The Real Problem With Girls and RPGs

Ah, gender issues and roleplaying.  There’s no better way to get people to come out of the woodwork and call you sexist.  Even an innocuous question of “As a man, how can I roleplay a woman better?” on RPG Stack Exchange brings the drooling Birkenstock wearers (usually men, of course) out of the woodwork to claim sexism on the part of someone who would dare ask such a question and on anyone who would answer it. A man plays a female character?  Sexist.  Include sex in your game?  Sexist.  Have a female NPC in your game that’s weak, or strong, or hot, or ugly, or sexual, or cold? Sexist. Have a straight woman?  Sexist.  A gay woman?  Sexist. For a man, it’s always tempting to say “Hey, the age of sexism is over; we had all the women’s lib stuff and we’re all equal now, everything left is just people being politically correct because it satisfies some demented jones they have to be a twerp; probably they want to feel morally superior to someone but don’t actually have very good morals so this is all they can think of.”

The Star Wars GirlBut then I read stuff like this article about “the Star Wars girl.” As part of a Chicago Now series by a woman who adopted a little girl, she relates a story about the bullying her first grade daughter received by the little boys when she took a Star Wars water bottle to school because it’s a “boy” item.  She begged her mom to let her take a pink water bottle instead so that she’d have a “girl” one and they wouldn’t tease her.  It’s heartbreaking.  The story’s spread like wildfire and hundreds of nerd girls and other supporters have been leaving comments wishing her well.

I have a young daughter myself, and have seen this exact same syndrome. She was happy to play with whatever she wanted, until kids at school started telling her things were “boy toys” or “girl toys.”  At McDonalds with the Happy Meal, they ask you “Boy toy or girl toy?” When my daughter told me remote control cars were “boy toys” I asked her why she thought that, and she said “Well, in all the commercials it’s just boys playing with them.”  And it just gets worse from there.  She wanted to play in the coed flag football league in our neighborhood rec league.  And so she did, but it turned out she was the only girl to sign up.  And the boys on her team teased her, teased each other about having their flag pulled by a girl, or talking to a girl… She stuck out the season because I raised her right, but she told me she didn’t plan to go back. And it all makes me angry. I try to stress to her she can do anything she wants, but she gets the opposite message from so many sources.

People talk about why there’s not more women in roleplaying. Oh, it’s because there’s too much fighting in the games.  Or the color schemes aren’t pink, or because some character’s in a chainmail bikini.  Or it’s because you don’t exclusively use the right pronoun in the writing. Those things may arguably be flaws, but that’s not what’s doing it.  Women are actively hazed out of roleplaying and in fact out of many related “nerd” pursuits in general, starting in the first grade.

Some “nerd” pursuits you can at least take up and enjoy solo, like reading Harry Potter books or whatnot.  From a bullying point of view, you just have to not let on.  But roleplaying is an intrinsically social activity (like sports), which means a huge barrier to entry and opportunity for hazing.

I’ve met way more women on World of Warcraft than in all the roleplaying events I’ve ever been to put together. Is it because there’s more fluffy ponies in WoW?  No, it’s because there’s less the freaks can do to make their life miserable since it’s virtual and their gender is concealed until they explicitly state it.

And hey, some people believe in different gender roles.  I’m not saying that any gender differentiation is bad.  If you believe women shouldn’t serve in front line combat, or in a marriage they should be primarily responsible for childrearing, fine.  But should they really be made to feel bad about liking Star Wars?  Does that follow, in some bizarro logic land?

Is it a coincidence the most prominent of the very few female gaming groups out there is comprised of porn actresses?  Or is it just that it takes nearly that level of habitual “not caring what anyone else says about you” and defiance of cultural mores to be able to unabashedly enjoy roleplaying?

Anyway, if you want to worry about sexism, stop obsessing over how the color yellow subjugates women or whatever dizzy shit you say to try to look all PC.  Instead, start focusing on what you – and your kids – do to people who try to get into roleplaying, related nerdery, or anything in general really.  That’s the real place where the rubber hits the road and the majority of real sexism is being perpetrated nowadays.  I know it’s always less attractive to address real problems rather than arguing about trivia, but how about we all try?

