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RPG Laboratory

Girls and RPGs


Girls playing RPGs are traditionally rare. I've been seeing more of them as the RPG community is maturing but as 50% of the population, they're under represented. I've recently stumbled on some information that hopefully explains why. I don't have a complete picture yet but it's a significant piece. I want to explain, first off, I think that we need to understand why girls are different and then we may be able to make Role Playing more appealing them.

I have a few women in my gaming group. One has been an enigma to me. Sometimes she says she had a great time often when I'm not expecting it, other times she's totally disinterested. I know there are some things that completely shut down her interest. Usually it's when I get really technical, the thing is, she's smart and is pretty technical herself so I thought it would be right up her alley. But that's just one example of how she's tripped me up.

She is the reason that we've adopted the rule "All new girls at the game start out as Tank Pilots". It seems to suit new female players. I thought it was an issue with them feeling safe, now I'm thinking otherwise.

Now I'm going to cite an article that may at first seem entirely unrelated but I think it could be a strong indicator of girls' interest or lack thereof in games. I found this article interesting initially because of my daughter The Problem With Bright Girls. The article discusses how bright girls find early school easy and feel that they are just naturally gifted but when they start to have trouble, they feel like their natural talent has failed them. Boys seem to have trouble early on and have to struggle to make good grades. They learn that by working harder they can get past obstacles. Girls feel like they should be able to handle the obstacles with relative ease so when one hits them that is difficult they stop.

Now some may not like the implications here because it's saying that females are different than males. Some people don't like that but if you ask "Are girls the same as boys?" In many respects the correct answer has to be no. In general they grow differently, they learn social skills faster, they tend to have higher grades in the early years. Is this saying that females are less capable? No! But they do react to difficulty differently than boys and this may be a small piece of the puzzle as to why. Plus, it may be a learned behavior.

My thought is, isn't an RPG or any game for that matter all about obstacles? Obstacles that are designed to be difficult? What's more it's the character's ability that's important in most cases, not the player's. So if a girl (or woman as the case may be) is given this situation, she may find it distasteful because she would not have by choice, taken on that challenge. She doesn't see the task as a possible success, but as a possible failure. That's not fun, she sees it as annoying. Boys seem to love conflict, they throw themselves at it. Girls (again, in general) on the other hand would seem to want to be sure they can overcome an obstacle. The potential for failure isn't an exciting and interesting challenge, it's just plain dangerous.

Now I'm not saying all of that is true, especially not all the time. It does seem to fit with what I've seen when I've sat there and said "Huh, I thought you would find this fun. You liked last game, what's different?" In retrospect, it's been because she didn't feel comfortable with the challenge. Boys expect the challenge to ratchet up in difficulty and so as a GM I ratchet up the difficulty and now the task looks impossible to her. Even when the characters succeed, the situation is emotionally disturbing.

So that brings me to the Tank Pilot rule. The reason why this works is because it is a FOOS (First Order Optimal Strategy). The player starts off a powerhouse and stays that way. The player knows what the character is good at and can rely on that. When something is too tough for her, it is usually because it's an issue of hardware and everyone understands. If she avoids a fight that's too tough for a tank, no one questions it because the tank's stats are set in the game. This *might* fit with the girl's self image of being just naturally good at certain things.

Now most games don't have Tank Pilots, but the idea is that it's a good idea to start off a girl with a FOOS character. They start off effective. As they learn more about the game, they learn other strategies and their next character will probably employ them too. Boy's will tend to naturally seek things like high damage and armor they may even start out with "Which one lets me blow stuff up!" Girls don't always start off with that mentality probably because they learn early in life that hitting someone causes trouble and invites them to hit back. They find another way of dealing with it, they use social skills to become effective at beating their opponents so looking for how to be the most effective at hitting someone may not be an obvious strategy.

Now I'm going to generalize again, so for those female explorers out there don't get mad at me, just know this doesn't apply to you. Girls also tend to not want to learn the rules for crunchy RPGs. They don't just naturally know them and they can use their social skills to get the boys at the table to explain them. I think there has to be a better way to explain rules that girls will easily pick up. They learn rules for school and human interaction at an early age, so maybe they're not interested in going through a learning curve again? Once a girl gets the general rules to an RPG she starts to enjoy herself more. There seems to be a real fear of being ineffective where boys say "I'm new, of course I stink, being good requires practice."

So all this sounds like Girls don't want a challenge but that doesn't ring true either. More accurately, it would seem that girls want to pick their challenge or how to deal with a challenge. They want to deal with it on their own terms. If they don't know how to gauge an obstacle, they may find it preferable to avoid it in some way. Most GMs I've met are guys and that isn't in their plan. The GM wants the group to go through the obstacle. The girls don't like that the odds are not in their favor and want to take another path. The boys look at it an think "Yeah, we can take that on, we'll probably be near dead when we're done but we'll make it." which is unacceptable to the girls. The challenge they are willing to accept is one where resources are expended but there isn't mortal harm. Again that's not always true but it seems to be a good portion of the time how things work.

One last point, I think about Farmville and how almost any direction the player wants to go is valid. That's one model for a game that is appealing to girls. How can that be built into an RPG? There are plenty of ways, after all that is one of the mantras of good Role Play, "No railroading".

Not being a girl, I'm not speaking from a place of authority here. I am offering a very squishy hypothesis, which needs testing. So how can that be tested?

I've never liked these things

The issue that I have is that not we assume men and women are different. For the love of mike, we all that is true.

But we assume that ALL women want easy games. ALL men want to be challenged. In my experience, blanket statements rarely turn out to be true.

