• The Gamer Wife, Part 5

    by  • September 5, 2012 • Essays, People & Events • 13 Comments

    Favoritism and preferential treatment is a sticky topic. The fear and worry that surrounds this idea is deeply held and there are a million anecdotes that we’ve heard about it, especially in context of a Gamer Wife.

    Everyone’s heard a story or three about some guy who brings his girlfriend to the table and dotes on her constantly. Or the GM whose wife gets all the best loot and the best stories while everyone else just sits around bored. In fact, I’ve heard those stories so many times that I felt compelled to write this series of posts.

    Why, you ask?

    Because out of all these stories, I’ve yet to observe this massive bias. But wow have I heard a million accusations of it.

    Let me start by telling you a story of the second larp I ever joined. I had just started dating my spouse. I wasn’t an experienced larper. He’d honestly started trying to date me by inviting me over to make a character for his larp and then going for a movie. Turns out, that worked. Sure, the character we’d built for me was given a few things that weren’t normal for most players. He did that partially to make sure I’d have a character that would interest me enough that I’d come to his game and he could keep flirting with me, but also because he wanted to introduce a new element into the game and I was willing to do something different.

    The immediate perception of everyone else in the game had was that he was playing favorites. One player even told me that, in nicer words, and implied that I should be ashamed of taking advantage of my position as his new girlfriend. Other players would come to me to beg favors of my spouse. Or befriend my character because they believed that I would always win and get good things and thus by associating with me, they’d be treated favorably as well.

    In short, I faced a hostile environment because of course he was playing favorites with me. You know what he told me after the first game? He told me that since everyone was going to believe that he was playing favorites with me, he wouldn’t help me out with most things. He wouldn’t talk to me about character or downtime actions at home. He cut me off from most of his help because he didn’t want to anger the rest of the player base. I was kicked to the curb, in terms of GM time, in favor of the regular players. I was told that he had to favor me less than a normal player purely because everyone knew about the GM’s girlfriend trope.

    So I spent my second larp partially frustrated at the lack of attention I was getting and partially resigned. Because I, too, believed that it was important I not hog the GM time. Because favoritism is bad, m’kay? And asking for time or attention, especially at game, was bad and I completely internalized that notion.

    This also happened in tabletops, in those early days. I’d get worse loot, fewer opportunities, less interesting plots because he thought that giving me good things would be showing me extra favor. I grew more and more unhappy with my gaming experiences and, because the GM’s girlfriend thing was clearly a thing (I’d heard so many stories! It must be!), I thought that it had to be my fault somehow. The gamer wife had to be ignored to combat the evil stereotype.

    Well, that is until my unhappiness resulted in me finally getting angry enough to confront him about it. Sure, he felt bad. He’d also felt it necessary. Eventually things evened out. He backed away from some of the more shunning behaviour and I learned to be more forceful when I noticed I was being ignored.

    Of course, as I insinuated earlier, I’ve seen this same thing play out for others. I’ve seen one significant other show considerable disfavor to another because they didn’t want to dote on them. I’ve heard countless accusations of “Oh, of course they’re getting the good stuff. They’re sleeping with the GM”. Most of these weren’t meant as major insults but just statements of fact. I’m sure there are plenty of GMs out there who are bending over backwards for their significant other and ruining play for everyone else. But, from what I’ve seen, it’s not actually happening. It’s just a perception of what’s happening. I’m sure this post will get a pile of people telling me that they’ve seen the favoritism and yes, I’m sure that it does happen. However, I suspect that it’s a case of a small handful of stories ruining it for everyone else. These kinds of stories sound true and that’s often enough to convince us that it must be happening all the time. Not just that, but we often see small favors paid to a spouse which just makes the bigger version seem that much more believable.

    The belief is held so strongly that I was being given better and cooler things in play that I had to be treated as a second class citizen just to appear “fair”. And it keeps happening to other women because people are so afraid to be seen as playing favorites. They hear the rumors and the whispers too.

