Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Tag Archives: women and wargaming

Votes for Women: Growing (war)gaming with new themes

The following article is written by Elizabeth Betsy” Joslyn, a Research Associate for the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division for the Institute for Defense Analysis. Her game research and design has largely focused on great power competition, mis/disinformation, and risk literacy. She received a Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy at American University’s School of Public Affairs. In addition, Betsy served in the Peace Corps in Zambia working as an aquaculture specialist. She recently joined PAXsims as a Research Associate. 

In the last decade, the boardgame industry has had an unprecedented surge. The global boardgame market value is currently estimated between $11 billion and $13.4 billion and is projected to grow in just the next 5 years.[1]

One of the driving elements of this surge is connected to the rewarding sense of community and fun that gameplay elicits. In addition, many of us find ourselves slowly crawling out of Gollum’s COVID-cave blinded by excessive computer screen lighting and desperate for some human interaction. Board games have come to the rescue. 

To match the demand, there has been an explosion of new games from not only seasoned game designers like Volko Ruhnke and Jamey Stegmaier, but also of new game designers such as Kevin Bertram, founder of Fort Circle Games and Tory Brown, who was empowered by Fort Circles to design the game Votes for Women.

A historical view of wargames and traditional table top games shows us that many of these games were made by men for men and usually feature topics, characters and strategies represented in gendered ways.[2] The recent uptick in game design and game play has given way to more categories and themes, prettier boxes and higher quality game pieces. In many cases, the rules are simpler and there are more offerings that focus on cooperation rather than competition.[3] The result of these significant additions has opened the gaming community, expanding the player base and inspiring topics and themes within the genre of gaming that have not yet been tapped. Despite the bigger game table, your average gaming organization, club, and community still seem to be male dominated.  

In a recent review of gender dynamics in boardgames, Tanya Pobuda, found that 92.6 per cent of the designers of the 400 top-ranked board games on BoardGameGeek were men. After reviewing 1,974 figures from board game cover art analyses, Pobuda’s analysis showed that male imagery was predominant. Images of men and boys represented 76.8 per cent of the human representation on covers, or 647 images in games such as Great Western Trail (2016) and War of the Ring: Second Edition (2012), compared to 23.2 per cent of the images of women and girls, which represented only 195 of the images counted as seen in games with more gender representation like Arkham Horror: The Card Game (2016) and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015).[4]

All this say, there are still more men sitting at the table than there are women. I recently had the opportunity to interview Tory Brown to discuss her game that was publicly released in December 2022. Votes for Women, a card driven game on the ratification of the 19th Amendment, captures and celebrates the struggle by inviting players to join the suffrage movement, organize support, and campaign for victory across the 48 states in 1919-1920. Tory’s game is highly relevant to the centennial celebration of Women’s Suffrage Movement, but another significant biproduct of a game on women’s rights has appropriately inspired more women to play games.[5]

During our conversation, Tory noted that “for many people, gaming is an escape. It’s a reprieve from day to day responsibilities; an activity to do with friends and peers. In terms of wargaming, it is not a usually a family activity. However, there are many gamers who want to include their loved ones in an activity they love so much. That being said, their wives and daughters might not be as interested in battling (or sometimes playing) Nazis as much as they are.” Rather than using trickery to get new players to the table, it is so much more effective and rewarding to coax new players with a story that they can resonate with and connect with. 

“People see Votes for a Women as an entry point,” Tory commented. “Dads especially want to play this game with their wives, with their daughters, with their loved ones. In this way, Votes for Women has become the vehicle that men are using to bring the women in their lives to the gaming table as it hits a sweet spot for people that want to play something a little more complicated than Monopoly and want to play a game on an issue that retains some salience or resonance for them. Votes for Women will expose players to core ideas, concepts, and mechanics in a way that can make other games, like Twilight Struggle by Jason Matthew, more approachable and easier to understand because you’ve already mastered these elements at an entry level.” 

