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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

GamerGrrl Manifesto, Redux: The Proof is in the Passive

by Hilary Doda
May 22, 2001

Hilary has made the raw data and the compiled data available as Excel 7.0 spreadsheets.  

About eight months ago (at the time of this writing), I put together an essay that was published first in a private industry forum, later in print in Knights of the Dinner Table (issue #48), and finally appeared here at RPGnet as the first and second installments of this column. In said essay, I ranted and complained about the portrayals of women in game books, among other things, and I was challenged on these very forums (hi, Anna!) to provide evidence to back up my assertions. I agreed that said evidence would be highly useful, and dashed off to find out whether I should prepare to eat crow publicly. Eight months, some greatly appreciated assistance from Ken Burnside, Jeb Card and Geoffrey Brent, and some fascinating arguments later, I am (finally!) ready to present our findings.

Scope of the Study

I was challenged to pull out some contemporary books and find proof that women are less visible than men in game books, and that, as I claimed, when they are present they are portrayed in demeaning ways to a much higher degree than males in the same books. I determined that such a study would be best conducted with respect to the changing cultural climate as well as with an eye to context - an NPC from a module described and pictured as a 'weak little woman' or a raving sexpot may be that way simply because that's what's needed for that particular story. The best way to account for both variables, I decided, was to take only core rulebooks instead of modules or supplements (thereby avoiding the issue of module-specific NPCs) and to look at rulebooks spanning the last two decades.

The books chosen for the comparisons were part of personal collections of the researchers, as well as books from the library at Dream Pod 9, which includes some really neat small-press books, and the library of the McGill Gamers' Guild, which includes some rather old books. The games chosen ranged from high fantasy through to the post-apocalyptic, science-fiction and religious. All games were produced in English or were the English versions of games previously published in other languages. Gaming as we experience it is primarily a western cultural artifact, and I have no wish, at the moment, to add cross-cultural issues to an already immense study. I may well follow up on that later, though, and if anyone's interested in helping out, I'd love to hear from you!


Once the game books themselves were obtained, I needed to decide how to classify the artwork therein, and how codify such a subjective thing as human interpretation of image into a quantifiable statistic. I decided on the following categories:

    Game Title
    Year of Publication
    # of images
    # with women
    % with women
    # with men
    % with men
    # unknown
    % unknown
    Female Dress: Passive
    Female Dress: Neutral
    Female Dress: Active
    Female Stance: Passive
    Female Stance: Neutral
    Female Stance: Active
    Male Dress: Passive
    Male Dress: Neutral
    Male Dress: Active
    Male Stance: Passive
    Male Stance: Neutral
    Male Stance: Active

    Game Title: refers to the title of the game for which the core rulebook was created. Also includes such information as edition used.

    Year of Publication: rather self-evident. This is the year of publication of the edition used in this study.

    Coder: added later, this indicates the identity of the person responsible for the classification of the book. 'HD' refers to myself, and 'JC' to my partner in crime, Jeb Card.

    # of images: the number of images (including the front cover) within a book which include humanoid creatures. Giant robots, power armour and other such vehicles/apparatuses were either designated as 'gender unknown' or not counted, depending on the context in which the image was presented.

    # with women/% with women: the number of images (and percent of the total number of images) which include women or girls. Women were identified through the use of standard human gender signifiers, including visible breasts (bare or through clothing), a curved torso, full lips, soft and/or angular features. Hairstyle was taken into account, was but not used as a deciding factor in and of itself.

    # with men/% with men: the number of images (and percent of the total number of images) which include men or boys. Men were identified through the use of standard human gender signifiers, including visible 'crotch bulge,' an angular/triangular torso, thin or severe lips, harsh and blocky features, and the presence of facial hair. Hairstyle was taken into account, was but not used as a deciding factor in and of itself.

    # unknown/% unknown: I couldn't tell. Be they alien, completely covered in armor or pus-dripping sores, mutant, androgynous or ninja, I just couldn't tell. I included them in the tallies to keep track of the possible error involved in the tabulations. Some folks may see images thus classified as distinctly one gender or the other, so the category helps to give an idea of how much variation there may be in identifying gender through the image alone. (Text was not taken into consideration; the image had to stand alone.)

