Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Gender and national security gaming


Yesterday we posted data from our first ever PAXsims readers survey. The results were pretty much what we expected—except that our readers are far more male (99%) than we ever expected to find. Today I thought I would offer a few additional thoughts on that, and what it means for serious peace, conflict, and national security gaming. My comments here, of course, should be read in conjunction with our 2014 symposium on women and professional wargaming which featured contributions from several prominent (if anonymous) female professional national security gamers.

The first thing to note—and I certainly hope that my comments here are rather self-evident—is that such a gender imbalance is not a good thing. For a start it might mean that certain perspectives are absent from game design, adjudication, or play. While most wargamers may never think about gender and conflict when gaming, for some of it us something we teach about, work on in actual conflicts where large number of actual people die, and design serious games about. There is strong research evidence that diversity in group membership can generate greater insight into future trends. Finally, if for some reason substantial numbers of women are not becoming engaged in, and contributing to, the design of serious games on these sorts of topics then the game design community is operating with less than its full intellectual and creative potential. After all, a 99% male demographic means that only 49% of the potential brainpower is being focused on such issues. Changing that should be, as they say, a no (or half) brainer.

Second, as I noted yesterday in PAXsims, our readers clearly skew more heavily male than do university students studying and using conflict simulations, gaming scholars, or even wargamers in the national security community (although based on Connections attendees the latter may still be 80% male, reflecting broader male preponderance in the armed forces and defence community). Much of the reason, I suspect, is that so many of our readers come to us from a hobby background.

Unlike the digital gaming community, and even boardgamers more generally, the hobby wargaming community is overwhelmingly male too (as well as also skewing white, middle-aged, and middle class).  One large online survey of wargamers, for example, found only 1.8% of respondents were female. There are some obvious historical reasons for this, mainly having to do with gender socialization and cultural associations between traditional masculinities, martial prowess, and war-fighting. Although one would hope that overt sexism is becoming increasingly rare, there are certainly behaviours by some gamers that potential new female entrants into the hobby would find off-putting (including the whole “look, its a female wargamer!” response).  Finally, there’s a problem of networks and recruitment: wargamers may tend to move in similar social circles that diminish the likelihood to recruiting dissimilar individuals into the hobby.

There is considerable discussion of this within the general gaming community, although the extensive and rich discussion among digital gamers (with regard to both participation and representation) contrasts sharply with the much, much more limited discussion among boardgamers. Amongst wargamers, some of the most thoughtful analysis has come from among a group that many grognard traditionalists wouldn’t even consider to be wargamers at all: players of Warhammer fantasy and 40K. This may not be surprising, though—such critiques (such as here, here, here, here, here, and here) are much more likely to be informed by the much wider debates on gender within the geek, genre, and digital gaming communities.

Why does it matter, though, if hobby (war)gamers are male? After all, although we’re all hobby gamers too,  PAXsims is generally about the application of gaming to serious tasks: strategy, peacebuilding, military operations, intelligence analysis, humanitarian response, development assistance, interagency coordination, and so forth. However, it is clear that hobby wargaming is often a gateway or enabler to working on these issues at a professional level, just as teachers who are gamers are more likely to use, and be able to use, games in the classroom. Indeed, if you ever watch the professionals at a Connections games lab or a MORS game workshop wrestle with a gaming problem you’ll see they do so in sentences strewn with analogies and game systems they have encountered during their hobby experience: this type of map and this type of combat resolution system and this type of card-driven mechanic and so forth. It’s all very Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

Breaking into that self-referential system can be daunting for those who are newly entering the field. Indeed, I know one outstanding female professional national security gamer and analyst who often speaks of having to hold game nights at her house to catch up on years of game experience she didn’t have as a hobby-gaming teen or young adult.

Our readers survey is thus measuring one part of the problem: we resonate particularly well among the manual, hobby wargaming community (as evidenced by the hits we get via BoardGameGeek or Consimworld), and such gaming is valuable as a gateway or capacity-builder for those working on serious peace and security gaming too, BUT this is a population that is highly under-representative of the broader population.

Yet embedded here is another set of problems too, namely that hobby gaming and gamers have not penetrated very far into other professional communities who might otherwise benefit from the interchange of ideas and approaches.

I’m thinking here of humanitarian training, conflict resolution, medical simulation, emergency preparedness, and so forth—all areas, incidentally, where women are better represented than they are within the military. The same is also true of academia, where the number of professors with a wargaming background is comparatively small. Indeed, Phil Sabin has spoken extensively about some of the biases against wargaming within academia, and while I think this is more true of his own field of history than my field of political science (where we are much more open to the idea of games as pedagogical or even research tools), it again points to the value of broadening the exchange and cross-fertilization of ideas and perspectives.

Equally, perhaps Connections conferences and similar professional wargaming meetings have too many hobby gamers at them, creating a risk of group-think. Certainly I have found that bright non-gamers can bring a great deal to the table. One of the reasons I found Connections Australia so interesting last year was because—in contrast with the US, which has a comparatively huge professional wargaming and modelling/simulation community—interdisciplinarity and cross-sectoral learning was a necessity given the smaller community in Oz. Consequently presentations addressed everything from paramedic training to research on VR technology to modelling brushfires. Reaching out to related communities could also have the desirable secondary effect of reaching out to more women with overlapping professional interest in serious gaming.

What can we do about this? I can think of several things.

