Are there any girls there?

Inspired by the release of the latest edition of Dungeons and Dragons, the New York Times recently published an article by Somerville resident Ethan Gilsdorf on how role playing has influenced a generation of writers.

While the article manages to quote two women – I assume they have a quota – the analysis does seem to leave something out. Consider Gilsdorf’s list of impressive people who were inspired by gaming:

China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (“Geography Club”); Cory DoctorowSherman AlexieStephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin (“A Song of Ice and Fire”); Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”); Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

Oh, that’s right. They’re all dudes.

That annoys me enough to put aside for the moment that the article argues it’s okay to be a nerdy freak when you’re younger because you might still grow up to be a productive member of society. (Everyone but George R. R. Martin is identified as a “former” gamer, apparently having grown out of the scandalous habit.)

I’m not really surprised no impressive women are listed as having been influenced by gaming. After all, we all know that the female gamer is a myth – like unicorns, griffins, or honest politicians.

But really…are there female gamers? Well, yes, the population is definitely greater than zero, but beyond that it’s shockingly difficult to answer with any accuracy.

Since the video game industry rakes in $15 billion annually, they have the most reliable data when it comes to consumer analysis. A 2013 study from the Entertainment Software Association found the population of video/online gamers is close to equal by gender, 55% men and 45% women.

Unfortunately, numbers for tabletop games (eg, board games, card games, and role playing games) are harder to discern. The most rigorous study – conducted by Wizards of the Coast way back in 1999 – found women make up 19% of monthly players. “This represents a total population of several million active female hobby gamers,” Wizards adds.

Unlike the Wizards study, which was conducted with a random sample representative of the U.S. population, more recent studies have relied on recruitment through online gaming forums. This sampling bias has almost certainly skewed their results. Consider, for example, a 2010 user poll from Board Game Geek which found tabletop gaming to be virtually entirely male (94.4%).

It is, perhaps, not surprising that forum-based survey data would reveal a higher percentage of men than a random sample. Among the gaming community, it’s generally believed that female gamers are like air – they exist, but you never see them.

Presumably this is because the gaming community is notoriously misogynistic. A point, of course, most eloquently captured in the classic Dead Alewives Dungeons and Dragons sketch:

“Are there any girls there? Because if there are I want to do them!”

But, misogyny aside, it seems clear that somewhere between 5%-45% of the gaming population is female. With the Wizards study estimating that 2.25 million people play monthly, even conservative estimates would indicate a not insignificant number of female gamers in the country.

Surely, some of them must have been inspired by this experience?

Jennifer Grouling, Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University, is one of the foremost (or few) scholars of gaming. As she describes, her book, The Creation of Narrative in Table-top Role-Playing Games, “examines issues of narrative development and co-authorship in face-to-face role-playing games.”

One might infer that role playing has been a creative inspiration for her, but since personal development is not the focus of her scholarship, Grouling doesn’t really describe this dimension for any of her fellow players, much less herself.

Google searches for “women influenced by gaming,” “women influenced by tabletop games,” or “women influenced by D&D” yield disappointing results. (Did you mean, women who influenced history?)

Female gamers may exist mathematically, but they don’t exist as part of the narrative.

With a little digging, one can find lists of female video game designers, which is a good start, but still not what I’m looking for.

On the whole of the Internet, I managed to find one blog post from writer Freya Robertson discussing how gaming (video and tabletop) influenced her work. One post.

One post!

I know I shouldn’t be surprised – as the narrative of the original New York Times article indicates, while the gaming community as a whole has received more mainstream acceptance, it still exists on the fringes of the norm.

It’s not uncommon to hear people “admit” to being a gamer, or perhaps, to being a “former gamer. You know, when I was younger…” or my personal favorite, “…I tried that once…(but I didn’t inhale?).”

Google searches on “people influenced by gaming” and variations thereof, results in the New York Times article followed by…a smattering of debate on whether video games make you violent.

