The First Female Gamers
(author of Playing at the World)
In the summer of 1974, a few obscure fanzines trickled out early reviews of a new game called Dungeons & Dragons. Jim Dapkus wrote one of these: he loved the game but expressed concern that it offered little by way of roles for female characters. He complained that a “witch or female counterpart to the magic user is not listed,” aside from the lone illustration in Men & Magic of a “Beautiful Witch.” This inspired Dapkus to contact the game’s publisher, Gary Gygax: “I asked Gary what women’s libbers think of the situation, and he told me that he will bend to their demands when a member of the opposite sex buys a copy of Dungeons & Dragons!”
Could it really have been so unthinkable to Gygax that a woman would purchase Dungeons & Dragons? His game went on to wild, unprecedented popularity, and women constituted no small part of its long-term audience. To appreciate the situation in 1974, we must understand the market Dungeons & Dragons entered, and the curious consumer group it targeted: gamers.
Yet surely the market for “gamers” included women? After all, women had played all manner of games since time immemorial, from chess to athletic sports to card games to hide-and-seek. But “gamer” meant something very narrow at the time: before the mid-1960s, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who self-identified as a “gamer.” Aside from seventeenth century archaic usages, a “gamer” only ever signified a hunter who killed “game,” according to the OED. The term was effectively absent from twentieth century American vernacular until it was rescued by a new community of “war gamers.” Initially, “gamer” was just a contraction of that label, but it evolved into a general name for fans of the many genres of games that drew on the innovations of wargaming: role-playing games, board games, collectible card games, and computer games.
“War gamers” play games that approximate the experience of command in times of war; these are almost always competitive games, where two or more commanders send their forces into conflict. Those forces are typically represented either with military miniatures on a tabletop or counters on a board. Wargames pioneered techniques for simulating time and space, as well as resolving combat through probability, which would have an enormous influence on games to this day. Originally, wargames were invented to teach the principles of military command — but from their inception in late eighteenth-century Germany, these games led a double life as a source of entertainment. The earliest wargamers to experience these games as chores or pastimes were soldiers, who were at the time exclusively men.
Within a hundred years, civilians had taken up wargaming for pleasure as a hobby. Oxford University students founded a scholarly but recreational wargames club in the 1880s — though bear in mind that women were not admitted as regular students at the time. The first commercial product that taught a simple wargame to the general public was H. G. Wells’s Little Wars (1913). The game was fought with toy soldiers, playthings at the time marketed exclusively to boys, but the forward-thinking Wells did not entirely discount the possibility of female players. Little Wars bills itself as “a game for boys… and for that more intelligent sort of girls who like boys’ games and books.” While this lukewarm concession is generous for its era, the text is less positive on the subject of female participation. Wells anecdotally describes a game that was disturbed “by a great rustle and chattering of lady visitors. They regarded the objects upon the floor with the empty disdain of their sex for all imaginative things.” Little Wars in its own estimation had little to offer women.
The outbreak of the First World War somewhat overshadowed the debut of Little Wars, and it would be decades before its principles would inspire an organized international fan community around wargames. There were however isolated pockets of hobbyists who pursued wargames in the intervening years, and the science-fiction author Fletcher Pratt’s famous naval wargame, played in Manhattan in the 1930s and 1940s, established that women could take to wargames. Pratt himself seemed surprised at the “sweethearts-and-wives influence” over his local gaming circle. The trend began when a woman who “appeared as a spectator of what was originally intended to be a purely stag game” was later “discovered flat on her stomach, aiming the guns of a cruiser and muttering something like ‘I’ll get the so-and-so this time.’” An illustration in the wargame’s rulebook, drawn by the author’s wife, shows such a female participant in the game. In 1943, Pratt wrote that “today there are nearly as many players of one sex as the other.” This constituted a sharp rebuke to Wells’s characterization of the “empty disdain” of women for game play — albeit only an anecdotal one, concerning a small group of New York intellectuals who might not be indicative of the general public.
In the 1950s, a wargaming industry and culture began to coalesce: there emerged then a group that self-identified as wargamers, bought products marketed to wargamers, and connected to one another through clubs, magazines, and conventions branded for wargamers. The first Avalon Hill board wargames entered the market at this time, though only at the very end of the decade would they begin to attract a broad and dedicated following. The earliest glimpses of a wargame community appear in 1957, in the pages of Jack Scruby’s War Game Digest, the first magazine dedicated exclusively to wargaming. Though short-lived and little circulated, its contributors’ descriptions of the hobby record the foundational relationship of women to gaming.
Jack Scruby first advertised the War Game Digest in the pages of the Bulletin of the British Model Soldier Society late in 1956. It would be no exaggeration to call that Society of toy soldier fanciers an “old boys’ club,” as its membership was near-universally male and contained far more retired soldiers than teenagers. Scruby solicited there for “war game generals” interested in a periodical focused on gaming in the tradition of Wells rather than merely collecting miniatures; in the foreword to the first issue of the Digest, he prominently characterizes such an enthusiast as a “war gamer.” Of the forty-five names in the subscriber list published in the second issue of the Digest, no recognizably female names appear. By December 1959, the magazine’s circulation had risen to 141, and three decidedly female names are present: there is a Virginia Esten of Hammond, Indiana; a Jane Sala of Bolton, Massachusetts; and a Jean Murray of Chicago.
