2000 - Dungeons, dragons and gender: role-playing games and the participation of women

by Omar published 2022/11/12 09:27:40 GMT-7, last modified 2022-11-12T09:27:40-07:00
Foster, Kyna (2000, March 30). Dungeons, dragons and gender: role-playing games and the participation of women. 42nd meeting of the Western Social Sciences Association (online). Stereotypes in RPG. 11 pages. http://www.ac.wwu.edu/anthclub/studentwork/KynaFoster.html [No longer online.]

Found archived version on : https://web.archive.org/web/20010512151537/http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~anthclub/studentwork/KynaFoster.htm

Archived here in case disappears again:

Dungeons, Dragons and Gender: Role-Playing Games and the Participation of Women

A paper presented at the 42nd Annual Meeting of the Western Social Sciences Association

April 26-29, 2000

By: Kyna Foster

Western Washington University

Bellingham, Washington


March 30, 2000


Purpose and Methodology

                The purpose of this paper is to examine issues of gender within the subculture of fantasy role-playing. Data was collected in two ways: through participant-observation in a LARP (Live Action Role-Playing) on the campus of Western Washington University and from surveys and interviews. The surveys and interviews were conducted both at Western Washington University’s role playing group, SPRAL (Loosely Arranged Role-Playing Society), and at RustyCon, a science fiction and fantasy convention held from January 7-9, 2000 in Everett, WA. The gaming industry also provided data that is being used for comparative purposes. Though the results are preliminary, they do show a marked change in how gender is addressed within role-playing from the last time gaming was truly studied, by Gary Alan Fine from 1977-79. 

                Two main types of games and role-players were examined: the traditional tabletop varieties, exemplified by Dungeons and Dragons, and live action role-playing, which is more akin to improvisational acting. Besides being some of the most established and easily accessible gamers, these gamers are also the one most likely branded as “strange” by outsiders. This is exemplified in books such as The Truth About Dungeons and Dragons by Joan Hake Robie, which discusses how gaming (specifically Dungeons and Dragons) is linked with Satanism and is anti-Christian. I have not found this linkage which Robie champions to be at all apparent.

The newest variety of gaming, collectable card games (CCGs), such as “Magic the Gathering” and “Pokémon” have been excluded here for an important reason of categorization. CCGs are not role-playing games. They do not have players consciously take on the actions and persona of a character and are more akin to traditional card games, such as poker, than to role-playing games (RPGs). Collectable card games are often produced by the same companies as RPGs; there have been spin-offs from RPGs to CCGs and vice versa, but the players and the games themselves, are quite different.


                Gaming is a world unto itself, with its own vocabulary, reference points, and history. The longer someone is involved in the hobby, the more knowledge of the world they acquire and the more prestige. Much of the knowledge is passed on orally, though everyday conversations. The books used for playing also help to distribute knowledge throughout the community and provide a shared knowledge base. This knowledge base includes an extensive vocabulary, which has found its way into this paper. To a gamer the statement: “she triple botched the roll and ended up a wraith”* makes perfect sense, while to outsiders it looks like a secret code. In order to assist in reading this paper a glossary has been included, explaining many common gaming terms.

                In a role-playing game a player creates a character within a given fantasy world. A group of players is then led on some type of adventure through this world. They are guided by the person running the game, known variously as the Dungeon Master (DM), the Storyteller, the Game Master (GM), or one of several other terms used in different gaming systems. The specifics of a given game depend not only on what system and type of game is being played, but also on the people playing and running the game.

                                The exact origin of role-playing games is at best foggy. In Essence what are now know as role-playing games developed from miniature war games, in which participants recreated historical battles with miniature soldiers. The first mass marketed role-playing game (sometimes also referred to as a fantasy role-playing game) was Dungeons and Dragons, which first had wide distribution in 1974 (TSR Website 2000). D&D, as it is referred to has taken countless forms over the years from novels and comics to a Saturday morning TV show and a movie which is currently in production. In 1992 White Wolf Game Studios introduced their game “Vampire: The Masquerade”. The game focused on a darker, more gothic theme and was more character and story-centered than the traditional D&D campaign and thus captured the imaginations of many gamers and helped to expand the customer base for the gaming companies.