So it’s clear that gamers as a whole are still fighting to shake off that stereotype of the socially-inept, never-getting-any, teenage boy living in his parents basement. The community as a whole is still fighting for respect.

And when you’re fighting for respect, it’s easy to forget that your community has many sub-communities. That it’s not just about making male gamers an acceptable norm.

It’s about showing that we are a rich community of thoughtful, diverse people who dare to explore, engage, and create. That no matter who you are, gaming is not something to be ashamed of – in fact, it’s something to be proud of. And it’s about being a community where no matter who you are or what you’re into,  you can be yourself and find acceptance.

It’s about fighting together and demanding respect for all of us.

After all, female gamers are like global warming – real and undeniable.

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7 thoughts on “Are there any girls there?

  1. Spiralbound

    A thought provoking article which exposes an interesting dynamic. You searched online and found almost no female gamers talking about being female gamers. I know of many female tabletop gamers, have several in my gaming group, and am even married to one. However, NONE of these female gamers will ever appear in any online survey or search results. Why not?

    It isn’t due to the misogynistic nature of the gaming community. (Which i do agree does exist) Instead, it is because while these women do enjoy gaming, they don’t have any interest in partaking in such activities as rpg blogs or forums. Not driven away, but simply uninterested. They love to play, but couldn’t care less about talking about playing.

    How largely does this dynamic apply to women gamers outside of the few I personally know? Who knows, it’s understandingly difficult to measure an absent group. If this is a reoccuring trend though it may be an additional factor for the under representation of women gamers online.

    Reply
  2. Shan

    It makes me think about so many things that annoys me…

    I’m a gamer (rpg and videogames as well), I’ve been gaming since I was 7 years old probably, and it totally influenced my life, writing, etc. (I don’t think I’ll be famous one day and listed among famous writers though^^). Anyway, I live this as a neutral, non-gendered hobby and don’t think it makes me a tomboy as some friends might think, as much as I don’t think you have to be gay to be a male dancer among the other sad clichés.

    When minorities or alternative persons are considered in books or movies, too often it’s in a way that caricatures them or highlihts them as “special-excentric-not normal” characters. Too many times I’ve read or seen this: mainstream characters as heroes, with no particular personality or hobbies unless those socially agreed for the time (e.g. those who wouldn’t care about computers 10 years ago as it’s “not a usual thing, it’s for nerds” will all have one now for it’s ok and it’s even needed if you want to be mainstream…), while supporting characters are seen as “excentric”: the gay friend, the geek friend, the gamer friend, the otaku friend, oh gosh! the femal gamer friend!!(probably gay too :p) etc. If one of those minorities is a hero, it sure will be a comic movie/book or a tragic one… (not to mention when being a woman is being the representant of the minority of the book or movie where plenty of very varied male characters are represented)… it all makes me sad.

    I long for stories where you have the right to be an imaginative person, a hard gamer AND a normal person as my friends brothers and so many people ( (lawyers, teachers, scientist…) including myself are.
    In medias as you’ve said, it’s not better. When they talk about female gamers too often it’s like: “Wow, so unusual, it’s ok but wow, not normal, hey! Tell us what it is to be a womand AND play video games!”… same thing in the comics world “Oh, you’re a girl but you write comics, how it is to be a woman and write comics?” “And what kind of comics does a woman like mhmm?” and it pisses me off so much. When I was a child I used to read stories I found cool, fun, epic, that my brother helped me discovered. SF, Fantasy, Horror, Historic… none of us ever wondered if they were books made for boys or girls, they were just good stories, as some video games, role-playing games, are just good games.

    Reply
  3. Marty

    I think you are on target in that the author couldn’t find women who have admitted to being table top gamers who are also famous enough to name-drop in the article. It’s not that they don’t exist, but perhaps they aren’t out of the closet like these male celebrities are.

    Interesting note about the skewed results from online sites — half my gaming group is female, but only the guys ever surf the forums, or visit the gaming related web sites. Not sure why that is, but I wonder if that is a trend beyond my own circle of friends.

    Reply
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