the Fairgame Archive

2005-10-14: Girls only?
by Emily Care

There is a thread right now on about single-gender online discussion forums about gaming.  It was prompted by a female only forum created on the Steve Jackson Games site.  It had a much to be expected but not terribly constructive discussion of gender definitions & many jokes about the prevalance of premenstrual tension jokes on such forums. However, there was also a discussion of a women's only forum begun by an poster named Lolth.

So, what is the purpose of gender segregated virtual space? Lolth's "seekrit treehouse" forum, as she thinks of it, may become integrated some time in the future, but is gender divided now to allow it a chance to develop its own culture & structure.  Several posters speculated that the Steve Jackson Games forum has likely been created as part of a marketing strategy.

In face to face experiences, I've found single-sex spaces and gatherings to be powerful & productive for me. I'm part of a women's circle that has been getting together for 6 years and that has been a source of support & development for Meguey, myself and the other participants.  I've known men with similar experiences with male-only groups & gatherings.

But when not so long ago, after I started a thread on the Forge about role playing games designed by women, it was suggested to me that I begin a women designers' forum I decided against it.  In large part because I knew I would not have the time & energy to devote to facilitating it, but also because when I thought about how it would work, I didn't see enough value in that particular format.  The smaller forums are less trafficked than the main ones, so having women post their design or publishing thoughts in a smaller venue seemed like it would have the exact opposite effect than I'd want: it might take away from the support being given to them as designers.  But, even if I had begun it, it would not have been female only with respect to posters, but only in the focus on games & designs discussed.

Add to this a post by Arcady who is active on the Gamers of Color group, who posted a pretty damning argument against single-gender forums:

Exclusion puts an end to discussion. It does not give you the actual safe place you might think it would. Sometimes you can feel very angry, hostile, or frustrated at the 'outside other' group - and even legitimately so. But if you exclude them, you will never resolve that anger. Bring them in, let them see what it is that is frustrating you, and maybe even see if you can see their angle on it (provided they are even aware they have offended-accept that they might not be and the offense might not be by intent), and improve rather than detract from understanding.

If you want to have an exclusory space, soley to be rid of those others, you're on a lower scale than any accusation you might be throwing at them.

Bringing this back to women in gaming forums - the premise is essentially the same. If you are creating a space and declaring women only you have put yourself on a level lower than that of any persons you use it to express grievances over. If on the other hand you open it up as long as it is understood that the purpose is for women to discuss topical to forum issues, and others to come to understand them and perhaps join in within the framework of women's issues with that topic and respecting the female perspective therein, then you have attained something meaningful.

Holy contentious topics, Catwoman. This is such a huge can of worms, I can't begin to fish with it. But I'll see if I can at least draw some lines, as I see it.

We can see at least two very different purposes that are served by or are at cross-purposes with creating groups for an exclusive group.

Dialogue is destroyed by exclusion. If the people who are underserved or oppressed in a given system or culture create an exclusive group, they are likely not only to alienate the "others", but may serve to reinforce the difference that the group was formed to address. This is the rationale expressed by Arcady about making the Gamers of Color site non-exclusive, and reflects my thoughts about the women designers' forum.

Community Building is deeply served by bringing together people who share commonalities. But where the demarcation lines are drawn about who shares the commonalities & how those who do not are treated are sources of conflict.  Groups that get together share resources & information and gain from it.  Women circles and white-only clubs alike are taking advantage of this fact.  The difference lies in the level of relative empowerment & disempowerment in the society.

The problem here is that any online forum is by definition about dialogue, even if the intent of the creater is to build community.  And the lines of community or commonality are openly visible and up for evaluation unlike in small social circles.  Even in a social circle, who gets invited or not can be a serious issue.  And any group, regardless of whether it see itself as exclusive or not has to draw its boundaries in some way which may make it seem exclusive to those who come up against them. For example,
some online forums have strong moderation with respect to etiquette and staying on topic. Others do not.  Strong moderation can piss people off & be perceived as exclusion, but the outcome is to create an atmosphere that is more suited to productive discussion.  The line drawn relates directly to the ability of the group to function. In many feminist or woman positive blogs and sites contributions and comments are taken from men & women.  The lines are drawn with respect to the content of the contributions, rather than on the attributes of the participants.

