Women in Gaming: Part 3, Gender Representation

In Part 1 (Twitch) and Part 2 (RPGs) of our Women in Gaming series we shared some of our personal thoughts and experiences with the communities we’re involved in. While this form of experiential data is not only valuable but essential in fully understanding systemic biases in our culture groups, we wanted to complement these discrete observations with a more birds’-eye-view approach.

Women in Gaming Books
While there are clearly still gender boundaries to overcome when people actually sit down to role-play, we wanted to see if there were any such boundaries that preceded game-night. What things might be contributing to the disproportionate gender representation in folks who play tabletops? To that end, we took a closer look at how gender factored into the process of creating a character in a tabletop rpg. Particularly, we wanted to know how some of the hobby’s most popular Players’ Handbooks and Core Rulebooks depicted the heroes in their artwork. After all, a player’s ability to enjoy and share in the experience of visualizing their hero through the professionally commissioned artwork will always be delineated by the genders represented (or not represented) during that creative process.

What we Found

gender-rep-in-rpgs

First Impressions
Our first initial reaction to these results was that they were generally what we expected: male heroes are depicted noticeably more often than female ones. That affirmed pessimism aside, these results were also not  quite as bad as we were prepared to see. We were really happy to see as many female heroes as we did, and we were also happily surprised to find no discernible pattern among the sorts of heroes depicted between genders. There was a sufficient variety of hero “types” between both male and female heroes (robe-wearing magic users, gritty weapon-wielders, etc.) to make any sort of general statement difficult. Similarly, the variety of body types among both male and hero figures was somewhat encouraging, though we acknowledge that the racial diversity attendant most fantasy genres of rpgs has this sort of built in.

The Importance of “Neutrals”
The most noticeable finding from our sample was the low number of “Neutral” figures (with the exception of Numenera). After seeing these results we went back to look through all of these images again to see if we could figure out why this was the case. The reason we so rarely paused to consider if a figure could be fairly identified as both male or female is that the heroes in rpg books are often highly stylized, and that applies equally to their anatomy. It’s telling when heroes that are heavily clad in armour, weighed down with a pack, and have half their faces obscured by a helmet/scarf/hood are still almost always immediately identifiable by the presence of absence of a female bust, hips, or long hair. If that doesn’t strike you as odd, just ask Éowyn about the Battle of Pelennor Fields.

This isn’t to say that hyperbolic comic-book style bodies can’t be awesome, but their tendency to overtly sexualize both genders has its limits. Neutral figures are important not simply for the accessible identification they afford to players who would rather identify as neither fixed gender. Since they aren’t as overtly sexualized, they equally serve as identifiable heroes for both men and women. Non-determinate figures in rpg books are less about another distinct gender category for players to identify with, but moreso function as a malleable middle-ground between male and female.

Honourable Mention: Numenera (Monte Cook Games)
These kinds of infographics tend to speak for themselves, but we felt we should give voiced recognition to the folks at Monte Cook Games for their work in Numenera. This is said with the full disclosure that neither our survey of rpg titles nor our selection of titles was in any way sponsored, endorsed, or even known about by any of these publishers. We chose to conduct this study to complement our Women in Gaming series, and we selected the games based on those we’ve seen most frequently active in the tabletop directory on Twitch. All that aside, well done to the folks at MCG.

To ensure that their Numenera release wasn’t anomalous in its art’s gender depiction, we did a quick follow up and tallied all of the characters found in MCG’s new Cypher System Rulebook. Turns out, more of the same goodness: 70 male (39%), 70 female (39%), and 41 neutral (22%). Not only is MCG actively inverting the male-female imbalance in tabletop rpgs, but they’re inserting, for the first time in a meaningful way, the importance of depicting not overly gendered characters in their games. The result is rpgs whose artwork mirrors the accessibility and openness extolled by the games’ rules and creators. From us small folks over here in Twitch-land, hats off.

