I have posted before on my opinion of why women don’t play RPGs very much, and recently there is some debate doing the rounds on RPG blogs about this topic. Debate about this topic seems to founder on two rhetorical points, viz:

  • Women are biologically different to men so won’t ever get into RPGs (or, in a softer form, it’s going to be hard to design imagery for RPGs that can appeal equally well to men and women)
  • Changing the way RPGs are presented so that it appeals to women too will render the RPGs shit, because it will involve changing their content for reasons of political correctness rather than style

The former objection is common throughout the blogosphere, it appears, e.g. in comments on this question of Trollsmyth’s about how to sexualize men; and the latter is put particularly forcefully by Zak at Playing D&D with Porn Stars. The former is a debate I don’t want to enter into on this blog, as I feel it’s been done to death over the last 70 years. But the latter I think is not a problem, because changing the representation and culture of a hobby does not require that its fundamental content be changed. I have an analogy from my experience in kickboxing that should help to illustrate how this works.

Kickboxing has been slowly opening up to women over the last 10 years, and in fact not just to women, but widening its scope to include just generally people who aren’t crazy thugs. To do this, they’ve had to change the culture of kickboxing, but unfortunately the sport is always going to attract crazy thugs, because it involves hitting people, and you can’t change that element of the sport. So instead of changing the sport itself, the martial arts association connected with the sport in Australia attempted to change the culture of the sport – that is, the way it is run, the way it is presented to the public, and the teaching methods and club environment so that people could train safely and would be willing to enter a world that has long had a bad image. This wasn’t just being done to encourage women to join – there was an increasing fear that bad behaviour by some trainers was bringing the whole sport into disrepute, and also a recognition that while it retained a certain culture, the sport would remain a niche hobby for a few people.

So, first of all the martial arts association introduced a training accreditation program. This is entirely voluntarily, but after a few bad scares, a lot of schools, scout halls and other hire venues have starting shying away from non-accredited coaches. This accreditation program holds the teachers who do it to a higher standard than used to be expected of a martial arts club, and this higher standard works primarily to make the sport more appealing to a wider range of students, as well as enabling current participants of the sport to lengthen the period of time they are able to continue participating, diversify their skills and enjoy a wider range of activities. The main changes are:

  • Teachers have to learn first aid
  • Teachers have to not only learn, but also encourage, safe training practices amongst their students – wearing of appropriate safety gear, use of proper scientific warm-up and cool-down regimes, and awareness of how different people (e.g. beginners) need to have different training regimens
  • Clubs need to be clean and hygienic, with proper toilet facilities, segregated changing rooms, and education in hygiene for all participants
  • Teachers need to learn to understand what bullying is, and to stamp it out both in their own practice and in that of their senior students
  • Teachers need to have some rudimentary idea of how people learn, what sorts of things need to be done to encourage or discourage a good education, and how to help people enjoy the sport
  • Teachers need to understand that different people have different reasons for wanting to participate, and treat students accordingly
  • Teachers need to understand sexual harrassment and the kinds of activities that make women uncomfortable in a training venue, and try to eliminate this behaviour from their club

The result has not been just that kickboxing has grown fast amongst women, but also that the general quality of kickboxing has improved rapidly over the past 10 years, so that now Australia performs above its weight on the world stage. Lessons in how to do this have been learnt from rugby and Australian Rules Football, both of which have a strong and loyal female following in Australia, and a surprisingly large number of female participants, even though they are the quintessence of contact sports. Nothing has changed fundamentally about the sports themselves; all that is different is the way that they are presented and the culture that surrounds them.

Obviously role-playing has different conditions for the admittance of women to these sports, and different things need to change; and there is no teacher-student dynamic or central association to change them or influence an overall culture (which doesn’t exist, in any case). But I think the general lessons are the same. When the Australian martial arts world started down the road to opening up their sport to women 10 or 15 years ago, many people said it was a waste of time, because women are not designed for this kind of sport, they are biologically unsuited, and “feminization” of the sport will weaken it overall, or drive away men. Many even claimed that people cannot truly learn to fight if the bullying and macho practices of the past are eliminated. However, the exact opposite effect has been observed. These improvements in the style and manner of teaching have widened the available pool of talent from which fighters are drawn, and the general quality of Australian kickboxing in the last 10-20 years has improved enormously. Not only that, but the increase in popularity and wider range of available class types has ensured that teaching kickboxing is now a much more viable business prospect than it was 30 years ago, ensuring more stable, more professional and better equipped gyms that are better able to subsidize the development of fighters through the funds of more casual students. In fact, had Australia not gone down this path our kickboxers would have been left behind, as the Dutch and Japanese professionalized their own kickboxing worlds and began to demand higher and higher quality of training and preparation from their opponents. And, of course, with the penetration of the art into the middle class and its popularization amongst women it has become big business, which further guarantees its viability as a hobby. So much so that, if one visits a K-1 tournament in Japan now, one can be a witness to the charming spectacle of lines of pretty young women crying and screaming the name of their favourite fighter at the end of the tournament – a sight that 20 years ago would have been impossible to imagine.

There’s no reason to suppose that the fundamental violence and adventurism of role playing needs to change for it to attract women, anymore than happened in kickboxing. What needs to change is the culture around the hobby, and the image that is presented to its potential entrants.