    Dress: Passive/Neutral/Active: The way a person was presented in the images was as important as how many times that gender appeared in the book. If a game book only shows members of a certain gender as sex toys or bimbos, it doesn't matter how many of those images it has - it's still discriminatory. Passive dress was defined as excessive nudity, clothing meant to show lower status or to render the character immobile, or such trappings of submission as chains and handcuffs. Neutral dress was defined as regular, every-day clothing for the society in which the game takes place; clothing that covers all main erogenous zones and that allows freedom of movement to the wearer. Active dress is clothing that is specifically designed for engaging in combat (camo gear, karate gis, large numbers of weapons), that pulls on cultural stereotypes of strength and that permits the wearer to engage in all forms of movement.

    Stance: Passive/Neutral/Active: Even if a woman is wearing a nun's habit or full combat gear, if she is down on her hands and knees in front of someone she is not in a position of equality or power. This set of numbers defines how characters are portrayed through their posture and actions. Passive was defined as any stance intended to enhance the sexual appeal of the character at the expense of comfort (arched back, chest-thrust - 'Playboy' poses; throat/chest exposed or vulnerable), any stance which places them at the mercy of another character (at the business end of a weapon, being harmed by another character, obviously unwilling to be doing what they're doing), or dead. A neutral pose is one which seems to be a posed photograph, as well as character archetypes, head-shots and generic images where the character does not appear to be doing anything which relates to violence whatsoever. Active images are ones in which the character is obviously in control of the situation; where they have someone else under fire/guard, where they are taking action towards a specific goal, where they are in decided motion, seemingly of their own volition.

    I acknowledge that these last two categories are highly subjective, and that repetition of this study by another could result in different numbers. I submit that this study is still valid despite the subjectivity of the later categories, as the first few tallies, which describe the number of times females are portrayed both in comparison to images including males and with regard to the total number of images within the book, are purely objective in nature, and they speak greatly to the sheer lack of female presence within standard RPG core rulebooks.

    I examined each book individually, and categorized all of the images within in one sitting. The percentages for Dress and Stance were calculated based on the number of images which included that gender in the rulebook, not on the total number of images. Dress and Stance statistics were not compiled for those images which fell into the category of 'unknown.' The numbers and percentages in the raw data do not add up to 100% of gender-identified images or total images, due to the fact that many images included more than one person, and often a number of people in various states of Dress or Stance.

    It is important to note that the results presented here are only a representative sample, and in no way exclude the possibility of books which run contrary to the trends depicted. Put simply: finding a book which does not match these trends in no way invalidates the claims made here, and may in fact offer up some intriguing correlations when added to the study. If anyone wishes to suggest additions or contribute findings to the study, which will remain a work in progress, please contact the author at You can find the results from this compilation in the file raw_data.xls, linked at the bottom of this column installment (Excel 7.0).

    Results and Discussion

    A few notes, before we begin, to clarify the results. All ratios presented here are in the format women:men, in order to keep the comparisons fair. The earliest book examined was published in 1987, and the year range was divided into four, based mostly on the number of books within each category: 1987-89, 1990-93, 1995-97 and 1998-2000. Twenty-seven books were examined in all, and they deliver something of a cross-section of the range of available games and genres.

    In order to reconcile the numbers for stance and dress imagery with the disparate number of instances of women and men in the complete image set, I decided to relate the totals to display what the ratios would be if men and women were portrayed with equal frequency. This gives a broader picture than the raw data, and maintains the accuracy of the original findings. In order to accomplish this, I totaled the number of images in each category (as listed above), and took that number as a percentage of the total number of images for that gender.

    E.g.: in the first year range, 1987-1989, 130 out of 415 images included one or more female characters, making 31.33% of 415. Of those images, 25 (or 20.77% of 130) showed a woman in a passive stance.

    Conversely, 333 out of 415 images included one or more male characters, making 80.24%. Of those images, 32 (or 9.61% of 333) showed a man in a passive stance.

    80.24 divided by 31.33 gives us a ratio of female characters to male characters of 1:2.56, and 20.77 divided by 9.61 gives us a ratio of females to males portrayed in a passive stance of slightly over 2:1.

    Comparing the two ratios, we see the true story behind the numbers. Despite the fact that men are shown more than two and a half times as often as women in these earlier books, women are shown in a passive stance more than twice as often - for every one man shown in a passive or submissive stance, more than two women are portrayed in that same fashion.

    Carrying out this procedure for each category in each time period, as well as for the entirety of the data poll, we can see some intriguing facts come to light, and, I must admit, while some of the numbers are what I anticipated, a few were pleasantly surprising.