31 responses to “The Real Problem With Girls and RPGs

  1. I’m going to say something controversial here: if you are being bullied, you should fight back. With fists if necessary.

    Yes, I realize that I am encouraging a young girl to assault people. Yes, I realize that may not be what she wants to do, and if that’s her choice, then more power to her. But the vibe I have picked up from all of these articles is that the girl feels unable to do anything about her situation except give in and bow to peer pressure to avoid being hurt, and she should be told that she has many more options than just giving in.

    Since the entire principle of bullying is based upon the stronger people putting the weaker ones “in their place,” the best defense is not to be weak anymore. The next time one of them gives her grief about her water bottle, or what she wears, or what toys she plays with, or who she is friends with, she should immediately pop him one on the jaw or kick him in the shins. She doesn’t even have to beat them up. If she is quick of wit, insults will work just as well. Either way, they will learn very quickly not to harass her.

    And if this girl were my daughter, I would reward her for this behavior, and to hell with what everyone else says. You should never, EVER, feel sorry for defending yourself.

    Just as an armed society is a polite society, an environment where you are actively encouraged to defend yourself creates fewer victims and more heroes.

  2. Oh, don’t even get me started on what a crock of shit ZT is, and how it’s basically an excuse for people to mindlessly follow guidelines rather than actually having to think and use good judgement for once.

    Seriously, we are breeding generations of cowards here.

    • Indeed, I have zero tolerance for zero tolerance. If a principal cannot make executive decisions he should not be getting paid more than the teachers. We could train a monkey to point at a sign of zero tolerance policies and would only have to pay it in bananas.

  3. It saddens me that America is still in such a state. In Australia we’ve pretty much abolished the gender divide for children. The boys toy & girls toys thing doesn’t seem to matter as much, if at all (with the rare exceptions). I suppose thats why we usually have more female players at our table then you guys seem to.

    I’m not a parent, but i am an uncle & i hope that my niece gets to grow up in a world where she can do anything she wants.


  4. OK, let me expand on my comment. You know how kids these days are killing themselves because they are gay, or have other gender issues, or otherwise don’t fit in? It’s all due to societal bullying. If we taught our kids to stand up for their right not to be harassed and to be themselves wholly and unapologetically, we wouldn’t need the whole “It gets better” thing because they’d have a decent self-image and would define their own world instead of letting the world define them.

    I would rather have to find a new school for my daughter every 6 months due to her being constantly expelled than for her to give in to pressure and kill herself before she turned 20.

    • Well said. And essentially what I told my son back when he was ten. I told him that if he did not establish with all the kids a reputation for not putting up with bully shit in the fifth grade, he would have to do it later on… of course, when you are ten, getting knocked down does not hurt, or not much.

      I encouraged him to resolve those issues while he was still young and his fists would not put another kid in the hospital – or our family in court.

      It appears to have worked, although I did have to conduct a heart-to-heart with a new principal who did not seem to understand that when you outlaw violence, only the outlaws will use it. Teachers, like the rest of us, choose the path of least resistance, so it was likely the kid bringing a knife to school would be ‘overlooked’ while the kid who fought back would be suspended. Or worse.

      He did not argue the matter except in a very roundabout way. When I pointed out that there were three other elementary schools within a mile competing for students, he faded without granting my point. My son did not get in trouble over his behavior (fighting back), but I sincerely doubt the school changed any of its tendency to metaphorically spay or neuter children before they were of an age to reason on their own.

      Disgusting, and it seems to have been in action from the mid-1950s if what I have read of CS Lewis is correct.


  5. Thanks for the very well-written post.

  6. …this is pretty much the story of my life in 1980s. Way back then, things were very much like this, and I got mercilessly bullied over it (including adults, not just other kids). I am not so sure if things have gotten better, but I would guess so — because nerd girls can bond in the Internet, and reinforce their resolve to get into the fun and ignore the jerkwads.

