If there is a hot button issue in gaming right at the moment, it’s about how do we best include people in our hobby who aren’t strictly of a specific general white male persuasion? In particular that there is some required concession to have women, people of color and other minorities getting more recognition and inclusion within various game products. The most recent edition of Dungeons and Dragons for example has some excellent diverse art of both adventuring men and women. Most notably, a lot of the art of the female adventurers portrayed in the books is distinctly non-sexualized and depicts several women of color as well (not to mention more racial diversity amongst the male characters as well). Likewise, for a long time now many PnP RPGs have been switching pronouns though the text to refer to the GM or players as he/she interchangeably. A small but important way to tell anyone reading the book they could be either running the game or playing it.
Similarly, many of the roleplaying games I have run that have been set in historic periods like the 1920s and 1930s of Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu respectively, discuss using themes of sexism and racism appropriately. Most notably they discuss them in a way that ultimately suggests you shouldn’t just throw these things at players just because of the setting. Sure it might be interesting for a female investigator to have to deal with sexism in the 1920s or 1930s in some way – but it can also just be a reminder to an actual player about what they still currently face. It’s less important to be historically accurate over how uncomfortable these elements may be for the actual player. An important discussion to at least start and get potential gamemasters and their players thinking about if they are comfortable with it in their games!
For me, as a socially awkward straight white male geek who didn’t think of this a lot back in the early 2000s, I got my first real lesson in how other people could get a very different view of the same books in a FLGS*. While perusing some Forgotten Realms books, I got into a conversation with a man who had moved to New Zealand from Nigeria. While talking to him we got into a discussion about the different races in DnD and he (having dark black skin) pointed out something I had never considered before: All of the “evil” races in the underdark had black skin. Drow, Svirfneblin, Druegar and so forth were all black, while in the players handbooks generally speaking the “good” races were always depicted with light skin.
At the time it never really struck me what the significance of that conversation was or even why it bothered this man. I walked away back then with a “Oh well, I agree to disagree” attitude but not really realizing what the problem was. Eventually I did realize what the problem was: To him this was saying that people like him, who had the kind of darker skin tones he did were being depicted as evil and that light skinned people were always the heroes. It was subtly, albeit not intentionally, reinforcing a negative stereotype that he suffered in his day to day life. Today I wish I could have a chat to him again and find out his current thoughts on the game, especially with the efforts to depict more diverse heroes and characters Paizo and Wizards have been undertaking recently.
Unfortunately there is still a tremendous way to go in the way certain groups or people are viewed as “outsiders”. If the hobby is to grow, expand and develop further it’s important that old stereotypes that roleplaying is just “for teenage boys” and that women or other minorities aren’t welcome need to be debunked. Especially from mainstream media sources, gaming communities and the way we approach letting new people into our gaming circles.
One of the ways that some off-putting stereotypes remain come from some of the shows that depict “nerd culture” on television. I’m going to single out the Big Bang Theory here in particular to start with, because their episode where the “girls” played DnD was a prime example of some of these problems with making roleplaying a welcoming hobby:
Here the core of the shows joke is after Leonard invites the girls to play with them Sheldon responds by implying that is ridiculous (Laugh track). He then continues to say “I’ve never played with girls before!” and Penny responds with “Sweetie, nobody has” (Laugh track). Here’s the problem: This reinforces the idea that roleplaying is only for a specific group like men and that women aren’t supposed to be included. It’s some kind of weird exception for women to be playing and then subsequently enjoying the game, which I do have to acknowledge was at least a positive outcome despite the initial disappointing jokes.
For those of us deep in the well of roleplaying games, we know that this episode is a bunch of over ridiculous jokes and that it certainly isn’t true for many gaming spaces/groups. There are numerous groups that have had women playing in them and that have been for many years without any issue. Heck, there are people I know who run games where everyone playing and the dungeon master is a woman! It’s not that unusual! In my own experience, I’ve got 2 to 3 women amongst my current roleplaying groups and have had several in my previous games in the past. In fact, I’ve actually found that you will be very surprised who will be interested in playing with you of any gender or even lifestyle. The key thing is to ask and invite these people in your games in the first place!
Shows like the BBT making it a big joke about if the women would want to play in the first place is a bad thing, because it has such a wide viewership of people who might think this is always the case. Again, that they are shown to subsequently enjoy the game and I feel that was at least a positive end, but that initial hostility to the idea of women playing depicted? That’s the very real fear that I know some women have about approaching tables or asking to play in the first place. It’s not fun thinking you’re going to be mocked or regarded as some kind of alien from mars just for wanting to play a game. Yet that’s the feeling enforced by this kind of “humor” and making women joining in on a roleplaying game a punchline.
