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The Shoe’s On The Other Hoof Now

Lady geeks of the RPG world, this is primarily directed to the guy geeks out there. Sorry. However, I’m going to make a few assumptions about some things, so any corrections or comments you have for me to clarify or correct me would be most welcome.

Guy geeks out there, listen up. There’s something we need to talk about. I’ve seen it come up a lot in various forms of Internet discourse lately, and rather then be constrained by 140 character bursts, I’ve hijacked a well known blog for the day to use as my soap box.  Guy geeks, we really need to have a talk about gender and gaming.

Whoa whoa whoa, I know what you’re thinking. Actually, since there’s a lot of you, I probably don’t, but I’m going to guess there were a few thoughts of “here we go again”, maybe one or two mentally rolled eyes. And yeah, maybe some of that is merited. Gender and gaming is one of those topics that comes up alot, becomes hot button for a few days, then cools down until the next major border skirmish.

I’m not going to talk any specifics, not about lady geek players, or male/female stereotypical gender roles in characters, or rape culture, any of that. Those are all things that are out there, that exist in some form, and as a white heterosexual Protestant male in the Western world who’s done little research into gender studies beyond looking at the TVTropes entry for the Bechdel Test has neither the first hand experience or the scholarly knowledge to really address it in the form it really deserves.

All I have to say is that there are gender issues in our hobby, and if we want to grow as a hobby we need to at least start to address them.  (And yes, that line may be on loan from Extra  Credits, I promised them I’d return it to them in the same condition as it was when they let me borrow it. Be gentle, please.)

I’ve been happy keeping my head down every time a skirmish broke out, and knew there were little things that could go a long way to improving gender inequity. Using female NPCs along with male ones, not use the term ‘girly’ as a synonym for weak, that type of thing. But it wasn’t until I started watching the new animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic showing on The Hub did I really start to really think about this.

Whoa whoa, now. I had that same reaction, My Little Pony? Those of you scrolling up a few to make sure that said heterosexual a few paragraphs up, come back down here. Two of my roommates at Pax East his year basically forced me to give it a try, saying “It’s a lot better then you think.” And it was. For a show aimed at young girls, there were developed characters, interesting plots, and stellar writing. There’s a lot that I could go on about this show in that vein.

But there was one reaction that I constantly had that brought me back to thinking about gender and gaming; an internalization that demanded inspection. As of this writing there are 21 episodes of the first season out, and as of writing I’ve watched them all. And sometime around the 5th or 6th, knowing that I was enjoying and intentionally seeking more episodes of the show out, I started to realize a reaction to something in the episodes.

Sometimes the reaction would be a flinch when Rarity is talking about making a dress, or a wince when one of the ponies utters the word ‘pretty’. Basically, there were times when my honest enjoyment of the show was lessened by a small reminder of the gender rules I’ve lived with all my life. It’s not the show’s fault, it is using the tropes common to all shows of its types, fashion, sleep overs, it’s part of the package when dealing with a My Little Pony show.

Just like the tropes in fantasy, the scantily armored females, the echoing of a patriarchal history to fantasy worlds and so on, are part of the package when dealing with fantasy games. And those same things might cause a prickly feeling when women encounter them; might pull away from their enjoyment of an otherwise fine game.

Guy geeks, I know this just seems like a flimsy connection at best, even more so if you haven’t watched the show.  And it might just seem like more “male guilt”.  But I ask a favor of you all.  Here’s a link to the first episode of the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Give it a watch when you can. Enjoy it for the funny, well written, well acted, well animated show it is.  But be aware of those little moments, when you shift in your chair a bit, or feel like maybe this isn’t the best thing for a grown man to be watching.

Keep mind of those instances the next time you’re going through game prep or game art, and maybe start to question the fantasy assumptions and what effect they might have on girl geeks. It may only be an inch or two in the other person’s shoe, but we need to start somewhere, right?

And girl geeks, I don’t know if this is what goes through your minds when you encounter yet another chainmail bikini-clad warrior, or any of the other issues I’m just going to lump into the term ‘gender inequities’ of fantasy to save space from listing them. I imagine your reactions are more severe then what I’m describing above. It’s not my intent to say the problems are equal (Ponies talking about makeup is not the same as implied lesser social status), rather, my intent to at least try to understand. If I can grok just a fraction of what girl geeks have issues with, then maybe I can better grok what needs to be done to address it. Curious to know if I’m on the right track or just way into left field on this one.

