Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Women and wargaming: the good, the bad, and the ugly

A few days ago—spurred by a recent PAXsims readers poll that showed that an astonishing 99% of our readers are men—I posted a few thoughts on gender and national security gaming. My argument, I thought, was fairly unremarkable: Women are underrepresented in professional national security gaming; this is due to a variety of reasons (gender socialization, male preponderance in the military, underrepresentation of women within hobby wargaming, and so forth); and increasing the number of women in this area was a good idea, since—among other things—it brings more brainpower and bodies and expertise to address important issues in serious gaming.

As part of that argument, I pointed to the massive gender imbalance within the wargaming hobby, which is probably 95% or more male too. Since hobby gaming can help to develop professionally-relevant skills, and thus be an asset for those who go on in national security analysis (or, for that matter, teaching), wouldn’t it be a good idea to try to encourage more women to participate here too?

I then suggested a few obvious things that might help.

The reaction to the discussion from within the professional wargaming community has been entirely positive. One defence analyst heavily involved in government wargaming wrote to thank me for the piece, noting that he himself was trying hard to promote women in the field, and underscoring that there was much work still to be done. Another senior wargamer involved in professional military education also wrote to note that he too saw it as a problem. A wargame designer and educator commented (as I have) that there’s no difficulty getting women engaged in conflict simulation in university settings, and we needed to think about how those lessons could be exported more widely.

So that was the good. What about the bad and the ugly?

This showed up when I cross-posted the piece to several general hobby wargaming forums. Certainly many, many comments were positive and encouraging, and in one forum the discussion was entirely and completely reasonable. Elsewhere, however, some male commentators suggested:

  • women prefer shopping for shoes
  • women prefer wine and manicures
  • I was trying to impose “quotas”
  • that encouraging more women to wargame was like demanding more male shop clerks at Victoria’s Secret
  • if women were interested they would form their own clubs
  • that it was good to include women, unless they were those pushy “social justice warrior” types
  • wives would just criticize our game moves
  • that wargaming, like war itself, is brutal and competitive and not suited for women (after all, who hasn’t been wounded by spilled beer or a sharpened pretzel?)
  • that men were hard-wired to be wargamers by a supreme creator, and we shouldn’t be tampering with intelligent design
  • that I was a “fag” for even suggesting such a thing

Now, as a researcher, it is important for me to mention an important methodological caveatcomments made in online fora are rarely representative of general views, since they tend to attract the most highly-motivated or aggrieved participants. They certainly aren’t representative at all of attitudes within my own gaming groups.



At the same time, reading some of these statements I’ll have to admit my reaction was: OMFG. Really? In 2016?

In one forum an articulate and highly-experienced female wargamer entered the fray, and rather forcefully articulated some of the problems she has encountered over the years. She finally left the discussion in frustration. In another forum, where the consensus seemed to be that women just weren’t interested in such things, a long-time female lurker on the website chimed in that she had always wanted to try wargaming, but had never found a shop or club or mentor that she found particularly encouraging. She commented (and I quote with her permission):

Not that many women are interested. True, but then those who are might not feel welcomed. I just wanted to share my personal experience and point of view. Putting it out there “I’m interested.” But the truth is I don’t feel welcomed. So I’m out.

PAXsims isn’t predominantly a blog about hobby wargaming, although we certainly address aspects of it. However for those of us who enjoy the hobby, all this suggests we need to think about providing a pathway for women and girls to learn more about conflict simulation that is welcoming, supportive, and reduces the various barriers to entry.

Some of that can occur in clubs and shops, although here one encounters the chicken-and-egg problem that neophytes may be reluctant to visit in the first place (especially if they get that “hey, there’s a girl in the store/club/competition!” look that will be familiar to many female players of Warhammer).

I think casting gaming wider than traditional hex-and-chit wargaming helps too: certainly we’ve seen political-military megagames grow from 10% to 20% or more women in recent years. At our own recent  New World Order 2035 megagame at McGill almost 40% of the approximately one hundred players were women (all of whom had paid to attend), as were 45% of the Control team.

I’m inclined to think (and I’m sure Phil Sabin will agree with me here, since half his conflict simulation class is typically female) that educational institutions are a good place to focus efforts. Quite apart from gamer-professors or gamer-teachers using games in the classroom, there’s probably scope for gaming clubs to partner with organizations or instructors. NWO 2035, for example, was for all intents and purposes a partnership between Jim Wallman (Megagame Makers), some folks from our local gaming group, and the International Relations Students’ Association of McGill (IRSAM).