    On average, men are pictured slightly more than twice as often as women in game illustrations (1:2.13). This ratio has been decreasing slowly but steadily over the past 14 years, from a high of 1:2.56 in the late '80s to the current 1:1.75 (1998-2000). While this is an improvement, what it realistically means is that we will not see equal representation of men and women in game art, assuming the current rate of change continues, for another ten years. Unfortunately the rate of change already seems to be faltering, as a large jump was made in the mid-nineties, and we now seem to be holding steady at the same ratio we achieved in 1995.

    In some books from the couple of years, specifically Dream Pod 9's Jovian Chronicles and Tribe 8, and most dramatically in Guardians of Order's Big Eyes, Small Mouth (2nd Edition), the ratio has been tilted in the opposite direction, with more female characters depicted than males. If this trend picks up speed then it is certain that the numbers will rectify themselves much more quickly, but we must be careful about tilting too far in the opposite direction. This is about equality, not backlash.

    On the whole, women are more than twice as likely (2.35:1) to be depicted in passive, submissive or skimpy clothing, and half as likely to be shown in active dress (1:1.94). Women are just as likely to be shown in neutral or nondescript clothing (1:1.08) as men; the extremes are where the difference is made plain. Surprisingly - or perhaps not, given the rampant use of the female body in today's advertising - the late eighties saw much less distortion of this sort, with women still half as likely to be portrayed in active clothing (1:2.2) but only one and a half times as likely to be placed in passive dress (1.4:1). The modern ratio matches the overall ratio quite closely, showing a decrease in the instances of passive dress on women (2.07:1), but a corresponding increase in the difference in active dress (1:2.53). This was what I had originally anticipated, although I had hoped to note a decrease in the ratios over time.

    Stance was pleasantly surprising, proving more equal in depiction than did the category of dress. Over all, men and women are depicted in passive or submissive stances about equally, with women shown as weak or in danger only slightly more than men (1.12:1). While this may because of the lack of images of women in some games, it is still far better than I had originally anticipated. Neutral stance, used to set aside character archetypes and 'posed shots' worked out to, essentially, a 1:1 ratio, and active stance was only slightly more disappointing than passive, with men shown as active and aggressive close to twice as often as women (1:1.77). This is something that has changed dramatically over the years, cultural icons such as Ripley no doubt making the active woman more attractive to the modern eye as opposed to 'unnatural,' as in past centuries. In the late eighties, men were shown in an active stance more than two and a half times as often as women (1:2.6), dipping to only slightly more than women in the early nineties (1:1.3), something which may be a function of the popularity of the 'bad girl' comics and such of the time. Rising in the mid nineties, the ratio has begun to drop once more, thanks largely to games such as Chaosium's Call of Cthulu (Edition 5.5), FASA's Shadowrun (3rd Edition) and, once again, Big Eyes, Small Mouth (2nd Edition).

    You can find the results from this portion of the study in the file compiled_data.xls, linked at the bottom of this column installment (Excel 7.0).


    Despite much voice being given to the equality of women in the niche market of gaming, upon study it quickly becomes clear both that presentations of women in game books are far from equal, and that the situation is not as dire as some (myself included) originally believed. The number of women depicted in game books is increasing, but it is still not to a point of equal representation. While the presentation of women in passive or submissive positions is decreasing as the rate of women depicted in active stances is increasing, the polarization of dress with regards to gender still leaves a lot to be desired.

    While the mass media and western culture constantly and fanatically abuse the female form in order to sell products and lifestyles, we must be vigilant to ensure that such tactics do not become standard fare simply because of their popularity. Gaming is, by its very nature, a hobby and an industry set apart from the mainstream; why, then, do we seem to feel the need to co-opt the most repugnant parts of that mainstream, simply in order to (theoretically) increase sales? By defining the sole market for games as young men, and pandering to the commonly-held stereotypes of the tastes of that demographic, we are not only hampering ourselves but insulting the vast majority of gamers. Instead of grasping frantically at slender pieces of the established market, it would benefit the industry (not to mention the hobby as a whole) to reach out to those traditionally excluded - the women who are pushed away from gaming both by reactions from those embroiled in the attitudes presented as 'gaming culture,' and by their own discomfort at the marginalization of the female gender within the games themselves.

    Hilary Doda grew up in Toronto, but managed to escape to Montreal following the HentaiCon Tentacle Disaster of '97. Slaving away in the RPG sweatshop known to insiders as Dream Pod 9, she divides her time between managing the Tribe 8 game line and scribbling desperate cries for freedom on smuggled-in sheets of paper towel. She can be reached at

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    The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

    Other columns at RPGnet

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