Women in Board Gaming and Tabletop: a Personal Perspective

As a video gamer and long time DND player, I'm accustomed to being a part of communities that weren't made for me. I've long argued that the lack of female perspective in gaming isn't indicative of inherent sexism, but rather market share -- and that the industry will change over time as women continue purchasing and engaging. But none of that purchasing and engagement happens if we don't all work together, understand each other's perspectives, and show compassion -- and even as a woman I can struggle with that. 

When Sexism is Subtle, It's Hard to Grasp -- For All of Us

In video games, the sexism is more clear and in your face: it's hard to play as a woman online without being immediately sexually harassed. But, of course, men sexually harass each other in games all the time -- because they don't view each other as legitimate threats, it doesn't carry the same weight. Toxicity is kind of a hallmark of video gaming. It's a part of the community we've been struggling with for some time. Women get dick pics in their inboxes, I'm told (it's truthfully never happened to me), but men get swatted. So there are raw deals at both sides of the spectrum and very real problems we need to fix. 

A couple of months ago (or perhaps a month ago, in internet time), there was a discussion about sexism in the board game community. And though I wanted to say something at that point, I didn't feel that my perspective would be interesting or useful. In fact, it may have even been combative, and it may have sent the wrong message. The problem is that, as a woman, I've never particularly experienced sexism in board gaming. That's not to say that it doesn't happen, but particularly, that it's never happened to me. 

Does that mean I've never encountered a creep? Of course not. It doesn't even mean that I've never been sexually harassed at a board game event, because I have been, once or twice. But upon honest reflection, the amount of incidents I've had in the board game community are fewer than the incidents I've had just living my life doing other things, and the incidents I've encountered had nothing to do with board gaming itself. They weren't even board gamers, but rather newbies to the community, so it wasn't sexism in board gaming, it was sexism in reality. 

All of this required that I reflect on why my experience was different and what we could do to make that a more universal thing.

Be the Change You Want to See in the World

As a background, I run a fairly large board gaming group, and I hang out at board gaming events likely three times a week. I've been to major events like GenCon. My perspective isn't the only perspective, but it is a perspective.

I live in a bubble to a certain degree. Though my group is open to newbies, it is also half female and half minority. Someone walking into my board game group isn't going to feel as comfortable being sexist as walking into a "boy's club." And someone being sexist or just generally obnoxious wouldn't last long. In fact, I suspect the fact that the group is run by a woman minority is enough to drive anyone sexist off quite early. 

My friends and I have created an open group of gamers that would not tolerate that kind of environment, and I think that's something that's important. We can discuss whether gaming is sexist all we want, but until we make a difference, it doesn't matter. If the groups in your area are sexist, well, fuck them. Start your own group, tolerate nothing, and fight back through the love of the game.

I know that's easier said than done. But it starts with surrounding yourself with the right people: with people who understand the issues at hand and are willing to fight for you. It starts with building the right people up and tearing the wrong people down. So many women shared stories about being introduced to a board gaming event and being insulted, degraded, ignored, or harassed. But no one that I game with would be so tonedeaf as to take a woman to an event like that in the first place. This is a problem that we can fix: we have the power to make these choices. 

The reality is that we can't keep saying: this is a problem, and you need to fix it. If we want anything done, we need to instead say: this is a problem and I am going to fix it

And I have to say that as a whole, the board gaming community is one of the most inclusive that I've encountered -- certainly more than the traditional RPing community. Numerous manuals have now come out with the "she" pronoun as default, developers are being conscientious about their art choices, and there are even games out there that have only female heroes. 

The Real "Problem" in the Board Gaming Community

When I think of a sexism problem in board gaming, I don't think of players and I don't think of men. When I think of sexism in board gaming, I wonder why there aren't more developers who are female -- the same thing I wonder about the video gaming industry. Because really, if we want to forge a new path, we need to lead. We can't just be consumers, scrutinizing the creations of others: we need to be stakeholders. 

Again, my group is about half female and half male, but nearly every man has declared interest in creating a game, and no woman has. Not a single one. If you go to a free play day, half of the people there are women. If you go to a game developer's day, none of them are. 

I have some theories, but they're just theories. Women are sparse on the covers of games. It's easy to see game development as something that isn't for you, when you aren't represented. There are so few games that have been developed by women that it's easy to imagine the uphill battle that it would represent, and really, I can't say that it wouldn't be a battle. Something like game development is already so risky that adding another factor, such as being a visible minority, can only discourage people.

But I'd also say this has something to do with the social role that women in our society are forced to play. Women are generally supposed to be shier and more retiring, they aren't supposed to be confident or bold about their accomplishments. Creating something that has to be both entertaining and logically dense is a terrifying thing: it's something you need a certain amount of hubris to do. And it may be that for women in our society, this kind of hubris isn't rewarded.

There may also be something going on that's a little less diabolical: women are also, generally, more social. It's hard to argue that game development doesn't require you to spend hours upon hours alone in a room fretting over your creation. Men are more likely to engage in hobbies that involve a great deal of time spent alone, whereas women are generally encouraged to keep up some level of balance. Is this nature? Is it nurture? The two are so intrinsically linked it may be impossible to say.

Game development is also naturally filled with conflict, and most women are taught to be conflict averse. I've both given my own constructive criticism and listened to the criticism of others: it's brutal. I wonder if, as a woman, given that kind of criticism, I might not wonder if it was because I was a woman, rather than the fact that the hobby itself is quite blunt. People are going to tell you that your game is identical to another game, that it isn't fun, and that it just doesn't work. Again, as women, we are strongly disinclined to advocate for ourselves the way that a man would.

All of these things, or none of them, could be factors. I can raise questions but I certainly can't answer them, not when the issue is something this complex.

The Death of Discourse

Now that I've talked about the board gaming industry, I need to address a larger problem: the death of discourse in our society. As I mentioned at the start of this, I didn't want to say anything about this topic. And that had nothing to do with the board gaming industry, and everything to do with the broader spectrum social dynamics and gender dynamics involved.

On the one hand, I'm afraid to share my personal experience: I'm afraid that women will take it as an affront that I've never personally experienced the type of sexual harassment they describe. I'm afraid that women will think that I am belittling their own experiences, or saying that they didn't happen -- which I am absolutely not, far from it. Breaking ranks is never easy, and I don't intend to do it, but I can see how it might be perceived as such. Whether you've experienced sexism yourself, it's hard to argue that it isn't being experienced by others. 

On the other hand, I'm afraid to get involved with the topic at all. I'm afraid that men will see it as a personal attack on a hobby that is still predominantly male, even if my personal group tends to have a 50/50 split. I'm afraid that men will see this as just another sequence of continued microaggressions upon them and the way that they want to enjoy an industry that, I'm certain, at least some of them feel that they built and therefore they have earned. Whether you see the sexism here or not, it's hard to argue that men aren't being told what they should or shouldn't do constantly right now. 

On the gripping hand, I'm aware that we've fostered a reactionary, polarized society that is going to react negatively to anything, and it really doesn't matter what I say or I don't say. I've seen Reddit threads about newborn kittens quickly degenerate into name-calling and threats. One way or another, you'll make someone angry. All you can do is hope they'll be the right ones.

I think there's a lot there for everyone in the board gaming community, and I do think there are some issues that we need to address. I also think that the largest problem comes when we write from outside the community: when we disempower ourselves to make a difference. Is it our responsibility to change the world around us? I'd say yes, absolutely. It's our responsibility not to society, but to ourselves, to our friends, and to the people who will come after.