To all geeks, I’m curious to your thoughts on gender and gaming as a whole, how we can find some sort of middle ground to deal with these issues, and, of course, thoughts on My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Would love to have your discussion below, but because this can be a heated subject, be respectful, I don’t want to have to delete responses for un-pony like behavior.



Mike Hasko got the nickname Pez one summer during band camp because his friends discovered he was an avid collector of Pez dispensers. We cannot legally disclose how the Psycho part was appended, let's just say a large hill and the inside of a large bass drum were involved.

14 Responses to “The Shoe’s On The Other Hoof Now”

  • What a fantastic article. As a girl geek, this is exactly the example I have been looking for to demonstrate to others what makes me uncomfortable about the hobby at times. This is a simple and clear explanation of why our gender experience sometimes shuts us out of certain things.

    There are many aspects of gaming that can make women uncomfortable, but easily the biggest aspect is when the male gamers around us are blind to it. When the guy geeks start realizing what makes us uncomfortable by listening to us and respecting our experiences, more women will be comfortable approaching the gaming table.

    ‘Sexy lady’ images are not the be-all and end-all of this article – they are just one of many subtle cues to girl gamers that this hobby is not aimed at us. There are many ways that this is communicated through rulebooks, game worlds and table behaviour. Be more aware of this, more receptive to the behaviour of women at the table and willing to change. When the environment is welcoming and comfortable for girl geeks, they will bring richer story and roleplaying to the table, and that is what we all want from our tabletop experiences.

  • Loved the article, Mike. I think that male attitudes at the gaming table (and in gaming R&D) really betray an attitude that is reflected in all areas of life if we looked hard enough. If the sight of a chainmail bikini excites me at the gaming table, it says something about what I’m thinking about when I’m away from the table, too. If I have an attitude about what women are like at the gaming table, I probably have that opinion away from the table, too.

    By the way, I speak as a man with a wonderful wife and a two-year-old daughter.

  • As a girl geek, I appreciate the effort of trying to understand why we get irritated easily on games.

    My first issue is a huge problem, at least to me it is. See, every game I have played, when being a female character is actually an option, the armor for females is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, seriously? Who is gonna be afraid of a scantily clad female warrior?

    But that’s not the huge problem. The huge problem is, is when I’m running around, doing quests (Yay xp!) and the like as a scantily clad female warrior, I absolutely dread the moment I get a whisper or private message from some random person starting out as a “Hey ;)” As soon as I see that winky face I know it’s coming … that inevitable “Do you want to be my girlfriend?”

    Just because you are not able to find a girlfriend in real life does not mean that I can not find a boyfriend in real life (I do have a bf irl). Just because the girl geek stereotype is to be a weird-possibly-call-her-a-female-if-you-look-at-her-at-the-right-angle doesn’t mean that all of us look like that.

    My second issue with it is the “Go make me a sammich.” I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I have heard it. It’s not even an insult to girl geeks anymore. It’s an insult to whoever says it; it makes y’all look like you have never/will never get a girlfriend which si sad but probably true.

    My third and final issue: Cybersex. I’m also tired of getting the whispers “Wanna Cyber?” That. Is. Gross.

  • As a girl gamer I can totally understand. I have the good fortune to be playing with a bunch of guys, who, when they describe a female NPC or PC, they are not always in a “chainmail bikini” (granted they are guys and I am sure that they are at least thinking about it! lol) I have a slightly harder time playing MMO’s though due to the fact that the female characters are always scantily clad. As a result though, if I have the option to, like in Champions online, I will generally go for clothing/ armor that still looks good and sexy, but not revealing. Also, this topic is something IO just kind of take a step back and laugh and gender stereotypes… But then again I have never really fit in with most of the girls I know…

  • If I may, I think Karen brings up a good point. I like to feel sexy in games. My characters often have secret tattoos, worship gods and goddesses of love, etc. But what I have a hard time with is being overly sexualized. I don’t mind joking about it with close friends during a not so serious game, but sometimes I just want to play a character who is comfortable with her sexuality but not sleeping with everything that moves. It often feels like that’s a nuance that gets lost.

  • I think there’s a certain level of empowerment that can be brought by a sexually secure female player/character that can be used to exploit the mindsets of less enlightened male players/characters. The result I see is that these male players/characters have an opportunity to see a broader perspective (I’m *not* going to make a pun out of the word ‘broad’.), improving the game as a whole. Over time, this could cause a shift in the hobby. It’s an exciting, albiet ambitious idea.

