Where Are the Gamer Girls?

L, who plays in my weekly game with her husband S, posted a Facebook post about our game last night.  “Playing dungeons and dragons with 5 guys and Im the only girl. Having lots of fun. Why dont more girls play this game!? I love it!”  Capitalization and punctuation errors aside (like I said, it’s Facebook), she raises a valid point.  Why don’t more girls play Dungeons and Dragons?  Most of the girls I know have some experience with the game or others (typically White Wolf’s World of Darkness games).  And even though they’re self-avowed gamer geeks, they still shy away when I invite them to the table.  Sure, this subject’s been beaten to death, but as you can tell from this blog, I’m hardly above beating a dead horse.  Why don’t more girls game?

Let’s see where most men get their start playing D&D and see if we can extrapolate.  Pretty much everyone I know was introduced to D&D by a friend.  Even before they started playing, they had strong geek/nerd tendencies.  Of my first introductions to the game, one was a member of the Math Club in school, one played Nintendo obsessively, one was a massive Trekkie (and pray you never screwed up and called him a “Trekker”), one was into anime before anyone even knew to call it “anime” (Robotech, Voltron, Battle of the Planets, etc.), one was coding his own operating system for his Amiga, and one spent all his time writing little stories in notebooks and never finishing them (oh wait, that one’s me…)  We all got into tabletop gaming around the ages of 12-15, and were all introduced by other friends.

Now, what do 12-15 year old socially awkward males who are getting the short end of the puberty stick who are already social pariahs due to their leisure activities tend to have in common?  Wanting to fade into the background and stay unnoticed anytime a girl is within 50 feet.  Girls were more terrifying than anything else at that age, and I never held an in-depth conversation with one until I got my computer connected to the local BBS (get off my lawn!).  It’s not that I didn’t like girls or didn’t want to be around them.  It’s just that I automatically assumed they wouldn’t want to be around me, and that crippling fear of the moment I did talk to one and she shooed me away like an annoying fly kept me from ever attempting a conversation.

However, it would’ve been a Bad Thing if a girl had decided to join our games back then.  Talk about a sheep in the wolf’s den.  Remember the line from Revenge of the Nerds after Lewis scores with the cheerleader chick?  “Jocks only think about sports.  Nerds only think about sex.”  Honestly, that line isn’t very true.  All boys around that age are thinking constantly about sex.  It’s part of the whole hormones kicking in package.  The difference between the geeks and the popular boys is that they get experience talking to girls and are rejected less often, so they have experience in how to deal with talking to girls.  If there had been a girl in our gaming group, it would’ve been a nightmare of each of us in turn (if we even waited that long) awkwardly hitting on her because she had to be cool if she wanted to play with us.  And, of course, that would’ve ended horribly both for the girl’s impression of gaming and for our friendships.

Well, we’re not in grade school anymore.  Why aren’t girls picking up the game when they get older?  Some of them are, but the problem is that there is still a massive social stigma to gaming with the general populous.  Ask random people what they think D&D is and you’ll get some wild answers, most of which won’t be flattering to the gamers themselves.  I’m sitting here typing on a blog I’ve been running for three months now about a hobby I’ve partaken in for over twenty years of my life, my twitter account (Abstruse, if you’re curious) is filled with me posting about D&D, I post updates about game time on my Facebook, and probably a quarter of my massive library of books are gaming books, proudly displayed in my living room right under my Robert B. Parker collection.  Yet I still danced around the subject of my Sunday night plans when talking to a girl.  “I’m having people over.”   “Oh, what for?”  “Oh, just game night.”  “Really?  Video games?”  “No.”  “Board games?”  “Not really.”  “What game then?”  And I felt cornered, absolutely refusing to want to admit I was playing D&D.  Oh, and it’s not just girls.  I went through the exact same conversation with my co-workers before as well.  Because admitting to playing D&D is admitting to being “one of those guys”, and you feel like people are automatically going to make assumptions about you whether or not they actually will.

