Monday, June 4, 2012

Gender Politics on Game Night: "Apples to Apples" vs "Blokus"

I love games.  I love games of every type: LARP, PC, console, board, card, RPG, strategy, and puzzle games.  I like games that are difficult, that make me think.  And I love games where I can sit back and relax and do something mindless for hours.  I love meaningless social games where everyone wins.  And hardcore competitive games where the loud shout of "Headshot!" booms bass from my speakers in a crowded room of a LAN party.

I'm really good at many games, and pretty good at most games.  I used to avoid games I totally suck at, but lately I can play them without caring too much about winning.

For many years, off and on, I've hosted game nights where random friends show up bearing games and snacks.  A card or board game is selected by democratic process, and fun is had by all.

A few years ago, I attended a large game night with twenty or thirty attendees in a large house.  Some of the people I knew pretty well, and others were new to me.  We had enough people for two or three simultaneous games.  At some point, Apples to Apples was starting up in the living room, and Blokus was coming out the dining room.

In case you're not familiar, let me describe these games.  Apples to Apples is a party game that large groups can play.  The rules and strategy are very simple.

A very girly card played during a very girly game.

The judge draws a card.  In this example, he reads, "Touchy-Feely! Affectionate; Tactile, Huggy!"  Players then select from their hands cards they think the judge will find most touchy-feely...  They throw them into the pile upside down, and the judge reads off all the red cards in a dramatic or amusing fashion, explaining the rejects before settling on the winner.  In my case, here I would choose "spiders", because I freaking love adorable cuddly spiders.

In this example, "Risky", I'd choose "Cocaine"... because when I use a wood chipper, I know exactly who I'm putting in there and why.
Blokus is a very different game.  There are a fixed number of players, up to four, and four works best.  You are given a pile of brightly colored geometric shapes and a series of specific rules on how to place them on the board.  Your goal is to lay down as many of the pieces as possible while blocking your opponents' ability to do the same.  It is a highly competitive game requiring feats of logic.
The only 8-bit board game.
These two games could not be any more different from each other.  And I love both equally.  Depending on who I'm playing with, I'm usually more likely to win Blokus than Apples to Apples... and as I said, everyone wins Apples to Apples.

So we're at this party, where an Apples to Apples game is forming.  I'm standing in the dining room with two other guys, and we're trying to talk another guy into being the fourth player in Blokus.  One of the guys, someone I've not met before, says something like, "It's better than that girl-game they've got going in there."

Errrrt.  Time to bust out my newly-formed infant inner-feminist.

There was a time when I'd let this comment slide.  After all, who wants to be the rude angry bra-burner, when he's perfectly innocent just ignorant and we're all just trying to have a little fun?  The fear bubbles up -- how am I going to put this complicated concept into words he'll understand?

I turned on him and opened my mouth in spite of my fears.  I said, "What?"

He repeats what he'd said, then makes some excuse.  "You know, it's a girl-game.  What's wrong with that?"

"And I suppose Blokus is a boy's game?"

He nods, a little sheepishly, but only a little.  "It's no big deal," he says.  "You know what I mean."

"It is a big deal," I say.  Then I explain to him, exactly and persuasively, what I mean.  I ask him, "Do you work in the IT field?"  Most guys at these Seattle game nights are.  He nods.

At this point in my life, I had worked in IT for ten years.  Ask any woman who has worked in IT for long.  I had experienced what most of us have:
  • A former boss spent most of our conversations staring at my breasts.
  • I'd been denied promotions, only to have outside male-hires fill those positions.
  • When answering the tech line on the phone, I'd heard the words, "I'm sorry, I was trying to reach tech support... can you transfer me?" more than once.
  • I'd had persuasive arguments for decisions ignored until my male underlings said the same things to the same people, and then the decisions were made.
  • I was repeatedly honored for being an awesome "webmistress", then a "guru", then a "rockstar", yet continually made 40% of the market average for my position. 
  • If you had any kind of computer problem, I could solve it, but had a hard time convincing a lot of men that my opinions were worth anything.
  • I went years thinking I was the only women this ever happened to.
I also had won almost every Blokus game I'd played up to that point.

So I say to him, "Most likely you are or will be in a position to hire."

He nods.

"And you think that women are good at social word-association touchy-feeling games, and uninterested in logic games.  Which means you may generally think women are bad at logic."

At this point he says something about thinking not all women were bad at logic.  Obviously some women are good at logic.

"That's a problem," I said.  "Because the IT field requires logic as a primary skill.  Someday, you will interview two applicants of equal experience and skills.  One will be a woman, and the other a man.  And the woman will have to somehow prove to you that she logical enough to get the job.  The man won't.  That is why it's a big deal."

