Becky Esteness was fed up. She was at a local wargaming convention, where enthusiasts schlep their pewter armies to beige conference halls for a long, meditative weekend of stone cold tactics, and Esteness couldn’t wait to get her orders out. She’s been a hobbyist wargamer for decades. In fact, she runs a company with her husband that ships boxes full of miniatures to eager customers all over the world.
Esteness specializes in the historical sets; no orcs, or elves, or dark magic, just a small cadre of frilly line infantry mirroring the feints and stratagems of vintage Napoleonic campaigns. But despite all of her obvious bona fides, Esteness is a woman, and none of the men at the convention could quite believe what they were seeing when she turned up with her battalions.
Many of her fellow competitors persistently assumed she was a girlfriend, or a wife, or a daughter of one of the other tabletop generals—dragged along to the battlefront against her wishes. Eventually, Esteness grew tired of correcting them, so she allowed the men to believe their biases.
“They’re all white men, all 50 and older. I’m doing what I think is normal. I’m walking around and checking in on the other games, the same thing that they do when they’re not in a game. But when I go to their games, they start saying, ‘Oh, are you here to see your dad?'” says Esteness in an interview with WIRED. “I was with my wargaming group, and they were exhausted from saying, ‘No, she’s in our gaming group. We play with her every week.’ So everyone just started saying, ‘Yes, she’s my daughter.’ I briefly had a whole group of adopted wargaming dads.”
“I have to explain who I am,” continues Esteness, now speaking about the culture of wargaming as a whole. “With every single interaction that I have.”
The tabletop industry is in the middle of an unprecedented boom, and while there aren’t any metrics tracking participation rates along gender lines, it does appear that its core demographic has grown increasingly inclusive as the business expands. One of the most popular board games in the world—2019’s Wingspan—was designed by a woman.
There are a bevy of non-men and nonwhite content creators starting up tabletop-themed YouTube channels, and some of the most popular pen-and-paper actual play podcasts, like Critical Role and Friends at the Table, feature a gender inclusive cast. In fact, there is an argument to be made that one of the most influential gamers in the culture remains Felicia Day, the actress of Supernatural fame, who founded the tabletop-centric media company Geek & Sundry in 2012.
But despite all of that progress, for as much as the tabletop sector seems to have shed its reputation as a sanctum of inveterate masculinity, the wargaming space hasn’t caught up with the mean. According to the Great Wargaming Survey, a census-like questionnaire conducted by the magazine Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy every year, the estimated makeup of women in the hobby was between 1.5 and 2 percent as of 2019. That doesn’t seem like a stretch. Venture to any game store’s dedicated Warhammer night, and you’ll most likely witness a loose clique of white dudes crowded around the terrain. It’s a stark contrast to the similar events held for Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, which, while still heavily skewing male, have certainly welcomed in a more divergent cast of players in recent years. It begs the question: Why hasn’t wargaming experienced the same universal addition as the other kitchen table hobbies? Why are women like Esteness still the outlier?