Killing Smurfette: Connecting Women Gamers

In my last post, I wrote about some of the challenges of writing games as a woman. In the very interesting comment threads that unfolded on the post and on social media, the consensus seemed to be that most designers start out as players, so if we want more women designers, we need more women players.

How to get more women players? It seems like there are a few ways to go about it. As Kristoffer A. pointed out in the blog comments — part of it may mean changing existing cultures of feedback to jive better with how many women are socialized. I also think it’s important for women to create a welcoming community among themselves, to help new women feel invited in and supported when they arrive. Leaving aside the first angle, which I don’t feel qualified to address, I’d like to focus on the second one — what women already in the community can do to help other women feel welcomed and supported.

I think that it can be trickier for women to interact with one another in a space that is male-dominated. Lone women often feel like tokens, and this can make it harder to connect; it’s a real-life Smurfette situation.* Tokenism inherently builds in competition among women. If there’s only room for one woman in this circle — something many movies, films, and TV shows reinforce — then other women represent a threat to status. If a cool girl comes along, it feels like she might supplant me. On one level, this is ridiculous — certainly there’s room for lots of women in any given group. That feeling of competition is something to fight against.

Rather than rely on male power structures to make us feel welcome and validated, I think it’s important to build our own, to help make space for each other. So I had this idea for a game. I forget what the instigating event was, but someone from Nordica asked me, “is there not a union of cool older ladies on your scene who look out for the younger ones, encourage them, and give them advice?” On the one hand, there are many cool older ladies on my local scene who do this stuff in an isolated way, but they don’t all know each other or the younger women. Sometimes, I think, we feel scared to introduce ourselves, because mingling at a convention can feel like a status game.

Eventually, it hit me. We’re all going to these gaming conventions, so why not gamify it? I wanted to write a game that would encourage us to talk to one another and build social bonds. It ended up as a pervasive scavenger-hunt style game that asked women to network with each other to advance to the next level.



I got tons of support from many wonderful men on one of my larp listservs. They offered suggestions and very valuable encouragement. Designer Jason Morningstar, whose motto should be “I was helping women designers before it was cool,” gave me lots of feedback, vastly simplifying the rules in the process and even helped lay-out some game buttons, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to print before we play-tested the thing at DEXCON 2012.

The basic idea is to build little cabals of awesome ladies. Do a few items from the list, and earn a pin (I used the cheapest colors of ribbon available at my local Michael’s). Do a few more, get a new pin. Do even more, and get an additional pin and earn the right to distribute your own set.

I hoped that in addition to helping people meet each other, the pins could function as sort of a “safe person” badge, that young women having difficulty with something at the con could feel comfortable talking to women wearing the pins, and so on.

Here are the materials (pdf, meant to be printed double-sided), if anyone’s interested.



The game sorta worked. I think it made women feel empowered to go up to other women and talk to them. To use a technical term, it gave women ‘alibi’ to interact with each other — I might not introduce you to my friend ordinarily, but if I’m doing it for a game, that’s a great excuse. The coolest part of things was getting to meet a lot of women I might not otherwise have interacted with, like wonderful designer El Wood, who had lots of ideas on how to make the items cooler — to do a variant on geocaching that would involve having players find a certain woman at a certain time from misleading descriptions, for example. I also met at least three teenage girls who would have never talked to me (and vice versa) without the game.

I think the items on the list could be more interesting, the title of the game could be cooler, and certainly the ribbon colors need to change so that none of them overlap with existing causes, such as AIDS awareness. The much-vaunted buttons should be printed. There should be some final event that is cooler. And maybe there could be play-sets for allies that would help awesome men to make space for women. Maybe someone should write  a set helping connect people of color.

At any rate, it’s an imperfect game that had rather interesting results, and if you’re interested in modifying it, making it better, or making it your own, please do take it, have fun, and write me about it when it’s all over.


I should also note that as I wrote this, one of the ALL players, who is also a wonderful convention and game organizer, started a Facebook group for women gamers of NYC.


*The Smurfette Principle — essentially a clever name for tokenism in fiction — also finds its mirror in real life when a lone women enters a dude’s club. 

2 thoughts on “Killing Smurfette: Connecting Women Gamers

  1. My larp community is blessed with a strong cabal of experienced gamer women, and I see them do a lot to recruit and encourage young female gamers.

    One of their most effective resources is costuming. I’ve seen many women willing to try their first larp, or their first out-of-town larp, after hearing the words, “Don’t worry about cloths. So-and-so is about your size and I’ll tell her to bring something for you.”