Bringing more women into gaming is crucial for two reasons. The first being that diverse players enrich gameplay by bringing different perspectives, and thus creative strategies, to the table. Divergent viewpoints encourage players to challenge biases.[6] Tory added “being tied to tradition creates a bias that can stifle innovation; yet, there is a language to game play and game design.” Tory’s expertise highlights that understanding that language can unlock the ability to take stories that resonate with people resonate and create an educational and engaged experience via games. In theme with the game, a fresh perspective on game design seems to fall perfectly in line with the vision of the suffrage movement in breaking traditional biases and showcasing the benefit of diverse representation. 

The second benefit is that a diverse gaming demand will inspire more diverse game designs. As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons we see more male game players is typically because many of these boardgames have been made for men by men. As the player base becomes more diverse, the demand for more diverse games will increase, prompting even more games that cover and address topics and themes that have seldom been explored and that deeply resonate with society.

Votes for Women is so much more than an excellent historical and artistic review of a crucial moment in history. It is so much more than an extremely relevant and educational lesson on campaigning strategies and ratification challenges. This is a story that men, women, gamers, and the gamers to be have joined so that the boardgame torch can be carrying to new heights. If it’s not on your shelf, it should be.

[1] Jesse Maida, “Board Games Market Value is Set to Grow by USD 3.02 Billion from 2021 to 2026, Increasing Digitization of Board Games to be the Premium Trend,” Technavio, 8 March 2022.  

[2] Matt Shoemaker, An Overview of the History and Design of Tabletop Wargames in Relation to Gender: From Tactics to Strategy, (Routledge, 2019).

[3] Jaclyn Peiser, “We’re in a golden age of board games. It might be here to stay. Despite our addiction to screens, the card and table top games industry is thriving,” Washington Post, 24 December 2022.

[4] Tanya Pobuda, “Why Is Board Gaming So White And Male? I’m Trying To Figure That Out,” Kotaku, 21 May 2022.  

[5] Tory Brown, Votes for Women (Fort Circle Games, 2022). Fort Circle Games itself is one of the cosponsors of the Derby House Principles on diversity and inclusion in professional wargaming.

[6] D. van Knippenberg, D., C. K. W De Dreu, and A.C. Homan, “Work Group Diversity and Group Performance: An Integrative Model and Research Agenda,” Journal of Applied Psychology 89, 6 (2004), 1008–1022. 

WWN: Introduction to wargaming

The Women’s Wargaming Network will be holding will be holding a wargaming event from 1400 to 1800 on Saturday, September 3 at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Virginia. The session will include a “Wargaming 1010” introduction to wargaming, followed by a Russia-Ukraine matrix game.

Sign up for the event here.

You can also follow @WomensWargaming on Twitter.

CNA: Inclusivity in wargaming and impacts for defense planning

CNA will be hosting a discussion on inclusivity in wargaming on May 18:

We are excited to invite you to our next #InclusiveNatSec event: Inclusivity in Wargaming and Impacts for Defense Planning on Wednesday, May 18 at 12:30-1:30p ET via Zoom with our esteemed guests, Dr. Yuna Huh Wong, Defense Analyst at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA)’s Joint Advanced Warfighting Division and Founder of The Women’s Wargaming Network; and Dr. Margaret McCown, Deputy Division Chief of the Studies, Analysis, and Gaming Division at the Joint Staff J8.

This event will entail brief remarks from Dr. Wong and Dr. McCown, followed by a Q&A discussion moderated by Ms. Catherine Lea, Senior Research Scientist with CNA’s Gaming and Integration Program.

The event will examine implications of having inclusivity in the wargame design process and play, and why that matters for better informing in defense planning, programs, and policies. The event will also discuss the challenges in ensuring diversity and inclusion in wargames and how the Derby House Principles has affected the field of professional wargaming in the past year.

Please click here to register to join us on May 18. Note that we are using a registration platform that works best in Google Chrome. If a pop-up blocker makes it difficult to register at the link above, please respond to this email for assistance.  After you RSVP to attend, you will receive a confirmation with login details for the event. This event will be recorded and available to access online.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to with any questions.

