Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 15/10/2014

Women and (professional) wargaming


PAXsims has commented a number of times (most recently here and here) on the small number of women among professional gamers in the national security community. To discuss why that is, whether it matters, and what might be done about it, we convened a panel of experts for a virtual discussion.

Participants have been provided with pseudonyms. The views they express are personal ones, and in no way should be taken as representing the official position of the governments, agencies, companies, corps, or secretive cabals for which they may (or may not) work.

Welcome everyone to the PAXsims symposium on women and professional wargaming! Before we start, I would like to introduce our guests. Three of them are experienced analysts and gamers in national security, with “inside” perspectives: South Seas Sally, Malapropos Molly and Svalbard Sue. The fourth is looking from the outside in, as a hobby gamer and student of international security with a research interest in professional wargaming: Harriet Hex.

Welcome everyone!

Everyone: It’s great to be here!

I would like to start by asking everyone if this is a topic that should even concern us. Does it matter that women are so underrepresented in wargaming? Why? Or, perhaps, why not?

Svalbard Sue: That’s an interesting question especially because I’m not sure that the women writing in this forum don’t have more in common (or look more distinctive from the rest of the field) because of their training and outlook in the social sciences and partial affinity to academia as because of gender. A lot of wargaming is figuring out how to break down a problem to represent it in a tractable and yet empirically reasonable way and much of my professional frustration is the difficulty of getting the fairly action oriented personalities that land in defence ministries and on major staffs to consider issues in a more considered and less knee-jerk light. (I have privately cursed more about the impact of regional studies and lazy low end constructivist approaches on getting people in defence to think about problems then on those people’s approach to women.)Grumbles about ambivalence to positivism aside, I’m not sure the number of women in wargaming is remarkably disproportionate to the proportion of women in defence, as a whole. And I think this tends to be reinforced by the fact that people often get into gaming as an auxiliary to another specialty, which I think is generally a good thing. People who have done other things and spent time thinking about defense problems in other contexts can bring really useful tools to the table. I think having another set of expertise is personally useful, too, as gaming as a career could end you up in an odd professional cul de sac, with some potential for lateral movement but not a lot of advancement. And while you’re doing gaming, you can develop some broad experience on a range of topics, but that can come at the expense of developing subject matter expertise in anything but methodology (which is a subject of, ahem, uneven interest amongst gamers and defence analysts).

That said, the issue of gender and gaming is important, if you think this outside experience matters because gender certainly impacts the experience that arrives in the gaming community in the defense world. While the staff building and supporting strategic level games tend to be more gender integrated, those writing games on topics that touch on more operational questions or planning related ones, less so and this is, I think, largely due to prior experience. I assume women are underrepresented where gaming touches on more operational issues because of bias in hiring towards those with a military career with operational experience. So, that may change with time as military career options for women expand. Then again, one recent report noted the hiring of women in the U.S. Federal Government has fallen off quite a bit in recent years, due to veteran’s preference in hiring (something like 80% of preference-eligibles are men) and is anticipated to continue to do so.

Malapropos Molly: I’m of the mind that not every gender gap needs to be closed. Some gender gaps are significant but some are not. For example, the press is currently debating whether it matters that more men than women ride bikes. I’m with the side that says it doesn’t matter. It does matter that women find it nearly impossible to raise venture capital in Silicon Valley, but not that they ride bikes less. There are also gender gaps that I wouldn’t want to close, such as the lower rate of pedestrian deaths caused by women when driving as opposed to men. There are also many gaps that fill in over time, such as overall employment rates, educational attainment, math scores, etc.

Should we worry about a gender gap in wargaming? On one hand, I’m not entirely sure that being on this short list of women in wargaming is a sign of success as much as it is an indication of random events combined with poor life decisions. Peter Perla, who we would all identify as someone highly successful in the field, welcomed me by saying he was tired of rolling the stone up the hill and having it roll back, rolling the stone up and having it roll back, etc. Now, he said, it was my turn. Given that the man who literally wrote the book on wargaming was comparing a wargamer’s lot to a special hell devised by the gods, it did give me pause. A wargamer’s life is an unglamorous and unappreciated one. Is it really one I can wish on more women? On the other hand, women have always fought for the right to make bad decisions for themselves if they want, and I certainly honor the spirit.

