It Sucks to be a Woman in Gaming…

(Featured Photo by Shelby Carosella. Models: Ericka Skirpan, Jamie Buonocore, and Michelle Stagnitta.) Women in gaming are exhausted. Even with all the progress we’ve made, it sucks to be a woman in larp right now. From the gamer-girlfriend stereotype, to being criticized at EVERY TURN (women are NOT allowed to make mistakes), women are walking on eggshells in larp. Despite actively working on it, not a ton has changed in my near two-decade long stint in larp. We have to fight to get our voices heard in character, be it a plot or political decision; we have to be extra pushy to get include on mods; we spend time on a lot of emotional labor trying to educate people around us as to why their basic assumptions often treat us shitty; we need to be twice as good for people to consider us once for positions of leadership or in a fight; and taking up the same space as a man often gets us accused of being pushy/bitchy/arrogant. It’s exhausting and the longer you are in gaming, the more tired you get. The higher you go in organizational levels, the worst the attacks become. We’re all so tired.

(Caveat 1: Much of this can be said for all of society, not just gaming. But I’m an expert in larp, so I’m talking specifically about the larp-o-sphere.)

(Caveat 2: Most of this applies to any disenfranchised voice. It’s even worse for people of color and non-binary folks. However, I’m only a woman, so I’m speaking from my position of experience. Please keep ALL these things in mind when trying to be an ally to all diverse voices in gaming.)

That Before you protest and insist it’s not you or your game, I invite you to actually step back and examine all our communities for a moment. Even the most inclusive communities still operate on some base privileged assumptions and are populated by players who fall back on old, bad habits whether they realize it or not. I’m going to give two examples before I get into how you can better be an ally to women in your games. While I was head writer for Dead Legends, I felt like we were doing pretty good. I wrote the game’s setting materials on Queerness, Racism, and Sexism in a way that was inclusive/encouraging of diverse voices while not erasing vicious parts of history; our game’s population was exceedingly queer and celebratory of strong women; and in character, a lot of women had positions of power across various town groups. Then I started hiring staff. Over two all-calls for story team positions, I received one application from a woman. One. That was Julia Mae Staley who has commented below, and she’s been a completely BRILLIANT part of the team. But she’s only one woman. The game was at LEAST 50/50 parity between men and women, if not more populated by women. A dozen men were more than happy to work on the story team, but in a seemingly women dominated community, only the men were coming forward to work on story. We were clearly doing something wrong. (I’ll get into the fixes later in the blog.)

More recently, I witnessed a bright young, femme-presenting person in the Dystopia Rising community nearly be pushed out of positions she’d earned through plot and scared into taking a lesser role in character because she was accused of a range of awful things for just being a loud, plot focused person in the community. Much of the plot she managed wasn’t even staff run, but were things she was making for herself to create fun among a wide range of players without bothering staff. Dystopia Rising has done a TON of things to make it a more welcoming community for women and diverse voices. (I’m really excited about their new “Helping Hand” program, which helps in getting clothing and other necessary items to players going through transition.) They are great about putting women in positions of staff power and encouraging women’s voices to write. So, in this supportive community, it was saddening to see a femme voice being discouraged for all the reasons that women in positions of power are so often talked down. Our fellow players clearly still have a lot of work to do when it comes to supporting women’s voices, and I’m not just talking to the men-folk. Women do this to other women.

Some Common, Sexist Organizer Habits…

  • Letting women organizers do or direct the majority of the cleaning or after-game packing work (when it wasn’t her specific duties.)
  • Telling a woman she’s overreacting for bringing forward concerns, or that it’s “not as bad as she thinks it is.”
  • Hiring a man outside the project as an independent consultant or new designer because you didn’t listen (or want to listen) to a woman on your team
  • When a woman sets her boundaries, you imply your trust in her is weakened as to her ability to be a good organizer or staff member
  • Say you’ll do something something and then realized if you don’t, it’s no big deal, because the woman on your team will pick up the slack.

Not every male-presenting organizer does this. Few do all of them. But, I promise you every organizer has done one of them in the past. Think back to the last time a kitchen was left dirty — who was cleaning it? I’d put goo money on it being a woman. Even as organizations make changes to be better, it doesn’t help if half the players out there make empowered women’s voices feel unwelcome. Therefore, let’s look at what the community can do to actively combat these issues.

What Organizers Can Do To Help

Consistently employ, promote, and empower women’s voices within your events then stand up for them when the inevitable attacks happen. Make women’s voices louder than men’s voices where you can. Women have spent so long being put down and made quiet that balancing the scales with a bit of over compensation isn’t necessarily a bad idea. And that mission statement isn’t JUST about your staff, your stories, or your npcs — it’s about ALL of those things. When I looked at the staff-application response at Dead Legends, I realized we were still doing something wrong. Women didn’t feel empowered enough within our organization to step into positions of authority within the story staff. So, I started examining our base assumptions. When people sent out plot, was there always a man at the head of any gang/family/merchant company? (Unsurprising answer: More often than not.) In logistics, were men more often looked to organize getting plot out of the door or helping people remember stats? Was the majority of story we were telling the sort of plot that is more interesting to a traditionally male audience?

