Gender Disparity in RPGs

By John Kim <john.kim3-at-gmail-dot-com>

Draft version, May 26, 2005.

         It is a frequent observation that women are a distinct minority in role-playing games (RPGs). While it is often commented on, I have not yet seen an overview of the data or the issues concerning this. Below I summarize sources of data concerning the gender of RPG players, followed by commentary on various anecdotal suggestions and speculation that I have heard.

Survey Data

         There have been several surveys of gamer demographics, although few of them have had controlled parameters. The apparent best data is a survey conducted by Wizards of the Coast in the summer of 1999. (Kim 2004-1) The Wizards survey found that 19% of the tabletop role-playing respondents were female. A similar but less-controlled Internet survey had 9% female respondents.

         A notable feature of the data was that the same survey found that 21% of the computer RPG players were female, and 21% of the miniature wargames players were female. This is interesting in that many suggested reasons for the disparity would suggest that role-playing should be more popular with females than miniature wargames. However, this data suggests otherwise. For comparison, data from the Interactive Digital Software Association for 2002 suggested that 28% of console game players are female, while 38% of PC game players are female. (IDSA 2002) Among four categories of gamers surveyed (Miniature Wargame, Trading Card Game, Tabletop Role-Playing Game, and Computer Role-Playing Game), the WotC survey found that tabletop role-playing gamers were most like to also play computer RPGs (46%), trading card games (26%), and miniature wargames (17%).

         James Kittock, who ran the aforementioned Internet survey, added in a comment on the female presence in his survey:

Although 9% of the respondents were female overall, just 4% of the respondents classified as DMs were female. Furthermore, 30% of female respondents indicated that they never DM, while just 7% of male respondents indicated this. For the most part, DMing currently seems to be a male occupation. However, it is not obvious that females do not want to DM; it is possible that a niche could be created for products aimed at encouraging female DMs.

         Another aspect of play is genre -- i.e. what is the subject matter and/or source material for the games played. This is relevant to issues that the gender disparity is correlated with the genre of games. Survey data has polled the most popular games. The 1999 Wizards of the Coast (WotC) survey asked tabletop RPG player what games they played monthly, allowing multiple answers if multiple games were played. The results were:

Game (Publisher) Genre Response
Dungeons & Dragons (WotC/TSR) fantasy 66%
Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf) horror 25%
Star Wars (West End Games) sci-fi 21%
Palladium (Palladium Books) fantasy 16%
Werewolf: The Apocalypse (White Wolf) horror 15%
Shadowrun (FASA) fantasy / sci-fi (cyberpunk) 15%
Star Trek (Last Unicorn Games) sci-fi 12%
Call of Cthulhu (Chaosium) horror 8%
Legend of the Five Rings (Alderac) fantasy 8%
Deadlands (Pinnacle) horror / western 5%
Alternity (WotC/TSR) sci-fi 4%
GURPS (SJG) mixed 3%

         Unfortunately, the data released from the WotC survey did not have any details as to the gender disparity among different sub-groups of tabletop gamers -- for example, is there more of a gender disparity among Star Wars gamers than among Dungeons & Dragons players? Even Kittock's observation of gender disparity among GMs vs players cannot be confirmed.

         This is something which has been studied in other fields. For example, studies of schoolchildren have correlated age and gender with choices in television programs watched and computer games. (Spears 2003) Top computer game titles among girls include "Mario" games, "The Sims", "Harry Potter", and educational games. Top computer game titles among boys include hockey games, racing games, "Grand Theft Auto", and "Mario" games. Girls in the study had significantly less interest in computer games, and were found to prefer more social activities including hanging out with friends and shopping.

Anecdotal Evidence

         Anecdotal evidence is highly suspect, but given the limitations of the data, I should at least mention some commonly-suggested trends. Whether or not they are true is questionable.

