The Distaff Perspective

Copyright Laura Trauth 1999

    So here I was, trying to think of the right way to start our conversation about women, gaming, gender stereotypes and all that. But of course it takes more than one to have a conversation, so I thought I'd enlist a couple of gaming friends, Donna and Cathy, and see what they had to say. So we sat down over coffee and I asked "why do we game?"

    And Cathy started by saying she wasn't really even aware that women (aside from herself) were serious gamers. Most of the men she'd gamed with assumed that women couldn't be taken seriously. That they were silly, giggly annoyances who were only there because of their boyfriends. "You two," she said, "are the first two real women gamers I've met." She then went on to add something I'd never thought of, "I think most women who game and enjoy it GM. They don't play."

    Hmmm... Is that true, I wondered. Both Cathy and I spent many of our gaming years running the games, but not Donna. Is it a trend? Would we prefer to play? Why don't we? Because we don't get what we need in a game where most of the participants are guys...?

    Before I could reach cosmic enlightenment on this one, Donna pointed out that she, at least was an exception: "GM-ing is scary. I want to know the rules first before I try it. I'd have to play a game for a while before I tried to run it."

    Cathy replied, "But running the game is always scary. You never know if you're doing it right - except that the players keep coming back." And then she read my mind and suggested that maybe women do tend to want something different out of a game. The difference seemed to be, in her experience, that female GMs gave more of a voice to the players, let their needs drive the game.

    "Hmmm," said Donna, "maybe that's because women, being culturally conditioned to be more people-pleasing, don't need to have it their way as much. And we aren't so rule-fixated."

    To which Cathy added, "It's amazing, when we are players, how often we end up as slaves, or trapped in a box canyon against impossible odds. After all, what else did you do with the women? It seems to be hard for some male GMs to break from that "the women are window dressing" mold with their Non-Player characters and Player characters too." "Women as trophies, as objects, rather than actors," I grumbled, remembering several games like that.

    "Oh my god - people actually play like that?"

    "Yeah Donna, and they use the historical argument. - that it was really like that."

    And Donna says, "And what held the women back, back then, was the men - not the women's biology."

    "Yeah, but they take the archetypes - Judeo-Christian archetypes"

    Meanwhile, I'm realizing that there's a problem with this whole historical argument thing. Well, I'm a historian. It's what they pay me for. So I interject, "But life wasn't 'like that' for men either. No one in medieval Europe was an "adventurer." They may have gone on a pilgrimage, or explored a local cave as kids, but they didn't go dungeon crawling. These archetypes men - and maybe women too - fall back on in gaming aren't medieval or historical at all. They are Frank Frazetta archetypes. Edgar Rice Burroughs archetypes. Nineteen-sixties Star Trek archetypes wearing cone-shaped braziers."

    Donna nods, and Cathy sighs, "Men and women grow up differently. We aren't brought up on war movies and contact sports. We weren't brought up in that competitive atmosphere and that's what a lot of gaming is - and its not competition against the imaginary enemies but against the other players."

    Donna nods again, "Yeah, for me its about problem-solving."

    "Wargaming is about strategy and tactics, roleplaying isn't."

    "I think its about education level too. Not practical education, technical training, but philosophy, great books, etc. I think that people who've got that kind of knowledge are more creative because they have more input..."

    But Cathy adds, "I know doctors and Ph D.s who game the same way as enlisted guys in the army with high-school educations - they want to win and they want to get the girl in the end and that's all."

    And, not one for being left out, I suggest that maybe, "it depends on what we want out of gaming, doesn't it? Think about some of the other players we've known, who didn't like it when there wasn't any combat.

    "Or some other high-adrenalin situation - second by second, dangerous..."

    "Well then," I prodded, "Maybe it's a matter then of what we're looking for in the game that we don't get in real life?"

    "This is all about personality styles. Men and women tend to have different personality styles, but they overlap. And there are specific gaming personalities. So it seems like more of a personality style thing that just generally happens to correlate a lot with gender. What drew me to gaming," Donna concluded, " was that it seemed like Drama - like doing an impromptu play."

    "For me,"said Cathy, "it was that I always liked reading and I liked the idea of being the main character in the book. But for me, it also started as on-line roleplaying - more written. And now I find it harder to roleplay in person - its hard to not be embarrassed. It's hard to risk being inadequate, being made fun of. Even tho I know you guys won't, there's that little voice in the back of my head... And a lot of people I know who roleplay do it because at some time in their lives they had no form of expression. They do things they never could do in real life, or that they think that they can't do in real life. A scarey number of people use roleplaying as therapy.

    Therapy? Drama? Problem Solving? A little benign escapism? The coffee pot was already empty and it seemed we'd just started to touch on why people game. But then this was never intended to be a conversation limited to my world! So tell me about yours. I'll refill the pot with leaded, and we'll see where the conversation leads.