making dinner. I’ve got other things I’m finishing up. I think it is just harder for women to detach from all of the other things that they have in their life to take the time out to play a boardgame. Where as men seem to have a much easier time making the time for themselves to go ahead and do that. (42 year old woman with 1 child who has been gaming for over 16 years)

In our group it seems like the women have other responsibilities that the men don’t do. It seems like the guys go to work and they come to the gaming things where women are like, ‘oh I’m off work I have to go home and make dinner or I have to go home and take care of the kids’ (44 year old woman gaming for 3 years)

Other men staying silent. This, out of all of them, is the hardest one.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve sat at a game table and seen an invisible rope get strung up. And I’ve almost always kept my mouth shut. It’s not the right time, I’d tell myself. Don’t make a pest of myself.

But if this environment is going to change, and if I’m ever going to see more than 25% of my overall opponents be women, I have to be part of the solution. And that means speaking up.

If I see someone being unintentionally sexist, I would like to be more vocal. I don’t want to be rude or alienating about it. But I’ve heard from other women that the best thing they can hear is a man tell his friend, “Too much. Back off.”

These invisible ropes doesn’t keep all women out of gaming. You might know plenty of women in your gaming groups. But that doesn’t mean that these invisible ropes don’t exist. Some women have thicker skin than others, and they love gaming so much that they’re willing to put up with all the invisible ropes they encounter. Which is awesome for them, but we can’t expect every woman to have that sort of thick skin. It’s just unfair. I think this is reflected in my gender project numbers, especially the split between public and private gaming. There are fewer invisible ropes when playing in private, hence the 10% swing for women I play with in a private setting.

By the way, the correct term for this kind of unconscious, exclusionary activity is “microaggression,” but I’ve found that term turns people off: “What? No! I’m not being aggressive. I’m didn’t mean anything by it! I’m only trying to help!” I think one of the obstacles to this sort of discussion is that people don’t like being called aggressive, or sexist, or privileged. They feel insulted by it and get defensive. I don’t mean to authoritatively set the tone of the discussion here; I just think people are less likely to get defensive when hearing “invisible rope” than if they hear “microaggression.”

So the next time you wonder why there so many more men than women in board gaming, look at these invisible ropes. Even better, try to see if you’re inadvertently setting up an invisible rope yourself.

If you’re interested in reading more, here are some excellent articles on the subject:

Ways Men in Tech are Unintentionally Sexist – This isn’t about board gaming specifically, but a lot of what the writer describes maps quite well to our hobby. I’ve even adapted a few of this article’s points into this post.

I am a Racist and I am a Sexist and Probably Some Other -Ists, Too – I’ve honestly never gotten around to reading anything Chuck Wendig’s written (yet) other than this post, but it exhibits a lot of self-awareness and a desire to get better.