Gender and overconfidence in wargames


This isn’t a new piece of research, but I just came across it and thought it might be of interest to PAXsims readers: a 2006 article by Dominic Johnson et al on “Overconfidence in Wargames: Experimental Evidence on Expectations, Aggression, Gender and Testosterone,” in Proceedings. Biological sciences  273, 1600 (2006).

Overconfidence has long been noted by historians and political scientists as a major cause of war. However, the origins of such overconfidence, and sources of variation, remain poorly understood. Mounting empirical studies now show that mentally healthy people tend to exhibit psychological biases that encourage optimism, collectively known as ‘positive illusions’. Positive illusions are thought to have been adaptive in our evolutionary past because they served to cope with adversity, harden resolve, or bluff opponents. Today, however, positive illusions may contribute to costly conflicts and wars. Testosterone has been proposed as a proximate mediator of positive illusions, given its role in promoting dominance and challenge behaviour, particularly in men. To date, no studies have attempted to link overconfidence, decisions about war, gender, and testosterone. Here we report that, in experimental wargames: (i) people are overconfident about their expectations of success; (ii) those who are more overconfident are more likely to attack; (iii) overconfidence and attacks are more pronounced among males than females; and (iv) testosterone is related to expectations of success, but not within gender, so its influence on overconfidence cannot be distinguished from any other gender specific factor. Overall, these results constitute the first empirical support of recent theoretical work linking overconfidence and war.

The full article (at the link above) also includes this experimental finding too:

Finally, in probing the characteristics of individuals that were prone to overconfidence and launching wars, we found that levels of narcissism (as measured by the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, Raskin & Terry 1988) were significantly related to pre-game self-rankings. Males (but not females) with high narcissistic qualities tended to expect to do better (all data, Spearman’s ρ=−0.21, N=185, p=0.005; males only, ρ=−0.25, N=106, p=0.012; females only, ρ=−0.20, N=79, p=0.074). Moreover, those males (and again not females) who launched unprovoked attacks on their opponents had significantly higher narcissism scores than those who did not (Mann–Whitney U-test: all data, Z=2.23, N=46,137, p=0.025; males, Z=2.09, N=33,72, p=0.037; females, Z=0.92, N=13,65, p=0.36; see figure 3).

In short, “narcissism scores predicted both overconfidence and unprovoked attacks among males”—but not females.

Please take a minute to complete our PAXsims reader survey.

Little Wars TV on women and wargaming

Little Wars TV has put together an excellent segment on “Why Don’t More Women Play Wargames?”

Can you guess what percentage of historical wargamers are women? Thanks to five years of data from the Great Wargaming Survey by “Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy” magazine, we can tell you the answer! Why is historical wargaming such a male-dominated hobby? Why are women more likely to play sci-fi and fantasy tabletop games than historical ones? We’ll talk to three women in the hobby and ask them why more women aren’t playing miniature wargames. A very special thanks to our guests, Becky, Veronica, and Amanda, for taking the time to share their insights on this important topic!

Visit Becky at:

And if you’re interested in Games Workshop tabletop gaming, be sure to visit Amanda and Ethan, the WH40k Couple, at:

You can see more results of the Great Wargaming Survey from WSS magazine right here:

Harassment in gaming


Graphic by Tom Mouat.

Recently PAXsims explored some of the barriers to women in wargaming. While our initial focus was on professional educational and analytical gaming (a topic we’ve explored before), discussion soon moved on to address those factors that might deter women from entering or enjoying the wargaming hobby. It’s fair to say that I was taken aback by the vitriol that was generated by some hobbyists when I suggested more female wargamers would be a desirable thing. (Conversely, the professional national security gamers who commented universally agreed.)

Since then, a Tumblr post by Emily Garland entitled “Tabletop Gaming has a White Male Terrorism Problem” has sparked much discussion in the boardgame and RPG communities. It details her experiences of harassment, sexism, and gender-based intimidation, including a successful sexual harassment case she brought against the gaming shop where she once worked. You’ll find some very thoughtful discussion of the issues she raises in this very long thread in the forums, at the Ferrett Steinmetz blog, and in an excellent article by Aja Romano at VOX which should be read by everyone in the gaming community.