Finally, the obligation to not be a sexist ass extends beyond behaving properly to making it clear that sexist comments by others are considered unacceptable. Indeed, that’s perhaps one of the key differences with gaming in a university (or, increasingly, professional) environment: casual reference to sexist stereotypes on campus will generally win you a room full of icy disapproving stares.

Further discussion is welcomed in the comments section.

15 responses to “Women and wargaming: the good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. 01/08/2018 at 10:27 pm

    All of the local woman wargamers I know are ones I introduced the hobby to. I don’t generally like going to traditional gaming venues becaus all the players there are guys.

    Oh well. I don’t mind building gamers from scratch. :)

  2. Christopher Weuve 16/09/2017 at 7:10 pm

    I was expecting your results, Rex, from the moment I got to the words “hobby wargaming forums.” I’ve largely stopped going to hobby wargaming conventions, in part because of similar attitudes as those expressed to you. (Not necessarily gender comments, rather, general anti-social tendencies.)

  3. Rex Brynen 26/03/2016 at 10:21 am

    Excellent points–thanks for making them.

  4. Interested Female-like Creature 26/03/2016 at 10:20 am

    This is all clouded by the fog of war, the blur of time and colors of my biases, but I imagine the experience I found entering the gaming community probably looks significantly different from that of guys. While action, games, and strategy have always held great appeal for me, my entry into the field was a lot later than most guys I know–I feel like I stumbled in to it all on accident, and by the way guys (and they were All guys, save a wife or two that didn’t get involved in anything but snack providing) reacted to my presence, were it not for the fun of gaming and the fact that I was able to bring friends of my own into the mix, I probably would have called it quits. Socially, it all just reeked of trouble and misery. I didn’t want to be spectacle, where my every move was commented upon, especially while I was a beginner and learning the ropes. I was quite good, though, and I say this not so much to brag but as to point out that this trait was important to my sticking it out. For anyone–girls and other gaming minorities–who learns more slowly, prefers mentorship to learning independently, or is more sensitive to social pressure, they would have dropped out right around here. It’s no fun to lose often in a public way, especially when the peanut gallery begins linking the level of your success to the way you were born. Much of the ‘inbred male superiority’ myth comes from 5+ years more experience because boys are often introduced to gaming sooner and learn in a more welcoming and lower-stakes environment. Having a way to begin gaming that invites everyone to the table as early as possible helps sidestep that issue.

  5. Peter Perla 21/03/2016 at 4:40 pm

    Just a quick update. The conference last week was held in two separate rooms, the main one where I was located, and a smaller one downstairs that watched the festivities in the main room when they could stand it, but with the ability to shut that connection off when they chose. In the main room, the body count varied but a reasonable count was roughly 60 folks, of which 8 were female. Seemed a fairly high percentage given the standard! :-)

    Take care


  6. Peter Perla 15/03/2016 at 10:21 am

    Sadly, this phenomenon in the world of traditional board wargaming is seen to an even greater and, if possible, more virulent extent in the broader community of digital gaming. Just do some internet searches and you will see more than you care to about insults, threats of rape and death. Frankly, I suspect the boardies are less likely to succumb o the worst extremes because a higher fraction of us actually do play in more social setings than alone in our mom’s basement.

    That said, I too can attest to the fact that professional women who enter the wargaming fray are, in my limited experience, of the very top in their field. As a result, they often will handily defeat average male players. When that becomes no more of an embarassment to the latter than ny defeat, we will have an indicator of progress. Till then Rex has pointed out that those of us who welcome women warriors to the profession and the hobby need to do more to educate the less sensible and point out when their behavior is unacceptable. And we need to go out of our way to welcome more women when thy show up and invite more women to play with us.

    It will be interesting to see how many women are participants of the DoD sponsored wargaming conference at the Army War College this week. It would be even more interesting to compare that fraction with the percentage of women membership/participants in MORS and its symposia.

    Take care


  7. Rex Brynen 11/03/2016 at 7:53 pm

    I’m not sure I would agree with your characterization of contemporary universities or social science, Tim. However, in this case we’ve pretty much what done what you suggested: hypothesized a series of causal factors shaping women’s participation in wargaming. As it turns out an accidental experiment revealed more sexism out there than I had imagined, and so like a good Bayesian I updated my analysis to reflect the additional data.