         Several games have been suggested as relatively popular among women, notably "Vampire: The Masquerade" and subsequent World of Darkness games from White Wolf. Vampire got attention as a singles scene even within mainstream circles. There was a cover story of Swing magazine which cited Vampire as the "The New 20-Something Singles Scene". (Rushkoff 1995) The intro summarized:

The isolation of a computer-driven lifestyle and an ever-present fear of AIDS have spawned a new generation of vampires. They're part of a live-action role-playing game that may be the fastest growing social scene since the rave.
Other ostensibly popular games among women include "Amber Diceless Role-Playing" (1991), the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG" (2002), and "Blue Rose" (2005).

         It is worth noting that there is even greater disparity among RPG authors. Extremely few RPGs have female authors. Among the larger RPG companies, White Wolf Studios has a number of female co-authors, but still few leading authors.

Speculation on Causes

         There is frequent speculation on reasons for the disparity between men and women in RPGs. These frequently involve stereotypes. However, stereotypes may contain an element of truth, so they cannot be rejected simply on that basis.

  1. Art & Writing: "Published RPG books do not appeal to women due to negative presentation of women -- most prominently in 'chainmail bikini' artwork, but also in biased examples and ignoring of female characters."
  2. Genre: "Published tabletop RPGs are geared towards predominantly male genres."
  3. Social: "Female players are driven away from gaming by geeky men with poor social skills, who often make unwanted advances."
  4. Rules Focus: "Published tabletop RPGs have too many rules and number-crunching to appeal to women, who tend to prefer more story and characters."
  5. Violence: "Published tabletop RPGs focus on violence, which on average appeals less to women."
Each of these is discussed in a separate section below.

Speculation: Art & Writing

         There are often suggestions that RPG books are written and illustrated in a very male oriented manner. This is sometimes dismissed as a surface issue. I have done a study of the written examples in a number of published RPGs, where I found significant bias in how women were portrayed in games' example text. (Kim 2004-2) If anything, the examples were more biased than I had previously assumed.

         The artwork is also highly prominent here, though it is hard to quantify. Browsing at a game store will generally find dozens of 'chainmail bikini' pictures on the covers. This is not simply the case of the making idealized characters. The male illustrations are not uniformly handsome, nor are they sexualized to nearly the degree that the female figures are. I have not done a quantitative study, since it seems difficult to define a scale for illustrations. However, that does not make the effect of them any less real.

         At times, the issue of gender disparity is treated as a great mystery. However, I believe that this is a fairly clear cause. As a whole, published RPGs have a lot of material which will directly turn off female players. It might not be obvious at first, but if you step back and look fresh at some books, you will probably see many examples. What can be done about this is simply greater consciousness of this on the part of gamers, game designers, and game illustrators.

Speculation: Genre

         There have been many studies of genre, but there is still no consensus on defined genre categories or how they work. As noted in the survey data, tabletop RPGs are dominated by fantasy, horror, and sci-fi (in roughly that order). This is a different mix from, say, novels or films which have less of a male/female disparity in overall audience. However, this does not inherently explain the disparity. Some studies in film psychology find that the fantasy genre is more popular among women than men. (Fischoff 1998) So by itself, the dominance of the fantasy genre does not explain the disparity. Out of interest, the full table of Fischoff's results on gender disparity among film genres is included below. More stars in the "p=" column indicate greater probability of a statistically significant male/female disparity.

