Thursday, July 21, 2011

Wanting Inclusive Games

Two Teachers

A woman taught me how to play role playing games. Actually two women. The first was my sister, who showed me how to roll up a character for the old three book set of Dungeons and Dragons. From her I learned to always search the bodies of your foes- there might be treasure in the stomach of that defeated giant rat. She ran and played and collected miniatures. She tolerated me as much as could be expected for the five year age gap between us- probably tolerated me more than she should have. She ran D&D more my birthday party, took me down to the game store, and even let me in on various V&V and Call of Cthulhu campaigns.

The other women is, of course, my wife, Sherri. She's propped me up when I've been at my lowest in running and kept me focused when I've spun all over the place in thinking about games. She's tolerated my experiments and been clear about what worked or didn't work about them. She knows what she values at the table, and our values match pretty closely. She likes the world, likes the characters, likes the stories. She's helped me examine my sessions. She's helped me be reflective about the process. I wouldn't be nearly as entertaining a GM as I am without her (and I can be entertaining at times).

Competing Genders

Over the years, I'd run for a nearly two dozen women regularly (i.e. at least a few sessions) plus running games at cons. So I have some anecdotal experience to draw on. I've seen good female gamers and bad female gamers. But for every Queen Bee female at the table, I've seen half a dozen harassing and grasping male gamers. The guys who make sexual innuendo, the guys to constantly hit on the female gamers, the charming guys who get 'cute' and handsy. I've seen a number of female players leave because of this. I know my sister has awful stories from her early days of gaming- with characters being raped by gods as some kind of stupid GM fantasy scene.

I've done stupid stuff at the table as GM, been a jerk. I remember an embarrassing game I ran with two new female players. They arrived in a place with women were treated like chattel. Keep in mind this was the first time these women had played with the group. To compound the error, some of the male players relished the chance to play that out. It went rapidly downhill. My intent had been to flip that midway through the session, with the group heading into the other area where the roles were reversed and the men treated in that way. But we never got there because it was such a flaming wreck. The high school stupidity of it makes me ill when I think about it.

Less Stupid Now

Most of the people I played with were male. But I like to think that we weren't awful. I like to keep that illusion. I had some sense. I remember being shocked in Middle School when I saw someone posting on the game store board that they wanted to run a game based on John Norman's Gor books. I knew enough to know they were both shitty and offensive. I steered clear of that guy after that. Generally when I ran and when I played I tried to come from a gender neutral perspective- females adventures and heroes having the sames rights and acceptance as males. So the issues got pushed to the side which seemed a reasonable approach. At least I still had both genders in the campaign. We played for years with one GM before I realized that we had never met a female NPC. Everyone had been, by default male. It was very strange- for this GM the plots and the mechanics were more important than the smaller details like that. Fantasy games had a strange unreality that allowed for that kind of thing.

On the other hand, I shuddered when I heard about superhero games where female PCs and NPCs (played by males) ended up highly sexualized, fetishized, mid-controlled and/or abused. But sometimes that kind of play was just echoing what people saw in the comics- with sexual abuse as a popular motive for female characters or women in refrigerators as a means of motivating male characters. But that's more a representation of the male gaze than a useful analysis. But there's beena good deal of talk about this of late, especially with the comments Dylan Horrocks gave about the decision to kill Spoiler in the DC Universe.

Picturing Yourself In

I started thinking about this because of two things. I'd been considering about a short-term campaign for a group which includes three women and three men. I was running ideas past Sherri, including a suggestion of a Three Musketeers style game. I thought it was something that everyone could easily get into the spirit of. And Sherri said an interesting thing...something which hadn't occurred to me- despite being a self-described feminist, a follower of a number of blogs on the topic and such. She said that she'd read the Three Musketeers and enjoyed it, but as a woman, she'd never pictured herself in those roles.

And for me, that's at the heart of role-playing. The great fun of role-play comes out playing the kinds of stories (from movies or books) you've pictured yourself in. I think of gaming as inclusive- or rather my ideal of gaming is one which is that way. So it is a kind of startling thing to see that things- genres, situations, I see as empowering might be neutral for others or even alienating. And that doesn't just hold for gender, but for other factors as well. That's why I look forward to products like this one, Heartbreak & Heroines RPG. That's a Kickstarter project which has hits its goal with many days left. The long and tall of it is this:

Heartbreak & Heroines is a fantasy roleplaying game about adventurous women who go and have awesome adventures -- saving the world, falling in love, building community, defeating evil. It's a game about relationships and romance, about fairy tales and feminism.

That project has not been without controversy- or at least it has generated the requisite flame war on RPG.Net. I haven't checked out that thread; I really didn't want to. There's some commentary on it on Go Make Me a Sandwich, a blog I follow which often has excellent commentary on these kinds of problems. She talks about it here. I think her work is funny, clever and especially biting when it takes on professional work. She uses an artist's eye to point out insane anatomy and to present gender reversed costumed designs. Gareth-Michael Skarka also comments on the kerfluffle in his post here. I think both are worth reading.