  8. Tim Smith 11/03/2016 at 7:12 pm

    Another alternative might be to maintain a stance of ‘wertfrei’ scientific objectivity — perhaps difficult in today’s politicized university environment — and study the phenomenon observed, seeking causes and reasons before passing moral judgment. This is not to defend the phenomenon, but merely to pull us back to intellectual fundamentals, such as one rarely sees today in sociology or cultural anthropology. In fact, I agree with you, Rex & Brian, having seen the extent to which lack of military expertise requires affirmative action policies to impose equality of results in national-security personnel mngmt.
    (Btw, check out Maymi Hayakawa — ‘FushigiTV’ — on YouTube.)

  9. John D Salt 11/03/2016 at 9:20 am

    I am not going to claim to have any answers to the puzzle — I am still mildly baffled by the collapse of female participation in university computer science in the UK at the start of the century — but I will suggest that there are a few places where women have in the past or do now make up a significant proportion of the gaming community. There seem to me to be a good deal more female participants in SF&F (including LARP) than in historical gaming in the amateur world. There seem to be a fair number of women in computer gaming, and I seem to recall reading that a majority of players of “The Sims” were female. Female participation also seems to me to be higher in “non-wargame” boardgames than in wargames — I remember one multi-layer game I ran on the air defence of the UK in October ’62, hosted at a friend’s place, and when we had finished two of the participants’ wives joined in for a couple of games of “Kill Dr. Lucky”.
    In the spirit of crazed sexist generalisation, one might be tempted to assume that female participation is promoted by having less violence-based, or less competitive, or more multi-player, or simpler, or more imaginiative games (and imbecile marketroids will suggest making games with more pink pieces, like good old “Afrika Korps”). Apart from the multi-player aspect, all these seem to be handsomely refuted by the very high fraction of female players in Fletcher Pratt’s naval wargames in the 1930s. So what’s the trick? Blowed if I know.

  10. Rex Brynen 10/03/2016 at 1:07 pm

    David: Well said! Views in the profession on these issues seem to be light-years ahead of some of those held in the darker recesses of the hobby community. Brian: I’ve certainly overheard sexist comments/stereotypes in gaming settings, or locker-room language that could make newbie female gamers uncomfortable. However, I agree that the problem is infinitely worse online.

  11. Nicholas Marsh 10/03/2016 at 8:44 am

    Thanks for writing these posts. Its a very long time since I did any war gaming. But as a participant in some online forums on other subjects related to research and policy I’m not surprised by your experience. I don’t know whether its because online forums attract antagonistic people; the anonymity emboldens people to be more aggressive online; or whether they just reveal attitudes present in society that people can’t express in the workplace. But I have seen discussions about sexism and how women are excluded quickly turn very unpleasant.

  12. dshlapak 10/03/2016 at 8:37 am

    I’m a professional wargamer who has had the marvelous good fortune to work with a number of women who are not only superbly skilled at designing and conducting “serious” games but will kick your butt good and proper when the beer and pretzels come out. Any idiot who believes women have no place at the game table is simply an ignorant twat who needs to get out more, and those of us who care about the future of the field need to continue to encourage women to participate. The idea that gaming can flourish, as a hobby or a profession, while neglecting the immense talents and creativity of half the population is prima facie absurd.

  13. brtrain 09/03/2016 at 6:21 pm

    I’m glad you posted about your experience Rex, but I am hardly surprised at the reaction – I saw only part of it on Facebook. We will have knuckle-draggers and sexist asses with us for some time, at least online – I have never had an in-person conversation on this topic with someone showing these reactions.

  14. Rex Brynen 09/03/2016 at 6:10 pm

    You’re right about my shock being, in part, from my usual gameplay groups–not just professionals, but also like-minded friends, and on-campus gaming that is almost always half women.

  15. J de Jong 09/03/2016 at 6:08 pm

    I’m not surprised, having dipped in a few “women and wargaming” threads over the years. It can be really embarrassing. Perhaps Rex is too used to professionals and hasn’t hung out with the amateurs. I mean, this discussion has developed along the same pattern as “Greatest general ever”. “greatest army ever” discussions since Not at all. I think you will find it much more rewarding to focus on supporting women in professional wargaming, and leave the amateurs to catch up with the 21st century in their own time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: