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What Gender Gap?

Bruno Faidutti

July, 2000

When Burt Hochberg invited me to write for The Games Café, we exchanged several e-mails about the nature, structure, and staffing of this ambitious undertaking. My first observation, after visiting the site's beta version, was that there was only one woman among the twenty or so contributors. This was followed by a discussion about the very limited number of women in the world of games. Without over-dramatizing the situation—which is, after all, less significant than the under-representation of women in the economic and political arenas—I'd like to return to the question of this puzzling absence.

If game players were primarily reactionary, old, male chauvinists, the shortage of women in their ranks would be as natural as it is on boards of directors and in British "old boy" clubs. But what I know of the world of games doesn't correspond to this image: on the whole, game players are young, open to whatever is new, and often politically liberal. Those among them who lament the scarcity of female game players are numerous; those who celebrate it are rare. On top of that, game developers are always courting the female public while continuing to rebuff them. Replacing "he" with "she" in game rules or providing examples that feature Sarah and Lucy instead of Paul and Jack only brings ridicule. Every year, I read a magazine article announcing that the video game that will have women flocking to video-game consoles has just been released; yet to my knowledge it has yet to make its appearance. Obviously, then, a refusal to accept women isn't where the explanation lies.

I test my own games in two groups. One, in Montpellier, is comprised of old friends of my age (around 40) and is exclusively male. The other, in Paris, is more heterogeneous, with ages ranging from 25 to 50 and with as many women as men. The explanation for this curious feminine presence is undoubtedly related—I'll come back to this later—to the fact that this group is partly made up of live-action role-playing-game partners of long standing. Nevertheless, if we take a closer look, we find that even among this latter group, the people who are the most seriously interested in game playing as such—Hervé and Cyrille, without mentioning names—are men.

Game developers are always courting the female public while continuing to rebuff them. Each year, in April, I organize a game-playing weekend in the country for about 50 people. I've always been proud of the fact that this is the game convention that boasts the highest proportion of women (and of beautiful women, which doesn't hurt). Admittedly, the proportion has only been about one-third and will no doubt be less than that this year. And yet, when women play games, they're every bit as good as men, whether they're playing chess, poker, or board games.

To understand a rule, it's often helpful to study the exceptions. Women are rare in the world of chess and go, rare among role-playing-game enthusiasts, rare around the poker table, and rare among board-game players. I'm not familiar with the world of video games, but if I can believe what I read on the subject, their number is very small there, too. I'm aware of only two exceptions: bridge or Scrabble clubs and live-action role-playing games. I've never frequented bridge or Scrabble clubs, but I imagine them as quiet, staid places populated by elderly couples—and most elderly couples are comprised of an elderly man and an elderly woman. The case of live-action role-playing, where the age of the participants is rarely over 40, is more intriguing.

I don't know how it is in the English-speaking world, but in France, whereas the players of tabletop role-playing games are predominantly men, women constitute almost half of live-action role-playing enthusiasts. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons is that while most participants come to live-action role-playing by way of traditional role-playing games, some come to it via the theater, and the theater world is predominantly female.

Winning Isn't Everything

All games include, to varying degrees, the idea of competition. This is obvious in classically competitive games such as chess, but it's equally true for every board game that has a winner and losers, as well as for tabletop role-playing games, in which the players confront a hostile environment together. But in live-action role-playing games this aspect becomes secondary, the primary element being the theatricality—the words, the drama, and the ongoing social interaction. Exultation, simulation, and competition are the three elements that constitute game play. In role-playing, and especially in live-action role-playing, the exultation and simulation come to the fore, with competition fading into the background.

While the last century has seen a certain evolution in this area, the education and socialization of children continues, even today, to emphasize rivalry and competition for boys, acceptance of others and of one's surroundings for girls. That explains why women are less attracted to the world of games, a world where it seems to them—incorrectly, I believe—that winning is the only thing that matters.

Is there anything to be done about this? For one thing, we can point out that games, or at least the games that we play—and in an case the games that I create—aren't just an exercise in competition but are also a feel-good social activity that is entertaining and intoxicating, and that isn't always about trying to crush our opponent. And we can also hope that in a society undoubtedly less sexist than it used to be, women will develop a taste for competition and men a taste for more civilized forms of social relations.

- Bruno Faidutti

(Translated from the French by Sandy Fein.)

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