I had just ensured a girlfriend of mine that her time that night was better suited towards self-care and not our weekly board gaming group when I heard a middle-aged man loudly bemoan “where have all the women gone?” It took every fiber in my loud-mouthed being not to assertively point out that the majority of the people playing his game were female and that I was at the next game over. I marked the general confusion on the face of the woman sitting next to me before turning back to whatever heated battle for victory points I was involved in at the time. Forgetting, for the moment, the creep factor of an adult man taking roll call only on women in a very crowded room of gamers, consider for a moment what it feels like to not “be enough.”
That is the paradox that women live into when we (board)game. We want to be “enough” at a table but we know that having more women (board)gamers in our lives would be a net gain.
“Why aren’t more women gaming,” while well-meaning, isn’t the correct question to consider when you look up from your Brass board or your Tichu cards and see three other men staring back at you. “Why aren’t more women here” is getting warmer, but not quite yet on the nose.
Instead, we want you to consider “how can I/we make the most comfortable space for EVERY (board)gamer.”
My goal in this series is to highlight for you the major issues women face when they dedicate themselves to the board gaming hobby. They start way before we even sit down at the table and linger with us sometimes as we journey home afterward.
This feeling of not being safe as a woman (board)gamer stems out into two broader themes. 1) I am not good enough to play at the “big boys” table and 2) I must accept open sexism and sexual harassment in the name of “fitting in.” These are not problems we face only when sitting down to kick some butt whether it be at Monikers or Castles of Burgundy. These messages of not being “good enough” and of having to accept being gawked at run rampant in every aspect of our lives.
We do not want this at our gaming tables. We deserve better.
If you don’t believe me that our broader societal ecosystem drills these messages into women and girls from all sides or if you are unaware of this fact, then I am happy you have come to me, because I would like to have this discussion with all the nuance and compassion it deserves. If you are one of the men struggling to know how to create an inclusive space for women then I am grateful for your efforts and remind you that you will only be able to create those spaces with our partnership. Whichever side of this scale that you are on, please listen to our stories, because there are many. Too many.
Let’s come back to how creepy it is that an older man took notice only that women were missing from his group. I don’t disagree that more women should (board)game, but this moment made me feel watched. It also made me feel defensive: first, of not appreciating the company of the people that did show up and second, of women who prioritize their time differently. This leads back to feelings of unworthiness and of being on display particularly for male enjoyment. This reality is in stark contrast to why we actually game. We game to be social. We game as an escape from the world. We game to win.
Contrary to popular belief: women (board)gamers are out there. We run game groups and game shops. We participate in Magic the Gathering Tournaments, enjoy DND, and curate our tabletop collections. We even design your games and playtest them. Unfortunately, however, we are also sometimes wary of participating because of our own anxieties about the topics I mentioned above.
No one should ever feel scared to try out such a diverse and worthwhile hobby. Nor should anyone already involved in the hobby feel unwelcome. On this, I hope we can agree. Because let’s be real. (Board)gaming at its core already has the potential to be stress-inducing. As (board)gamers, we choose to put ourselves into competition with one another repeatedly. That’s the way this whole thing works.
Whether we like it or not, (board)gaming is easily susceptible to toxicity aimed at women because of its competitive nature. Each individual players’ sense of self-worth and ego becomes tied to a series of wins and losses. Some of us even get a thrill from tracking our statistics. Seeing as insecurity about achieving “masculine” ideals is at the root of gender-based discrimination, it stands to reason that this too is at the heart of why the (board)gaming community frequently undervalues and harasses its female participants.
The Gloria Steinem quote around the edge of the puzzle pictured above is “We are linked, we are not ranked, and this is a day that will change us forever because we are together, each of us individually and collectively will never be the same again.” This sentiment, while true in a philosophical sense, falls a little short when you think about (board)gaming. In this hobby we are linked AND ranked. We are a community constantly under the pressure of one’s performance being measured. It is a human pattern to dislike when someone who we think is weaker than us might be better at something. Especially, when being good at that something fills us with a sense of pride. Just because it is understandable, it does not make it right to continue bogus and harmful patterns that send people home feeling unintelligent and unworthy.
At the end of the day, there are healthy and unhealthy environments for women to (board)game in. Even in a healthy environment, there are outliers. So the goal here is to help you see how words and actions play on the minds of women (board)gamers. We can never fully avoid the toxic behaviors and societal pressures that I mentioned, but we can TOGETHER address them when they present themselves. The online gaming realm has reporting and blocking systems in place to prevent toxicity. How can we work together as a community to care for each other and make more welcoming board game tables?
Footnote: In this article, I am using the term (board)gaming because these toxic behaviors are also present in the video gaming community and I want to acknowledge the intersectionality of women whose primary hobby is board gaming and those who also partake in online video games, like myself. Moving forward, the articles are primarily about the board gaming community and will not use this format.