But would these women identify themselves as wargamers? The mere presence of a name on the War Game Digest subscriber’s list might not reflect that level of interest. For example, R. W. Dickeson of Chicago recorded at the time that Jean Murray was a “prospective wargamer” who owned “a fine collection” of wargaming figurines and “is now considering entry into war games.” Later lists of Chicago-area wargamers compiled by Dickeson do not contain her name, however, so perhaps her subscription to the Digest was only exploratory.
Most of the discussion of women and wargames in the War Game Digest concerns wives. Given the small number of wargame fans at the time, many enthusiasts had difficulty finding opponents, and would therefore enlist their wives to play. In the third issue of the Digest, a man from suburban Philadelphia describes his wife as his “opponent in war games on various occasions” given that “war game opponents are hard to find around here,” and in the fourth issue, the influential wargamer Tony Bath relates the necessity of “occasionally dragooning my wife into taking a hand” as he lacked other opponents in his hometown of Southampton, UK. Whereas in Pratt’s experience, “sweethearts-and-wives” seemed to have joined the game eagerly, if not defiantly, one gets the impression from the Digest that the wives in question participated only reluctantly.
Tony Bath’s wife Mary was the only female contributor to the War Game Digest. Her article “A Wife’s Point of View” begins, “Being the wife of a war-games enthusiast is really similar to that of an officer’s batman” — that is, a personal servant in the military. “You really only come into your own when there is any clearing up to do.” Even in order to pick up after a battle, Bath stresses the importance of knowing “a little of different types of regiments, armies,” and so on, though in conversation with your wargaming husband, if “you don’t know exactly what he is talking about, just pretend you do and you will get by.” She does seem to enjoy meeting her husband’s wargaming opponents, although “after a few words they disappear from view” and she only visits the game “to ascertain if tea, coffee, or biscuits are required.” Bath also expresses interest in the historical situations, and even authored a few historical pieces for later issues of the Digest, but she seems completely indifferent to the games themselves.
Although the War Game Digest folded in 1963, and never reached more than two hundred subscribers by that time, the community it created set the initial parameters of games fandom. Don Featherstone, who edited some issues of the Digest, founded the Wargamer’s Newsletter in April 1962, the primary magazine of miniature wargaming for the next decade. Even Charles S. Roberts, the founder of Avalon Hill, subscribed to the Digest and was then inspired to launch a glossy magazine specific to his products that would further cement the identity of gamers.
The miniature wargame play celebrated in the War Game Digest could reach only a limited audience because it required painstaking efforts from dedicated and artisanal adults. Avalon Hill’s board wargames, on the other hand, could reasonably aspire to reach the mass market. They built on the recognized tradition of juvenile board games, but with a complexity that attracted a more mature consumer — all without the expense and craftsmanship that miniatures entailed. Avalon Hill branded many of its wargames as famous American battles, with titles like Gettysburg or D-Day, which minimized the need for advertising or explanation. This introduced many thousands of young enthusiasts to the principles of wargaming. But once Avalon Hill opened a communication channel for their customers, something unexpected happened: a community that self-identified as gamers formed, and exhibited many characteristics that are familiar to us today.
It was Avalon Hill’s magazine The General that introduced the gaming community to itself. Like the War Game Digest, The General started small, with just seventy-two subscribers, though an intense promotion increased the tally to five hundred by the second issue, with steady gains following. The printed roster of subscribers in the first four issues of The General yields only three recognizably female names from a total well over six hundred: Mrs. E. H. Burford, Martha Finch, and then a co-subscription for Mr. and Mrs. James Lee Matthews. The initial audience for Avalon Hill’s games was overwhelming male and youthful, with an average age hovering around seventeen. Culturally, this was an era before the formation of what Dapkus called the “women’s libbers” groups in the late 1960s, a time most vividly depicted in popular culture today by the first few seasons of the television show Mad Men.
The character of the early gaming community surrounding The General is most readily demonstrated in the “Opponents Wanted” advertisements, classifieds that Avalon Hill ran free of charge for subscribers to help them participate in local or play-by-mail wargames. Mixed in with prosaic and earnest requests to locate nearby players were notices of a different character entirely. As this service printed text supplied by wargamers who hoped to both attract and intimidate rivals, it was a boisterous, boastful, and sometimes confrontational forum. An advertisement in the second issue of The General promises, “Will slaughter any opponents on any Avalon Hill game within reasonable distance of our home.” Another reads, “Have Army, will destroy you.” As many of Avalon Hill’s games featured actions in the Second World War involving Germany, some advertisers took on Nazi pseudonyms and personae — though in fairness, a submission from “Adolf Hitler, Jr.” could be found in the same column as one from “Gandalf.” It was in these “Opponents Wanted” blurbs that the community embraced the term “gamer” for itself: in only the third instance, there is a call for “Avalon Hill gamers,” and by the next we begin seeing constructions like, “many gamers have expressed a preference for the German side in the game Afrika Korps.”
Since the “Opponents Wanted” forum printed virtually anything it received, soon it published disputes over prior wargames as well as advertisements for future ones. Bitter players wrote in impersonating their past opponents with admissions of deception or even cheating. A certain amount of restraint on the part of contributors, perhaps with the occasional editorial tweak from Avalon Hill, kept vulgarity out of the “Opponents Wanted” column, but in other respects its discourse clearly prefigures the trash-talking that precedes, accompanies, and follows online competitive games. It was in this crucible that the first identity of gamers was forged.