Gender and Gaming

How to explain gamers?  Role-playing games as a group have been virtually ignored since their heyday during the late 70’s/early 80’s. Gary Alan Fine’s book, Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds was published in 1983, and researched from 1977 to 1979. It is the only scholarly work on this group, and it’s almost 20 years out of date. Under the heading of gender, Fine has two things to say. First, there are very few women role-playing, between 5% and 10% of the total gaming population. Secondly, most of these females are drawn in by boyfriends /husbands and are thus not really as involved in the games as they are in the relationships.

                Times have changed. Wizards of the Coast (WOTC), the largest gaming company in the country with properties ranging from Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) to Pokémon reports that 1/5 (20%) of the gaming population is female (Dancey 2000, 6). WOTC’s report, composed by their VP and brand manager for D&D, Ryan Dancey, is biased in that it only examined people between the ages of 12 and 35. I believe it still gives a relatively accurate picture of the gaming community has a whole, since that age range covers the vast majority of gamers. Out of the people I talked to, 37.5% of them were female. This is a higher percentage than the national average, but one it reflects the arenas in which I talked with gamers. The higher percentage also gives a clearer voice to the females who game and helps to give a wider picture of their views on gaming.

                Not only are there more women gaming than ever, but they are getting involved in more varied ways. Almost every female at WWU became involved through friends, rather than boyfriends, though that had also happened. The same was true at RustyCon. A few common scenarios included a brother who needed more people to play D&D with, a friend who thought that gaming was fun and wanted to share their new hobby, or at least wanted some company among a group of near-strangers.

                The games themselves have become more of a draw. One of the main comments I received in answer to the question “what differences you see between male and female gamers?” was that females are more interested in character development and plot than in so-called “hack-and-slash” and “power gaming”. Females will talk and think their way through problems, while male players will simply try to slash their way through a situation.

                This dimorphism is not simply due to gender. Age seems to also be a major factor. The women in my sample began gaming at an average age of 15.65 years, while the males began at an average of 12.31 years, a difference of 3.34 years. These 3 years allow a lot of “growing up time,” which could also contribute to the perceived differences in gaming styles, at least for the first few years. This is something noticed by gamers themselves. They will often comment of younger or more inexperienced gamers, that they “have grown” or “ are growing up nicely.” This was especially apparent at WWU, where 52% of the players were ages 14-20, and there is a real feeling of looking out for the younger players. A prime example of this was during the aftermath of the tragedy at Columbine High School. Many of the players at SPRAL wear black trenchcoats, and with the evening news pronouncing in dire tones about the possible involvement of a “trenchcoat brigade” a phone alert went out from the house of some of the older (college age) gamers. The telephone calls were made to any player who was in high school, asking that they “lay off the black” and to not wear their trenchcoats for a few days. This request was not only out of respect for the victims, but also as protection for the younger gamers who had already had to deal with harassment at school for being too “different.” The older gamers  (or at least some of them) saw it as their responsibility to make sure that the younger gamers would be OK.

                Hence, it seems that beyond gender the factor of age also comes into play. Females initially tend to be more into the character/plot elements of the games and, in a more female mode will talk out problems instead of hacking through them. Males will often (though not always) come around to a similar style of play. This may be in part, due to what games are being played.

                The variety of role-playing games available boggles the imagination. Everything from the classics, such as Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu based on the works of H. P. Lovecraft, to cartoons such as Sailor Moon and everything in between is available. If a gaming company has not thought of it, there are systems such as GURPs (Generic Universal Role Playing System), from Steve Jackson Games, in which it is possible to create your own worlds, playing whatever type of character you desire. Game playing systems vary greatly between individual companies and individual games from the same company. At one end of the spectrum are systems where everything is decided by dice rolls, such as in certain versions of Dungeons & Dragons. How much the dice are used is, of course, dependent on the Dungeon Master/Storyteller, but no matter what, dice play an important in these games. On the other end are games such as Amber, based on the books of Roger Zelazny that uses no dice or other chance-inducing devices/ploys. Everything is left to the storyteller and the players, who compare their character’s statistics.