Sadly, debate on the topic at BoardGameGeek was much less helpful and was ultimately locked down by the moderators, while some the sexist responses on wargaming forums are too depressing to even link.

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.

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.)

PAXsims reader survey results

survey-clipart-1.jpgWe recently conducted an online reader survey at PAXsims. Most of the results are pretty much what we expected, some are surprising, and one is simply depressing. (Results might change, since the poll is still open.)

First of all, who are our readers? Almost one third (30%) work in the topical areas that PAXsims most commonly addresses: the military (20%, including active duty, reserve, and contractors), intelligence (4%), diplomacy (4%), or aid and humanitarian assistance (2%). A similar proportion are in education, either as teachers (20%) or current students (12%). The remainder fall into the category of “other occupations.”

Generally I’m pleased with those numbers, although I would like the proportion who work in diplomacy and development increased. Unlike the military, these are not communities with a strong professional gaming culture, nor are there are strong links to hobby (war)gaming. True, simulation-based teaching is increasingly common in humanitarian training, but it tends to derive from emergency preparedness exercises more than anything else. We’re also not making the connections I would like to see with the large and growing medical simulation community (although PAXsims will be discussing game design at the forthcoming Simnovate 2016 conference in Montreal).

In terms of age, some 70% of readers are in what might be termed the “established professional” category (ages 36-64), while 15% are younger professionals (26-35), or students and junior professionals (18-25). It would be nice to grow those latter categories, since those are exactly the folks who will have greater influence over simulation and gaming use in the years to come.

In terms of gaming experience, 63% of our readers are dedicated hobby gamers, while another 27% play games “sometimes,” and only 10% play games for fun only rarely or never. This isn’t surprising—I know from our analytics that a lot of people first come to to the website from BoardGameGeek, Consimworld, other wargaming sites and various game Reddits—but if serious peace and conflict gaming is to grow and prosper it is probably worth thinking about how best to reach out better to non-gaming communities.

A slight majority of readers (51%) like digital and manual games equally. Of those with a preference, however, that preference runs to manual (38%) over digital (11%) gaming by a wide margin. Again, this may point out the need to reach out beyond the grognard community.

Among digital game genres, simulators, real-time strategy games, 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) games, and first-person shooters top the list. Among manual game genres conflict simulations/wargames were the clear favourite, with RPGs and Eurogames some ways behind.

In terms of serious games, I was quite satisfied by the proportion of readers who apparently make use of these. Over half reported that they use games for education or training purposes often (25%) or sometimes (30%), while a slightly smaller proportion reported they use games for analytical or research purposes often (11%) or sometimes (34%). That seems a good mix of expert, intermittent, and newbie professional/serious gamers.

Most readers don’t attend gaming conferences regularly, but of those that do various hobby gaming conventions figured most prominently. That was followed by the Connections conferences (including the UK, Australian, Netherlands, and now Canadian versions), MORS, and I/ITSEC. As a political scientist, I woudl have liked to have seen a larger proportion attending the APSA or ISA conferences.

What would readers like to see more of in PAXsims? Here the distribution seemed to loosely reflect our current content:

professional wargaming 23%
teaching with games and simulations 23%
other professional serious games 14%
game reviews 13%
gaming hobby 12%
professional development 11%
not-so-serious gaming articles 4%

Finally—and here comes the bad news—fully 99% of our readers are male.

Yes, you read that right. It comes as a shock to me because much of my gaming takes place in a university setting where 40-65% of participants are typically female, even for most voluntary, non-graded activities. In 2015, 44% of digital gamers were female, according to the annual survey by the Entertainment Software Association. Some of the leading professional national security gamers out there are women, and the proportion of women at Connections conferences, while still far too low, has generally been increasing from year to year. In games studies more broadly women are not so dramatically underrepresented—by my rough count almost 40% of the 2015 contributors to Simulation & Gaming were women, for example.


Indeed, other than a washroom or changing room I can’t think of the last place I went that was 99% male.

PAXsims has addressed the issue of women and professional wargaming before, in an online symposium that is well worth rereading. In the next day or two I’ll post some more thoughts on the subject, the potential negative implications of gender inequality in the field, and what we might be done about it.

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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