  • Loved the article. Unfortunately there are creepy dudes who play role-playing games. I don’t like playing with those type of gamers. I am a guy and have encountered guys who go over the top with the whole sexual thing. For me, I think a little is acceptable. It even makes the game more exciting but too much is kind of weird especially when it’s just guys. I would also say that if I was a female be offended. I myself get uncomfortable around that kind of stuff. Everyone knows that it’s in all types of nerd culture- comic books, video games, movies. The list goes on and on. Bottom line to me is I play to have fun with my buddies and create an heroic world for my friends to play in. It’s not for all of us to get our jollies. That’s gross man.

  • First of all, no, Lyndsay, “richer” story and roleplaying is not what we all want. “Richer” is not automatically better, and even if it was some people want more problem solving or action more than they want story and roleplaying. Frankly I can barely stand what most people seem to consider “story” and “roleplaying,” especially when they think it’s “rich.”

    Second of all, I haven’t seen the show and I don’t really have time at the moment, but I am a big fan of the Disney Tinkerbell movies, and find certain other shows that I watch with my daughters more than bearable for their writing and characters (and, yeah, sexy fairies).

    The shows were ostensibly not written for me (though some of the in-jokes are clearly not for the kids), so I wind up seeing some things that don’t draw me in, sure. The creators of a finished product have to assume a few things about their audience, and what’s likely to get the most positive response. In the case of shows like the Tinkerbell movies, I have always assumed that the creators realize that adults buy the movies and will be forced to watch the shows with their kids, and that the adults will be more inclined to buy the movies if they are at least partially aimed at the adults.

    We’ve got two things going on here, though. One is a product that is clearly aimed at a certain demographic (Tinkerbell movies for kids and girls, D&D for nerdy guys). That’s how they’re marketed. Lots of people outside that demographic won’t give them another look, unless they’re somehow forced to. The other thing going on is that the products, despite their more overt marketing, DO have something to offer other demographics that only those who make the effort will see. I enjoy Tinkerbell movies. I like the in-jokes, the visuals, and, yeah, the “visuals.” Plenty of guys would enjoy it if they were to get past the marketing, just as psychopez enjoys a show that, on the face of it, strikes me as repulsive. I don’t doubt that I could enjoy it.

    Tinkerbell will never truly be aimed at guys. Would a grittier, tougher, sexier fairy movie with a strong male lead get more guys to watch it? Yeah, but I don’t necessarily think it should have those elements, because I think it would make it less appealing to my daughters, and I want it to be for them. If Tinkerbell DID take that route, well, there are other shows they could watch, or they could watch the older Tinkerbell videos.

    Argument by analogy is weak, so I won’t go so far as to say that I don’t think D&D can or will change. I think it can and I think it has, since its inception. If it made a shift further toward something that more women found overtly appealing I think lots of guys would be turned off by it, but frankly I suspect we’d all be better for their departure from the game. There are plenty of other games, and older versions that they can play.

    SHOULD it change? I think the art could use an overhaul. I agree that it’s often too much, but there should be a light hand on the throttle. There can be adventure and excitement without impractical, pointless, pandering sexiness. I’m offended by what some artists seem to think I find attractive, but I’d rather it didn’t accidentally go to far in some other direction.

    Beyond the art, the tone of the game can change. My daughter doesn’t like it when I suggest she fight monsters. She just seems to want some exploration, some narration and description. I think plenty of women are happy with hack-and-slash, but I think the game offers much more than that, and I think the designers can do more to highlight alternative that appeal more to other demographics.

  • Great article. My philosophy has always been know the people at your table. If there’s someone new take it easy on things that someone might find offensive. And once you all know each other and what you are comfortable with then run with it and have fun.
    I believe that men and women are different and to take one step further people are individuals and have their own hot buttons. We can all pretty much agree that X is bad and A is good but there are plenty of gray areas that do bring about many heated debates where people of the same gender may not agree. The point is the people at the table are people with their own beliefs, just show a little respect for them.
    As far as RPG’s go, I think the number one marketing tool is the people who play the games. The game is blank slate and its the GM’s job to make a campaign that is enjoyable for all the players regardless of their gender.
    Just remember Wheaton’s Law and don’t be “That Guy”.

  • I was skeptical at first but I decided to watch the My Little Pony shows. I really didn’t like the first one but with each additional episode, they grew on me. Sure, the emphasis on shopping and looking pretty bugs me at times (and makes me roll my eyes) but I wonder if that’s a bit of just selling the parents and maybe the kids on the series, a bit like using fully sugared kool-aid at the start to get kids to like it and slowly reducing the amount of sugar in it with each batch.

