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Sexism and Gender Issues in Tabletop Gaming

[Author’s note: This article is a bit vitriolic. And, it deals with issues of objectification of women and gender inequality. If you don’t want to read that, don’t. Also, if you’re in a space where looking at pinup art might get you in trouble, you probably shouldn’t  open the links. It’s not exactly NSFW, but it isn’t exactly SFW either. Oh, and there is at least one article I’ve linked that has some pretty graphic descriptions of stuff, so, be warned.

Finally, what I’m discussing here doesn’t affect every gamer, or every city. The gaming community in Windsor is filled with (as far as I am aware) good people who are doing their best to overcome the issues I’m discussing here.

Image taken from Wizards of the Coast Dungeon Master’s Screen for 4e D&D

It is well documented that the video gaming industry has gender issues. Whether those issues are in the community itself, or in the actual design of the games, (or both), depends very much on the game.

However, these issues are also present in the lesser known gaming crowd: that of tabletop gaming. Whether we are talking about collectible card games (like Magic: The Gathering) or tabletop roleplaying games (like Dungeons and Dragons), these ongoing gender issues are still present. (Just look at the article thumbnail! I found that with a simple search for “d20 wallpaper”!)

Let me make an example: I play a lot of strategy board games, and try to attend games on a weekly basis at a nearby game store. Out of the twenty or so people who usually show up, there are, on average, two girls. Now, this is a game based on equal parts strategy and luck, using miniatures of little spaceships. There is no way for this to really be offensive to anyone, so that can’t be the issue.

In fact, this game (X-Wing Miniatures, made by Fantasy Flight) is, along with the rest of Fantasy Flight’s line-ups, pretty good at not perpetuating these issues. Notably, Fantasy Flight’s Netrunner line of products does a phenomenal job of representing a diverse population in its cards, and seems to, shockingly, be successful without sexualizing women.

Maybe that’s because women don’t need to be objectified by companies in order to sell their product?

Nah, probably that’s a load of crap. Just look at the community. They’re almost exclusively white, straight males. They probably want to see a sexy mummy on the cover of every magazine, or on every spell or creature (were you unable to see the objectification? Here are some closer looks).

Still not convinced? Maybe you say that “it’s ok, for every playmat like that, there is at least one card like this, or one magazine cover like this?”.

Well, you may be right. Maybe they just like to show scantily clad people on the covers of magazines.

Except…in that same magazine issue, there is a rather sexist article entitled “Gamers vs Girlfriends”.

Except…in the fan mail sent in to respond to that issue, there was at least one letter stating that that cover made the reader feel queasy, (yes, physically ill ladies and gents), as he would much rather see “a lady, in deference to the 98 percent male readership” .

Except…in all my searching I wasn’t able to find any other “scantily clad” male on the cover of that magazine, while over-sexualized and scantily-clad women were far too common.

Except…this is not an isolated issue.

Women don’t seem to be an active part of the gaming community. Now, that isn’t to say that they aren’t. I know many female gamers. But, I know far more male gamers. Because when you go to a gaming event, you meet ten men for every one woman. Because when you read a magazine or play with cards, more often than not you have “sexy” (objectified) women, and no “sexy” (objectified) men depicted. Because this is a real issue.

While many people may hope that this issue isn’t really an issue, I’d ask them to go to a gaming store, and look at the crowd. I’d ask them to assess the group that they game with, and count the number of girls in their group. I’d ask them to look at any rules supplement or pack of collectible cards and try and find a picture, any picture really, no, maybe just one more over-sexualized male. Coming up blank yet? Any more arguments?

Well, how about this. A lot of the pictures I’ve used in this article come from Wizards of the Coast, a company owned by Hasbro, and the company that publishes both Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), and Magic: The Gathering (MtG), two of the most well recognized “nerd hobbies”. A lot of pictures have also come from Paizo Publishing, which used to work with Wizards, and now publishes Pathfinder (PF), one of many D&D clones, and another major player in the industry.

These are the frontrunners of the industry, the “welcome gang” as it were, to tabletop gaming. And this is the message they are sending.