Just by habit, and the genre we were in, we unconsciously fell back into old assumptions despite our diverse player base. Therefore, I challenged our staff to double check themselves every time a plot went out the door. To cast the majority of powerful NPCs as women, not men. To write more women-centric stories and to encourage more women to step into positions of power behind the scenes. Sometimes, it takes a little more encouragement, because women have gotten so much backlash over the years, but it’s worth taking that extra five minutes of time to get a woman into that position.

That doesn’t change the all-call staff hiring issue, however. For Velvet Noir, I decided I didn’t want to put out an all-call for staff. I’ve seen so many times in the past a dozen men applying and only 1-2 women — I doubted this time would be any different. Men will apply for a job they only feel half competent at, certain they can handle it. Women won’t apply until they are certain they are 100 percent qualified. Therefore, I’ve done my hiring so far by direct offers. I see a woman, a non-binary person, or a person of color that I want involved and I just make a direct offer. I explain to them what I think they’d bring to the team and why I want their voice involved with the project. I immediately let them know WHY they are valued, and then offer them payment for their services. It saves my time and gives me a chance to directly praise, employ, and promote these voices within our community.

Lastly, organizers, when you see other members of your staff not doing this, step in and give them gentle reminders where you can. I get that it’s hard for us to be the morality police and that organizers are over stressed as it is, but these are flags worth flying. When I was head writer, after I made the decision to start really promoting women’s voices, I’d remind our staff during every meeting that they should be casting women as powerful NPCs and encouraging them in operations. My staff probably got bored of it, but every little reminder helps. Hell, if you have the energy and the time, those are reminders worth putting into your communities as well.

Woman laying in bed exhausted under spotted sunlight.
We really are all so tired. And we need your help.
(Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash )

What Players Can Do To Help

Double check your base assumptions, language, and interactions within the community as often as you can and call your fellow players out when they are being sexist. Women are so tired and we need to rely on our allies, PLEASE be allies to us. Here are some questions to ask yourself about base bad habits:

  • Are you annoyed at that player who got in on a plot because they did it in a disrespectful fashion, or because they were a woman who was just a bit more loud about things than others?
  • Did you call that villain an ‘evil bitch’?
  • When someone doesn’t want to go out on a mod, do you call them a pussy?
  • Do you comment on women’s larp photos as being ‘Sexy, hot’ or any other objectifying language?
  • When women make new characters, do you suggest traditionally sexist roles for them (healer, counselor, support classes?)
  • Do you shy away from putting smaller, quieter women on your team and only invite women into your circle when she’s proven herself able to be “One of the boys?”
  • Are you more comfortable protesting the calls of women staff members than men?
  • Do you criticize social-emotional plot more often that combat or political plot?
  • Do you harshly judge romantic roleplay (and the players who do it?) (Hint: Women, especially young women, tend to be interested in this roleplay and so it’s often looked down upon.)
  • Do you talk over women when they are offering plot solution suggestions?
  • Do you shove into plots where a quieter woman might be more fitting?
  • Do you criticize more women game runners on the internet than you do men game runners?

If you are saying of course you NEVER do ANY of those things above, I challenge you to double check yourself and seriously examine question by question, looking over your past actions. Even I have done several of the things above in the past and it wasn’t until I made the choice to consciously examine my learned habits that I realized how many sexist, privileged things had made their way into my community interactions. To be fair, I grew up in a sexist system. I learned these from the days where gaming was 80 percent men. But that is no excuse to continue doing them. If you fall into ANY of the bad habits above, make a conscious decision to double-check yourself and revise your thinking before going forward with your actions. Even a 10 seconds pause to really evaluate if you want to say those words can help with making your statements less biased and more welcoming to women in larp.

In conjunction, being careful about how you talk about NPCs and game runners is a huge part of this. I’m excellent at playing incredibly vicious villains in larp when I need. However, after every time I play a truly heinous person, the slew of compliments that come post-game are almost all along the lines of “Oh my god, you were such an evil bitch, it was amazing!!” “I HATED that NPC, she was such a c*nt!” They vary between using you or she, and while they are meant to be encouraging and excited about my roleplay, so much of the language centers around the gender of the character and sexist insults to the NPC that they no longer become fun to play. I see the same thing when players are talking about organizers they dislike. For men, they’ll discuss the actions that were wrong. For women, they will fall back on the words like bitch, bossy, overbearing, etc. When you talk like this, your fellow women players are listening. They see you treat women in power that way and there is a small piece of their brains that wonder if you talk about them like that too. Women are always listening, and every time you use sexist language, our brains get a little more scared, tired, or angry. Keep that in mind.