                Most common though, seem to be the middle-of the road systems, such as White Wolf’s “World of Darkness” series. Once, again how much a storyteller uses the dice is up to him/her, but the system itself was designed to use fewer dice rolls than in “traditional” gaming systems (such as D&D) allowing for more role-playing. The goal in White Wolf games is to “use the rules only as much - or preferably as little - as you need to tell thrilling stories of terror, action and romance” (Achilli, Bates, Burcato, et al. 1998, 21). To use your imagination to explore a character you have developed, rather than seeing a character on TV or reading about one in a novel or even depending on the rules to tell you what to do next.

                The variety of games available means that some seem to appeal more to a male sensibility than a female sensibility and vice versa. When talking with a WOTC employee about developments in the gaming industry, he talked about how there are more female game designers than ever. Thus he said more games, such as the recently released 7th Sea from Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG), seem to appeal to women. The appeal does not seem to be based on subject matter alone. 7th Sea is about swashbuckling pirates, which is not an interest traditionally associated with females in Western culture. By playing non-traditional characters females may be able to step out of their culturally defined roles, but that does not completely explain the draw of 7th Sea and other games. Playing system and type of game are also a factor in gendered game preference. In her paper “Perils of the Princess: Gender and Genre in Video Games” Sharon R. Sherman says that “females who do play [video games] prefer games like Tetris which requires the solving of a puzzle, rather than the completion of a quest.” (Sherman 1997, 256) Sherman’s statement seems to also hold true for role-playing. Females prefer games that allow them to problem solve and explore their characters rather than simply seeing how many monsters can be defeated.

                Over the years, not only has a greater variety of games with a greater variety of themes become available, but the topics of play also seem to have changed. Fine dedicates several pages of his discussion on gender to the prevalence of rape in game. He comments that  players consider inhibitions which prevent them from engaging in fantasy rape to be a problem...Groups vary in the actions permissible within the fantasy context; fantasy rape is not legitimate in every male group (Fine 1983, 69).

In the games I have observed, rape by characters, simply for the sake of doing something is not permissible. NPCs may rape characters, if it fits in with the story line and actions of the characters, but rape for the sake of rape would generally not be tolerated. Consensual sex is permissible, so there is not a moratorium on sexual interaction. I believe that this difference is not only due to the group that I was observing, which is largely liberal college students, but also due to changes in society at large. Over the last 10 to 15 years the view of rape within American society has changed dramatically. The idea of blaming rape victims, though it still exists, is very much out of vogue. Awareness of rape, especially on college campuses, is extremely high. Hence, the games reflect how society has changed, even when the game settings themselves, in particular D&D, with its medieval-inspired society, have not changed. There are plenty of opportunities in D&D for rape, etc., but I believe you would find fewer rape scenes in a present-day D&D game then when Fine was doing his research.

                The above illustrates an important point about gaming: the games are shaped by the players and thus by the dominant culture. Though the game world is constructed as an independent world, and though the players like to think of themselves as different and somehow separate from the mainstream, which they might be, the effect of the surrounding culture cannot be denied. To the point, the gaming world is shaped by the players, who are shaped by the dominant culture of that time and place. Within their fantasy worlds players discover themselves in some way. They are allowed to be the people they are not in daily life. Instead of being a college student, you are a knight, a magician, or a vampire. There is release in being something other than you. Many SPRAL members talk about using game as a chance to de-stress. At RustyCon, one of the discussions I had was with a women named Cat, who talked about how, though she prefers character development to “shoot-em-up” in games, the shoot-em-up is extremely helpful for stress relief. She talked about how if you’ve had a really bad day at work, you can come home, go to game and ask your DM to name an ogre, after a stressor, in order to release your frustrations. The release of tension is what draws some people into gaming and keeps others playing.