The lack of female representation was obvious to this gamer community at the time. A letter printed in the third issue of The General signed by Nancy E. Shearer begins by asking, “all your ‘Editors’ are boys. Why? What’s wrong with girls?” The remainder of this missive strikes a less than egalitarian tone. “Since they say all’s fair in love and war I believe the two are very similar and a game via the male, oops, mail-ways as to how to catch a rich male would be just dandy for us girls on the look.” She concludes by offering, “I would like to visit your plant in order to see for myself just how that empire of men exists in a world free of all the sweet, soft, warm, lovable, bright, ever understanding but all too often in the way, girls.” The General responds, “Our Editorial Offices are open 9 – 4:30, Nancy, baby.” In retrospect, one may well ask if this entire exchange was a fabrication, but it expresses an attitude towards women and games that was, in this context, uncontroversial.
Even Avalon Hill did not maintain a pretense that they had a female fan base — they saw no evidence to that effect. When one woman inadvertently received The General in 1965, she wrote back the following: “It was nice of you to include me on your mailing list. Unfortunately, being a girl, I have no great interest in battle games.” Thus, when a purported wargames club at Villanova University sent a notice to The General in 1969 claiming to have seventeen female members and one male, Avalon Hill could only incredulously reply, “We don’t believe there’re even 17 females in the entire United States playing our games.”
Astonishingly, some young men nonetheless viewed the “Opponents Wanted” service of The General as a potential way to meet members of the opposite sex. In only the second instance of “Opponents Wanted,” we see a young man advertising: “Player wanted 16+, Hartford or Connecticut Area, I.Q. 120+, Female preferred.” A hopeful wargamer in New Jersey asks rhetorically, “What is more important than AH to any American Boy? Right! Girls!! Why not the best of two worlds? Any interested ‘Fem Fatales’ in Blitz, Bulge, AK…” as he lists some current wargaming titles. As late as 1970, we see an advertiser in Warwick, Rhode Island looking for information on “space games” but then asking, “Any girls out there? Will try to answer all letters.” Even men who were not seeking female companionship worried that advertising for an opponent might give the wrong impression: a twenty-seven-year-old in Norristown, Pennsylvania concludes his blurb with, “Girls also may answer, but I’m married and have a baby.”
As the originally-teenaged Avalon Hill gamers grew up and married, The General carried more references to wives. In 1969, James Crawford wrote to explain that his wife is a “surprisingly worthy opponent” even though “she had never played any wargames prior to our marriage six months ago.” Some were not so fortunate: Dave Slick complained two years later that his wife Cindy “is not intrigued at all by the prospects of wargaming” even though she had promised “that she would ‘learn’ at least three wargames ‘soon after’ our entrance into the blissful married state.” Others complained of various domestic pressures curtailing their gaming habit.
In the “Opponents Wanted” column of The General in the 1960s, there were however periodic signs of female engagement. The most important can be found in the September 1966 issue, in an advertisement for a club then called the Spartan Wargamers. It comes from Donna Powell, Vice President of the club, who advertises, “Adult Wargaming Club for Los Angeles! Face to Face action! Ages 17 up! Male or Female!” Other members of the Spartans extended similar invitations to women; two issues later we find Hans Kruger describing the group as “an adult club for the sole purpose of wargaming and that is composed of men and women.” Donna Powell should be counted among the pioneering female gamers; although her husband, Russell Powell, conceived and led the Spartans, a 1968 interview with her in The General makes it clear that they had played wargames together since 1964, and she strove to rescue the American wargaming hobby from its juvenile beginnings: “In short, may I say that my husband and I only wish to bring this hobby up to where it belongs. Equal to or above Masters Chess.” The inclusiveness of the Spartan wargaming club led to a smattering of visible female players: Carolyn Holmes tied for first place in the Spartan Western Conference 1972 Standings, and among the three winners of a naval miniature wargaming tournament at the Spartan East Coast Convention in 1973 was one woman, Patty Boyce.
Yet the presence of a handful of female gamers in the Spartans was not indicative of a broader transformation of the community. In the International Federation of Wargaming (IFW), a large club to which both the co-authors of Dungeons & Dragons belonged, even the slightest traces of female participation are difficult to find. One member wrote to a club newsletter in 1969, “Members of that delightful Opposite Sex have been known to participate in wargames, so how come an organization such as ours contains NO such members??” The final roster of almost six hundred IFW members, tallied in March of 1973, contains only one recognizably female name, that of Elizabeth A. Parnell.
By the end of the 1960s, Avalon Hill faced stiff competition from Jim Dunnigan’s wargames company Simulation Publication, Inc. (SPI), who published the widely-circulated magazine Strategy & Tactics. Dunnigan regularly sought feedback from his broad readership to tune the contents of his games and periodicals. It was not until 1971, however, that the feedback questionnaires in Strategy & Tactics began to inquire about gender. The first returns that summer (published in issue #28) indicated that 1% of those surveyed were female, though that number is perhaps inflated due to rounding. At the beginning of 1974, on the next iteration of the survey, Strategy & Tactics reported, “We asked how many female subscribers we have. The number is roughly one-half of 1%.” That article goes on to explain their survey methodology, which they believed reflected “over 10,000 different gamers,” a sum they credibly represented as the largest study group available to the industry.