I’ve gamed with literally hundreds of people over the years.  Only five of them have been female.  One was the game store owner’s wife.  One was the girlfriend of one of our regular DMs.  Two were my girlfriends at the time.  And L, who plays the Mage in my current game, is married to S, who plays the Barbarian.  The first two I can’t speak about (though I have strong suspicions), but both of the girls I dated gamed occasionally before I met them but weren’t actively involved in a game, and L wasn’t actively playing in a game when I knew her before she met S.  I’m not saying there’s a pattern here, but it’s definitely something to explore.  And even though none of them were especially bad at gaming, all of them suffered from inexperience (with the exception of L, who seems to have gotten over the learning curve of 4e with flying colors and took out more baddies in last night’s game than the rest of the group combined, even leaving out the minions).

So why don’t girls play tabletop games, CCGs, role playing games, etc. more often?  Everything I’ve said is a perfectly reasonable explanation up until the past 5 years or so.  My Facebook gets updated constantly by my female friends’ Farmville accounts, with two more updating automatically from World of Warcraft and City of Heroes.  There are all-girl professional gaming groups and several gaming clans.  I can go out on the town and listen to girls talking about Playstation and X-Box games.  Can you even count the number of times you’ve seen a girl on the bus or in a coffee shop with a DS or a smartphone game?  Gaming isn’t the problem.

D&D itself gets a lot of the blame when I others touch this topic, but even that’s not true anymore.  Chainmail bikinis are a thing of the past and female characters are no longer the typical eyecandy or damsel in distress.  The learning curve for D&D is lower than its ever been in the history of the game, so there’s no longer a “nerd’s only” stamp with quadratic equations and archaic tables to figure out simple tasks.  The famous Gygax lame puns and scatological humor are gone from the game, and the rulebooks don’t require a thesaurus to read anymore.  So D&D’s not the problem.

Remember that cultural bias against D&D I mentioned before?  It just doesn’t exist for women.  People may make assumptions about me when they find out I’m a gamer, but those same assumptions aren’t applied to female gamers.  Everytime I’ve seen a girl gamer out herself to someone who isn’t a gamer, the confession is met with confusion and a lot of questions rather than an upturned nose and an end to the conversation.  Geek culture itself is “in” right now.  When I go to the Alamo Drafthouse to see some cult movie like Evil Dead, Troma movies, or Shaw Brothers kung-fu movies; half the crowd is female.  The female gamers I know who are out?  It’s treated like a badge of honor they wear proudly, and it makes them more attractive to even non-gamer men.  So it’s not the cultural bias.

The fantasy genre itself might’ve taken some blame before three cultural milestones happened.  The three Lord of the Rings films grossed a combined $2.91 billion.  Harry Potter became the hottest selling book for adults in years.  And that was just until the Twilight series took over.  Stroll down the fantasy aisle at the bookstore sometime, almost all the authors of fantasy novels are women.  Then go look at the Romance and Mystery sections because I’m sure a few of the urban fantasy novels got put over there as well.  TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, and the ill-fated Dresden Files skew heavily into female viewership (some have even speculated that Dresden Files was canceled in part because of the large female demographic of the audience for a network full of advertising targeting the 18-35 male demographic).  You could even make a very good case that shows like Vampire Diaries, True Blood, and the Twilight films were solely made to target their loyal female viewers.  And that’s not even getting into anime fandom, which skews heavily to the female almost across the board.  So it’s not fantasy.

It’s definitely not the gaming atmosphere.  Maybe it’s my Alton Brown influenced infatuation with cooking, but if you took the D&D out of my games, it would be a dinner party.  Most of the female gamers I know even look at it this way, hitting up Whole Foods or cooking a large spread for their gaming group with everyone bringing a dish.  When I go out with my friends, we’re always inevitably talking about sci-fi or fantasy TV, movies, and books regardless of gender.  Yet only one of them is coming to my games.  And it’s not an aversion to role playing either because this same group also loves doing Murder Mystery games, which is basically just rules-light LARPing.  And they go all-out with rented costumes and everything, which is only half the effort they put into Renaissance Festival outfits.  So it’s not the gaming atmosphere.

Is it the dice?  The minis?  The character sheets?  Some leftover “D&D and Magic: The Gathering are for boys and ponies and Barbies are for girls” training from childhood?  The specific words “Dungeons and Dragons”?  I honestly don’t know.  Maybe it’s a generational thing.  My generation had too many hurdles to go through to get into gaming if you weren’t part of the club already.  Perhaps it’ll be easier for girls who are in their teens and 20s now.  Who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, the gender gap will lessen as the years go by.