So, although I'm curious about women only space on the web and I'm supportive of people like Lolth seeking to create a space for women to discuss gaming & build a sense of togetherness, the costs of exclusion on the web may work against that model in the long term.

2005-10-14 17:29:25 Meguey

Here is me nodding. I'm all for a greater recognition of women game desingers and/or players in the wider gaming community, but from what I've seen, that happens best when the women speak up on the forums they frequent, not when there is a seperate, segregated forum.

2005-10-14 18:16:35 JBR

I enjoyed most of the Head of Vecna articles that Hilary Doda used to write at RPGnet for exactly this reason.  While the articles were always about women in gaming, they were open to view and comment by all. What's more, many of them directly challenged gamer assumptions—it was fullbore participation in the gamer community, the opposite of the treehouse model.

On the other hand, I don't know how 'effective' the articles may have been, as I mostly remember flamewars in the comments stoked by rather profoundly immature posters trolling for reactions.  Hilary has since moved on, but I know that the experience of answering so many very negative responses was rather draining for her.

2005-10-14 20:08:21 Meguey

'[T]he prevalance of premenstrual tension jokes' and 'profoundly immature posters trolling for reactions' point to the discomfort of even raising questions about gender on many forums. I'm sorry to have missed Hilary. In the most recent thread I found there, someone asked if she'd be back, someone else said "ding dong the witch is dead", and someone else said they would miss her. Isn't it odd how when someone points out inequity, they get slammed as a 'problem'?

2005-10-14 21:38:40 JBR

Hilary is quite happily in costuming school, no longer doing games except to play them (and draw illustrations of naval uniforms in FLFS for me).

I don't find the witch comment odd, actually, but I'm coming at it from the other side.  Thing is, gamer culture is steeped in inequality: gender, racial, classist, first-world, elitist, and just about every other flavor you can think of, we've got it.  At the same time, so many gamers were marginalized and abused in their lives that we really desperately cling to a sense that we're better than our 'oppressors'.  When someone comes along and points out that we're practicing and promulgating inequalities just like we've suffered ourselves, it's very very near to a slap in the face—justified or not.  One dodge is to say that our imagined content is 'not important' and that it's 'just a game' (arguments we hate to hear applied to use by others) and that such criticisms don't matter and are 'harshing our buzz' so to speak.  So we say that they're the problem, and back it up with all the moral outrage that comes from being accused of behaviors that we ourselves hate.  I think the majority of the vehemence comes from the knowledge that it's true.

2005-10-15 02:08:58 Chris

Speaking from the people of color perspective-  I think having a "safe space" for dialogue that excludes folks who might push certain power issues is a very powerful and useful tool.

The typical fear that it will end up becoming a dividing point instead of a building point is usually held without realizing that most people form exclusion based groupings in order to utilize power- as oppose to discuss the issues of power and deconstruct it.

I found myself dropping in less and less on the Gamers of Color group because a great deal of the discussion became about "white people's definitions of Gamers of Color" rather than for people of color itself.  For that reason, I think being about to produce safe spaces is a big deal, and could see it being potentially worthwhile for women gamers.

2005-10-16 22:51:43 Mo

I'm nodding along... but would like to add one note around dialogue. While it's true dialogue is destroyed by exclusion, variance of dialogue is often destroyed by public, non "safespace" forums. I'm willing to bet that there are a lot of women on the Forge with their phasers set to perma-lurk (I know I've been one of them for some time.) Maybe safe zones would encourage more female folks to delurk, and provide an opportunity to get their feet wet - bringing a whole new kind of dialogue to the table.

2005-10-16 23:32:08 Meguey

Emily's distinction between Dialogue and Community Building is relevant here, I think. Any group facing oppression *needs* a safe space to organize, recharge, vent, etc. The key is in acknowledging the need to exclude button-pushers and those unwilling to enter in to the dialogue.

Here's another angle: it's annoying to be the token anything. If I 'de-cloak' on a forum/thread, sometimes I get turned to as 'the female opinion', and sometimes I watch the tenor of the discussion shift, as if people are nervous that they might now offend me. Weird, but true.

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