• How to keep girls in your gaming group

    by  • October 22, 2012 • Essays • 11 Comments

    So, you’re in an all  male gaming group and the group have a new player and she is a girl. You want her to stick around. Thank you, that is awesome. This is a guide for you and your group then. Because some gaming groups behaviors tend to scare off or piss off girls, making them leave the group, I want to tell you how to avoid that.

    This guide will give general advice on what to avoid and what to do if you want girls to stay and feel comfortable. This isn’t any absolute truth, we are all individuals and what make us feel comfortable or uncomfortable differs. But like in any social situation, there are still things that in general are a bad or a good idea to do. There is stuff that is a bad idea to so during job interviews, and there is stuff that is a bad idea to do if you want to keep a girls in your gaming group. But this advice is rough chopped and general, and reality is complex and nuanced. There are a lot of exceptions, but hopefully most of the advice will be helpful to you.

    This post isn’t written to protect women. Women are not fragile glass dolls that need to be protected. This advice is to guys who want to keep girls in their gaming groups. Because if the gaming group behave badly the girl is going to protect her self and say “Screw you guys, I’m going home.” Or she will suck up, endure, find a better gaming group at first opportunity and forever remember you as the group of immature guys that can’t behave around women. So what do you do, and what do you want to avoid doing? Let tackle it subject by subject.

    Social stuff

    The game is always more than the just gameplay. It is hanging out before and after the gaming, chatting and socializing. You want the girl to feel comfortable outside the game as well as well as when you are gaming.

    Don’t do this
    Do this
    Don’t exclude her from conversations, interrupt her all the time, or ignore what she is saying. Do include her in the conversation. That means listening to her, let her speak without being interrupted and pick subjects everyone can be a part of.
    Don’t treat her like “The Girl”, and don’t expect her to like girl stuff. Don’t expect her to be “just-like-a-guy” either and just like manly stuff. Do see her as an individual. Some ways she will probably be traditionally feminine, in some ways traditionally masculine. Accept all sides of her.
    Don’t call her weird gender-related nicknames. Baby, Sweetie, Sweetheart, Girl, Honey, etc. Do use her name, or whatever nickname she introduced herself with.

    Women in general

    How the group treats and talks about women in general at the gaming table will be important to if you want to make women feel comfortable. When you are the only member in the group of a certain gender, you will be pretty aware about how the rest of the group talk about their gender and treats them in fiction. Pay attention to it too.

    Don’t do this
    Do this
    Don’t talk badly about women in general or use condescending language about women. Don’t talk badly everything that is traditionally feminine. Don’t reduce women to gender stereotypes, even if they are positive (“Women are good at cooking”) Do talk about women with respect.
    Don’t have the only female characters in the story be damsels in distress, healers, mothers, hookers or superhot sexbombs. Do have a lot of varied female characters; stay away from tired clichés about women.
    Don’t focus description of female characters only on their bodies and whatever they are hot or not. Do describe more about women than if they are hot or not. Use description that say a lot about the character, not just their body. Pose, gear, body language, status etc
    Don’t make all the plots for female characters be about their reproductive organs.  Women aren’t just one set of genitals, aren’t just wives and girlfriends, aren’t just mothers, aren’t just sex objects. Do use female characters in all sort of ways in all sort of plots and roles in the story.
    Don’t ask or comment or joke about the female player’s or her character’s period. Just don’t. Period.


    Gameplay and mechanics

    Lets talk about how to treat women during game-play then.

    Don’t do this
    Do this
    Don’t expect her to like the same things and behave exactly the same ways as the guys already in a group. Do respect that people are different individuals. We do like different stuff, and behave different ways. Women and men are also socialized to like different things and behave different ways. Try to respect everyone at the table and if possible incorporate what everyone likes into the story.
    Don’t make her game suck, just because during much of human history it sucked being a women if she want to play a character her own gender. Do make her game rock. Be willing to be a bit flexible if she wants to play a girl in a historical setting.
    Don’t assume that girls are incapable of learning math or rules systems. Do assume that female players have just the same ability to learn the system as everyone else, but that all noobs need help in the beginning.
    Don’t take over the girl’s character. If she hesitates, or don’t know the rules system, or is a newbie, don’t decide for her what her character does. Do let her play her own character. Help her out if she needs help, but don’t make decision for her.
    Don’t assume she loves crunch and numbers. Don’t assume she hates it either. Same thing with gun battles, drama, ninjas and all other stuff. Do recognize that her taste is individual, just as every one else.
    Don’t overwhelm her with rules and nit pick about the rules in the beginning. Do help her with the rules is she wants help, but don’t turn the gaming session into a four hour long rules lecture and nitpicking session.
    Don’t put up weird limitation on what she can play because she is a girl. Don’t tell her she has to play a girl, or a healer, or a whore, or a pretty race or…. Do let her have the freedom to play whatever character she chooses, within the limitation of the game, just like everyone else.