    Yes, I do get more time around my spouse. He’s my spouse. That’s normally how that one works out. But I’m not always pestering him about game. I’m not spending my days and nights asking rule questions or getting my downtime to turn out just right. Chances are good that we’re doing things that have nothing to do with game when game is over.

    So the next time you see your spouse at the table and worry about if you really ought to give them the plot hook rather than the person next to them, think. When was the last time to you gave them anything? Are you actually favoring them? Because if the answer is no, then stop acting like it.

    But what do you do when all the tension around expectations and stereotypes blows up? Next week I will address break-ups and relationship drama as it relates to the gamer wife ideal.



    I am a casual tabletop gamer and occasional larper who likes to hold forth on gaming in general and draws like a crazy monkey who was given coffee by accident.

    13 Responses to The Gamer Wife, Part 5

    1. avatar
      September 5, 2012 at 16:24

      “And asking for time or attention, especially at game, was bad and I completely internalized that notion.”

      “I grew more and more unhappy with my gaming experiences and, because the GM’s girlfriend thing was clearly a thing (I’d heard so many stories! It must be!), I thought that it had to be my fault somehow. The gamer wife had to be ignored to combat the evil stereotype.”

      “And it keeps happening to other women because people are so afraid to be seen as playing favorites. They hear the rumors and the whispers too.”

      Oh, these pieces right here. I think the biggest problem is these stereotypes that are so pervasive and spread so far and wide. It’s frustrating – and reminds me of the Fake Geek Girl thing that has become so common, as well. This kind of thing can really discourage women from playing! I know that this mixed with some handy built-in misogyny and history of couple drama at game made my first times gaming a nightmare at times.

      “Yes, I do get more time around my spouse. He’s my spouse. That’s normally how that one works out. But I’m not always pestering him about game. I’m not spending my days and nights asking rule questions or getting my downtime to turn out just right. Chances are good that we’re doing things that have nothing to do with game when game is over.”

      I would like to say that there’s nothing wrong with discussing game with your spouse outside of the table, though. In fact, I spend a TON of time talking about game with my husband (who is our standard GM), and typically he will use me as a sounding board and ask me about ways he could make the game more fun *for other people*. We rarely talk about my characters – we’ll talk about the adventure and the world building. And there isn’t anything wrong with that – because a good GM will have their door open for other players to do just the same thing, and will encourage players to ask questions or pitch ideas away from the table if they have them.

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      • avatar
        September 6, 2012 at 16:10

        I wouldn’t be surprised if the reason this trope exists is largely because of the Fake Geek Girl thing. This assumption that women are only actually at the gaming table because of their spouses and that you have to bribe them with better rewards and play because they’ll leave and then there will be drama (because we all know how prone to drama women are).

        As for your second point, I think that’s great! Collaborative world building is a lot of fun and should be encouraged. What one person builds, another can easily tweak and improve. In fact, I generally prefers games/worlds that are built by consensus rather than by GM fiat because then the world can shift to focus on what is important to play.

    2. avatar
      September 5, 2012 at 17:37

      This article: everything about it.

      There were a lot of times where I felt like I had to work harder than others to get cool shit in a game my husband was running. There were times when I did get something cool (after, what I felt, was working for it), and then dealt with harassment and favoritism accusations. There’s been lots of times that just I blamed myself for having more contact with the GM and, thus, more time to outline my ideas and expectations. There’s been times when I let a lot of people go ahead of me for cool stuff because, well, I was the wife and I’d get mine eventually. Or, I was asked to let all the others go ahead of me for that reason. And still I get cool shit a lot, because, I’m a fairly reasonably good player, I guess? Maybe not, and it’s just favoritism?

      All of the feelings.

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      • avatar
        September 6, 2012 at 15:55

        From my experience, there are two issues here. The first is that there exists an assumption that /of course/ the Gamer Wife will help out with game and assist and help run things. And the second is oddly that she should expect no compensation or reward for doing so because that’s blatant favoritism.

