Gender and Gaming

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 19 April 2010

Yesterday, one of my gaming friends pointed me to an interesting series of posts on a meetup group forum. He told me how a woman posted that she was looking to start a gaming group made exclusively of women and/or homosexuals. The overall response was less than positive with people confusing comfort with maturity. To be honest, I've thought of trying to do a girl's only session myself but haven't tried partly because I'm worried about a similar reaction.

First, a little background. At least 75% of my friends are male. I've always enjoyed doing activities that are seen as boyish: playing sports, spending hours outdoors, woodworking, etc. When I was in middle school, the joke among the adults was that if you ever needed to find me, just look for the large group of boys, I would be in the middle. (I'm still not entirely sure what that means.) So being around a group of guys is second nature to me at this point.

One might think that, given all that experience of just being one of the guys, I would be perfectly at home in all male gaming groups. Unfortunately, that's not entirely true. If I know the guys really well, like my current group, I feel comfortable and am willing to rib and joke with the best of them. For instance, I knew that I would be fine gaming with my regular group when I was willing to joke back about strippers. And one of the things that made me feel comfortable the night we played at Asgard was that I quickly discussed with one of the guys at the table whether or not to cock block one of my players. Those exchanges signaled to me that I was seen as a peer and instantly made a bunch of my anxiety go away.

When I don't feel that levelness, it's really hard for me to game. Gender roles and politics come into play, if only in my own head. I worry about seeming bossy or bitchy or stupid. In terms of decision making, I defer to the guys until I get more comfortable with the group. In addition, I get really quiet and focus on things that are "safe" like tactics. The guys often go through a similar feeling out period. There are fewer swear words and jokes and, to me at least, there is a sense of tension.

While these sorts of things happen in every gaming group, to me they feel amplified by the gender dynamics. That uneasiness sometimes makes me wish I could find a group where I would not have to worry about gender roles. The maturity of the group isn't really the issue, but rather the whole list of things I have to worry about in mixed group situations. Sometimes I want to bypass the whole issue and just be myself right away. I don't want to worry that I'm not fitting into some neat little stereotype of how a woman is supposed to act or talk or that my character's exploits are going to get me a reputation. The thought of gaming with fellow women just seems...simpler.

Obviously, I don't speak for all women. I just wanted to share some of what goes on in my mind when I play in case someone finds it useful. In the end, I love playing with guys and I don't think that's going to change any time soon.


It seems like it's easy to get branded either a bitch or a slut when you're a girl, and just doing or saying the same things the guys are! I feel for you, it's my situation, too.

I don't think I'd be comfortable in a group of all girls though.

seconded, seconded, seconded.

Basically all my friends are guys and we're totally cool. But the guys in my CompSci classes who only sort of know me write me off as a total b-word (why never a "jerk"? always the b-word?) and some even refused to be on my team in Software Engineering... btw I am a senior in Computer Science (two weeks from graduating) and have taken every single class in the major, the only current senior who's done so! You think they'd be hopping eager to be on my team!... but no-one wants to have a girl for a boss, haha.

And I also wouldn't want to hang out with an all-girls group, just my personal feeling.

Huh. I, too, am a graduating CS major, and usually the only or one of the only girls in my class. All the guys pretty much acknowledge that I'm smarter than them. None of them seem to have a problem with (or have really noticed) my gender.

I can't speak to gender issues much, but I do think group chemistry is critical and can make or break a game. I would never fault someone for looking for a group of players who can work together comfortably. That said, gender can be a lead in, but it is no guarantee that it will work. My group has had all men and mixed sexes over the years and the most disruption we ever had was when we were all men, but the men didn't play with the same expectations of what the game was or how to behave. There are all kinds of things that go into a perfect gaming group, gender can be one of them, but don't expect it to be a magic win button.

Thanks for the interesting post!

What will make it easier about being with all women? I hear what you are saying about what makes it hard to game with mostly guys, but does that automatically go away with a group of all women?

Imagine if you were going to run a game with a group of women, none of which you know very well. Would all of the gender based stuff go away completely, or would there a similar feeling-out period with regards to the attitudes and beliefs of the other women that may be somewhat gender based?

My fiancee tells me that women have rules regarding what constitutes appropriate behavior among women just as guys do...

I wonder if the gender based pressures and perceptions would go away or just change?

Don't get me wrong, I totally believe that there is sexism and that you are treated differently due to your gender, at least by those that don't know you very well.

DMSamuel brings up an interesting point. I've been told by nearly every woman I know that a group of women can be catty and judgemental towards each other. Thus, would an all-girl gaming group really avoid any gender issues or just make them be slightly different gender issues. To be honest, as described above, the real issue appears to be the iniation period, when you're still unknown to the other players and they don't don't know you or what's okay to do or say around you. Wouldn't that happen in any group, be it all male, all female or mixed?