    Sexuality and romance

    About the hot and sweet stuff. Sexuality, attraction and romance can be a part of both the in game and out of game interactions around the gaming table. This is subject that needs some extra care. Because if she is the only girl in an all male gaming group, and if the majority of the other players are into girls… Getting a lot of sexual attention soon gets both very awkward and very creepy.

    Don’t do this
    Do this
    Don’t constantly hit on her, flirt with her, joke about sex with her, spring sexual comments on her, comment on her looks, or try to get in her pants. Do respect that she is here to game, just like the rest of you. She’s not there to be the constant subject of sexual attention.
    Don’t constantly hit on her character, flirt with the character, joke about sex with the character, spring sexual comments about her character, comment on her characters looks or try to get into her character’s pants. Do respect that she’s there to game, just like the rest of you. Not to provide a character that can be the constant subject of sexual attention.
    Don’t as game master dump all the romantic and sexual plots on her. Really. See above. In addition to that it gets pretty boring.(Don’t dump it all on the female characters either. Romance and attraction happens to males as well.) Do give her as rich and varied gaming experience as every one else at the table. If you want sex and romance, that is great. But spread those plot over whole group, don’t dump them on the girl. If she wants romance and sexuality and initiates it herself, that is also great, but don’t press it on her.
    Don’t rape her character, rape all the female characters, or constantly joke about rape. Treat rape as sensitive subject and avoid bringing it up. Rape can be a sensitive subject especially if you are the gender that most often gets raped. Don’t bring it up all the fucking time. Even better, don’t bring it up at all unless you know each other well, trust each other and can have an adult conversation in the group if you all are comfortable with bringing up the subject of rape in the game at some point.
    Don’t make her character pregnant if you are the game master. Especially not after something raped her character. (Especially not pregnant with a demon baby after she been raped by demon. That is not original. That is a horrible overused cliche plot and it is all sort of triggery.) If you want to play a story about sex and the possibility of pregnancy and children talk with the players about it before the campaign and ask if they are interested in that kind of stuff.
    Don’t spend all gaming meeting pining after the female player and/or hitting on her if you are attracted to her. Do behave “professionally” about this sort of stuff during the gaming meetings. If you really interested in her you can ask her out on a date after the gaming meeting. Respect that if she not interested she not interested. Rejection sucks, but behave professionally during gaming meetings. Recognize that your feelings yours to deal with, and shouldn’t ruin her game.

    The other guys

    If you are reading the article, so I’ll assume that you want to keep the girl in the gaming group. But if you want to do that it not just about you behavior, it about the other group members behavior as well.

    Don’t do this
    Do this
    Don’t put up with other guys in the group harassing her. Tell them that not acceptable and to knock it off.
    Don’t ignore it if you see someone behaving in a way that you think may make her uncomfortable. Do bring it up in some way, or interrupt the behavior. Take a look at the our article about sensitive subjects. 
    Don’t bring that offensive guy you know that can’t behave around women into the gaming group when you invite a new player. Do bring more girls or awesome nice guys.
    Don’t let the other guys do any of the other mistakes on the list. Do talk with them and try to steer them away from it. You can send them this list if you want to.

    Closing words

    If you read the article and thought, “Wow? WTF? Do people really DO that? Who are these people that need this advice?” let me assure you that… Some people do. Especially when they are teenagers. When I asked people to share their experiences before writing this article I got over one hundred replies from female and male gamers. Many female gamers, myself included have had this sort experiences at some point of our gaming lives. Many guys have seen it. (The rape-demon-pregnancy was even a recurring theme.) Some people do need this advice, but thank you if you never been one of them.