I've gamed with girls and guys of a dozen styles.
I play with complete disregard for what I want. My character does what he wants and what he believes is right... regardless of what I know. If he would run, he will run... if he would die... he will die. That is my play style.

The writer girl I played with was more interested in advancing the plot. She would play her character well, yet she would get upset if something didn't work the way she wanted.

One of the programmers I know is obsessed with min/maxing (God, I HATE these people. "I get 3 points from this, 5 points for that skill, and I gain a position bonus of 2 points... so I deal 46 damage to that annoying fly."

I've played with a gamer girl who was all about overcoming the challenge. While her characters weren't deep... she would play to their strengths. She would face the stuff head on.


Depending on our upbringing, our lifestyles, our friends, etc. We are all shaped into unique people and general statements about Man Vs. Woman don't consider this.

Using farmville as your example of a "Girls game" provides a clear example of what I mean. The actual statistics as of august last year were 53 percent male, and 47 percent women.

Farmville is a casual game. Fast and suited for small portions suitable for those of us who have a life and don't have time (or Desire) to play Mass Effect. When they talk about the 40 year old soccer mom, it's just their way of saying it's not for you mainstream gamers.

I'd say make a game that you feel would be most accepting to new players and casual players. I'd just be worried about actually making the claim that it's "For women" because that could alienate more people than it would earn.

Crazy as it sounds, I'm a guy who doesn't like explosions.

Not really what I meant

I'm not looking at a "Game for girls" I'm looking at games that girls would like to play. Farmville is the perfect example, at a 6% swing, it's statistically a dead heat. As women make up 50% of the population +/- 3% that's exactly the target. RPGs are not in a situation where they can say they have that kind of demographic split.

As I said, it's not that girls don't want a challenge, it's that they want the challenge presented differently or under different terms. Getting the terms of the challenge right is the key question.

Cowboys never quit!

I have no idea, man

I found that interesting that bright girls tend to mature mentally faster so they would generally find school easier at an early age, and then when other children catch up and school becomes challenging, they think, "This is hard. I must be doing it wrong because it was never hard before." That would cause someone to take a step back and try to figure out what they're doing wrong, rather than just do the hard work.

What makes games fun for girls tend to be what makes games fun for anyone, except...

Can I make a GNS comment without getting my head bit off? GNS is about what makes RPGs fun for people. Remember, I'm the admin; bite my head off politely.

I haven't gamed with any N girls yet. The girls I've gamed with care about their characters and want to see them do well. Either they want to "win" so they create min/maxed walking tanks. Or they live vicariously through their characters so they create a character that is idealized, like a girl who has trouble with first impressions makes a character that has a high charisma.

I don't game with girls that create a character that they do not like, and then play them in an interesting or exciting way that will probably ultimately lead to that character's unpleasant fate. And I play Shadowrun, World of Darkness, and Amber, games that have lots of girl players.

Maybe there are plenty of girls that play Polaris or Fiasco or Paranoia, but I don't know them. The ones I know are playing Amberites and cat shamen and cyborg supermodel assassins and sexy vampires and primal passionate werewolves.

I remember my last Shadowrun character absolutely boggled the girls in the group. He had fail written all over him. He was also unpleasant. He was short, scrawny, slightly insane, sexually ambivalent, and creepy. He was a conjurer, so he had neither cyberwear nor contacts nor skills nor spells nor astral projection nor awesome guns nor a neat car nor a cyberdeck. The game master was also female and she really didn't get this character. His life was a wreck. And I played the game as if I didn't know I was supposed to be earning karma, and in the rare instances I got it, I only spent it on more conjuring skill. I never used instant karma. If he failed a roll, tough luck for him. I never came out and said it, but I insinuated that he should get killed before he goes off the deep end and becomes toxic. (His totem was mouse so him going toxic would involve committing acts of bio-terrorism on whole cities.)

But I liked playing him. To me he was Columbo crossed with Danny Ocean, with the glorious personal life of Jim Rockford (meaning horrifyingly inglorious in case you've never seen The Rockford Files). My wife can't even watch The Rockford Files because Jim suffers so much. There is no way she would create a character to act out such stuff.

I don't know about 'lots.'

But I do enjoy a good game of Paranoia. On the other hand, I'm vicious like that.

I would also suggest a couple of other points. In some cases, there's an uneasy (sometimes self-imposed, other times not) pressure to meet or beat the guys - the suggestion that if you can't do as well as they can, it's because you're a girl. This makes roles like the Tank Pilot more enjoyable because it lessens that pressure.

The other thing is that in the face of an obstacle, particularly a significant one, I have a tendency to stop to consider whether going at it headlong is the most efficient or practical way to handle it. This is closely related to the 'girls want to pick how to deal with a challenge' point. Why go confront the dragon in its own lair to steal the Magical Item when you can just wait until it goes out for dinner? From my perspective, that's a Darwin Award in the making.

It's a cost/benefit analysis of different options, ultimately. I'm not going to go for an epic battle just because the GM (or anyone else) wants me to if I think there's a better option available.

I'm looking into Women in high position in business as a model

GNS is fine but even in real life, there is a divide between how men act in business and how women act. If you look at the numbers, the men in high corporate positions vs. the women in high corporate positions is close to the gender split in RPGs. That may sound like a unrelated coincidence, but I see a lot of behavioral similarities. High aggression, over achievement, closed social circles etc.

In business it has been found that women ask for raises less frequently than men even if their performance is far better. When asked what the key to their high performance is women will often answer that they were helped by someone or a team, men just say "because I'm awesome". It comes down to self perception and I think RPGs are designed around a male self perception and it is not easy for a woman to fit themselves into that.

Obviously some can, but it's difficult for the vast majority.

Cowboys never quit!