Furthermore, if the real issue is ingendered (pun intended!) :-) by a lack of group familiarity, then doesn't that mean that this "issue" will always be inherently short-lived? After all, once everyone gets to know one another, then the social tension should lessen. If all this is true, then I can't help but wonder at the logicc of avoiding a gender or seeking an alternate gender group dynamic simply to avoid a minor and guarenteed temporary inital ackwardness... Seems like there's more to lose than gain.

Were the motivation simply a desire to have a 'girls night' style of group where one could act as "girly" (whatever that means) as you wanted to without worrying about any snickering, eye rolling or comments from the (male) peanut gallery, then I could see this as a more legitimate reason. Could this be the true reason behids such desires?

Ultimately, such beliefs about gender issues and external (and unstated) perceptions people may or may not have of you are things that we face every day in every situation, at work, school, or the grocery store. Avoiding them doesn't really change the base problem. So long as we apply unrealistic gender roles to each other or continue to assume that others' are applying such expectations upon us, then this issue will continue ot occur. While it might sound trite or idealistic, how nice would it be if any group of people were just that - a group of people, not men and women, catholics and jews, young and old, white and black, rich and poor, or any of the other external and artificial distinctions we use to segegrate each other.

First, thanks for the great comments! I know my points were a little muddled, in part because I was really scared about writing this post. On one hand, I really and truly want to pass off the issues I've had in mostly male groups (not all gaming) as just getting used to each other but the truth is it goes a bit deeper than that. If we're being completely honest and frank, there is often a lot more going on when people of the attracting gender get together than when it's a group of people with no possible romantic interest in each other. We are socialized to act a certain way around those people and it's a really hard habit to overcome. I've had guys I work with refuse to let me buy a round of drinks even though it's my turn. In fact, on Friday I went out with a bunch of guy friends from work. They were passing around a text message from a mutual third friend that was, well, very guy. When it came to passing it to me, they made the comment, "Just to be sure, we're not at work right?" There was nothing wrong with it except that it pointed out that I was different. And not all of the problems I've had gaming were unstated. I've been told by some guys in the past that since I'm married, they're really not comfortable having a one-to-one friendship with me.

While I would love for those problems to go away because, well, they've created a lot of heartache and trauma for me, I think it's telling that Viriatha zeroed in on my big issue. The problems for me aren't the initial feeling each other out phase, it's the ongoing suppression of a large part of who I am because it might make the guys at the table uncomfortable to think of me a certain way. Fortunately, my current group is freaking awesome and I don't worry about it too much. But it does make me wonder from time to time if I could find the gaming group version of the women in Sex and the City. I guess what I'm trying to say is that while I'm willing to fight the good fight for gender equality, sometimes I just want to play and not worry if I'm being too flirty or too frigid. :-)

Good post. I tend to think of people as people. Everything else is secondary. I tend to be quiet when getting to know people, because I believe heartily in the Mark Twain quotation: "It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

The only time in my life where I felt like I was suppressing my sense of self was when my marriage was ending. I felt like there was something fundamentally wrong with me, and if I changed who I was... maybe I could fix things. I have never been more miserable. Once some time had passed and I had cleared my head, I realized that I have to be happy with who I am, and not be something for someone else. I refuse to suppress my nature anymore, but I am also a grumpy old bastard. ;)

As far as your co-workers go, I would give them the benefit of the doubt. Sexual harassment has been smashed so deep down people's throats that they have to question every word they say to anyone of the opposite sex. Sexual harassment is a terrible thing, but the media that Human Resource departments beat you over the heads with feature examples designed to discourage discussion of anything that isn't directly work related. I don't want anyone to have to deal with harassment, but I wish there was a way that didn't involve making people feel like criminals if they want to tell a co-worker they like that new haircut. We need to deal with harassment in a way that deemphasizes gender, rather than making people more uncomfortable with the opposite sex. There is enough discomfort between genders without engineering more.

As far as gaming goes, I like to play with as many different types of people as I can. Everyone brings a unique point of view to a game. I am fascinated by seeing people solve problems in a way I would not have considered. None of us have all of the pieces to the puzzle, but in listening to the solutions of others we can discover things that can shift our perspective.

That is a worthy goal for any of us.

[Note: I hope I made sense here, because the spam filter thinks I could be spam. I think I am quite put out with said filter, but there is always the chance it could be right.]

Regarding my co-workers, I totally agree. I'm not upset at them or anything as I totally realize why it happened. But it is a good illustration because we've known each other for about 5 years now. Personally, I don't think I would want my normal group to be filled with just women or, really, just one kind of person, because, like you, I love seeing how others solve problems.