    Most people do this stuff by mistake. We are all shaped by gender norms and gender stereotypes that exist in society and in fiction and that affects what we do. Consciously and unconsciously, making stuff that really bad idea seem like great idea.

    If you do think that this advice might be helpful to you, I thank you for reading the article. I’m happy if my advice can be of any help to you and you group or someone else you might know.


    (Thanks to Brianna Sheldon for help editing. )



    Elin Dalstål is a game designer, larp and convention organizer living in Luleå, Sweden.

    11 Responses to How to keep girls in your gaming group

    1. avatar
      October 22, 2012 at 18:02

      Excellent article. However, referencing sex in the way you do in the “women in general” paragraph implies being a woman is based on sex. I’d swap it for gender; it retains the meaning while dropping any cissexism.

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      • avatar
        October 22, 2012 at 18:19

        Thank you. I really struggled and got awesome help from the transwomen Gaming as Women, to avoid cisism, yet keep it accessible to the target group of all male gaming groups that might make this sort of mistakes. But I’m changing it right away.

      • avatar
        October 22, 2012 at 19:27

        As one of the trans women who was called upon to proof this essay, I kind of disagree. I think we assume that when someone uses the term “sex” we’re talking about some anatomical distinction, but “sex” is as much a social contrivance as it is anything (my driver’s license is the de facto authority on my sex, and I can get that changed in many states with as little as a therapist’s note). Point being, I don’t mind people using the word “sex” in place of the word “gender”, so long as they’re using them in agreement with my identity (which Elin is doing here).

        Other trans people may disagree, of course. We’re not a monolith. And even without, I’d say there is some latent cissexism in the use of the term “sex” when it comes to discussing non-binary individuals, because “sex” can only refer to one of two options, neither of which satisfy most non-binary peoples’ identities. But in this case, Elin was discussing binary-identified women and it wasn’t an issue for me. In fact, I rather appreciate that Elin sees my gender not only as “woman” but my sex as “female” (of course, I have the privilege of knowing Elin very well, and not everyone else would have that same insight).

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        • avatar
          October 22, 2012 at 19:34

          Nitpick: it is possible to have a non-binary sex. Either we’re defining sex as a synonym for gender, and female-bodied people as people who identify as female (which is legit, imo) or we’re defining sex as bodily configuration according to gender norms. In the former case, non-binary people have non-binary sex and gender. In the latter case, intersex conditions and people still exist.

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          • avatar
            October 22, 2012 at 19:40

            No, that’s totally true. I was thinking more the former, in which case there aren’t generally accepted terms for non-binary sexes…but then again, there aren’t generally accepted terms for non-binary anything. It’s a pretty big problem, and one that even binary identified trans folk (like my muddled self) have a hard time not fucking up around.

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    2. avatar
      October 22, 2012 at 18:19

      Yeah, a lot of this is uncomfortably familiar and you shouldn’t do any of it. Good luck finding players and filling games if you do – you’ll need it.

      I’d go a little further on romance plot, but I guess that’s because I’m a theater LARPer and I’m used to questionnaires. If you’re running tabletop or something else where there’s not a questionnaire for players to indicate via ticky-box what sorts of game experiences they’re interested in, it’s worth sending out an email or other missive asking them to indicate what sorts of game experiences they do and do not want.

      Those “do not wants” are super important, especially for players with a history of Bad Stuff and especially for new players, whose boundaries you may not know. Some of them are probably going to be relatively easy to write around, e.g. “I am really, really terrified of spiders and would prefer not to deal with them in-game.” Personally, I would not give anybody any romantic or sexual plot unless they indicate interest in that kind of thing.

      It’s okay to write low-agency/low-power characters, especially for a LARP, especially for a dark LARP or a very circumscribed one. I have really loved playing some characters who had no power to steer the plot and for whom the events of the game were mostly sad and passive/reactive. It’s not okay to give people those characters without making sure they’re willing to be tied to that metaphorical railroad. It’s likewise not okay – and super sketchy – to have all the low-agency characters be ladies and all the events they’re responding to be sexual/gendered/reproductive in nature.