        The hard part, for me, is reflecting on all the times that I internalized this trope and spoiled my own fun for the sake of others who were absolutely convinced that I was getting undeserved favors. No one should have to sacrifice their own fun just because other players are making assumptions.

    3. avatar
      September 6, 2012 at 03:14

      Having gamed for nearly three decades now, I’ve experienced various versions of this. First, does the “GM’s Spouse Syndrome” exist? Oh yes. Yes, it does (and regardless of gender and orientation). It’s not nearly as prevalent as people think, but where it does exist it’s very difficult to discuss objectively with the principals.

      The most blatant case I played through was four-year Legends of the Five Rings campaign, but every single game we played with that male GM and his wife showed the same symptoms: he desperately wanted her to be pleased with the game (and, in my opinion, to make up for his bad behaviours in real life). In the L5R game, we found a grand total of six magic items of any kind for player use. All six went to his wife’s character. We tried at different times to discuss why that wasn’t fair, and he always got very defensive, retreating upon the “Well, she’s a Crane!” — an answer that really, really didn’t fit the Ryoko Owari setting. If anyone made a difficult skilled roll but his wife made an average success with an unskilled roll, she got all the info, contacts, loot, etc. There were similar problems in every game he ran. But the reason we put up with this is that the wife was and is) actually a very nice person, a good player, a reliable friend, and an all-around good person. We all preferred to put up with it and keep gaming than cause the game to collapse. Nonetheless, after four years I was finally disinvited, or rather not invited for the next campaign. I still like the lady, I just think her husband is not big on fairness or empathy.

      Second item — the receiving end. Like you, Finaira, I first found my husband to act tougher on me than on other players in reaction to the GMSS, which he had also had bad exposure too (equally bad case, but I only heard of it second-hand by the players, I wasn’t in that campaign with yet another GM and wife duo.) I gave it a little while to see if I was being overly sensitive, but after about a year I pointed out the phenomenon. He agreed that this was happening, and apologize. Since then, we’re careful to discuss any related issues when one of us is GM, and things have been going fine. It’s certainly possible that one or more players may have thought there was some favouritism at work, but if so they didn’t bring it up. I feel confident we are walking the line of fairness.

      One thing that may have helped in recent years is that we are more and more playing games that encourage common creation of the setting and story, with transparent secrets, in which players get a lot of enjoyment in putting their own characters in trouble. If the object is to meet and overcome interesting adversity, then favouritism takes a different flavour and, I think, becomes less of a threat.

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      • avatar
        September 6, 2012 at 15:57

        I definitely think that games that encourage group collaboration help a bunch with this problem. Because then if there is favoritism, or the corollary of reverse favoritism, it’s blatantly obvious.

        It may be one of the reasons I also prefer these kinds of games these days, but I’d probably have to examine that in greater detail.

    4. avatar
      September 6, 2012 at 05:30

      “Sure, the character we’d built for me was given a few things that weren’t normal for most players… because he wanted to introduce a new element into the game and I was willing to do something different.”

      Did he tell this to the other players ahead of time?

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      • avatar
        September 6, 2012 at 16:01

        What an odd detail to decide to single out. Huh.

        Yes, the other players knew that I was getting a special vampire clan. However, that detail wasn’t even unique in the game. About a quarter of the players had something different or special to introduce specific elements. The interesting thing here wasn’t that I had a special clan, but was that none of the players cared that I had a special clan. What they cared about was the perception that I’d get more xp at the events or my downtime actions would always be more successful than theirs. Of course, none of that was true. Other players who had special clans/items/abilities actually did get extra things to make their unique elements interesting. I did not.

    5. avatar
      Mattia Bulgarelli
      September 6, 2012 at 10:16

      I experienced (suffered from) a lot of favoritism on a Vampire LARP (we were in our 20s).
      One newbie (male) player started with more or less twice the skills and powers of other players: he was (wait for it) the (male) cousin of one of the main Game Masters.