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11 thoughts on “Women in Gaming: Part 3, Gender Representation

  1. I’m curious where you drew the line for “neutral” art. For example, Brienne of Tarth art. In a closed helm and full armor most people would end up going “That’s a guy” because of what we expect from a tall plate mail wearing warrior. Or your own example of Eowyn. Is that piece of art male, female or neutral and does the classification change once you are told it’s of a woman (or whatever the gender happens to be)? 

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    1. Hmm, can’t edit the original but i was thinking about this and the original question isn’t asking what I mean exactly.

      More to the point of my curiosity is, you have a picture of Eoywn (or Briene) and because you are told who it is you know their gender. But if having been told it’s them is the only indicator (Ii.e. they are in full helms and neutral armor) do you classify the art as female or neutral?

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      1. Hey Matt, thanks for the question. Like we said in the study, our line for “Neutral” was fairly generous – any figure that could be reasonably identified with by a male or female player. Most often, this turned on the absence of stylize/sexualized gender traits and with figures wearing quite a lot of adventuring gear. We also made sure to NOT be reading or considering the flavour text that attended some of the images – we didn’t care if there was something somewhere indicating an intent for a figure to be a male or female hero, only how kids looking at an image could see it.

        You’re totally right to say that, without any narrative context, seeing just a battle-clad warrior would more often incline folks to think it’s male not female. That said, we wanted to give fair credence to both possible interpretations/identifications of a neutral or mostly covered figure. If a new player could look at an image and not be prevented from identifying with it by simply the image itself (excluding that their social barometer may or may not incline them to do so), we tagged it as Neutral.

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  2. Hi, I just wanted to solve some doubts about this study.

    It has already been asked, but I surely would want to know the exact criteria to choose neutral characters, it seems a bit vague as it is now.

    On the other hand I was curious about the selection of books you made. What choosing criteria did you use to choose those? Also, the sample looks like maybe it’s too small to get solid evidence.

    Also, do you have the statistics about “character type”, “body type”, and “race” too? I guess you do, since you mention it. Could you provide those too?

    Thank you very much.

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    1. Hey José, hopefully your first question was cleared with our prior replies. As for why we chose the books we did, we mentioned this in the article – we took the most common games we see being played in the Twitch Directory. We fully acknowledge though that this IS a small sample, and only an initial peak into the issue. Not pretending it’s exhaustive 🙂

      As for the racial and body type stats, we didn’t actually run a systematic analysis. What we meant in passing was that, since most fantasy genre RPGs have races with inherently distinct body types – short and stout dwarves, slender elves, tall and broad half-orcs, etc. – that there was generally was variety in body types from cover to cover. Again, that wasn’t the focus of this look so we don’t have numbers.

      Hope that helps!

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  3. Would you also be willing to extend this research to more science fiction games? I’d be perhaps most interested in games of the transhumanism sort, with Eclipse Phase being (personally) the primary among them. However, including uplifted animals may complicate the study.

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  4. Out of curiosity, I wonder how the art matches the target market.

    Would it not be prudent for a male dominated market for a specific product receive most of its advertising to men?

    I would expect the reverse to be true for women as well. . .

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  5. I’m always a little surprised that 5e PHB is held up in photos about women & gaming & being inclusive. While the woman on the cover has a lot of clothing on and is casting a spell, isn’t she twisting in a traditional rpg way with the really odd angle? How does that staff get behind her if she’s jumping. And to top it off, I’m not sure because the lighting is ‘bad’, but I don’t think the leggings are pants…

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  6. Interesting! I would be interested to see what the stats are on how many females play D&D; I wonder if it’s a case of chicken before the egg in that, you want to market your product towards people who are likely to play, but you also want to market towards a goal target audience – which might be to include more females!

    And very good info on neutral characters – I think that’s super important!

    – Jessica (Shield Maidens)
    https://twitter.com/ShieldMaidenDnD

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