      While a given character’s ability to do things and shape the plot does fluctuate (often in ways outside of GM control, especially for a bigger game), and while some people really enjoy playing powerlessness and hopelessness and sorrow, always be aware that a bored player is a bad thing for you and for your game.

      Also, re: other guys – your community only has to have one bad apple that the rest of you ignore for me to decide the whole space is icky and for me to refuse to attend or recommend your events. The decision not to exclude anybody or restrict the kinds of behavior that are okay in your space (e.g. by anti-harassment policies) is a decision to tell some people that they are not welcome and that your space will not be safe for them.

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    3. avatar
      October 22, 2012 at 22:10

      I’ve seen a lot of these in action (and I’m embarrassed to admit done some as well). It’s worth noting that a lot of this is just good advice for making anyone feel welcome in your group.

      There’s one instance from several years ago in college, in the first campaign I ever GM’d, that stands out and at the time I wasn’t sure how to handle it. I hope I would handle it better today. One player had his character grope the character of the only girl in the group while her character was asleep. It made me super uncomfortable as the GM and as another player in the game. I feel like it’s the GM’s responsibility to solve inter-personal problems between players and I did not know how to address that one (as a freshman in college, telling him to stop being a creepy sexist asshole didn’t occur to me). I felt like I couldn’t tell the players what their characters were and were not allowed to do unless it was against the rules. And I didn’t want to be accused of playing favorites (yeah, I know stupid on my part). Fortunately, the girl in question wasn’t going to let some jerk push her or her character around. She had an awesome response. She said that groping would wake her character and I agreed. Then she said that her character slept with her weapons close by and, if he was trying to grope her, he wouldn’t be expecting to be stabbed so was flat-footed and she could sneak attack him. She killed him in two rounds. I usually don’t allow players to kill each other, but I made an exception since he had started it. She killed another of his characters when he stole from her and he eventually dropped out of the game. Wish that I had addressed the issue.

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      • avatar
        October 22, 2012 at 22:15

        Sometimes I think this is the comments I like the most. From people who have grown, and changed. And would do better now. If you still in contact with that female player I think you should send her the link so she can read your rely. Because It can be such a relief in retrospect to know that people where on your side, and they remember it and been thinking about it.

    4. avatar
      October 23, 2012 at 15:44

      I’m aware that sex could be being referred to as self-identified sex rather than sex according to normative classifications, but there are trans people who classify their sex as different to their gender, and sex being referred to like that isn’t usually done inclusively, so I prefer using gender as a more clearly inclusive option and one that includes such trans people.
      As ever, I appreciate the edit.

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    5. avatar
      October 23, 2012 at 17:57

      This needs to be said, and needs to be said so much more often. Possibly, it needs to be posted, in chart form, in every gaming venue and gaming store and message board for online gaming.

      I’ve been gaming for over 30 years, since I was a tomboy fourth grader in 1979 or so. I’m a pretty assertive, stand-up-for-myself kind of person, who tends to play tough characters, mostly female, always dangerous. I have played dozens of systems, starting with the old wax-dice D&D, and I when I was a kid, I was lucky enough to not get stuck with creepy folks, there were between 1 and 3 other girls in our group. Thus, I have seen and experienced a huge spectrum of gaming environments over that time.

      Most of the overt sexist behavior I experienced occurred when in my teens and twenties, while expanding my social group. Since people tend to date within their social group, I have had gaming be a big part of my romantic life and social life, dating people in my own local group and going to games with a significant other, once we were dating for some time. I’ve been excluded and discriminated against once I was more obviously a girl, both in our local group, and at DunDraCon (decades ago) as “only a girlfriend;” treated to skeevy behavior from fellow players that was excused as “in character” and had more than one GM try to push me into playing characters that made me uncomfortable. I’ve noticed that creepy sexism is more obvious when I am either actually single or seen as an unattached female in a given group, and despite what you would think, actual flirting is much less frequent than the sexist downtalking/harassment/etc.

      I’ve responded in various ways, depending on my own self confidence and history at the time, including killing off my own characters, responding to defend myself in character and just plain walking out of games. I have avoided online gaming at least insofar as being open about my gender. Only recently did I decide to take a stand and make a female avatar for my Xbox Live account.

      In a discussion about this piece elsewhere, I shared the following experiences, which I am paraphrasing because some has already been covered above in my introductory paragraphs.

