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You know what really bugs me? The cover of the Shadowrun sourcebook Fields of Fire. You know, the merc book? If you have it handy, take a look at it. Notice anything?

Hmm. Seven-member runner team. Troll with big axe. Mage who looks like Paul Newman. Ork. Native American dude with gun. Dwarf. Some other guy. And...

This girl. I think she's an idiot. Who else would go into a firefight in a red dress that's barely managing to stay on? Oh, and that baseball hat is really going to fend off the bullets, isn't it?

Take a look at the other team members. All, coincidentally, guys. They're all wearing black, heavily-armored clothing. Even the mage looks like he just stepped out of Armored Personnel Quarterly. So what is this woman doing standing there like a walking target in a barely-there dress?

Don't answer that. I already know the answer. And it's damned depressing, if you ask me.

Every once in a while, I see a topic on the net about female gamers. You know, the usual—how to treat them, what they're looking for, and so on. These topics usually annoy me, because I don't like being singled out.

Okay, so there aren't as many women who play games as there are guys. For a long time, I couldn't figure out why. Many women love storytelling and roleplaying as much as (if not more than) many men. There are certainly enough game genres out there to satisfy the most eclectic of tastes. I still don't really understand why women don't play more than they do, but I have a few theories.

The first one is that gaming has been mostly labeled as a "guy thing." This bugs me a lot, the same way it bugs me that computers have been labeled a "guy thing." For some reason, a lot of girls (early teens and even younger) are fed the idea, consciously or unconsciously, that roleplaying games are for boys. Funny how most of the fun things to do usually end up being classed as "guy" activities. Unfortunately, it's a rare girl who can buck the notorious peer pressure of junior high and high school to start gaming, and a rare boy who can buck the same pressure and allow that girl into a game (unless of course the girls start their own game, or the boys are interested in the girl for reasons other than gaming). It's been my experience, though, that almost all of the female gamers I have met have shared some very positive traits—intelligence, independence, creativity, and a strong lack of attention to "the way things should be." Female gamers must be doing something right.

A lot of guys have never really dealt with a woman gamer, and are not quite sure how to deal with one if they encounter one. Sadly, the only contact many men have had with women in games is the "girlfriend syndrome," where one of the male players has brought his girlfriend along (sometimes unwillingly, sometimes at her insistence) to see what this gaming thing is all about. These women are usually bored stiff, and make no bones about showing it. Let me stress here that I realize that there are probably cases where girlfriends or SOs have been brought into the gaming "family" by such activities, but I've never seen it happen. All the female gamers I know play because they want to, not because they're currently attached to another player.

So anyway, let's take a look at what can happen when a group of male gamers who are unfamiliar with having a woman in the game ends up with a female player. Usually, female players play female characters. So here we have a female character in a party with a bunch of guys. What happens? Well, I won't generalize, but let's just say that I've seen enough instances of this to be able to assume it's not uncommon—the female character is treated differently from the males. Mostly, she gets a lot of attention. A lot of attention. In polite groups, she is treated with respect, but somehow the fact that she's female becomes more important than the fact that she's a veteran street samurai with two years in the Sioux Wildcats under her belt, or a combat mage who can toast people's brains with a gesture. In less polite (or less mature) groups, she's subjected to all sorts of unpleasantnesses, ranging from off-color comments (directed at the character, not the player, usually) to male characters trying to "protect" her to storylines that I won't discuss here but usually involve some sort of threat to her "honor," if you get my drift. Again, I'm not saying this happens all the time, but from reading the net and talking to other gamers, it does happen. And it's annoying.

I'll say right up front that I have not experienced much of this personally, and that's probably due to a couple of things. One, I just don't put up with these sorts of comments, and two, I always play male characters. I find that playing a male character avoids a lot of these hassles, and I actually prefer it. But a female player shouldn't feel like she has to do this to get respect in a game full of guys.

If I might offer a bit of unsolicited advice (hey, if you don't want it, that's cool—just skip out now. I don't mind) to male players who want to encourage female players to join their game, or encourage female friends to start gaming, here are my suggestions:

  1. If the woman has not played before, I suggest a gender-neutral game like Shadowrun or Champions rather than an inherently sexist game like AD&D (I don't mean this in a negative way—I play AD&D and like it. But let's face it: the whole medieval thing can get pretty sexist, even among the most egalitarian of gaming groups).

  2. How do female gamers want to be treated? Here's a secret of the universe: THEY WANT TO BE TREATED JUST LIKE EVERYBODY ELSE! Seriously: unless a woman is in a game looking for an SO, she's there to play. That means don't make a big deal about the fact that she's a woman. Just treat her like everybody else. Don't ignore her, and don't single her out.

  3. Rule #2 goes for the characters, too. Don't try to have your character start a relationship with hers unless she initiates it. Especially if she's new to gaming, try to tone down your "super-macho" character unless she seems comfortable with that. Don't make changes to accommodate her, but don't have Beavis the Barbarian start bragging loudly about his sexual exploits just because she's in the room.

  4. This is a peeve of mine, but hey, it's my page, so I'll include it because I'm sure it's gotta be more than just me: If she's running a male character, don't refer to him as "she." You're roleplayers, right? It's hard to get into that shared reality when somebody keeps referring to Ripper, the ultra-chromed street samurai who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger's buffer younger brother, as "she."

I've been really lucky in my gaming groups in that I've not encountered many of the kinds of attitudes I've discussed here. I've seen them, but not encountered many personally. The female gamers I knew in college were all very strong-willed individuals (two of them were GMs, and the other one would have whacked anybody with the temerity to treat her in a sexist manner upside the head with her shinai swords), and the ones I have met on the Internet seem to share many of the same qualities. It might be that these are the qualities that are common to the kinds of women who would enjoy gaming enough to seek it out. But remember, it's a bit of a hurdle for most women to try this activity that's traditionally considered a "guy" thing. For any guys out there who want to introduce female friends to this world, I hope you're successful. The hobby needs more female gamers, game designers, and GMs.

And artists. A female artist would have had that woman on the cover of Fields of Fire armored up just like her male counterparts.

Either that, or put some beefcake on the cover to go with her.