I believe that it is crucial for the field of wargaming to have more women. That is, while I would not think that wargaming is good for women (or men), I think that women are good for wargaming. Why?

One is that the current U.S. population of wargamers is a small demographic pool that is getting closer every year to retirement. Growth in any direction is good at this point, guys. But it would also be good for wargaming because there are differences in the academic backgrounds that women in national security and other areas bring to the table that are currently missing in the conversation about wargaming. The present population of male wargamers tends to have backgrounds in math, physical sciences, engineering, or are self-taught by having spent a childhood playing board games. While these backgrounds definitely have value add, this leaves the community overall with weaknesses in formal knowledge about social processes. Social sciences and social science methods are highly, highly applicable to wargaming and which have the potential to improve rigor in wargaming, and women are now the majority of social scientists.

There are other fields where women are also more dominant, such as education and professional facilitation, which I feel should also be brought in more systematically to wargaming. So if you take women as a proxy for greater diversification in backgrounds, I think this is why it would be important to have more.

South Seas Sally: While women are nothing like 50% of the field, I think it’s a very open question just how underrepresented they are. Women are a very small portion of the individuals presenting at professional conferences and publishing about professional wargaming. However, I suspect that if you tally up all the people who actually create professional games, rather than only those presenting and publishing, women would be a much more sizable portion of the field.

Quite a lot of gaming is done at large contractors, where junior staff members are moved from project to project. Because gaming is unlikely to be a particular focus for these individuals, and because they are often fairly junior, they are not very likely to engage in the major conferences, roundtables, and publications, and thus they aren’t counted.

This “silent majority” of gamers represents a big problem for the field. The longer gaming is seen as something that doesn’t require specialized skills and training, the more bad games will be run which discredit the field and are an expensive drain on critical national-security resources. That so many practitioners don’t reach out for resources, either because they don’t know they exist or because they can’t find them, also implies that those of us who are doing work in the field need to be trying harder to make our work accessible.

It is troubling that it seems like women are less likely to move from the “silent majority” to the core professional community, but it is also not very clear how anyone makes that transition. I think once we have a better handle on those barriers, it would be easier to understand what, if any, role gender has to play in who makes it through.

Harriet Hex: I tend to agree with what others have said. I think that having a more diverse set of participants encourages a more diverse range of perspectives. Since wargames are utilized as a tool for the discovery of “unknown unknowns,” having a Bunch of Guys with Similar Life and Professional Experience Sitting Around a Table seems like the way to uncover exactly one type of unknown unknown.

For a more personal perspective, I do believe that the underrepresentation of women in all types of gaming is absolutely problematic because surely there are plenty of women out there in the world that would love to be involved and yet would never imagine it as a possibility for fear that their a) involvement in such a community would not be fruitful to them as women or b) they might be alienated from other communities by breaking from the norm so drastically. All of this would become a nonissue if the presence of women were more common. In that way, I would think closing the gender gap would involve a sort of snowball effect. Then again, change will be more a consequence of broader societal shifts, and perhaps nothing “needs to be done” by those specifically within the wargaming profession.

As a side note, I think this is also true for women in the military. Many people still seem to think that you have to be a “certain kind of woman” to want to be in the military and especially to want to be in a combat role, which remains controversial in the US. I think that is simply because the women who do join these days tend to be more open to challenging gender roles. As something becomes normalized, perhaps more young women will be interested in doing it.

Several of you have mentioned some possible barriers to professional entry for women gamers. How might these be addressed?

Malapropos Molly: “Barriers” suggest roads or paths, and I’m not sure that there are very many direct paths into wargaming. I think that finding your way into wargaming is more like finding your way into Narnia— good luck trying to get there on purpose or on your own timetable. I agree with my colleague Archapelago Annie who noted a few weeks ago on PAXsims that you have to find your way into the national security community first. So this is where you have to build your credentials and expertise. Once you’re in, you might be able to make it into wargaming. But I don’t know that anyone hires for wargaming skills or knowledge – they appear to hire based on an entirely different set of criteria. But this is true for men as well as for women.