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 3:00 PM  Comments (4)  
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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great article! I too hope that more girl gamers will try out DnD. One thing to think about, it’s scary to be the only girl. This is especially true when you are learning something new. So please, be kind to female noobs. They are just as scared of you as you are of them.

    • Always, Meg. I hate when I hear horror stories about gamers refusing to allow girls to play or worse, taking advantage of them. I once heard about a girl who went into a game store to buy dice as a birthday gift for her sister. The store owner charged her $20 for a set of dice. No, not the metal or stone or whatever ones that are worth that much, but a standard 7 dice set of acrylic dice from Chessex. Oh sure, you got an extra $14 from the naive little girl…but you also lost a lifetime of sales. These are the same sort of creeps that pull this crap on little kids when it comes to trading card games and comic books.

      All you should need to be welcome at any gaming table is a set of dice, a character sheet, a mini, and a good attitude. And I try to make sure I have enough of all four to share.

  2. I don’t think the conclusion was weak – I think that, like most social conundrums, there is no easy answer. I’m the Communications Coordinator for a chain of comic & game stores and I have been playing D&D for over 20 years. (I remember the days of BBS fondly, too.)

    I think some of it has to do with the portrayal of gamer girls in both traditional and social media. Gamer girls are portrayed as either incredibly hot, sexualized women who wear scanty costumes to cons and who play video games naked (or nearly so) or who have some kind of social/mental/physical issue that prevents them from being ‘normal’ girls.

    I’ve observed that men are more willing to take on social stigma than girls, because men tend to be more socially forgiving than women. I say that despite a childhood full of beatings, ostracism and social issues stemming from being a geek. I say that because even though I’m a proud (and professional) geek, the older I get, the more non-gamer/geek men are forgiving of my hobbies. That is, as long as I’m forgiving of theirs, that is.

    Most men I know have hobbies or avocations, whether it’s their cars, their boats, fishing, hunting, driving, collecting – whatever it may be, they’re willing to devote immense amounts of time, money and energy to it. The creative immersion geeks tend to go for is not foreign to them. And even if one of your buddies ends up interested in something you think is stupid, boring or otherwise worth making fun of him for – that’s the extent of it. You give him shit about it, embarrass him a bit, knowing he’ll find a way to get you back sooner or later. But you don’t stop being his friend because he suddenly has an obsession with pokemon at the age of 30. You do, however, make good and damn sure to take the mickey every chance you get.

    Most women I know work very hard to be perceived the way they believe others want them to be, because once you’re ‘out’ as a girl, it’s damn hard to get back ‘in.’

    Most of my girlfriends have been geeks or gamers before I met them. One of them was not; she was popular, pretty and very much on the edge of fashion. Her friends considered her a ‘liberated woman’ and saw her as someone to emulate.

    Then she started playing D&D with my crew and they totally changed their mind about her. Her clothes didn’t change; her attitude and interests didn’t change (aside from expanding into D&D and pulp fantasy literature). She still could have fit quite nicely with their group – but they immediately voted her off the island the moment she picked up dice and bought her first rulebook.

    When she became a gamer girl, they considered her a whole new creature, re-made and re-created as a new and undesirable person. Maybe it her hanging out and sleeping with a socially undesirable person, but I don’t think so – several of them were dating geeks (and one of them was dating a true redneck. His parents were even second cousins.)

    Maybe it was her sudden interest in imaginative creativity as opposed to the structured creativity of accessorizing or planning themed parties or – I dunno. Suddenly, she was persona non grata and there was no way for her to get back in.

    Even when she dropped gaming and geekery to try to get back in with her girls, they didn’t want her back. She had delved into forbidden mysteries and come back tainted by it.

    I don’t think there’s a lot of girls out there who want to trade their friends and social network for gaming – no matter how fun it may seem to them.

    That’s probably not always accurate (and may not be accurate at all), but it’s a theory.

    A lot of the girls I’ve watched come into gaming have done so because they were either already part of another sub-culture, so strongly established or had such strong personalities that they could get away with it or who weren’t part of a well-established group of girls (or the entire group started gaming.)

    Just my thoughts – good blog. Brought back many memories.

    ~alan m rogers

  3. I didn’t get into gaming until I was in my 40s, so I was old enough not to care what others thought about me. But I have gaming friends who are also female, and definitely fall into the smart and sexy category. And some of them are raising girls who don’t think twice about besting the boys AND being cool. Things are changing . . .

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