During my 30+ years as a gamer, I always knew I stood out as “odd” and perhaps “other”. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t realise how odd and other I was until I visited a games store somewhere in my early teens. I was super excited. Finally! I could have my pick of games! I could buy anything! That feeling lasted for about 10 minutes until I started registering the odd looks I was given. And until I realised I was the only girl in the store. Proudly clutching my find – if I’m not mistaken it was Kult or Vampire or something like that – I approached the cashier. The first thing out of his mouth was “do you want me to wrap it?”. When I said no, he asked me if I understood that this wasn’t a normal bookstore and that what I was buying wasn’t a notmal bookstore and that what I was buying wasn’t a normal book. At that point I’d been playing for maybe five years. Of course I did, I said, I’ve been playing for ages.
His mistrust in my ability made me feel like an outsider. When I started going to conventions in -94, things only got worse. The girls and women there were scarce. The sexism was ever present.
Of course things have improved now, but even so, we have a deficit of women who are also makers. No, wait, that’s not true. There are a lot of women out there who want to make things, but in my experience we still have massive roadblocks, preventing us from being seen as equal and just as innovative as men. Some of that is reflected in what’s writteb about games – who gets to be influential? Who gets to decide what the canon is (if any), and who gets to have their voices heard?
I have a bunch of books about games, most of them are written by men.
I paraphrased the title on this post from a book called “Things We Think About Games”. It’s edited by what seems to be two men and with a foreword by what seems to be two other men. The contributors are 10 other people and one of them seems to be a woman based on the name. This in itself does not say anything about the quality of the contributions or for that matter about the quality of the thoughts in the book – but it is a reflection of my bookshelf at large, and therein lies a problem.
Yes, I know what you’re about so say. Should we “force” women and other marginalised groups in gaming to write? Isn’t it likely that the people who do write are the people most suited to it? Isn’t this really a meritocracy? The best ones among us rise to the top, like the conquering hero of old?
I obviously don’t think so. I have around 600 TTRPGs. Most of that content is written my men, and dare I say it? for men. I don’t even have to guess if that’s the case. Some writers come right out and say it. There was a time when it was okay to theorise around women’s inability to play games, and men as the universal standard and it’s clearly reflected in the texts written.
Nowadays, a text declaring these things would perhaps be frowned upon, but I can, off the top of my head with no further thought give you the names of a bunch of books that state that women don’t play and after all, men are the norm, so why care about women or something to that effect. Or perhaps – which is also wildly popular – speculate why women won’t play. Only one of those books states that maybe, maaaaybeee, sexism in the content of those books might be the reason. That’s Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy.
The other books speculate about the rationality and logic of women (The Art of Game Design 1st edition, by Jesse Schell), that women don’t play games (Från Atlantis till Blekinge, ASF) so essentially why bother?
Apart from the suspicion I have that we have problems with academia in games, we also have issues with who’s creating. Who’s visible. Who’s ideas are perpetuated? What canon are we building in and around games? What is considered “good” and what practices do we promote?
I’m not saying that these books are bad, the one’s I’ve listed above are good in many aspects. To my mind they shine because they talk about games when not many books did talk about games. What I’m trying to say is this. We have to make space for and welcome points of view and texts that doesn’t originate in the same cultural and socio-economic background as everyone else’s. We should make games a place where everyone can theorise, where all points of view are welcome and where we invite enough curiosity to ask the question “why” instead of making assumptions based on feelings.
Yes, yes, this is also an opinion piece. With the minor caveat that I’ve actually read almost all of my 600 TTRPG books (around 900 if you count expansion modules and adventures) and I’ve read all by four of my many, many books on games, game production, design and theory.
From some of them I get the same feeling I did when I entered a game store for the very first time. A sense of excitement and wonder, slapped down by a careless sentence showing me how much of an outsider and how other I am in the context of the book. If one of us is feeling it, you can bet that more than one of us are feeling it, and if it also serves to strengthen biases among the majority of gamers, then we have a problem.
For me, writing about stuff like this and shining a light on it is one of my ways to try and address this problem. If you’re part of the majority in games, be it TTRPGs or digital games, make sure that when they ask you to give a talk or write a book, ask if they’ve tried to find someone else, or make sure that you have people that you can recommend to do it instead of you. Make room for voices from outside of the cultural background that we already hear so much from.