      I might add a specific injunction about this behavior: “Don’t use (or suggest using, or create situations the make it unavoidable) her character as a trade good without her suggesting it first.” I cannot tell you the number of times this has happened or been suggested, even when i was playing a badass of some flavor with the attractiveness of a rock. Trade good = suggesting that the female character in the party trade actual sexual favors for goods, services or information for the benefit of the rest of the party, rather than using other means to get those things, like her skills or money.

      I am another woman who has also experienced other characters (pc and npc) acting skeevy or outright threatening rape towards any small female character, to which i usually replied with in character violence (including death in at least one case – and our GM let my in character response stand).

      You also covered this in general, but I really want to make it more specific. Please don’t use a BS, arbitrary, game-mechanics excuse to force a female player to play a pretty, weak idiot when that is how the first set of rolls go. My experience of this went this way: Once, in my twenties, I rolled up a craptastic set of stats and the gm insisted I go with them in the order rolled, because he had arbitrarily decided that that was how it would be that day. He also insisted I play a mostly noncombatant class – a bard. My request to re-roll, to start over, got me labeled a whiner and an attempted cheat. I was told I had to play this character as female, because my suggestion to make her male made the GM uncomfortable (so he was probably homophobic as well as sexist, I guess).

      So, I got stuck with a character that was super pretty, weak, stupid, in a class I was not interested in playing. I actively tried to kill her off just to roll up a new character, but the gm wouldn’t let her die. She did get used as a trade good, without my consent, and was under constant threat of rape from a fellow PC, all in-character, because of the characters’ respective races (half-elf and orc, I think or something like that). I wasn’t the only girl in this game, but I was the single one and also the smallest, most conventionally attractive girl, and I guess this was some kind of nasty, horrible, gaming-specific kind of pigtail pulling flirting from that GM and another player. I quit that group after two sessions, and last time i saw “Barbie,” there was an axe in her head and the gm had figured out how to keep her alive. The other women in the group also quit, but a few games later. I imagine the sexism might have also shifted to them since I had refused to continue be a target.

      Maybe that brings me to another point – if you are in a group and one woman/girl/person is being targeted specifically for sexually harassing behavior, SPEAK UP. I have experienced the situation of being the one targeted and watched other women keep on with the “good sport” attitude. It hurts everyone when we don’t even speak up for each other. Was it because I was also seen as a sexual threat to these women? They were dating guys who were in the group. Maybe they were afraid I was going to take their guys. I have no idea. I was there to play, to hack and slash and dungeon crawl, find treasure and get roasted by dragons and kill shambling undead.

      Maybe that should be rule one: Everyone is there to game.

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    6. avatar
      October 23, 2012 at 18:30

      Don’t focus description of female characters only on their bodies and whatever they are hot or not.

      A neat thing about this one: I generally find that if I don’t even mention NPCs’ attractiveness one way or the other, it doesn’t tend to come up. The players imagine the NPCs with whatever level of attractiveness they like, and in the vast majority of plots it doesn’t affect anything.

      I haven’t specifically polled any of my female players to see if they agree, but for me it seems to let NPCs’ “hotness” be a non-issue.

      This isn’t to say I *never* mention NPCs’ attractiveness, but it’s pretty rare. It’s usually not useful to do so.

      Don’t have the only female characters in the story be damsels in distress, healers, mothers, hookers or superhot sexbombs.

      There’s a simple algorithm that really helps with this one:

      Step 1: Plot the adventure, including constructing most of the NPCs and establishing their roles in the story.
      Step 2: Randomize the NPCs’ genders.

      The order of these steps is important. 😛 It doesn’t always have to be done all at once – you’re certainly going to be creating NPCs on the fly in any given adventure, as PCs step into uncharted areas. But in general, figure out what an NPC’s role is, both in-universe (barkeep, soldier, monarch, farmer, slave) and in terms of story mechanics (giver of missions, living mcguffin, boat-anchor NPC, arch nemesis) and *then* choose a random gender.

      This won’t always work, but in most adventures, where you’re not going to be delving *too* deeply into most NPCs’ lives, it does a pretty good job of idiot-proofing the process of preventing female characters from being routinely shunted into a few tired pigeonholes.

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