    On the other hand, I remained a nerd; it is possible that this was because my parental units taught me that I have the right to defend myself (plus heartily encouraged whatever thing my curiosity drove me to enjoy and study), up to using violence if the situation deems it, but I will not have the right to start a fight. But I can defend myself, and I don’t need to take their crap.

    In any case, reading about a girl bullied for liking Star Wars very much breaks my heart. 😦

  7. Cool post, and I agree with Erin. I was bullied when I was young. I fought back and cracked the guy on the jaw. Now we are bullied in many ways, by the government, by the political correctness police, and by the pencilnecks that take 101 items to the 15 or less lane and look at you with a smug expression (well, ok, I really, really tear into those people).

    Plus you said actresses instead of stars, which I personally see as the entire motivation from that camp to remain relevant. I read “the other” blog every so often and really get a chuckle at how some of those people reply. And I have received emails from people stating that they have been censored or banned from commenting on the video site. Me? I don’t care, but I do think that that camp has a certain paranoid narcissism and that not everyone likes what they do, but what you see is everyone liking what they do. I don’t care what gender they are, I think they are all a bunch of twits.

    • It’s obvious from watching I Hit It With My Axe that that group enjoys roleplaying. If your contention is that they’re pursuing RPG vlogdom as a path to fame… Really? I mean… Really? I’m pretty sure there’s a thousand other things they could be doing if they just wanted exposure. I’m happy for someone to not like porn or porn stars, but it seems to be causing you to make random completely unsubstantiated claims.

      • The episode I watched was pretty scattered and not everyone seemed to be on task, which, I will admit, happens with any group from time to time, but it won’t encourage me to watch it more. I am a bit weirded out by their “No Censorship!” attitude, which is fine, as long as you are agreeing with them. Which, incidentally is one reason why I respect your blog, you at least did not edit or delete my posts like another blog (not Zak’s) did regarding “Porngate”.

        As far as pursuing RPGvlogdom as a path to fame, Zak gets paid for hits, he has stated so, so while maybe not fame, he is making some amount of money from it. Do you? How did I make an unsubstantiated claim? I made an assumption based upon what I see. Especially when you are starting out an endeavor you don’t want to hear criticism, what better way than to silence your critics? I tell you what, I will contact those who emailed me who did not like I Hit It With My Axe and ask them to post again on that website with their views and let’s see if they get banned again. Or if this one-way censorship is all just a figment of several people’s imaginations.

  8. [i]”I’ve met way more women on World of Warcraft than in all the roleplaying events I’ve ever been to put together. Is it because there’s more fluffy ponies in WoW? No, it’s because there’s less the freaks can do to make their life miserable.”[/i]

    Other then the fact that WoW is easy, takes almost no start up capital, has no learning curve, is much more passive then roleplaying, there is also the inevitable “there are no women on the internet” paradigm combined with fact that you dont need other people around to do it. These are the main reasons why there are more female WoW players then female RPG players.

    [i]”Is it a coincidence the most prominent of the very few female gaming groups out there is comprised of porn actresses?”[/i]

    Yep purely coincidental. Same way that its a coincidence that there are more tv shows about serial killers, then about marriage & relationships, yet i doubt there are more serial killers then married people.

    If you look at say RPG podcasts instead of vlogs you’ll find that most groups have atleast 1 if not 2 female players. In the end the lack of female players has nothing to do with sexism, its all to do with what a particular audience wants & if the idea does not appeal to women it would be the hieght of stupidty to ignore your primary audeince to appeas a group with no interest in your product


    • So you don’t seem to have a coherent point here… It’s not that women get bullied out of the hobby (no matter how many have stories that they have been…) It’s what, that RPGs don’t give the female audience what they want? And that’s not in conflict with your claim that “most groups have 1-2 female players (an obviously untrue assertion)? What is it that RPGs don’t give women? There’s 1000 different games in all kinds of genres, combat heavy, combat light, high concept, low concept… Is it your contention that women can’t read, or can’t do simple math? What is it that they don’t find attractive about the hobby, except that they’re implictly and explicitly discouraged from partaking in it?