Genre Top 25 All Cited
Frequency % Frequency % Frequency % Frequency %
Action Adventure 7 28% 4 15% 3.93 * 569 20.2% 390 12.5% 358.3 ***
Drama 8 32% 6 23% 1.47   850 30.2% 973 31.2% 0.11
Comedy 0 0% 0 0% ns   299 10.6% 324 10.4% 0.23
Romance 1 4% 8 31% 20.83 ** 269 9.6% 467 15.0% 31.9 ***
Musical 0 0% 2 8% 8 * 86 3.1% 179 5.7% 22.6 ***
Horror 0 0% 0 0% ns   62 2.2% 74 2.4% 0.11
Animation 1 4% 1 4% ns   52 1.8% 123 3.9% 20.9 ***
Sci-Fi 5 20% 1 4% ns   302 10.7% 142 4.6% 78.7 ***
Fantasy 2 8% 3 12% ns   182 6.5% 289 9.3% 13.23 ***
Thriller/Murder 0 0% 0 0% ns   53 1.9% 76 2.4% 1.8
Biblical 0 0% 0 0% ns   8 0.3% 21 0.7% 4.6 **
Documentary 0 0% 0 0% ns   5 0.2% 1 0.0% ns
Sports-based 1 4% 0 0% ns   65 2.3% 35 1.1% 13.01 ***
Animal-based 0 0% 1 4% ns   13 0.5% 21 0.7% 1.06

         As mentioned, the dominance of the fantasy genre does not explain the disparity among tabletop RPGs. Now, this survey breaks films down into 16 genres. It is possible that a specific subgenre or category of fantasy does not appeal to women -- such as, for example, the swords & sorcery subgenre. However, one should be careful to distinguish between inherent qualities of the genre and simply particular treatments of the genre. i.e. Is it the fantasy genre that makes D&D unappealing to women, or rather the specific treatment of the genre? For example, the Lord of the Rings films were found in surveys to have fairly broad appeal to both men and women. Without more data on the subgenres, it is impossible to tell.

         Looking at the film data more broadly, women strongly favored the Romance and Musical genres, and moderately favored the Fantasy and Animation genres. Men strongly favored the Action/Adventure, Sci-Fi, and Sports-based genres. It is worth noting that Romance and Fantasy are roughly equally popular among men.

         The same trends are probably not true in RPGs, however. For example, there is no evidence that sci-fi RPGs such as Star Wars and Shadowrun are more popular than fantasy RPGs such as D&D among the primarily male demographic. There are essentially no Romance, Musical, or Sports-based RPGs, and even Action/Adventure RPGs are rare. There are several small RPGs which have deliberately attempted to tackle more female-associated genres: such as "Lace & Steel" (Romance/Fantasy), "The Sailor Moon RPG" (shoujou anime), and "HeartQuest" (shoujou anime). However, none of them have had either prominent marketing or notable sales, so no strong conclusions can be drawn from them.

         Overall, I can find no evidence that the dominant genres are a cause of gender disparity within RPGs. While it may have an influence, I think the approach to genre is more likely -- i.e. RPGs may tend towards a more male-oriented take on whichever genre they tackle. This is addressed in the "Art & Writing" category above.

Speculation: Rules Focus

         Another common speculation is that published tabletop RPGs have too many rules and number-crunching to appeal to women, who tend to prefer more story and characters. For this, it is interesting to note the WotC survey data. The survey found that women were marginally more common in Miniature Wargames (21%) and computer RPGs (21%) than in tabletop RPGs (19%). I would say that these categories are significantly less touchy-feely than tabletop RPGs, yet they seem to have marginally more women -- although still a small minority.

         Anecdotally, games like Vampire: The Masquerade and Amber Diceless have been cited as appealing more to women. These have ostensible focus less on mechanical rules. On the other hand, other non-role-playing games that have anecdotally appealed to women are just as complex -- such the "The Sims" computer game or "Magic: The Gathering". (Spears 2003)

         Given lack of evidence, I am inclined to generally dismiss this as an option. The problem is not that women are driven off by rules complexity. Rules complexity is always a barrier to entry for any player, male or female. It is overcome by the game having rewarding interest which comes from the game. If more men are overcoming that barrier, I would look more at what drew them past the barrier in the first place.

Speculation: Social Factors

         A common suggestion is that female players are driven away from gaming by geeky men with poor social skills, who may exclude women or make unwanted sexual advances. However, this argument seems hollow since it presumes male dominance in the first place. i.e. If this is the explanation, why are there not all-female or female-dominated groups comparable to the all-male groups? This suggestion would logically imply that gaming groups started by women would be more successful in recruiting players. So while this might be a secondary factor which exacerbates the problem, it cannot be a primary cause. The primary cause would need to be a starting bias which is hostile to women, such that groups are not started by women.