He looked abashed.  He looked convinced.  We went on to play Blokus, and I won.  I pwned three guys in a competitive game of logic and strategy, and I hope at least one will someday interview a woman and remember that night.  And that she will get the job.  And that she will be treated well at that job, and that her opinion will matter, and that she will have equal opportunities for advancement.

This personal story is important on this week when a sexual harassment lawsuit is beginning in Silicon Valley.  Liberal geeks on the West Coast, in the IT field, consider themselves open minded, advanced, pushing the envelope not just in the tech fields, but in culture and social interaction as well.  The geek men in Seattle have long hair and wear kilts and T-Shirts with swear words and they are sex-positive and tolerant and they're well-read on advanced concepts of political theory and history and .. well, they're aware, and they're smart.

Geeks should know better.  Yet according to employment statistics, they don't.  According to that one guy, at that one game night, they don't.  Women are less likely to enter the computer field, less likely to climb the ladder to management and executive levels, less likely to make as much as men in the same positions, and more likely to leave the computer field for a new career.  (I did.)

There are a lot of reasons for these stats, and I'm willing to acknowledge there are many factors, including pregnancy, women's difficulty with knowing how to negotiate, and women's tendency to try to be "nice".

Yet I cannot overstate how men's attitudes towards women play a direct role in keeping women discouraged.  I was strongly motivated in my career, not only to make more money, but to influence my company.  No matter where I worked, I always wanted to help my company succeed.  I wanted to make operations more efficient, I wanted to make our systems run as smoothly as possible.  I wanted our products to be better.  And I invested a lot of thought and energy at each company towards these goals.  I didn't see myself as any different than my male co-workers.  But they did.

Being shot down repeatedly is demoralizing enough.  To know that at least some of those times I was dismissed because of my gender is intolerable.  At one company, early in my career, I'd been shot down so many times, I remember finally giving in and giving up.  (Especially when they kept hiring men for the IT Manager role that I was basically doing, without the title or pay.)  I decided to stop rocking the boat and just settle into the shoes they wanted me to fill... just fix the computers and make everything run, without a budget or the authority to make decisions that no one was making.  I literally kept the network together with duct tape.

What they needed:  A smart, driven person to make decisions and keep the network running.
What they had:  A smart, driven person to make decisions and keep the network running who happened to be female.

The Silicon Valley lawsuit story combines with another new story.  Global labor statistics reveal the jobs most difficult to fill.  Even with unemployment at 8.2%, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) jobs continue to go unfilled at crippling rates, especially in hard-logic roles like Infosec and Network Architecture (two fields which were options on my career path).  Of the top five hardest positions to fill, STEM fields make up four of them, including IT jobs.  49% of companies in the US have difficulty filling jobs.

These numbers will have a huge impact on our country's role as a technology innovator.  It will have a huge impact on our GDP.

Is it just a coincidence that fewer women are entering these fields during the same period that these fields are starving for employees?  Women make up half of our population -- shouldn't we be represented 50/50 in STEM jobs at IT firms?  And shouldn't women help run these companies?  I worked for five tech companies in my career, and with one exception where a small consulting firm was started and owned by a woman, the only women in C-level positions were in HR and Marketing.

Gender stereotypes might be funny to joke about at parties.  They might not seem like a "big deal".  It's all good.  It's just game night.  But real women are being hired and fired based on that stereotype.  Women who could contribute.  Women who might help your bottom line.  Women who probably would take your company to the next level against your competitors, if only you'd listen to them, if only you'd give them credit, and if only you'd pay them what they're worth.  Women who could help keep this economy afloat if society would only stop barring and discouraging them from positions that are desperately needed.

One thing I can say for sure.  This woman will gladly challenge you to a game of Blokus, because there's a strong chance I'll win.


  1. I'm pretty sure that "Time to bust out my newly-formed infant inner-feminist," or some variant thereof, should be on a t-shirt.

    Also, it would be so wonderful if the calling-out of sexism like this was the norm. That there didn't have to be the internal debate of "how do I approach this without being ostracized" before a comment is made. And in the workplace (having encountered this internal argument before), "how do a handle this situation without being labelled as a 'whiney woman.'"

    1. If it was the norm, sexism would not exist. We've been clearly told what might happen to us if we speak up too loudly; keeping us quiet is sadly part of that system.

  2. Hey,nice post.One of my most loved games is this German game where you assemble little things out of clay and you make inquiries about it. It's not generally to your greatest advantage to make something appear to be like its genuine partner,so craftiness is included.It sounds impeded,yet its an amazing non strategy diversion.Good day.@Betty Anderson.