  9. @mxyzplk: No what i’m trying to say (unsuccesfully), is that theres an undertow in some D&D circles (the Astrids Parlour crowd for staters) about how the implied sexism in the artwork or the use of the word “he” in the manuals discourages women from playing… Which of course is complete bullshit.

    The reason we have less female players is just that women as a general rule prefer passive entertainment, over active entertainment (which is backed up by quite a few studies). They may also have no interest in the hobby/genre, prefering other hobbies/genres.

    None of which changed the fact that WotC folded to the demands of the squeaky wheel during 3E/3.5 & changed the term he to she for quite a few of the splat books & removed all the chainmail bikinis (which i persoanlly wasn’t opposed to lossing) & yet the demographic did not change considerably.

    The reason we have less female players has nothing to do with bullying (even though bullying is a huge issue), its just a lack of appeal to a particular audience.


    • Yeah… That’s something people tell themselves so they don’t have to face the real reasons. “They just don’t like it.” They’ve been conditioned to not like it, just like in the article that started all this demonstrates. Its quite unsurprising to me that in a culture that tries to enforce an active/passive male/female dichotomy, that we “find” that more women engage in passive pursuits. It’s no more credible than slavery era claims that blacks were just plain suited to being slaves – why look, most of them are, and most of them aren’t fighting against it! Why, many are content with their lot! Quod erat demonstrandum!

  10. I’m not saying all women prefer passive hobbies, i’m saying that as a general rule it seems to be the case (with scientific studies backing it up). Even among people with an interest in the genre, they may not have an interest in RPG’s (i know a lot of people in that category).

    I think that it might be more of an issue in America, but i can’t say for sure as i’m Australian… However here the whole gender thing is not much of an issue. Almost all our games have at least 2 females in the group, so none of us act like dicks about it (also due to the slightly more progressive schooling our country has. For instance most schools dont have seperate Physical Education classess anymore) .

    Now i dont disagree that bullying is a major issue, but i dont see any connection between lack of female players in the games you have played in & school yard bullying.

    Just to show how much of a cultural thing it is, i’d put the ratio of men to women at local conventions at about 60/40 (in favour of men). So i think we may both being approaching the paradigm from a different observational bias.


  11. Also after rereading the linked article, i’m wondering if its about bullying at all. Sounds more like the young girl was aware that she was different & she wanted to fit in with the girls & the water bottle was the one thing she had control over.

    • You are correct with a point you’re not trying to make, which is that this kind of bullying exists because some people look at it through a prism of “well, that’s their *choice*! They wanted it.” It’s hard to express how dementedly evil that is. Perhaps one day you’ll have a daughter, and hold her as she weeps bitterly about being pushed out of playing soccer in the schoolyard or trading Pokemon cards at day care by boys because “she’s a girl.” I certainly have. In the meantime, I’ll make myself feel better just by calling you a fucking dickhead. Nothing personal.

      • Sure, nothing personal 😉 . Its true i’m not a father & i dont condone bullying. But that doesn’t change the fact that your above post had nothing to do with the original point, nor any of the points that came off of it.
        The raised points seem to have been:
        1. A link between bullying & there being less females who enjoy RPG’s
        2. Girls are bullied to not like boy things
        3. Being Bullied sucks

        to which my answers would be

        1. There is no way that i can see to link bullying & girls not wanting to play RPG’s… Unless of course you mean that they became so afraid of all human contact that they now shy away from it, completely.
        2. Bullying rarely changes someones interests/loves, they just refuse to share them with other people who dont hold the same interests (in fact it usually intensifies that interest, as its now forboden). Now this is not the same as conditioning someone to like or dislike a thing which can be a very real problem in public & private schools.
        3. Sure does & while i dont condone initiating violence, i am all for someone being able to defend themself from bullies (A good punch to the face is usually all a bully needs to recieve to understand that that person is not an easy target)

        Now i get that you may be overly sensitive to the bullying situation, however i’m not. To me its nothing but an interesting social paradigm, worthy of looking at objectively (damn vulcan lineage). Maybe that sounds a little cold & it is, but its also very analytical.