That figure, that roughly one half of 1% of “gamers” were female, is borne out by other contemporary sources as well. The “Great Lakes Gamers Census” of January 1974, assembled by the Midwest Gaming Association, tabulates more than one thousand gamers in the Midwest. It contains five recognizably female names: Marie Cockrill, Anne Laumer, Denise Bonis, and then two couples: Mr. & Mrs. Linda Anderson, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Pawlak. It was this overwhelmingly male community which was the target of contemporary periodicals branded for “gamers” like Gamers Guide. And it was this community of gamers which was the intended audience of Dungeons & Dragons.
When the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons appeared in 1974, it did not call itself a role-playing game — the cover identified it as wargaming rules. It would be years before anyone applied the genre label “role-playing game” to Dungeons & Dragons and its imitators. Thus TSR marketed Dungeons & Dragons to wargamers, advertised it in wargaming magazines and popularized it via wargaming conventions. This made sense as this was the community the principals of TSR knew: as Brian Blume, TSR Vice President, wrote in the second issue of the company’s newsletter, they were all “long-time gamers.” And the people they gamed with were male.
The two co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, lived in small-town Wisconsin and the Twin Cities of Minnesota, respectively. Arneson’s gaming circle consisted largely of local university students. His famous Blackmoor campaign, which built on Gygax’s fantasy medieval wargame Chainmail, provided the playtesters for Dungeons & Dragons in his area. Contemporary records show them to be exclusively male, and as the game took after exuberant settings like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar and John Norman’s Gor, it contained play elements that might not have been explored in mixed company. For example, a surviving Blackmoor character sheet has an early attribute listing for “Sex,” but rather than indicating gender it is a numeric value that came into play under certain circumstances.
Gygax’s own circle in Lake Geneva was almost entirely composed of males: a mix of high school students and older men, Gygax himself then being in his mid-thirties. Among his Dungeons & Dragons playtesters, however, Gygax recorded the presence of one woman: Mary Dale, whose younger brother Bob gamed with many of the other local high schoolers. Another early playtester, Mike Mornard, recalls that Mary started playing before him, and had an established and powerful character by the time he joined the group.
Gygax suspected that he had an extraordinary game on his hands, something with a broad appeal: the foreword to Dungeons & Dragons predicted that, “There should be no want of players, for there is unquestionably a fascination in this fantasy game — evidenced even by those who could not by any stretch of the imagination be termed ardent wargamers.” But he apparently had little inkling it might appeal to women especially, and thus the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons rules make no provisions for female players. Famously, the class that would later be called a “Fighter” was originally a “Fighting-man,” a term that appeared in much fantasy fiction, applied to characters like John Carter and Conan. The list of level titles also expresses a certain gender bias, with entries like Lord, Warlock, and strikingly Patriarch. All of the personal pronouns referring to players in the rulebook are masculine as well.
This likely was no conscious omission, but merely a reflection of the realities of gamer demographics at the time. TSR originally printed one thousand copies of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Statistically, if half of one percent of gamers were female, then in the event that every copy sold — not a sure thing by any means — TSR could expect to sell at most a handful of copies to women. As Gygax had good grounds to predict virtually no women would purchase the game, his quips about including roles for women “when a member of the opposite sex buys a copy of Dungeons & Dragons” are not entirely baseless. This sort of prediction can, however, quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the game excludes female participation, then women might have little incentive to purchase it.
Around this time, other parts of the gaming community were becoming increasingly preoccupied with its lack of diversity. From a business perspective, many industry leaders felt they could no longer afford to neglect huge swaths of the human race. In the beginning of 1975, SPI began asking the community about the causes of its gender composition and ways to make gaming more inclusive. “There are any number of reasons put forward as to why the composition of historical gamers is 99% male and 1% female. We would like to hear the viewpoint of the women gamers. We appreciate hearing from women gamers, either in writing or, if you’re in the New York area, in person. Since the subject matter of historical games affects all people, male and female, we would like to explore more ways in which we can make historical gaming more accessible to women.” The quest to court and cultivate “women gamers” had begun.
Some of our best insight into the attitude of the industry in the mid-1970s towards women comes from interviews conducted by Jack Greene, Jr. Greene spent much of July 1975 on an epic pilgrimage to visit, as he put it, the “Cathedrals of Wargaming,” the headquarters of the major games publishers of his time. At each of his stops, he inquired about the lack of women in gaming. TSR was then too small and marginal a company to warrant Greene’s attention, but he spoke to the principals at Game Designers Workshop (GDW), Avalon Hill and SPI.
When Greene posed the female question at GDW, Marc Miller, who would later be famous as the designer of the early science-fiction role-playing game Traveller, blamed cultural upbringing, as women were “socialized through dolls versus toy guns.” He further argued that the military dimension of wargames was too foreign to a woman’s experience — remember that due to American conscription in effect since 1969, it was not foreign to many men — and so “it is much easier for a man to relate to the numbers of a division from their previous army life.” This sentiment would be echoed later by his co-author Frank Chadwick, who believed “it is harder for a women to conceptualize what a wargame counter is,” though in that phrasing we may also detect an echo of Wells’s concern about the “empty disdain” of women for imaginary things.