Oh, I see what you mean, to quote what I consider the most telling part of your reply:

"The problems for me aren't the initial feeling each other out phase, it's the ongoing suppression of a large part of who I am because it might make the guys at the table uncomfortable to think of me a certain way."

So here is a lesson that it took me, literally, about 33 years to learn:

Do not, under any circumstances, suppress who you are.

No matter what. No matter how others may react. If they cannot deal with the real you, then they can make the decision to not be around you in life. Regardless of what your socialization is telling you, do not subvert yourself for the benefit of others. I know it sounds simplistic, but it is true.

You will be amazed at how many people respond to you more authentically once they figure out that you are the real deal.

Of course, some people will also be upset, but they don't matter in the long run anyway.


Thanks! Yeah, it's taken me awhile too, but I'm starting to peek out as you probably can tell from my posts and twitter :-) By the way, it was great gaming with you Saturday and the chat afterwards was fantastic!

Yep - I can tell. It's good to come out of your shell.

Oh yes - I had a great time too! The day we had exemplifies what I love about role-playing games and gamers. It makes me wish I lived closer to you.

I could do with one of those chats on a regular basis!



I have sometimes been interested in playing with an all-girl group, but not because I thought it would be any better than playing with guys, but because I am interested in how it would be different. That's one of the reasons I like watching "I Hit It With My Axe"-politics and morals aside, it's interesting to see how a primarily female group approaches problem solving and adventuring in DnD.

The way gender affects our attitudes and perceptions is often insiduous-it'd be nice to have non-gendered interactions, but would mean re-writing the whole of human society. However, it's one of the reasons I enjoy twitter (and blogging)--you run into the least amount of gender discrimination because for the most part people simply aren't aware of your gender.

However, if a person thinks the solution to gendered interactions is to interact only with people of the same gender / attraction, they're going to be sorely disappointed in the result. If you want to deal with people on an equal basis, you first have to deal with them. Sitting around wishing things were different will change nothing.

So, to be brassy and bossy and opinionated, I'd say the best way to handle gendered responses is to acknowledge them, and refuse to let them inform how you should behave. Otherwise the nazis / aliens / decepticons win.

I once ran the same mini-campaign for two different groups. By complete coincidence, one was all guys and the other was all girls.

Start of first session: the guys quickly establish nicknames for each other's characters and then get down to business. The girls' characters spend twenty minutes hitting on each other.

First mission: The girls come up with an incredibly elaborate assassination plan that goes horribly awry in a rather foreseeable way. There are many innocent casualties. The guys wait until their target comes to get his car out of the parking garage, then kill him in two rounds. No one sees them.

Both campaigns trailed off around then due to time constraints. I don't think the whole thing is especially representative of how guys or girls game, but I did and still do find the differences hilarious.

I've gamed in plenty of all male (save for me) and all-female groups, and a couple of mixed ones. The only real difference I've noticed is that the more girls, the more emotionally scarring things happen to people's characters.

While I can't comment on the all-girl group, my current D&D game is all gays, my boyfriend and 2 lesbian couples. I have been playing for years, both in college and after and I was really interested to note that the same dynamic developed with this new group (who are all newbies to role-playing) that was in my groups for gaming friends from college. I've got a thinker, a planner, a diplomat, a combat monster, and a munchkin. The only thing I see as being different for my group than a mostly straight one is that the hooking up with barmaids/stable boys, etc. is same sex too. Otherwise the games have been much the same.

I think that if my group were mixed with some more typical gamers (at least the ones I know from college) there would be a lot of uncomfortableness, but as it is, I've seen very little difference between these two groups for me.

It never fails to fascinate me how gender, gender roles, and such can become an issue. As another commenter said, "I tend to think of people as people." I've games with men and women, straight, gay, bisexual, transgendered...honestly, all I've ever wanted was for them to come play a game. If they're into roleplaying, basically know the rules, and are dependable to show up on time, then I'm generally 100% fine with whatever gender and orientation they might be.

Now, if they're obnoxious, it doesn't matter to me what gender/orientation we're dealing with. They're going bye-bye, if I'm the DM. ;)

- Andy

For my part, I actively try to recruit female players because I can't abide guys playing female characters, and yet I like female characters to populate my games (just as I like weel-written female characters in movies, tv, etc.).

And I've really seen no difference in terms of gaming ability based on gender. There is a difference in interests, but that transcends gender. I like social interaction and comedy, while I like dice rolling and rules-gaming a lot less, but I agree most male gamers are probably more combat-oriented, while female gamers might be more interaction-oriented.

As a GameMaster, it's my job to mix both so that all players get what they came for.

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