        However if you actualy reread the article you linked & you skip the initial mention of bullying, it doesn’t sound like a bullying case at all. It sounds like the young girl in question is trying very hard to fit in, more so then most girls because she is aware that she is “different” from the other girls in many ways (& it also sounds like the parents are a little sensitive to bullying as well).


        • They’re not mutually exclusive. She was bullied by the boys into wanting to conform with the girls, so as not to be singled out. That’s not a happy elective choice, that’s institutional discrimination. Your “analysis” is flawed in that these things are ABOUT people’s emotions and feelings and their real result on the world; failing to understand that, you see this as just an “interesting paradigm.” For every one person who actively discriminates against someone, there’s ten like you that happily stand by in your “dispassion,” and in so doing still enable change for the worse in the world.

          • “They’re not mutually exclusive. She was bullied by the boys into wanting to conform with the girls”

            I’m not saying your lying, i’m just saying i’m not seeing where that is written. It might have been the case, but as written i’m not seeing it. You’re given an impression by a parent, but the parent no more knows how it went down then we the readers do. Young kids are not great at giving information & parents are by there nature over protective.

            As for standing by and letting bullying happen, i’m opposed to that too: When i see someone bullying someone else i’ll stop it. However
            what we are currently doing is sitting here discussing the results of bullying, a completely passive, analytical discussion. In the field emotions can help, in an intelligent discussion where no one around us is actively being bullied emotionilizing the issue does not help the discussion.

            Essentially it comes down to the difference between Empathy & Sympathy. I feel empathy for this fictional little girls predicament (& at this point she is purely fictional, here intrinsic character being only in narrative form). I feel empathy because i would hate to be in that situation, or have someone i know in that situation.

            I cannot feel sympathy for her, however because i don’t know her as an actual person (though i am aware that the mathematical odds of her being an actual person are about 50/50).

            The reason you want to stay empathetic & analytical when considering something like bullying, is so you can learn to defuse its power, rather then just legilating against it, as has happened in schools over the years: Already someone has brought up the fact that someone who is getting bullied and fights back would probably be suspended, where as the bully wouldn’t. Thats exactly what happens when emotional people legilate rules they think protect people.


  12. Hi there! I know I’m late to the party, but I wanted to say that I appreciated your post. I agree that while there are a lot of little things RPG companies could do to make their products more female friendly/inclusive, our culture at large is the primary problem.

    I also wanted to say that Matthew Lane’s whole “girls only like passive entertainment and that’s why they’ll never like rpgs” is crazy talk. (Seriously? Passive entertainment? What does that even mean?) Geeky gals who feel unwelcome in tabletop communities (for whatever reason) don’t necessarily lose their love of roleplaying–they just find different outlets, as the massive amount of RP communities on places such as Livejournal show.

    • Passive versus Active is actually not nearly as sexist as it sounds. What it boils down to is this
      Passive = Consumer
      Active = Creator.

      So WoW is a passive hobby, as you aren’t really creating anything, where as an RPG is considered an active hobby within the Geeky subset (as it involves a whole lot more construction & thought). So if you look closely what i’m actually saying is that the percentage of women with an interest in S&S who fall into the passive side of the equation are more likely to be the same ones who prefer WoW over table top gaming (which is only one of the reasons this preference for MMO over PnP exists).

      There are actually studies that show that women prefer to passive hobbies over the more active hobbies in all aspects of leisure (of course these same studies also show a sliding scale, not a binary yes/no response).

      As for RPG’s being more inclusive, i’m really not so sure how that would encourage women to play. Heck i’m not even sure thats something the industry should aim for. Other then the fact that when it was attempted in 3E, it made no difference to the numbers of female players (which stuck at about 24% according to a survey that WotC had up on there web site at one point), it would come off as pandering to the female audience who already likes the product lines.

      Thing is, if a potential female gamer has an interest in playing a Sword and Sorcery RPG they will seek it out (if its D&D or something else that depends on a lot of things), if they don’t then you could replace every illustration in every book with a cute kitten & replace every single usage of he with she & they still wouldn’t pick up even the core books.