I’ll make the point again, this time using MtG as the example. While working on this article I googled “magic the gathering sexist card”: 412,000 results. I then googled “magic the gathering sexiest card”. One letter of difference. 365,000 more results. That’s almost double the results discussing objectification of predominantly women (since I can find few, if any, sexualized male cards, and none of the top results discuss male sexiness).

Now, why is this a problem? Why does it affect you? Are you a gamer? Male or female? It affects you. Are you a woman who was interested in becoming a gamer? It affects you. Are you someone who has siblings, friends, cousins, children (presently or in the future) who are or will be gamers? It affects them, and thus, you.

Sexism in gaming is a problem, because for every gamer who is nauseated by an objectified male because it “should” have been a woman, there is a woman who has experienced the direct effects of it.

And every woman who is driven from the hobby by sexism, whether in the products or in the players, means that there is one less woman to inspire change in the hobby. And that there is one less female customer for the companies to cater to, and to have to worry about offending.

Which means one less reason to stop perpetuating the sexism and objectification of women.

So, what do we do about it?

Well, perhaps we wait.

Wizards of the Coast, which as I’ve demonstrated is one of the main (perhaps not biggest, but definitely most important) offenders, has made a real change in the past few years. From the time when they were showcasing the kinds of art I’ve linked to in their games, they’ve moved to a more sedated, relaxed, non-objectifying art style.

I mean, look, there is a woman who is wearing proper, non-form fitting armour that, you know, would actually be useful and realistic?

And Magic, while it would be difficult (read, impossible) to link the entirety of the art from the recent sets, is doing much better as a whole, with the “sexy cards” seeming to be a thing of the past (hopefully).

Pathfinder, however, is still going strong with sexist art, and doesn’t seem to have any intention of stopping (the promo art for their newest big thing, Starfinder, keeps showing…well, I don’t know what she is, but she has boobs and cleavage when she doesn’t really need them).

So, do we try and wait until the better minded among the companies, the Fantasy Flights and the (new policy) Wizards of the Coasts of the gaming industry lead the way to a less sexist future?

Well, I’m of the opinion that that won’t work. Because the current batch of tabletop gamers suffer from this sexism.

And if women can’t join the hobby, these sexist male gamers will just teach the next generation of gamers (all male, mind you, since they’ve chased off the women) their same misogyny and prejudice.

I, sadly, do not have the answers.

I don’t know how we can reshape the gaming industry in a day, or even in months or years. I don’t know if it can be reshaped to the inclusive community it needs to be.

But, I know how each individual can make a change.

If you’re a gamer, be inclusive. Shut down aggressive, sexist, racist or bigoted statements, jokes, or players. Be welcoming to new players (female, male, trans, genderqueer, whoever), and try to be aware of how your words may negatively affect their experiences.

Don’t go on about how “safe spaces are lame” or how one card or effect “rapes” another. Most people won’t get the joke. Most people won’t appreciate the joke.

And you know what? If you can’t do those things, if you can’t actively try to not be a horrible misogynistic person, then do everyone a favour. Gather yourself, and those like you, and go to a far corner of the hobby. Play by yourselves. Don’t pollute gaming stores. Don’t design games that have male characters that look like this while selling brutally objectified women as “exclusive expansions”. (Whoops, did I forget to mention that war-gaming and the figurine business also have this problem? My bad).

So, in case you aren’t aware, in case this hasn’t made you aware, there is a problem in the tabletop gaming industry.

And I’m the target audience of these people: a white male. I can only imagine how much worse being a gamer must be for anyone who isn’t so privileged.


But, that’s been a lot of vitriol and sarcasm for one article. Maybe I’ll save some for discussions about representation of race in the gaming industry, or of gender and race issues in anime. So on that note, I’ll leave you all with one final thought.

Good luck to anyone looking to get into tabletop gaming. You’re going to need it.


I'm a huge nerd. Born and raised in Toronto, I now attend the University of Windsor for my degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. If you want to chat about nerd culture (in any form really), or ask me questions about my articles, writing, or hobbies feel free to shoot me an email.
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