Women in Tabletop Gaming - an Interview with Board Game Barrister

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June is Women In Tabletop Gaming month -- an event celebrating women who love gaming and want to share their passion with the world.

I stepped into the building with a growing sense of unease. I’d just arrived at Oak and Shield, a geek-themed pub that was currently in its soft opening stage. I sat at the bar and ordered a drink (the Weeping Angel) and scanned the pub.

I didn’t know what the man I was planning to interview looked like, but in the end it wasn’t too challenging to spot him; he was wearing a Board Game Barrister shirt.

I’d never interviewed anyone for my blog before and I was nervous. I didn’t have to be, because Glenn was a very sweet man who seemed eager to answer my questions about women in tabletop gaming. He started our conversation by apologizing that none of the female managers were available to speak with me (which I really appreciated).

For context, Board Game Barrister is a local Milwaukee tabletop gaming chain. It sells an impressive selection of games and holds regular gaming events. It has also partnered with 42 Lounge, a geek bar, to open Oak and Shield, a space where geeks can come to eat, drink, and play board games.

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How many women do you see come through your store on a weekly basis?

The branch I manage is within a mall, so we see a lot of foot traffic from the general population, so I do see a lot of women stop in. In terms of actual gamers, I’ve been in this business for 11 years and I’ve definitely seen an upswing in terms of women coming in. This could be because gaming is becoming more mainstream, or because we’re a more casual game store with a code of conduct. We want our store to feel less threatening so that everyone feels comfortable when they set foot in the door.

Have you noticed any trends in the types of tabletop games women are buying?

It’s a really broad range of games. I see a lot of women coming in looking for RPGs. In terms of DnD specifically, I’d say about half of our customers are women. We also see a lot of women picking up some of our lighter games that don’t require say, 6 hours of play time, such as Catan or Ticket to Ride.

Do women seem comfortable in your store while they are shopping?

I’d like to think that they’re comfortable. We try to foster an open environment in our stores. Our associates are trained to give every customer equal treatment and to not make any assumptions. Don’t assume a woman is shopping for her son or her boyfriend, because more likely than not, she’s shopping for herself.

I like to be on the floor and interacting with the customers, so I’m always greeting people and asking if they have any questions. One time a woman flatly said to me that she was a gamer and didn’t need any help. I apologized if I had come off as rude - that’s just how I treat all my customers - but I get why she was defensive.

You hold a lot of events at Board Game Barrister. Do many women attend the events?

Yes, we have a lot of women attending our events. If I had to say the type of game, I’d say they tend to favor the more co-op and social games at events, rather than the competitive ones. Our Magic events for example are very male-heavy. But we have an event policy in our store that players can come in when they want, bring their own character or use a pre-generated one, and can just drop into a game.

Do you believe that the tabletop gaming community can feel unwelcoming towards women?

Less than it used to, but I think some parts of the gaming community can still give that impression. The internet gives a loud voice to a small minority of people. So while it still exists I think it is more noticeable online compared to in-person.

A lot of gamers can be socially awkward, so sometimes men may miss the social cues that they are making women uncomfortable which can turn women away from tabletop events.

How do you try to make women feel welcome?

We have specific rules at our gaming events that we require all players to follow. Our veteran players are used to these rules and will help to enforce them if a player is being sexist or derogatory in another way.

As a woman interested in tabletop gaming, I often feel intimidated to attend events due to established communities and lack of tutorials for new players. What advice would you give?

We do hold some learn-to-play sessions, and we have a great woman who runs those once a month. Our staff members can run demos and we often run games that most people don’t know, so everyone is coming in with more equal knowledge of a game. Not all of our events are catered towards new players, but some are.

What I tell my staff is that we need to make sure we’re not making anyone, including women, feel stupid because they don’t magically know the rules of a game. We need to use less jargon with new players.

You’ve teamed up with 42 Lounge to open up Oak and Shield Gaming Pub. Can you tell me a bit about your vision for the space?

We know games and 42 Lounge knows bars, so we’re combining our skills and talents to bring about a bigger, better gaming community.

Have you thought about holding events geared especially towards women, here or at Oak and Shield?

We haven’t held any events only for women, just a couple geared towards families. That’s something I’ll have to look into.

What do you think the tabletop community can do to make women feel more welcome?

First off, store presentation. Stop putting scantily clad anime girls on display. Show off other games. We actually have given feedback to publishers before that their cover art was inappropriate. We actually just don’t carry some of those games.

Plus everyone needs to remember that the more women who play games, the bigger the market gets, which means more money for more games.

Do you know of any kickass women running local campaigns right now?

FORGE is a new geek girl group that’s just started, and BeBo has some great videos about inclusive gaming.

I did this interview with a local board game store because I wanted to prove what I already know -- that women are playing tabletop games more than ever. I feel lucky, because growing up as a geeky girl in the 90’s I found that I was never made fun of for my hobbies. The idea that women aren’t geeky or that they aren’t participating in “hard” geek hobbies like DnD is completely antiquated.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I do play DnD. But I do have to say, part of the reason my friends and I started our own campaign is because we were intimidated by the outdated attitudes that women don’t play. The idea of joining a local campaign made me anxious, as it did many of the women in our group. I am glad to see that as time goes on, more and more women are being vocal about their love for hobbies like this.

Tabletop gaming isn’t the only geeky hobby that tries to shut women out. While women gamers are much more public now, we still have to deal with catcalling and sexist comments in MMOs, and men still whine about women protagonists in games. I tried live action role playing several years ago and while I liked the hobby, I was also one of only several women and the undertones of sexism made me take a step back from the group -- even though it wasn’t overt.

Men, don’t be such babies about women joining in your hobbies. And women, be proud to be a geek and don’t let sexism dim your passion!

Kick-Ass Geeky Women

Real Women of Gaming - A website all about women and gaming
The Broadswords - An all women actual play DnD podcast
Board Gaming Pinup Girl - A gaming instagram that will get you pumped about new games
The DnD Grandma - Proof that everyone loves tabletop gaming
RPGs Designed by Women - A great list of women-designed games
Our Turn - Podcast about women in gaming, convention reviews, favorite game lists, and more
The Rules Girl - Providing entertaining game guides to new players
Ladies Slaying Dragons - A weekly podcast of women talking about gaming
The Female Pally - A blog by a female gamer who also hosts not 1, but 2 podcasts!

Find out more about women in tabletop gaming month!

Images courtesy of womenintabletopgaming.com and boardgamebarrister.com