      Companies should focus on producing a good propduct that does what it sets out to do, as pandering to everyone else is essentially pointless… It pretty much boils down to that old saying: “You can please some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”

      p.s As for there being a lot of online RPG communities this is true, but once again alot of that falls into passive entertainment (consumption of the information, rather then the creation) & what doesn’t fall into that category represents the female players who are more active… Some of whom, i have no doubt i’ve had the pleasure of gaming with in the past & can only hope to game with again.


      • and as a side note, i would also assume that more men play WoW then D&D too. I’d be interested to see if the percentage of men to women who played WoW, was similiar to the percentage of men to women who play D&D.

        I’d be legitimately interested if anyone had some numbers.

  13. sorry but thats bullshit – I don’t know where you found your data but from personal experience I vouch that far more girls are into creative ways of having fun (hobbys like making jewlry and other stuff, cooking etc..) than passively sitting at the computer playing games (which is something most guys like to do).

    • Creative hobbies are not the same as active hobbies, on this scale. I’m also going to assume you missed the part where i said its not a binary yes/no thing but a sliding scale (with each hobby being judged seperatly & each person placing at different places along the scale). Thats alright, it was buried pretty deeply. 🙂

      Also depending on what kind of jewelery making your talking about depends on if it fits into the passive or active side of the scale. If you are talking about learning to craft actual jewlery (learning the fine art of gem crafting & fine metal work) thats further towards the active side, however if you are talking about the threading of beads onto a pieace of string that goes on the passive side of the scale.

      Having said that, i’ll point out again that is only one reason why women may not be interested in the hobby & not even a major one. A general disinterest in the hobby & misconceptions about the people who play it are much more likely.


      • What you’re missing are all the stories (go check out the thousands of people chiming on on the Star Wars Girl thread) from actual women who have similarly been bullied out of something (sually nerd hobbies, as that’s the topic at hand) by people exactly like you, who are full of their preconceptions about what women should prefer. “Active hobbies are for boys!” You’re doing the exact same thing, and trying to justify it by acting pseudoscientific; that is no more credible than the eugenicists of the early 20th century doing the same about race.

        Your claims are exactly equal to a 1950’s era “Studies show black folks like sitting in the back of the bus. Why, over 80% of them do! It’s because they prefer a more passive transportation experience. It’s their choice that they’re not all driving around in cars like white folks.”

        Statistics (not that you actually have any, you’re presenting opinion as numbers) plus lack of insight equals perpetuation.

        I’m going to stop responding to you now, because the more long justifications you write, the more sexist drivel there is on my blog for future generations of Google to direct people to.

        • dude, you’ve taken the active/passive hobby thing & i dont think you quite understand it. Its not saying that a girl can’t do a thing because numbers say so. It only says that women usually prefer hobbies where they are consumers rather then creators & theres nothing wrong with that. Reading a book is a passive hobby, watching a movie is a passive hobby, there are many great passive hobbies & in exactly the same way that this concept doesn’t say that women can’t do active hobbies, it also doesn’t say that men dont enjoy passive hobbies.

          These numbers dont say women can’t do a thing, they just say that the majority choose hobbies that are passive, over hobbies that are active as a personal choice.

          As for the other page having a lot of stories about girls who got picked on for possession of a geeky item, so what, thats not a sexism thing. Young boys also get picked on for possessing geeky objects. Dont ever assume that something must be sexism just because gender is involved.


          p.s your analogue also doesn’t quite work. Racism in the context you are talking about removed choice from black people, the passive/active scale does not. All the scale does is grade where ones interests are more likely to be on that scale. As a measuring scale it can’t possibly be used to be divisive.

  14. If Bullied, you must fight back otherwse word gets out that you are a ‘soft touch’ but if you hiyt back, then the same word get back out that you are not.

    There is one other thing you can do: I had a friend in one of the ‘bullies’ – I helped him out of a scrape and he them made me ‘untouchable’.

    (I did his homework in 30mins before lessons)

    D&D teaches one many things – One of them is that there are many ways to acheive your goal… Outthink them! Bullies are inherently stupid and cowards

    Good luck and feelings to all those who have been and will suffer these low-lives!!

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