Of course the real problem isn’t just TV shows like the Big Bang Theory reinforcing the idea of women or other minorities joining in on a roleplaying game is weird, it’s that some gaming communities and tables actually do this in reality. A good example was how a couple of times players I have had used “Gay” as a negative way of describing other characters. Given that I play with several gamers who identify along the LGBT scale, this comment was taken with considerable offense and is an example of how language can make others feel unwelcome. In a similar way, many of the women I’ve spoken with about this topic or currently play with have told me about how they’ve been made to feel uncomfortable or unwelcome by being “the girl” in the group.
While we can say this is just a stereotype and an offensive one reinforced by TV shows, it does unfortunately continue to happen in reality. Seeing new people taking up the hobby, particularly younger women, shouldn’t be viewed by certain elements of the gaming community as “invading” our space. Instead it should be something to cheer on and encourage, because it expands the hobby, brings new people in and hopefully injects some much needed audience into a small industry. Not to mention how the new players of today are tomorrows future DMs who carry on roleplaying as a hobby to others. Getting people who will become inspired to run their own games and thus enable others to play is quite important: So driving people out of this hobby is anathema to me.
I am not intending to make this post another long screed about how there are problems in gaming with bringing more women or minorities into it. There are plenty of other sites around that go into these issues on a daily basis. What I want to talk about is what I’ve personally tried to make things better and how I’ve done so. It’s simple to talk about a problem, but it’s really in how we try to solve those problems once we agree they are there that really matters**.
Firstly, in my case and I am sure for others, being the DM has some great advantages for dealing with this. You can set firm table rules, which can be used to inform your players about what you expect and how to conduct themselves. After one player used “Gay” as an insult, I made sure to talk to them about it later and ensure it wouldn’t happen again in future. Afterwards there were no further problems with that and nobody held any grudges for future cooperating. Don’t be afraid to confront players about these things and ensure you make the playing environment at the table you want. Few people ever want to feel like they are causing an environment that excludes others or makes them feel unwelcome, so these will be productive conversations more often than not.
Another thing you can do as the DM is portray a wide range of characters of varying ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations (if this is something that your campaign is into, I know some DMs don’t like to deal with sex or other things in their games). It often helps ease players into a game if there are characters in the game “like them”. This is one of the reasons that I try to write a diverse cast of female and male NPCs, who function as both enemies and allies for the party to interact with over the course of the game. It might be a bit difficult being the only woman in a group, which sometimes can happen, but it’s a bit easier to deal with if the game isn’t reminding her of it only having a single female NPC of any importance.
For convincing people to join in your game who might be on the fence, due to potentially negative things they may have seen/heard or some trepidation about the environment, show them some positive examples. I personally really love TableTop, which is a show focusing on board games and is hosted by Wil Wheaton (you might remember him from Star Trek, where he played Wesley Crusher). This show does a lot of good for the geek/gaming community, because it usually has a very diverse group of people playing and very often has women on the show. The episode below is a recent favourite of mine and not just because it has one of my favourite game designers on it!
This kind of show is fantastic for showing people that our hobby can be enjoyed by anyone and many of the other episodes have a wide range of people on it. Board games and by extension, Roleplaying Games are for everyone and there is increasingly not becoming a “stereotype” of who a gamer is anymore. It’s a hobby that can be enjoyed by anyone who wants to try it and we should be encouraging people to do so! Shows like the above and the other things that the channel Geek and Sundry does do a lot of good for saying to people “You could enjoy this hobby as well”. As opposed to my previous example of the Big Bang Theory making the idea of women joining a roleplaying game the core “punchline” of a joke.
My last point is also the simplest by far if you want to get more women or other minorities into your games. Just ask them! You would be surprised in many cases to find out who among the people you know, both men and women, might be interested in roleplaying but would never ask you directly if they could play. Often this is for various reasons like being shy and particularly they are often worried if they would be welcome (again, why issues like finding a woman wanting to play in DnD laughable is problematic). You can do a tremendous amount to break this problem down just by offering places in your game to them directly! Several of the women I play with currently merely needed the initial invite and I was pleasantly surprised just how many were keen to play.
Gaming right now is going through a great period in many ways, with an ever increasing independent game development community, more choices than ever before in different roleplaying games to run/play in and IMO a growing base of people interested in joining the hobby. All we – especially those of us with a lot of experience in the hobby – have to do is welcome this potential new audience into it to ensure it’s strength well into the future.
*Friendly Local Game Store.
**I acknowledge that sometimes getting an acknowledgement there is an issue is often the toughest part of the discussion here.