      I think that this may happen in every game where the GM has the power to make and unmake rules at his whim, and it’s not a matter of being evil or taking advantage… if the GM makes most of the calls, he’ll be inclined to listen more to the people he knows better, not even knowing it!

      I was the main GM for most of my gaming life, and I was accused of playing favourites for someone every now and then. And of course I was! I was responsible of “encouraging good play” by rewarding more experience to whoever I liked the most (in play style)!
      Now, I don’t play games in need of such judgment anymore… and “indie RPGs” help a lot, with their built-in rewards, not needing anyone responsible to assign them.

      I also have another experience from when I was 15 or so. A certain (male) GM admitted he was playing NPCs to impress the only girl in the group. It didn’t work well (socially awkward teens, what did you expected).

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      • avatar
        September 6, 2012 at 16:05

        Yes, again I agree that a lot of gaming systems do support a kind of play that will necessarily favor one player over another. A lot of games require some kind of reward mechanism that involves “handing out candy”, as it were.

        No denying that people are rarely impartial and that of course we favor some players over others. And yet the number of times I’ve seen women (or heard women) be expressly disfavored is far out of proportion with the number of stories involving a woman being given too much favor.

        As for the playing characters only to impress girls, I’ve seen that. It’s funny and frequently sad. But I mostly think it’s funny.

    6. avatar
      September 6, 2012 at 18:54

      It’s not the majority of gaming sopouses (I had really well working GM-Player couples in games, too), but it DOES happen. As does the opposite (the marginalised spouse), which is just as bad for the mood at the table. It’s not only spouses either, it can also be best buddies or siblings. In all those cases the GM just failed to do his job.

      Sorry that your then boyfriend did the opposite, which isn’t fair either. Him mixing dating (which is all about impressing your dating interest) and GMing (which is all about being a neutral, balancing figure, charged with making the game fuin for everyone) is … well, to put it mildly, very clumsy. It puts everyone in a very bad position: You, as the new face, are introduced as a date interest, with a character who has nonstandard stuff/abilities, and probably him introducing you as his date to boot, just so everybody is as suspicious of you as possible without you having actually done anything. His players, because introducing a new player and saying there’re special rules for her, oh and also they’re newly dating is bound to raise a lot more suspicion than saying “Hi, this is my new girlfriend, she was curious about the game and wants to try it out, we also made a character with some new stuff I wanted to introduce anyway so listen up: [stuff]”. And also himself, because he managed to maneuvere himself into a position where he has to either annoy his date or his regulars. Then he seems to have annoyed both. Job well done.

      I’ve seen both happen, but for me, the favoritism versus marginalisation of spouses was at 3:1 in favor of favoritism. Neither case was good for the game, to say the least. Now, all my examples are pen&paper, since I never got into LARPing, myself.

      My first encounter with that kind of favoritism was actually a male spouse who was dating the GM (female). They went a long way back and had previously played V:tM together, also with her being the GM and him being her, well, pet player. It panned out as his character always driving the story, everything being about the abckground of his character, with the other three of us being entirely sidelined and sometimes ignored for half an hour while they discussed out how he could save his missing daughter from time traveling mayan spirits. This is one of the games I went from, parting with rather nasty words.

      Then, there were a couple who both alternately GMed and played, and always gave each other the good stuff. As in, have an adventure entirely based around the idea she needed a dragon skull for a magical item, or him needing to take down the enemy Yakuza boss of his character. Again, the other players were purposely sidelined – as in, their characters were bogged down by hypersuperior enemies tailor made to keep their characters as inefective as possible, who then – literally, in one case – lined up to be sliced to pieces by wifey’s or hubby’s character like 16 bit era AIs. I also ran a game once, where both played – and then ganged up on me when something happened after her character did something extremely stupid. Essentially, her character, having a mild phobia of dragons, walked into a dragon-cntrolled town, saw the town dragon, and did the only sensible thing – summon a thunderstorm across the entire city that struck hundreds of people dead with lightning. They were quote upset when I informed them the dragon was really pissed and would be coming for them, calling me unfair and attacking her precious character for no reason at all. I kicked those two out of my group, and we haven’t spoken since, good riddance really. Funny thing is, people who knew him before insist he wasn’t always such a dork, but in my experience, he was the worse of the two (she was … well, just generally stupid and emo).