During Greene’s visit to Avalon Hill, he spoke to Tom Shaw, a top designer and executive who also served as the original editor of The General. Shaw observed that the culture of the day did not “develop a competitive nature in women,” a circumstance that he felt could only be changed very gradually, on the order of centuries. While of course women played other games, such as the card game bridge, Shaw argued that they played for social reasons, rather than to win. Greene also interviewed another of Avalon Hill’s designers, Randy Reed, who professed that he had known only one woman wargamer. He claimed that most women participated in gaming “as a self defense thing” in order to spend time with their male love interests, whom might otherwise be absent for prolonged periods while wargaming. Reed insisted that “I wouldn’t want to play a woman,” meaning against a woman, as he felt it was inappropriate to compete aggressively with females.
On Greene’s next stop, Jim Dunnigan, who controlled SPI and its Strategy & Tactics magazine, stressed how American culture imposed narrow roles on women: he saw the situation as similar to the pressures which led to male domination of academic history departments. However, in Dunnigan’s own shop, views about women and gaming ran the gamut. Staff artist Redmond Simonsen opined that the “limited number of women in wargaming” arose because “where aggression is rewarded some women short-circuit.” Terry Hardy, Dunnigan’s chief of staff, bluntly said, “I have no interest in knowing why women aren’t in wargaming as I think to try to pursue it with the data on hand is fruitless.”
Greene also had the opportunity to speak to a staff designer at SPI named Linda Mosca — then the only woman in that position in the industry. Her first SPI design credit, an American Civil War game called the Battle of the Wilderness, was not yet complete at the time, but would soon make her the first commercially published female wargame designer. Mosca had recently authored a piece in SPI’s magazine Moves on the subject of “Women in Wargaming,” in which she explored the causes behind the lack of female gamers. She laid part of the blame on the media’s “association of simulation gaming with war itself, traditionally ‘man’s domain.’” But the most important factor, according to her, is the “cultural indoctrination” which dictates that women “direct their leisure time energies into other, less aggressive (less stimulating) activities.” She hesitates to dwell too deeply on “those male wargamers who are not over-anxious to accept women as opponents (we present a threat to the ‘male ego’),” but she identifies this as a reason why women were not invited to games by men.
When Greene asked Mosca about her current favorite games, she didn’t list any SPI titles — but she did name Dungeons & Dragons. In her Moves article, Mosca had asserted that “wargaming has been attracting a steadily increasing female following,” but she wasn’t talking about SPI’s board games: she elaborated that “the largest concentration of women is [in] military miniatures simulations.” This might sound counterintuitive without her further explanation, “Perhaps the fact that this area deals more often and more explicitly with fantasy or perhaps the added visual effects attract more people previously unfamiliar with wargaming.” The fantasy miniatures wargaming she identifies here surely means Dungeons & Dragons.
Starting in 1975, the historical record begins to yield data points on the adoption of Dungeons & Dragons, and in keeping with Mosca’s observation, women took to it far more readily than prior wargames. One of the earliest campaigns to leave a substantial documentary record is the Ryth Chronicle, operated out of the Detroit area. The earliest player listing, from May 1975, shows three women as players out of twenty-six. All three of them, incidentally, share a last name with a male player, which may forcibly remind us of the “wives-and-sweethearts” contingent who joined Fletcher Pratt’s wargames.
Jack Greene happened to interview one of these women, Laurie Van De Graaf, at the first Origins wargaming convention in the summer of 1975. She confirmed that she got into wargames because of her husband, and while she mentions a few board wargames she enjoys, she singles out Dungeons & Dragons for special praise. When Greene asked her why wargames are not more popular with women, she answered that they are “not personal.” She also expressed distaste for the competitive aspect of wargames, lamenting that “men are always out to prove themselves.”
So why exactly did Dungeons & Dragons appeal to women like Van De Graaf more than earlier wargames? This cannot be reduced to a pat answer. If we review the hypotheses recorded in Greene’s interviews, we might identify a few contributing factors. Tom Shaw and Redmond Simonsen worried that society discouraged competition in women, but Dungeons & Dragons is not a game you play to win: it is largely a collaborative game, where a party works together to achieve objectives, and while the dungeon master represents antagonists, the role of the dungeon master is not inherently antagonistic. Van De Graaf’s distaste for masculine competitiveness seemingly corroborates this data point. And if, as Linda Mosca suspected and Randy Reed affirmed, men were reluctant to invite women to games because they didn’t want to compete with women, the collaborative nature of Dungeons & Dragons also removed any such discomfiture: it created an environment where men and women could game together without trying to best one another, as the game had no winner.
Van De Graaf also intimates that most wargames are “not personal” compared to her experiences with Dungeons & Dragons. If traditional wargames serve to approximate the experience of wartime command, then Dungeons & Dragons subverts that aim by centering the game on the actions of individuals, surrogates for the players, who might never order around troops. The most remarkable feature that differentiated Dungeons & Dragons from its predecessors was the way that players can drive the story of their characters in a direction that suits their own interests. No one other than the group sitting around a particular tabletop has to enjoy the system, setting, or narrative of the game for it to be valid. Dungeons & Dragons is “personal” in a way that no wargame before it had ever been.
