Women on the Chessboard: Prejudice, sexism, and women in gaming

A new series of publications explore the levels of prejudice female gamers face in a “man’s world.” Jiemian News takes a look inside the mook to examine the challenges women face across the board.

Photo from Unsplash.

Photo from Unsplash.

By PAN Wenjie

Translated By GU Yiwei


The gaming industry has not been an easy place for women. Female players, designers and reporters are paid less, get less credit and are more likely to become victims of cyber violence than their male counterparts, according to Women on the Chessboard, a new mook (magazines with more substantial content and longer shelf life) series on gaming and gender.

Through extensive game reviews, as well as interviews with makers and players, the series confronts head-on the discrimination facing female gaming professionals and amateurs and dissects the handling of sexism in gaming and wider society as a whole.

Discrimination is nothing new to female gamers. “I’m left with second-rate equipment and tasks after the male players choose theirs,” professional e-sport player Xiaosu said in a recent documentary.  “Some [male players] just say straight to my face that games are not for women.”

Similar biases also manifest themselves in casual, low-stakes board games. WANG Chuan wrote in Women on the Chessboard that female players are deemed “incompetent” and “clumsy,” especially in competitive games that require complex cognitive processes. He analyzed the gaming of a hundred female players and found that what seems to be a lack of skill is often just unfamiliarity with the rules. In some cases, women’s lack of enthusiasm for board games, in general, is due to weariness caused by the “mindless, boring women’s games” recommended to them.

Discrimination can also take the form of paternalism. A male player may be all too eager to volunteer unsolicited advice to his female counterpart, or even escort her step-by-step through challenging tasks. Experts point out that overprotection, masked as charisma and courtliness, indicates deep-rooted contempt, bias, and desire to control. Seeing women as qualified only for simple, cute, cartoonish child’s play, preempts the chance of equal conversation on the future of gaming by robbing half the potential players of their autonomy.

Even recognized female gamers are not spared unfair scrutiny. Becca Scott, an influential game reviewer and e-sport reporter, has spoken openly about the dominance of “his voice” in the industry. She has been criticized for her looks and hosting style, and is often asked where the male hosts are when she takes over a program.

In fact, female voices have been largely missing right from the creation of most games. ZHAO Yongquan, the editor of Women on the Chessboard, only became aware of the severity of the issue when trying to hire a game designer for the publisher, which also produces its own board games.

Unknown to many players, female creators have played some remarkable roles in the history of gaming. Monopoly, the classic board game that has been adopted worldwide across historical and racial contexts, is based on a similar game invented by American Lizzie Magie at the beginning of the 20th century to demonstrate the consequences of land-grabbing in the capitalist economy. Although Monopoly has sold hundreds of millions of copies, Magie, who received a pitiful payment for the rights to the original game, has rarely been credited as the creator.

More recently, Wingspan, a card game designed by an all-female team, was named “Connoisseur-gamer Game of the Year” by Spiel Des Jahres, an important annual award for board games. In an interview with Women on the Chessboard, Elizabeth Hargrave, the lead designer, said that the team had not set out to invent a game only for women, and that inclusion and representation in the creative process was critical for engaging a diverse group of players — games designed by all-male teams tend to attract lopsidedly male audiences.

Games have become a channel to advocate for women’s rights. In the board game Arranged!, created by a New York-based Pakistani artist Nashra Balagamwala, players help the young heroines devise tactics to avoid being married off at a young age. Based on Balagamwala’s personal experience, the game not only sheds light on the ordeals of forced marriages that Pakistani women face but also raises awareness of many other oppressive local norms such as skin whitening and dowries. Similarly, in a South Korean board game, players are made to confront systemic sexism as they help the protagonist navigate sexual harassment, balance her career and family, and handle the impossibility of motivating her partner to do some housework.

Following the same theme, the team behind Women on the Chessboard has created a board game to expose social and economic pressures facing professional women in today’s China. The Illustrated Life of Plain Jane voyages through professional, intellectual, and biological challenges at various stages of a woman’s life, and how the expectation of “having it all,” along with a lack of social support towards that goal, ends up imposing additional burdens on modern women.

Many of the readers of Women on the Chessboard are men. “The issue is not to pit male and female readers against each other,” said Zhao Yongquan,. “To break the current impasse, the first step must be starting the conversation.”