  • Recognize it is a problem. After all, there is an entire, well-reviewed serious book on wargaming by a respected military analyst that devotes page after page to bizarre gender stereotypes.
  • Actively encourage the presence of women gamers and analysts at professional gaming conferences, and try to minimize all male panel syndrome.
  • Address the issue directly in conference or workshop meetings. This should certainly be on the agenda for future Connections conferences.
  • Encourage published work by women gamers in this area. We’ll continue to do our bit at PAXsims (which should also be seen as an invitation for any female readers reading this to email me with proposals for blog posts)
  • Think about broadening professional meetings and the community of national security gamers to include more participation from a wider interdisciplinary groups (many of which are much less skewed in their demographics): serious games designers; games scholars; the humanitarian; aid, and diplomatic communities; and so forth.
  • Support the exposure of women to serious analytical and educational gaming at the university (and PME) level. Within most universities these days women now make up over 60% of all social science students.
  • Welcome women and girl gamers into your hobby gaming community. More positive role models and female wargamers will also help to reduce the barriers to entry to later generations of female and girl gamers.

Incidentally, grumpy-old-men snobbery about non-historical wargaming (whether its Warhammer or anything else) or games without hexes isn’t very helpful in this regard.

  • Finally, don’t make jokes about women and technology, or women and shopping, or use sexual imagery at conferences, or cluster around the young female gamer trying way too hard to be helpful (to just cite a few cases I’ve seen at professional wargaming meetings—rare cases to be sure, but hardly encouraging.)

4 responses to “Gender and national security gaming

  1. Rex Brynen 16/06/2020 at 2:35 pm

    Tim, you raise some interesting points.

    At McGill, I find about half of the students in my conflict simulation course are women. They tend to be more interested in political and pol-mil themes than narrowly kinetic wargaming, although that’s not an absolute rule. At McGill megagames, about 30% of the (paying) participants are women. These games are always on pol-mil themes. A professional (national security) conferences, about 15% are women, mirroring the proportion of women in the military and defence establishment. However, they tend to be more junior–although hopefully this will change over time.

  2. Tim Smith 16/06/2020 at 2:24 pm

    Hi, Rex,

    Worthy initiative. But let me invert the question: rather than assuming the problem lies with those who do wargame, why not focus on the failure on the part of those who do not?

    I spent a dozen years running a strategy gaming club for youths, both in support of the local K-12 schools and semi-independently. We attracted very few girls in the older groups (virtually none after 1st-2nd grade) But I have also spent a dozen years now running a sim-based training program for defense analysts and can tell you that I have seen an interesting set of trends: guys are less militarily knowledgeable and interested than they were a dozen years ago and the women are noticeably more interested and definitely quicker to take in and master the causal concepts and massive and complex data set required to play. I’ve seen something that if it continues could close to convergence. Of course, this is a systemically biased micro-sample.

    More broadly, I think we should study wargaming from the female perspective — and, courageously, through the lens of masculinity and femininity (i.e., ‘gender’, but I’d propose taking an apolitical, realist approach). The mixed welcome that the one-in-a-million women who explore the discipline/hobby encounter is less of a problem than the disinclination of the other 999,999 to check us out — and it’s a convenient myth to think that that mixed welcome is the real underlying problem. I’ll hypothesize that the dominant causal factor lies in the ambiguities and internal contradictions in a ‘feministic’ culture that pushes women to masculinize (ironically) when doing so comes naturally to very few women. Warfare and wargaming are competitive activities that impose objective challenges that (a) take a form alien to quintessential femininity (judge that as one may) and which (b) cannot be diluted into subjectivity and social approbation in the same way office politics and qualitative academic research can be. One can argue that femininity is socially constructed (this claim assumes the burden of proof), but in any event, that doesn’t really matter. ‘It is what it is’. The question remains: how many women leave the office every afternoon and dash home to wargame (or read military history, or perform analysis comparing Spitfires and Messerschmidts or Virginias and Akulas)? (Next question: how many guys do so? — if we’d been running a longitudinal study, I’d hypothesize it’d have found converging trends, but alas, here both trendlines would be descending.)

    So the situation is complex. The answer, I think, is to (1) learn more; (2) do something more useful to address the issue. First, to learn/discover: one or more scholars at one or more universities should conduct some actual research to explore attitudes concerning military analysis, competitive gaming, and wargaming in particular. It should include a strong focus on ascertaining the actual levels of similarity and difference between men’s and women’s interest in (1) actual conflict simulation, be it M&S or wargaming, computational or tabletop, professional or hobby, and (2) competitive gaming in general. The team could then identify parallels and differences in the various sets of attitudes. This study should focus on addressing the ‘why’ question as much as the ‘what’.

    Then, if true discrepancies emerge (and I think we all suspect that the obvious here is true), then let’s address them. Why not host/sponsor a ‘Wargaming for Women’ convention? Treat it as diversity-oriented professional development. Let wargame companies use it for marketing. Assuming we’d center it on professional context, we could have experienced simulation gamers organize tables and host training sessions. In this, the welcome rolled out to our ‘lady guests’ would be official and explicit, tamping down masculine obnxiousness, while the hosting/training function would focus the men’s attention appropriately on the tasks at hand. We could host a range of military & civil/humanitarian sims. We could demo sims covering multiple eras, environments and conflict types. Attendance would be a sponsored professional activity.

    In fact, why not broaden it to ‘Wargaming for Non-Wargamers’ convention? Women aren’t the only humans mystified/bemused/repelled by the strange tribe/noises we make in our pursuit of higher-order intellectual attainment, good die rolls, bragging rights, etc….

  3. Rex Brynen 07/03/2016 at 1:42 pm

    I’ll do a follow-up post soon on the topic, based on feedback and discussions to the item in various fora. It won’t be pretty.

  4. Nikola Adamus 07/03/2016 at 1:41 pm

    I’m in the middle of my own research, but I can share some information with you when it comes to fantasy wargames – you won’t find women there either. Neither playing casually nor in tournaments. Wargaming society is rather exclusive or maybe it’s better to say that it does not do anything to encourage women to participate.

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