      There also was a third blatant pair of favoritising GM/players, similar to those above, and a bunch of buddies in my very first group who always had the other have the loot and left the rest hung out to dry – as in, Favourite finds a fully stacked and stocked APC on the side of a road, with a case with cash in it, while in the same adventure my character’s helicopter is shot down by GM fiat. This actually happened as blatantly as I say.

      The reverse happened only once – to me. Because I was entering a gaming group which an old, now former, friend ran, and my character was a bit more advanced than theirs. I always got less XP, less loot, and often lost more gear than the payment made possible to buy back. It was always chalked up to me having a slightly more advanced character at the beginning (to make matters worse, the GM, himself heavily invested in fringe esotheric crap, showered the mage and adept [Shadowrun] in magical items worth millions while denying my character to buy something as simple as a recon drone). That did not end well at all, we had a big falling out because I tend to bottle up and then explode, which isn’t very wise but something I somehow cannot help. Anyway, the group dissolved after we were shouting at each other and then refused to talk again.

      In all these cases, the GM wasn’t worth shit. He failed at the most basic thing a GM has to do – make sure everyone enjoys the game. That can be tricky, that can mean asking players to leave if their ideas are not meshing well with the group’s consensus. That also needs a group consensus on gaming style to begin with. GMing is a lot more work than playing, hands down, andbeing a regular GM and rare player, I’m all for giving GMs credit, but that can’t and shouldn’T mean not calling a GM on his mistakes. And if nothing else – how is the GM supposed to learn they’re screwing up if nobody tells them? People are not telepathic. If something annoys a player, it’s best to bring that up. Communication doesn’T happen if you withdraw and look ate veryone surly. Few will bother to ask you what your deal is, most will just assume you’re a surly killjoy and be annoyed. The response to open criticism is usually more helpful. And if not, as I wrote in another comment – WALK. Because there’s no sense in staying put in a group you do not enjoy just because you assume it pleases people.

      “As for the playing characters only to impress girls, I’ve seen that. It’s funny and frequently sad. But I mostly think it’s funny.”
      Personally, I think it’s pathetic.

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    7. avatar
      September 19, 2012 at 16:40

      Reading this made me feel how lucky I’ve been with my current gaming group. We rotate the GM role and when it was my boyfriend at the helm, he was very careful to keep things balanced.

      I do have to say it became a running joke that if he killed my character (which he didn’t, but not for lack of trying) he was going to be sleeping on the couch.

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    8. avatar
      September 19, 2012 at 17:02

      This is a great series.

      The thing I hate about the “gm’s girlfriend” expectation is that it means I can’t ever GM fairly for my wife, because I’m always thinking about and analyzing everything to make sure I’m treating her the same as everyone else. But constantly examining every piece of equipment or story hook and trying to balance it against everything else in the game isn’t what I do for everyone else. And it’s exhausting. I just can’t let go of worrying that people will hold it against her if I do a bad job GMing, even though I think that no one we play with really would.
      My wife is always way more aware of who has been left out of a particular session and will point out that I was excluding some one outside of the game session so I can try to balance it out better for the next game. In the end games are probably more fair and more equal because she’s playing with us, but no one’s ever going to see that.

      I have seen GM’s play favorites, but I have never been in a game where it was done with a significant other (though I have heard many stories). I think in many cases it would be more accurate to call it, “GM’s favorite class” because I have way more experiences where the player playing whatever class the GM liked was rewarded disproportionately.

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