         Several technical fields experience measurable exclusion of women -- notably physics, computer science, and engineering. (Margolis 2000) However, there is nothing about role-playing games which inherently places them in this category. Gaming culture may be similar to techie geek culture, but that is not inherent in the form. It is presumably the result of other influences. There are RPGs with procedurally complex mechanics, such as Paul Hume and Bob Charrette's Aftermath, but particularly since the late 1980's they are a minority. Technical fields can maintain an imbalance via a maintained institution: i.e. new science students must be trained by former science students. On the other hand, in principle most games can be bought and learned by players on their own. i.e. Girls can start gaming groups on their own, at least in principle.

         Pure social causes can only exclude women if there is a male-dominated social institution which is maintained. In RPGs, this would be true if new players do not learn on their own, but rather depend on being taught by experienced players -- who excluded or at least fail to recruit women. While it has not been conclusively show, there is some merit to the idea of recruiting network. Ryan Dancy, who reported the survey results above, also pushed the idea that RPGs had a strong "network effect".

         Anecdotally, RPGs are most certainly perceived as a geeky activity. Tabletop games, after all, require no physical exercise and take place outside of the public eye. However, even given that it is inherently geeky, there are similar activities which anecdotally have more even gender ratios -- such as band, chorus, and theater. I would also question the assumption that women are driven away by romantic interest from male players. As cited earlier, Vampire got attention in the 1990's as a singles scene even within mainstream circles. Women in general are not adverse to mixed-gender activities with romantic possibilities.

         So while geekiness may exacerbate other causes, it is unlikely to be a primary cause of gender disparity. If you create games which appeal to women, then they will form and drive their own groups.

Speculation: Violence

         Published tabletop RPGs do focus on violence to a fair degree. Combat systems are prominent even in the least violent of the RPG books, and often are the majority of the rules. It is also reasonably well documented that women are less attracted to violence in other types of games, such as computer games, card games, and board games. Top computer game titles among school-age girls include "Mario" games, "The Sims", and "Harry Potter". (Spears 2003) While this tendency may not be genetically essential to women, in practical terms it appears to be broadly true in the Western population.

         So there does seem to be a real trend that games popular among women are less purely focused on violence, though there can be a fair amount of violence within them. Some RPGs like the World of Darkness series and Amber Diceless have focused partly on politics and intrigue. However, most RPGs remain combat dominated. By comparison, among boardgames there are many popular new games that focus on building and trading, lead by German imports starting with Settlers of Catan. The problem is in designing RPGs which are fun without the same focus on violence. Even though various people have expressed an interest in creating less violent RPGs, the results -- even among independent game producers -- are disappointing, in my opinion. There are a handful exceptions such as Now Playing, Primetime Adventures, and Soap (which can emulate less violent television genres). However, mainly these exceptions simply demonstrate the rule.


         Of the five possible causes considered, I feel that two are significant: gender bias in art & writing, and prominence of violence. Note that to a large degree these are matters of game design. While there are social forces which affect male dominance, I think that they are secondary, exacerbating factors. While there may be a lag of many years in seeing real change, I do think that there is opportunity to create RPGs which appeal more to women. If more RPGs are designed in this gap, then I suspect that the gender disparity among RPGs will decrease.

         Obviously, there is no inherent mandate for RPGs to change. Predominantly male pastimes will always exist, as will predominantly female pastimes. This is not per se sexist unless there are social benefits based on it -- like business promotions depending on golf, for example. This seems highly unlikely in RPGs. However, I do think that RPGs as a whole would benefit from diversity of players.



John H. Kim <john.kim3-at-gmail-dot-com>
Last modified: Wed Sep 5 13:14:51 2007