Finally, where Marc Miller proposed that the military content of wargames alienated women, Dungeons & Dragons avoids guns, tanks, detachments and other military elements — replacing them instead with fantasy. Adding fantasy to wargames fundamentally changed gaming. The monumental popularity of fantasy at the time, fueled by widespread enthusiasm for Tolkien’s Middle-earth, promised that whole new demographics would become interested in wargames. Greene learned from his interviews in 1975 that Jim Dunnigan at SPI believed “games like Dungeons & Dragons will gain more people to the fold of the hobby,” and Tom Shaw at Avalon Hill volunteered that “Dungeons & Dragons as a concept will be built on within the hobby.” Another Avalon Hill staffer, Don Greenwood, saw that this was meaningful for women in particular: he predicted that “it would be some time before women really came to be included in wargaming, other than through such games as Dungeons & Dragons.”
The release of Dungeons & Dragons triggered a crucial intersection of two fandoms: wargames fandom and the group collectively known as science-fiction fandom, which included fantasy fans. This is significant because science-fiction fandom, while predominantly male, had far more gender diversity than wargames fandom. Exactly how much diversity has been a matter of some scholarly debate; a recent study suggests that as of 1960, science-fiction fandom was perhaps one-fifth female. Other data points show finer divisions: while subscribers to a hard science-fiction magazine like Analog might have been only one-tenth female, a survey of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction — which published many of the fantasy stories that inspired the creators of Dungeons & Dragons — revealed that around a third of its readership was female as of 1966. Fans of that era, most notably Diana Paxson, invented the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval recreation group which offered dramatically segregated, yet appealing, roles for male and female participants. However we measure it, science-fiction fandom attracted far more women than wargaming.
Science-fiction fans had long since organized themselves into clubs, held conventions, and distributed fanzines: these enable us to trace the penetration of Dungeons & Dragons in detail. Naturally, science-fiction fandom and wargaming had some few members in common prior to 1974, and word of this novel gaming experience transited through this overlapping membership. For example, an International Federation of Wargaming member named Mark Swanson provided the first detailed account of Dungeons & Dragons to members of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society late in 1974. However, it was not until two former Los Angeles residents who had relocated to the Bay Area returned for a visit that copies of the rules (photocopies, as originals were then scarce) and first-hand experience of the game became available to that region of science-fiction fans.
It was Owen and Hilda Hannifen who traveled from San Francisco with Dungeons & Dragons in hand to share their new passion with their old friends down south. Both had long been members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and this as well as other activities primed the science-fiction community for assuming fantastic characters. In addition to tutoring the Los Angeles group in the play of the game, Hilda Hannifen produced a lengthy series of articles for the local fanzine, APA-L, describing her own experiences with Dungeons & Dragons. These “Mockturtle” stories, as she called them, provide one of the most detailed early play records of Dungeons & Dragons, and show Hannifen interacting with many luminaries associated with the game in the Bay Area and beyond. Her work showcased the use of Dungeons & Dragons to produce narrative play records which she elaborated in weekly installments.
Hilda Hannifen’s interest clearly went beyond the patient indulgence of “wives-and-sweethearts” who game to appease their spouses. And the reaction from women in the Los Angeles area, as recorded in APA-L in 1975, amply demonstrated its cross-gender appeal. June Moffatt responded, “I would love to see the rules of Dungeons & Dragons — sounds like any one of the games makes a good adventure story.” Bjo Trimble, a high-profile fan, reported that she “would like to try Dungeons & Dragons some day.” But the Hannifens won the most fervent converts in Lee and Barry Gold. With Hilda acting as dungeon master, the Golds ran through an adventure that Lee recorded in three pages of text in the February 6, 1975 issue of APA-L. It would trigger a fascination with the game that would last decades.
In short order, the pages of APA-L filled to the brim with tales of Dungeons & Dragons play in Los Angeles. Lee Gold then decided to start a new fanzine dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons content. She called it Alarums & Excursions, and from its first issue in June 1975, it became a centerpiece of the nascent role-playing games community, a place to propose new rule systems, to review commercial products, and to describe local best practices. In its pages we find male and female voices in proportions much closer to that of science-fiction fandom than of wargaming. Alarums & Excursions also attracted the interest of contributors like Gary Gygax, and when TSR published the first issue of its magazine The Dragon, Lee Gold had a byline within, for her article about languages in games.
And so, it was not lost on the hobby or the industry that women played Dungeons & Dragons — but how should the game reflect that? TSR itself indirectly endorsed female characters quite early, due a magic item in the Greyhawk supplement released in the spring of 1975: the “Girdle of Masculinity/Feminity.” This was one of many “bummer” items included in Greyhawk that are intended to mimic desirable magic items, but instead have a dangerous or comic effect. A male character who dons this garment hoping it to be the “Girdle of Giant Strength” will find himself suddenly and almost irreversibly female. But even before Greyhawk, there is evidence that male players had female characters and vice versa: as players built up large stables of active characters in various campaigns, inevitably they chose different classes, races, and genders for them.
As the gaming community put the rules to practice, it rapidly eroded the masculine-specific trappings of Dungeons & Dragons. Around the time that the first issue of Alarums came out, Mark Swanson submitted a play record to APA-L that discussed a character named Paula becoming an “Adeptress,” that is a second-level Magic-user, varying the masculine level title “Adept” given in Dungeons & Dragons. In Alarums #2, Swanson further proposed using “Matriarch” where appropriate in place of “Patriarch,” and in that same issue we see gender as an attribute listed on one of the earliest circulating character sheets in the fan community, years before TSR would include this field on any official product. Contributors to Alarums moreover ignored the construction “Fighting-man” in favor of “Fighter” — though in fairness, the terms were already used interchangeably in the original Dungeons & Dragons rules.