The problem is that those who are skilled in wargaming usually aren’t the ones in a position to hire other wargamers. I know that seems odd, but that’s the impression I have. So even to work with wargamers who want you, you might have to pass a set of criteria created with something entirely different in mind – often it’s a narrow, technical skill set where the people who are really good at that skill set sometimes don’t make eye contact. I’m not exaggerating or trying to be funny. This is actually true. The entire system is broken, because it systematically misallocates people in wargaming. I’m not sure how to solve this problem. Wargaming is not a path that leads to upper management.

Harriet Hex: I think that a major barrier to entry into professional wargaming remains the inherent residual sexism of some of the hobby gaming community, as well in related other hobbies like video games and card games. Historically girls have faced discrimination from society writ large as well as from inside the “geek” community itself for participating in said community. However, a lot of this has changed recently. Anecdotally, I notice just about as many women as men playing board games with me these days. Especially in the eurogame genre—think Settlers of Catan.

Additionally, being a nerd is no longer a nail in the social coffin, it is now even COOL to be so passionate about your gaming hobbies. Moreover, there has also been a great deal of pushback against sexism in geek culture—remember the “fake gamer girl” debacle?

I certainly have experienced these barriers in hobby games and other geeky things. In fact, during my two years working my local comics and cards store, many of my guy friends said I only got the job because they were looking for a token female employee. Never mind that my pull list was a foot long. In the past 5 years of so, I have seen that perspective change. That may be in part because of the discussion that is now taking place but I also think it a consequence of normalization of other groups (ages, genders, nationalities) participating in a subculture that was once compromised almost entirely of suburban American kids in their parents’ basements.

Why does this matter? I think interest in hobby games tends to contribute the eventual pursuit of wargaming as a profession.

How comfortable are you working as a women in a male dominate field? Is there an “old boy network” or “locker room” problem?

Malapropos Molly: I’ve been in traditionally male-dominated areas since high school, so this is the only life I’ve ever known. Who knows, maybe I would have trouble in a female-dominated industry at this point! As for the idea that there might be a “locker room” problem in wargaming, remember that the community is mostly geeks, not jocks. These are the guys who had trouble hitting on women.

I’ve had a positive experience where many men have acted as mentors and have gone out of their way to encourage me professionally. One of them pointed out that being a younger woman in a field of middle-aged white men made you more memorable to everyone, and that that was an advantage. I recently spoke to a young guy at a major defense contractor, who told me that most of the upper management in his company chose to hire and develop attractive young women to grow in business development, but that his boss had seen enough in him to buck the trend and bring on a white male. So I think the world has changed a lot in recent years.

Svalbard Sue: I’m very comfortable, although it’s not to say that I don’t every once in a blue moon end up on a project with more women than usual and really enjoy it! On the relatively infrequent occasions that I’ve worked with senior women, in particular, I’ve usually learned a great deal. I have certainly encountered unhelpful assumptions or inappropriate behaviour because I’m a woman…but I have not found it difficult to dispatch. It’s worth noting that the most persistent inappropriate behaviour stems, in my experience from inept or toxic leadership and those are offices that it’s just worth leaving.

South Seas Sally: I have found being a woman gamer much less difficult than I have found being a woman working in national security and defense.

As a gamer, I have been really grateful for the amazing mentorship and opportunities to interact with very senior members of the field as a peer very early in my career, in a way that I haven’t seen in many other national-security disciplines. Male and female peers have gone out of their way to encourage me and make sure I felt safe at conference and other professional events. Like Molly, I also think being distinctive because of my gender has been a professional help —people are more likely to remember me (and thus my work) between events than they would the typical white, middle-aged man named Chris, John, or Paul.

However, gaming is a very small field, and there was a lot of luck in how I got in the door. Because I made it in the door, it’s hard for me to say that gender (or age) has not been a factor that prevented others entering the field. Because there are so few gamers, and even fewer women, it’s hard to get a big enough sample size to say that the fact I haven’t had a problem means much for the experience of others.

