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?