Women in gaming: the historical reality

Although somewhat biased towards equalitarianism, this history of the general absence of women in gaming goes a long way towards putting #GamerGate into perspective:

The final roster of almost six hundred IFW members, tallied in March of 1973, contains only one recognizably female name, that of Elizabeth A. Parnell. By the end of the 1960s, Avalon Hill faced stiff competition from Jim Dunnigan’s wargames company Simulation Publication, Inc. (SPI), who published the widely-circulated magazine Strategy & Tactics. Dunnigan regularly sought feedback from his broad readership to tune the contents of his games and periodicals. It was not until 1971, however, that the feedback questionnaires in Strategy & Tactics began to inquire about gender. The first returns that summer (published in issue #28) indicated that 1% of those surveyed were female, though that number is perhaps inflated due to rounding. At the beginning of 1974, on the next iteration of the survey, Strategy & Tactics reported, “We asked how many female subscribers we have. The number is roughly one-half of 1%.” That article goes on to explain their survey methodology, which they believed reflected “over 10,000 different gamers,” a sum they credibly represented as the largest study group available to the industry.

That figure, that roughly one half of 1% of “gamers” were female, is borne out by other contemporary sources as well. The “Great Lakes Gamers Census” of January 1974, assembled by the Midwest Gaming Association, tabulates more than one thousand gamers in the Midwest. It contains five recognizably female names: Marie Cockrill, Anne Laumer, Denise Bonis, and then two couples: Mr. & Mrs. Linda Anderson, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Pawlak. It was this overwhelmingly male community which was the target of contemporary periodicals branded for “gamers” like Gamers Guide.

How much attention were game developers reasonably supposed to pay to a group that made up less than one percent of their market? Notice that as with SFWA, it was the inclusion of fantasy that brought women into the mix. And in games, as in science fiction literature, the subsequent expansion caused the original pioneers to be largely pushed to the side:

The release of Dungeons & Dragons triggered a crucial intersection of two fandoms: wargames fandom and the group collectively known as science-fiction fandom, which included fantasy fans. This is significant because science-fiction fandom, while predominantly male, had far more gender diversity than wargames fandom. Exactly how much diversity has been a matter of some scholarly debate; a recent study suggests that as of 1960, science-fiction fandom was perhaps one-fifth female. Other data points show finer divisions: while subscribers to a hard science-fiction magazine like Analog might have been only one-tenth female, a survey of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — which published many of the fantasy stories that inspired the creators of Dungeons & Dragons — revealed that around a third of its readership was female as of 1966. Fans of that era, most notably Diana Paxson, invented the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation group which offered dramatically segregated, yet appealing, roles for male and female participants. However we measure it, science-fiction fandom attracted far more women than wargaming.

The big difference is that most male gamers understand and accept that, in the gaming hierarchy, they are third- or fourth-class citizens in gaming terms. The guy who plays Top Eleven respects that he is not considered as serious a gamer as Level 70 Elite Call of Duty player, who in turn understands that he’s not as serious as the average Eve Online player. Who, in turn, is not as serious as the wargamer, much less the monster wargamer. And even hard core wargamers tend to think that Advanced Squad Leader players are over-the-top. This hierarchy is simply recognition of the complexity involved in the game and the expertise required to master it.

Tell me that someone is an ASL player, and I immediately know that I’m dealing with a man who is intelligent, detail-oriented, patient, and capable of grasping a massive quantity of rules as well as mastering a considerable quantity of abstract concepts. Why? Because unless you possess those qualities, and possess them in abundance, you can’t even begin to play the game. The same is not true of a FIFA or Bejeweled player.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that prevents a woman from obtaining that high-level expertise. Any woman can buy War in Europe and start playing it tomorrow. Well, start setting it up tomorrow, at any rate. But some women appear to deeply resent that they are not granted the respect that comes from such hard-won mastery even though they have not put in the necessary effort to gain it. It is this petty resentment that sparked #GamerGate, as no wargamer is ever going to consider a Candy Crush Saga player his gaming peer. It is simply never going to happen, nor is there any reason why it should.

And as for the dearth of women on the development side, note that the very first female game design credit is for Battle of the Wilderness, published by SPI in 1975, only 62 years AFTER  men began designing wargames. I’m hardly ancient, and I have been playing wargames longer than women have been designing games at all.