It is also true that national security outside of gaming is not easy to navigate as women, and that a career in gaming requires interacting with this broader community. When facilitating games and working with clients, I am very conscious of my gender and how it can impact my ability to do my job. While I’ve never had a specific problem, others I know have and that knowledge does impact how I act.

Harriet Hex: I must admit that at times I have been uncomfortable witnessing some very sexist comments.

Sometimes, simply being different can be uncomfortable and make one self-conscious.

I do think the old boys club will die slowly. The question, as always, will be how far and in what manner newcomers wish to continue old traditions.

That being said, the vast majority of my experiences have been very positive for me. And like the others here, I have had many male supporters of my work and interests. I usually do not feel that I am treated any differently because of my age or sex, especially in a negative way or in a manner that would suggest I am less capable.

Many professional gamers are hobby gamers too—and the hobby is overwhelmingly white, male, and middle-aged. Why aren’t there more women hobby gamers?

Harriet Hex: I think part of this has more to do with generational adoption of gaming. Wargaming with a million little chits and technical combat systems may be fun for some gamers today, but it certainly is not the trend. I think in this case this is simply a question of experience and exposure. I love D&D as well, but I never would have been able to wander into it alone (obviously, since it’s a social game), I had to be brought into the fold by others that already knew the rules and what was so amazingly fun about it.

I do my best to show everyone around me all the cool stuff I find and that’s exactly how I was exposed to wargaming, both as a hobby and as a profession. There is a lot to be said about sharing your cool stories with others.

South Seas Sally: The fact that women do not feel welcome as hobby gamers is an obvious problem for hobby gaming, but should not be a problem for wargaming. That’s because I don’t think the skills needed to be a good professional gamer are necessarily well-taught by hobby gaming. While hobby games can be a good source of mechanisms that can help model national-security issues, there are lots of other places to learn the modeling skills needed. What’s more, when the majority of games run are seminar-style games that use very few formal mechanisms, there are many other skill sets that can be much more helpful to someone entering the field, like social science and facilitation, which get neglected in our reliance on hobby gaming.

Presenting our work as something we would be doing anyway, for our own happiness, may also set us up not to be as well recognized and compensated for our work as we should be. I’ve seen a lot of professional gamers fund themselves at conferences and work nights and weekends on “side projects” that contribute incredible value to the field. I wonder if that would happen as often if we made it clearer that the work was our job, not our hobby.

I also think that some of the problems of “geek culture” attitudes that have been mentioned by Harriet Hex and in recent articles about women and gaming culture—problems that are not directly about gender—may also be problematic for professional gaming. Because for many gamers, their job is also a passion, it can breed the same distaste for folks that work on a different problem set within gaming as between geek subcultures. As someone who tends to work on operational and strategic level issues, I’ve found my lack of interest in tactical level problems is sometimes treated as a “wrong” rather than “different” focus. This need to defend the our niche of games not just as a professional focus, but as part of our identities, contributes to the “islands” of the field that prevent sharing of tools and techniques, leading to a fractured field constantly defending a small piece of turf.

That said, hobby gaming is a strong signal of belonging to professional wargamers, and our dependence on gaming undoubtedly does serve as a barrier to women. Many of the best female professional gamers I know do not enjoy hobby gaming. For some it’s too competitive, for others too time-consuming or expensive, and for others it’s just not their cup of tea. Some have devoted considerable time and money outside of work to learning enough to signal correctly, but that is a costly gesture that we shouldn’t be asking for as a field.

Also, while women may be less likely to find hobby gaming welcoming than men, the demand that to be a professional gamer you need to be a hobby gamer is a problem for men in the field who don’t like gaming too. Making the reason we should stop demanding hobby gaming about gender, rather than about the fact that fields need to be thinking more carefully about what skills you need to succeed in our occupation, shortchanges great gamers of both genders.

All that said, I will say that there is one thing that the dominance of gaming in the field helps with—making connections at conferences. Rather than having to engage in awkward chitchat over drinks (which can feel uncomfortable both as a socially awkward individual and a woman), many conference sessions I’ve been at have ended with someone pulling out a small board game from their bags. This provides a really lovely social cushion and icebreaker.