Science-fiction fandom had an open and collaborative creative culture, and thus unsurprisingly, as it embraced Dungeons & Dragons, it produced expansions, variations, and outright competitors to the original game. From Minneapolis fans in mid-1974 came the Rules to the Game of Dungeon recorded by Craig VanGrasstek, the first brief and primitive example of a variant, but it employs gender-neutral pronouns: its play example contains many instances of the construction “s/he” in place of “he.” Another early Dungeons & Dragons competitor came from fans in the Arizona-based Phoenix Cosmic Circle: a game called Tunnels & Trolls. The original 1975 text of the game states that, “Brave men and women arm themselves and venture within the tunnels at risk of body and soul to seek treasure and experience,” and the combat example includes a female character named Jiriel, but masculine pronouns remain the standard throughout the text.
The wargaming community contributed its share of Dungeons & Dragons extensions and variants, though given wargaming’s homogeneity, a lack of attention to gender would be expected. There were exceptions: a mid-1975 issue of the Spartan Simulation Gaming Journal — a magazine produced by the current incarnation of those same Spartans founded by Donna Powell and her husband in 1966 — ran an article called “Warlock: Or How to Play D&D Without Playing D&D.” Its rules included some provisions for female adventurers, specifically that they would weigh less, and be capable of carrying less, than their male counterparts — a system intended to increase the realism of gender in fantasy simulations by positioning females as slightly inferior at physical exertions.
The first serious backlash against perceived chauvinism in Dungeons & Dragons arose in 1976, after the publication of Lenard Lakofka’s article “Women & Magic,” which he distributed in the July 1976 issue of his obscure fanzine Liaisons Dangereuses. In October, the third issue of The Dragon reprinted the article and added the subtitle, “Bringing the Distaff Gamer into D&D.” In keeping with the wargaming tradition, Lakofka tries to specify a simulation of how women might measure up as adventurers. Virtually all of the level titles are changed: women Fighters, for example, may be “Battle Maidens” or “Valkyries.” He suggests that women “may progress to the level of men in the area of magic and, in some ways, surpass men as thieves,” though “only as fighters are women clearly behind men in all cases.” For Strength, Lakofka has women roll one d8 and one d6 (for a range of 2–14) instead of the traditional three d6; he furthermore grants women a “Beauty” attribute as a substitute for Charisma in baseline Dungeons & Dragons.
Most strikingly, Lakofka bestows to the characters of “Distaff Gamers” certain unique abilities that interact with the Beauty skill. Both female Thieves and Magic-users have access to the “Charm Man” and “Seduction” spells, which require certain Beauty scores to work against particular targets. The “Seduction” spell, for example, “may be used on living humanoid unharmed males only by women with the proper Beauty score.” Female magic-users of ninth level of higher earn the level title “Witch” and gain access to the “Horrid Beauty” ability: Witches with a very low Beauty score (“Grotesque Witches”) will scare victims when using this ability, in extreme cases causing instant death; whereas Witches with a high Beauty score will instantly seduce all (presumably male) targets.
The decision of The Dragon to publish Lakofka’s system was seen by the gaming community as endorsement from TSR, and thus it sparked outrage against not only Lakofka but also the company. The most iconic manifestation of the controversy was the inflammatory image published in Alarums #19 that showed a host of female characters lynching in effigy Lakofka, Gygax, and Tim Kask, editor of The Dragon. Admittedly, much of the outcry in Alarums came from men who played female characters, rather than from female players. Lee Gold, for her part, simply noted that “my female characters have higher Constitution than Strength, males the reverse. Thus inspection of characteristics rolled determines gender.” Another woman, Kay Jones, provided the following commentary:
A verse for Len Lakofka, who’s earned the name of nerd,
For rules changes both chauvinist and patently absurd
And Kask, the man who published it, why earn your way to fame,
By publicly insulting all the players of the game?
Tim Kask responded to the controversy by insisting that Lakofka’s article was not canonical, and affirming, “I will even agree that it is sexist and puts women down.” But he countered, “I challenge you to submit a better way to treat the topic.” Lakofka’s account of female characters was certainly not the only one to appear in 1976. An article in the pages of Paul Jaquays’s fanzine The Dungeoneer entitled “Those Lovely Ladies” reinvented the Fighting-man, Magic-user, and Cleric classes for women as “Valkyries,” “Circeans” and “Daughters of Delphi,” respectively. It retained the Charisma stat and awarded women a blanket Charisma bonus, though the Charisma of women suffered if their Strength was too high. This piece too received pushback from a female reader, Judith Preissle Goetz, who concedes that “women have higher charisma as far as men are generally concerned,” but observes, ”you have ignored the complementary phenomena that men have higher charisma as far as most women are concerned.” She also takes exception to the notion that high Strength would render a woman unattractive, noting that “female athletes are often more sought after than other women.”
The Dragon would go on to print other accounts of female characters: one explaining “Why Males are Stronger than Females” based on the earlier “Warlock” system appears in the October 1977 issue, though it probably did little to assuage any concerns about sexism inherent in the game. A submission in November 1978 revisits the idea of a “Witch” class, and a gloss by Kask at the start notes that “it provides a very viable character for ladies; be they sisters, girlfriends, lady gamers or other. D&D was one of the first games to appeal to females, and I for one, find it a better game because of that fact.”