Finally, even if you are just a player, you can help with the organizer strategies above. If you are helping NPC, encourage women players to step forward into roles of power. “Oh, you’d be really great as the leader of that gang for this mod, why don’t we ask the plot staff if you can do it instead of me?!” Help women get more comfortable fighting, with the stats, and leading mods (not just following them.) Remind staff the more quiet women players are there and suggest them for empowering roles their social-emotional awareness would be excellent to portray (if the player is up for such things. Sometimes, people are just shy, always check in first!) In short, be the change you want to see in the community. And when you see other people falling into these bad habits? Call it out. Be our ally. We’re so tired of fighting constantly that it’s really nice to have someone else in our corner on occasion. In short, acknowledge you have bad habits along with the rest of us, put them in check, try to do better in the future, and be our ally when you see it in action. If we can all start getting into better habits, I have faith that the next generation of women in gaming will be far closer to having an equal seat at the table.


6 thoughts on “It Sucks to be a Woman in Gaming…

  1. Jeannie C Whited says:

    I remember back in the early 90s, when I started running LARPs with 2 of my female friends, the fact that we were GMs instead of players had a very statistically significant impact on the gender ratio of the players. Sometimes to the point that we had more men interested in romance plots than women. But as women, we wrote the characters we would want to play. Some of them just happened to be men instead. I like to think that this was a large part of why our games were successful. But you’re right – women are severely underrepresented in game staff at all levels. We’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Quest Quilts says:

    Well said! I was in a LARP for a few years, and I remember getting really frustrated that I was paying the same amount of money to play as the others but was constantly being left in the background. It seemed no matter what I did I couldn’t get out of being a background character. And that was more than a little annoying.
    And I like the section on how language, especially “bitch”, affects attitudes. I hated that.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Julia Mae Staley says:

    As the one woman who sent her application in and became story staff at DL – thanks for giving me the chance to shine. 🙂

    Also I agree, why is it that romantic roleplay is shunned? Even by female gamers? I feel like this is a topic in and of itself….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ericka Skirpan says:

      I put your name above with your permission now, so THANK YOU. You did amazing running things this weekend. Damn do I love watching your work. Seriously, you are brilliant and an amazing example to the community.

      As for why the romantic roleplay being shunned, set aside the fact that many people can’t do it in a healthy fashion. The truth is, it’s roleplay that women, especially young women, tend to pursue the most and many things that young women like are therefore degraded in the greater gaming scene. Lyn Hilton and I had a LONG discussion about this on Facebook and it makes me want to throw things.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Beth says:

    Thanks for posting this! The most recent blockbuster LARP I participated in, the big bad was female and the players came up with a slandering nickname for her- and the organizers called us all out for using gendered language (I can’t remember what it was, but something along the lines of what you mentioned with NPCing, above). I was so angry at first, to be shoved out of gameplay (feeling oppressed by this character and raging at my inability to do anything, in character). But they were right to call us out on it- not only was our behavior wrong and sexist, it was lazy and we absolutely could have done better. Constant vigilance is difficult, and I appreciate any organizers who help by being aware and not only *not* encouraging the sexism, but calling it out when it happens (without demonizing the offender, since often we don’t realize when we do that).

    I second the enjoyment of romantic roleplay. I ended up unintentionally making that central to my experience at a blockbuster LARP- there was absolutely no intellectual plots or puzzles set up by the organizers, and nothing “safe” for someone who freezes when dealing with confrontation/yelling/fight sequences, so the only play I found (thanks to a very talented and generous LARP buddy) was a romantic storyline of unrequited crush. Granted, there was no safe way to decompress and process after the LARP, because of the associated shame with it, but aside from that it was a fun experience. I wish it was encouraged more (and supported such that there wouldn’t be an issue with how to do it safely/healthily).


  5. Jake Hart says:

    I staffed for my local DR chapter from 2013 to 2017, helped pioneer the post office system that is now used at every chapter in the network, and assisted another marshal with bringing Larping While Bleeding to our chapter.
    And until the day I left staff, I had to deal with snide remarks about how I must have slept my way onto staff.
    Not to mention the slut-shaming, both IG and OOG, from players who were “just playing around”. And I could go into the body-shaming as well, but that’s more than I have space for.
    On an IG level, I stopped being nice and accommodating, which earned me a reputation for being a hardass and that my character would murder you if you annoyed her(for the record I have only ever killed one other PC in 7 years and it was consensual on all parties).

    I also have some thoughts about how femme characters are discouraged, either actively or passively, from pursuing the more violent offensive Advanced lists.


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