Malapropos Molly: Yes, it is a problem because at a minimum, you don’t want your hobby gaming community to be like mankind in the movie, Age of Men. That was a dystopian future where mankind suddenly stopped having children, and the entire whole of humanity was aging and dying off, headed for extinction.

But cruel humor aside, hobby gaming is an informal path into wargaming, and one question is how to grow wargaming skills in people who simply did not spend their childhood as hobby gamers. As for why there aren’t more women hobby gamers, again, I don’t know if this is a gap that needs to be closed.

Svalbard Sue: You know, I don’t find the connection all that compelling. I hate to admit it but I don’t love hobby games and never played them as a kid. I’ve gone to games nights because Malapropos Molly hosted them, I like Molly and it was a fun reason to hang out with her and her friends, who are way fun—but I’m kind of hopeless at the games, mostly because I don’t think they’re that interesting.

As a final question, what advice would you have for women who want to develop their skills or pursue a career in this area?

Harriet Hex: In terms of being a woman in a male dominated field, my advice would be to not overthink it. Just because you look different or think differently doesn’t mean you don’t belong there and it is very likely that your contributions will be welcome. Wargaming is essentially creative and is about critical thinking, so new ideas seem like they would find a natural home with the community.

Then again, there are most likely some challenges that your male counterparts won’t foresee or face, so I think open dialogue about these things—much like this forum—can be useful.

South Seas Sally: If you are working as a gamer, I would encourage you to try to attend gaming forums, like the CASL roundtables, MORS annual symposium, or a Connections conference. Try to talk to folks, and ask them to recommend other people to talk to. Be proactive—it’s a small field so it is easier to get people’s attention and interest than in more overcrowded disciplines.

These interactions also tend to build on each other. I got my start in the field by staying to ask a question at the end of a conference, which got me invited to support a game, which got me an internship. I’ve gotten invited to speak at conference based on questions I asked in Q and A sessions, and invited to write papers based on presentations. If you have the luxuries of time and financial stability, there is a lot of space to contribute to the field outside of direct employment as a gamer.

Still, it’s important to recognize that gamers are generally not in a position to make hiring decisions, and that the networking you do with gamers may not be enough. That means that job searches will often be long and involved. Make sure you understand how long you can afford to look for a job, and have a strategy about what other jobs you will apply for, and how these positions can help you build other analytical skills that could complement gaming.

Svalbard Sue: It’s a great set of experience to have—it often lets you touch on a really wide range of topics (and, for that reason, network pretty widely). But, I’d think proactively about how it fits in with your whole c.v., the set of experience and career trajectory you want to demonstrate and make sure you have a plan for how it’s going to take you where you want to go next. (And if you find that it’s the senior most position in your field or where you want to settle in for the rest of your career, more power to you! But, I think the jobs are usually mid-career ones.)

Malapropos Molly: I would say to develop yourself professionally first in the domain where you want to be—national security, development, etc. Once you are established to an extent, the quickest path into wargaming is then to simply begin attending or putting on your own wargames. If you’re actually paid to do such activities, then you’re a professional wargamer. It’s as easy as that. From this perspective, where wargaming is simply an outgrowth of other activities you are doing in your domain, the barriers into wargaming are not that high. I think that a person with initiative and creativity could have luck convincing their boss that a wargame or similar activity could be interesting. They would also be expanding wargaming into newer areas. So the possibilities are numerous in this respect.

If you want to be part of a dedicated wargaming organization from the get go, I think it is much harder. But I would still rate this dream as less crazy and uncertain then trying to get a tenure track position in say, political science. So don’t let my comments above discourage you. Just have a back-up plan so you can repay your student loans.

Like Sally has said, I would encourage neophytes to network with other wargamers and get involved in a community such as Connections. Professional societies always want volunteers, so that is an excellent way to meet people and get the lay of the land. Brief your gaming experience. Volunteer to help organize panels or game lab. Propose ideas and events, and then volunteer to do them. Don’t be shy.

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