                I mentioned before how Fine discusses that women were brought into gaming by boyfriends/husbands while men brought other friends into their games. This seems to be true across the boards now. Most respondents (72.7%) said that friends were somehow involved in bringing them into gaming. The survey did not delineate how good these friends were, but it is clear that not all of these people were (or ever would be) dating each other. The theory that women are simply brought in as potential mates is very much a stereotype, which may have been true at one point, but which no longer holds water. Women actually seem to draw other women in. At the SPRAL game there are definite cliques, mostly based on age and experience. One of these is formed of lower-age high school girls who, in game and out primarily interact with only members of their group. Their behavior is understandable, given that they are all very new players and they knew each other before joining the game. At first, it was one or two of them, who knew one girl (a sister of an older player); they steadily have begun bringing more players in, thus expanding the number of females at the game. I can easily see this pattern being repeated. One female begins gaming and draws in other females, much as males generally draw in other males, a pattern that relates to the gender interaction and segregation of children. Eleanor E. Maccoby, in her book The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together presents evidence that shows how “there is a powerful tendency for children to segregate themselves by gender” (Maccoby 1998, 29).  Both girls and boys “overwhelmingly make same-sex choices” (Maccoby 1998, 29) when it comes to friendship. So when introducing friends to gaming women will be more likely to bring in other women and vice-versa, given the friendship patterns which exist.

Gaming has truly developed into a much stronger, better-developed segment of Western society. Fine concludes his first chapter by saying that gaming is “an urban leisure subsociety with its own distinctive subculture” (Fine 1983, 38). This has only become truer over the intervening years. The networks of communication which Fine cites as necessary for a subculture have become even stronger. A major part of this is due to in astounding growth in the use of personal computers, e-mail, and the Internet. It has allowed gamers from all over the world to connect not only through websites, but also through on-line role-playing. That is a topic in and of itself. Another factor to this strengthening is the emergence of societies, such as White-Wolf’s official live action club, the Camarilla. The Cam, as it is known, began in 1992, shortly after White Wolf released its extremely popular game, Vampire: The Masquerade. There is a branch of the Cam in every major city in the U.S., not to mention in “ten countries on five continents” (Camarilla 2000, 1). These groups give not only a game with a overarching story-line in every city, but also a way for gamers new to a city to quickly and easily connect up with others. Gaming is most certainly a group activity. Though you can play with just one or two people, most games work best with between 4 and 10 people, depending on the game. Live-action games tend to run to at least 15 people, as the game is more dependent on player-to-player interaction and thus necessitates a larger group. From 88 respondents only 18%, or 16 people, said that they did not have a regular gaming group. The data is skewed by the fact that anyone interviewed at SPRAL is obviously part of a group. A clear picture exists; even if you remove the SPRAL players, 63% of the other respondents said that they had a regular gaming group. The group and its dynamics (including gender) are extremely important in gaming.

                Some people I talked with emphasized this as being the main thing that gender affects in gaming. Too many men tended to make games uninteresting in many people’s eyes, while too many women was never brought up as a problem. This probably has to do with the fact that while all male games are still not too difficult to find all female games are exceptionally. While 22.2% of my male respondents reported only sometimes or hardly ever gaming with females, no females stated this.  In fact only 12.5% of females said that they “often” gamed with males, as opposed to playing with males “most of the time”. By far the most popular response for both genders was that they gamed with the opposite gender “most of the time”.  54.4% of the 55 male responses, and 84.8% of the 33 female respondents choose this option. The group is one of the most important parts of a game and the most common type of small gaming group seems to contain at least one or two females.  This is desirable in the eyes of most gamers, as opposed to the comments made by Fine, where he quotes informants as saying that they become “more slowed or inhibited with them [women] playing” (Fine 1983, 69). As more women have begun gaming, they have become a more positive, desirable force around a table or at a LARP.


                This is by no means the final word on either gaming, or the role of women in gaming. A larger, more diverse sample would be necessary to fully explore the role of gender within RPGs. What has been shown through, is that many of the stereotypes, held by gamers and by those outside of gaming, are no longer true. Women game in large enough numbers to make an impact on how games are designed and written. Though there is by no means an equal number of female participants, the world of RPGs is not a specifically male subculture.  Nor are there simply a few random females in gaming groups, there is a network of them formed when one woman begins gaming and introduces female friends to the hobby.