By the time Kask wrote those words, “lady gamers” had already begun to receive their due in the core Dungeons & Dragons books. When Eric Holmes edited the first Basic Set, he stated the obvious proposition omitted by the 1974 rules, that “characters can be either male or female.” And by 1978, Gygax himself added some female-specific language to the Players Handbook of his new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. On the subject of level titles, he clarifies, “Although the masculine form of appellation is typically used when listing the level titles of the various types of characters, these names can easily be changed to the feminine if desired. This is fantasy — what’s in a name?”Thus, while the Cleric chart in the Players Handbook lists only the level title “Patriarch” for eighth level, descriptive text on the same page reads: “When a cleric achieves 8th level (Patriarch or Matriarch), he or she automatically attracts followers…”
Gygax also promised at the start of the Players Handbook that “you will find no pretentious dictums herein, no baseless limits arbitrarily placed on female strength or male charisma.” While he might argue the limits are not baseless, there are limits on the “maximum strength possible for a female human,” and in fact every fantastic race caps female strength slightly below males — except for half-orcs. This “realistic” restriction on female strength was nonetheless milder than many other systems on the market at the time: for example, Chivalry & Sorcery (1977) stated outright that, “Females are weaker than males. Strength factors must be reduced for females.” While Advanced Dungeons & Dragons did not represent the sexes as entirely equal, it improved greatly on the male-centric language of its predecessor, and the gaming community could, and did, ignore restrictions that cramped its playstyle.
Contrary to Gygax’s expectations, female gamers constituted a significant portion of the market for Dungeons & Dragons. How large, exactly? In 1979, Gygax stipulated that “at least 10% of the players are female.” This located women in a tiny minority — but a statistically significant one. That year, when TSR hired the first two employees for an internal design staff, one of them was a woman, Jean Wells, and she even wrote (uncredited) some text for the flagship Dungeon Masters Guide. She went on to module design and to a regular column, “Sage Advice,” in The Dragon.
But Wells was not the first female role-playing game designer. One of the earliest Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules, Palace of the Vampire Queen, was co-authored by Judy Kerestan back in 1976. Consider that from the publication of Charles S. Roberts’s Tactics in 1954, it took over twenty years for Linda Mosca to receive the first credit as a female wargame designer; it took only a bit more than twenty months after the release of Dungeons & Dragons for Judy Kerestan to get a billing for fantasy role-playing game design. Laurie Van Der Graaf, who Jack Greene had interviewed in 1975, went on to co-design the early module Quest for the Fazzlewood (1978), which was later revised as the TSR module The Gem and the Staff (1984).
Nor was female interest in Dungeons & Dragons merely an indication of rising female interest in gaming culture overall. SPI launched a slew of fantasy wargaming titles in its usual competitive vein in the mid-to-late 1970s, with Linda Mosca contributing to the design of some — but this did little to attract more women to their product line. When SPI’s Tolkien-based War of the Ring became their top seller in 1977, the last Strategy & Tactics of that year proudly announced an “all-time record” of female survey respondents, but it was an increase from the prior 0.5% up to 0.97%, far below the adoption curve of Dungeons & Dragons. Conversely, a role-playing element alone did not guarantee female uptake. When TSR published the non-fantasy role-playing game Top Secret in 1980, a survey of early adopters showed them to be 98.5% male.
Something unprecedented about Dungeons & Dragons rendered it more popular with women than prior titles marketed to “gamers.” Was it that it was a personal game, a fantasy game, a game that deemphasized competition? Whatever the reason, it converted many women into gamers at a critical juncture in history: the dawn of personal computer gaming. It was only in the late 1970s that companies began to sell game software to an existing base of personal computer owners. And many of those early computer efforts borrowed heavily from the innovations of Dungeons & Dragons — often not merely by adopting a fantastic setting, but simply by focusing the game on playing a character in a computer-generated world.
Accordingly, female interest in such games carried over to the computer — despite the fact that computer usage at the time was, in a familiar pattern, overwhelming male. To take just one example, Dungeons & Dragons inspired the text games Adventure and Zork. The publisher of Zork and many other commercial text adventures of the 1980s, Infocom, later reported “sadly” that only around one-sixth of its players were female. They believed the figure was so low because “women have been underrepresented as computer and software users,” but it reflects a higher number than Dungeons & Dragons could claim in the 1970s. And these early games quickly inspired female designers, like one of the pioneers of adventure gaming, Roberta Williams of Sierra On-line, who discovered computer games through those text adventures.
While it did not set out to rectify the gender imbalance in gaming, Dungeons & Dragons opened the door just enough to let women gamers in. TSR’s early efforts to include women explicitly in its fantasy games sometimes did more harm than good, but the foremost rule of role-playing games is that gamers are free to innovate, to vary the system to suit their needs. Both men and women have since used these tools to invent and enjoy their own adventures, both through Dungeons & Dragons and the many games it influenced.
For more by Jon Peterson, see his other articles on Medium, including the “Ambush at Sheridan Springs: How Gary Gygax Lost Control of D&D” and “Quagmire: The Making of a 1980s D&D Module,” as well as the Playing at the World blog.