    I still was annoyed by the super girly-girl ponies, to the point where it interfered with my enjoyment. But I thought about it some more and said, this just represents the diversity of the female voice. There are going to be some girls who want everything to match and look pretty and thank god for them. Otherwise we would live in barren, disharmonious homes with no idea of why they annoy or sadden us. Without them, I would be at a loss over what to wear to a fancy party like a prom. Without me, they probably would never know the fun of ‘smores on a cool summer’s night.

    And to be honest, when it comes to gender in gaming, that’s a problem I often see. Women characters in RPGs often lack the diversity that the male characters have. Being female feels like a disability or a barrier to overcome in a way that being male is not. It reeks of Aristotle’s incomplete/immature male argument. Our paths to “winning” are often measured by masculine motivations or tools. And traditional sources of female power, our stereotypical graces and courtesies, our healing touch and kind words, are often snorted at and made fun of at best, and not allowed as solutions to problems at worst. As a result, in many groups I feel the need to act male, to deny that feminine part of my soul. Where is the equality in that?

    Don’t get me wrong, gender roles hurt men as well, but I don’t feel comfortable speaking for them. Let’s face it, as much as I’m used to acting masculine, I’m not a man. I don’t know what it’s like to get kicked in the ***** for instance. So I just don’t feel comfortable speaking anyone but myself.

  • Interesting. Now you should show “My Little Pony” to women with a variety of racial and economic backgrounds and see what cues they identify as being “not meant for them.” Boom. Dissertation done.

    I find that the older I get, the more I gravitate toward the non-sexualized avatars in MMOs. My characters are almost exclusively female dwarves, hobbits, gnomes, taurans, iksar, etc. Go figure, I never get any requests to cyber, which suits me fine.

    Like the original post, I have a similar thought experiment that I propose to give men just a smidge of insight into being a woman: Imagine that you can never take your shirt off. Sports, swimming, mowing the lawn, whatever… you have to keep your chest covered. The only time it is acceptable to remove your shirt is in complete privacy, in the company of either your sexual partner or a group of only men.

    Not saying I’m clamoring for the right to go topless in public, just pointing out a difference. Next time you’re camping, or swimming, or playing basketball and you’re inclined to cool off with a little less apparel, pause for a second to think, “If I were a woman, I couldn’t do this.”

  • Stacy, I’m not sure what you mean by “Boom. Dissertation done.”

  • I recently started a new D&D group, and it is primarily composed of girl geek players. This article actually helped a lot. Not that I didn’t already know it, because it is all very common sense stuff. This article helped because, honestly, sometimes we men just need to be reminded of things like this. It’s easy to forget something like this in the heat of having fun, and not be aware of anything until someone yanks our attention back.

  • I am a man. I have been playing D&D for almost 15 years now. And although some of the artwork in some places looks over-sexualized with the way it portrays women, there is so much more that does a decent job. (Not to mention that for 13 of those years, all of the game was played with no more visual reference than lines and letters on graph paper.)

    I’m not sure which books you guys are reading, but I haven’t seen a D&D book with chainmail bikinis in a long time. And most of the covers of D&D themed paperbacks are pretty balanced too. Like the work of Larry Elmore (got to be my fave), where there are some women who are scantily clad, but most are quite reasonable.

    Are there sexy ladies? Yes. But when you turn on the TV, and look at non-geeky shows. They have skanky women, and some even strong women, dressed in a sexy way. And all the women are good-looking. On some shows, the mistreatment goes deeper than appearance (Mad Men anyone?).

    And flip side. Look at the romance book covers. How many of those men are oddly proportioned in a sexual fantasy way?

    I think the problem with this article (don’t get me wrong; the concepts are well thought through) is that we are attributing something to geek culture that is not specific to geek culture. It is a problem of escapism and fantasy. And men have those fantasies (not all of us, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a woman in a chain-mail bikini, irl). And women have those fantasies (why, by the way, are all the barbarians shirtless and muscle-y?). The question is, can’t we all just agree that it’s fantasy, and acknowledge that we’re not all pigs?

    BTW, isn’t a woman in a chainmail bikini and wielding a sword more empowering that the damsel in distress? She’s strong, able to kick ass, and secure in her sexuality. Or is it that masculinization of women that’s the real issue?

    But on a serious note, it is from the girls I’ve gamed with that this is the biggest issue. Not knowing the culture, or maybe in mocking it, these girls are the ones who go on about wearing chailmail underwear, or barely anything. They are often the only ones who even go into extreme detail to describe what every outfit their character is wearing and how it looks. Most of the guys I’ve gamed with are: “My guy’s a dwarf. Carries a battleaxe and is wearing platemail.” “What does the platemail look like?” “I dunno. Platemail.”