                As the gaming market expands, with the use of computers and the growth of CCGs, more people will be exposed to the subculture (and its variants) the role of women will expand as well. More games cater to a female style of play and the popularity of this style of play with both genders has yet to be fully realized. Gaming, with its roots in the 1970’s, has integrated females much as the workplace was integrated in the 70s and 80s (and continues to be in some areas). A common comment from the younger generation of gamers was that they saw “no difference” between male and female gamers. Perhaps this lack of delineation between the sexes is where gaming, as well as society as a whole is headed. In a world where your character can be anything you want it to be, that change may come sooner rather than later.


Kyna Foster

March 30, 2000



Achilli, Justin, Andrew Bates, Phil Brucato, Richard E. Dansky, Ed Hall, Robert Hatch, Michael B. Lee, Ian Lemke, Jim Moore, Ethan Skemp, and Cynthia Summers

1998   Vampire the Masquerade: A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror. 3rd edition. Clarkston, GA: White Wolf Publishing.


2000   What is the Camarilla?. Electronic document. http://dppw.tamu.edu/camarilla/frames/venues.html.

Dancey, Ryan

2000   Adventure Game Industry Market Research Summary (RPGs) V1.0. Wizards of the Coast.

Fine, Gary Alan

1983   Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hake Robie, Joan

1991   The Truth About Dungeons and Dragons. Lancaster, PA: Starburst Publishing.

Maccoby, Eleanor E.

1998   The Two Sexes: Growing Up Apart, Coming Together. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sherman, Sharon R.

1997   Perils of the Princess: Gender and Genre in Video Games. Western Folklore 56:243-58.

TSR Inc.

2000   Dungeons and Dragons FAQ. Electronic document. http://www.wizards.com/dnd/DnDArchives.asp




  • Camarilla- the officially sanctioned gaming/social club of White Wolf Publishing. Noted for their huge (3,000-player) worldwide LARP game. There are chapters of the Camarilla in nearly every U.S. city and in 10 foreign countries.


  • campaign- a series of games (normally held on a regular basis) using the same characters/setting and following one adventure, the term originally comes from war gaming.


  • CCG- collectable card game, non role-playing games using cards that are collected and traded by participants, besides being use to play the individual game. Examples of this game category include Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon


  • D&D- Dungeons and Dragons one of the first true role-playing games developed from miniature war games.


  • DM- a term from Dungeons and Dragons, the person who runs the game, referred by Fine as the “referee”.  Along with storyteller has become generic term for the person running the game. See also GM, Storyteller.


  • gamer- a person who games and is involved in role-playing


  • GM- game master refers to the person running a given game. Used as a generic term, regardless of gaming system by most players. See also DM, Storyteller.


  • GURPs- Generic Universal Role Playing System; a games System developed by Steve Jackson Games which can be applied to any setting the players wish


  • hack-and-slash- a way of gaming where the player simply fights (hacks) their way through a situation, rather than thinking about it; also indicative of someone who simply plays by the rules, rather than developing their character.

See also Power Gaming


  • in-game- an action/event, which occurs within the game, as opposed to occurring the real world.


  • LARP- Live Action Role-playing; games played in a live setting where participants dress in costume and act out their roles, instead of simply sitting around a table


  • NPC- non player character, a character generated/used by the DM/storyteller in order to further the plot of the game


  • out-of-game- an action/event, which does not happen in the game world, frequently referred to when talking about how much information a character has. Ex: She has that knowledge out-of-game, but not in-game.


  • power gaming- gaming for the sake of collecting and use power; also implies manipulating the rules of the game to your own advantage in disregard of other players. See also hack-and-slash.


  • Storyteller- term from White Wolf Game Studios games, refers to the person running the game. Along with DM has become generic term for a person running a game.         See also DM, GM.


  • tabletop (gaming)- playing in the “traditional” way, sitting around a table and role-playing, often using dice and other chance-inducing devices


* Translation: she made a dice role that failed 3 times over and ended up having to play a ghost, since her character was dead, due to the failed actions

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