Necessary Reading

I think we should welcome products like Heartbreak & Heroines. I want to read it because I'm hungry for any insight on how to provide my players with the kinds of stories they want. different people have different needs and different desires at the table. I'm certainly not saying all women share a common set of needs. But many of them may be attracted to some kinds of tropes, stories or ideas that I don't give priority to. Any tools that help me get at that are useful and ought to be useful for any GM. That's why I picked up Kagematsu, another game that brings gender to the front to be considered. Its why I hunt down books like Odd Girl Out to try to understand the dynamics of other groups. I don't think “inclusion” as a goal is a passive thing. We can't just create something, declare it to be neutral and inclusive and expect it to be that. I think we have to be willing to look at what that inclusion means and how it can synthesize the values and expectations of a diverse group.

Gender here's clearly the case in point, and I think it is an important one. But I think we could extend that to consider other groups as well- race, class, and so on. I've run for relentless optimists and depressives. They've each had different needs, play styles and desires at the tables. Same thing for the self-secure and the paranoid. Some thing for the low-empathy and the highly sensitive. Players are people in the end, but any tools or insights I can get as to how to make their experience better is one I want.


  1. There was a lot of win in this post. I am always happy to see when others look past stereotypes in gaming. My own group has two men out of five in the group. I can also remember a time where I have done some stupid things in the game and had the women playing look at me like I was crazy.

    But we learn. I also like the idea behind Heartbreak and Heroines. I am going to read more about it.

  2. Nice post.. but I'm always surprised when I read that ST [keeper, gm or whatever] always have male npc, or that players when playing the opposite sex always make it sexualized, fetishized..

    When I started to use the designed games [your average role-play 'books'] when I was about 10 +/- a year.. I always played [still do] whether it was ST for the group or as a 'player' from the character perspective. Not built on society stereotypes. It is always about bringing out a persona, making it come alive. It was not their sex, profession etc etc that 'made' the character.

    To me it has always been about role-play, acting, bring forth the imagination and creativity. Make believe. To tell a tale, to create a story together. Where each player is part of it, and everyone adds to the story, by acting different characters.. be they humans or not, female or male, young or old. Child or adult, element or emotion. Whatever the player is a female or male.. I never fully understood this "feminism" or "malinism" that always has to slip into the art of telling a story.

    To me each player [incl. ST] are just actors, the characters are what is important. The players are lifting their voices, gesture, moving, dressing. Each add in to the story, to each others experiences. Bringing not only them self but also scent, taste, sounds, visual. Through clothing, food, music, sounds, light, darkness, places to act out. etc etc.. As ST one just holds the frames, what happens within is creativity.

    The 'system' that is used is just that nothing else. To take care of randomized out comes. Even if I think the idea heartbreak & heroines sound fun.. I have already done that many times up on many more times. But I have never 'locked' it down to be either about heroines or heroes. To me it has been about characters, what ever they be.

  3. great post and thanks for the tip about heartbreak & heroines. My own group is about 30%-50% female depending on which game we are playing. The 50% game is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is certainly gender inclusive. In our game, all the female player characters seriously out power the men (with nobody playing cross gender).

    I remember the dark days of clueless male gamers but it's been so long since I experienced it first hand. Even at con games with total strangers, people have been refreshingly awesome.

  4. Sherri's comment about not seeing herself in a particular role is worth noting. It's been said that GMs sometimes run the games they would want to play in, and I find that I really need to focus on not only what I think the players want, but what the players think they want. Routine feedback between the GM and players is so important to meeting expectations on both sides (but also can be difficult).

    Great post!

  5. Tim Brannon talks about the game on his page. It sounds interesting from what

    I've heard, but it also sounds like a forced premise. Maybe it isn't, maybe I'm

    reading into it, or maybe it isn't a forced premise to the female perspective.

    You are absolutely correct, you do not want to read the commentary on RPGNet

    about this game, if even half of what Tim mentions is spot on...and I'm betting

    it is.

    However, if RPGNet hates it, it must be a good product.

  6. The Heroines & Heartbreak page is intriguing, but it doesn't tell me how the mechanics help one break away from standard tropes. They're expected to fall in love during the campaign and build community. How does the game encourage and support this? I'm curious how even made a debate with so few clues. Still and all, I wish them luck. It's a laudable goal.

    Female gamers are a distinct subset of gamers, and of women in general. I'll note that my gaming group's female player loves playing swashbuckling musketeers. But she actually sword fights in real life. In comics, the only thing female geeks all seem to have in common is a hate of Sex and the City and a surprising creative skill on the side. I know some who have no female friends. Others who run with a female crew. And a lot of cosplayers who wear costumes that would irritate the Go Make Me a Sandwich blogger. I met the last member of an all girl comics podcast crew while she was dressed as Milla Jovovich's character from The Fifth Element. Pretty much a wig and some Ace bandages.

  7. One of the things that (imo) made Armageddon MUD great at its heyday is that it was the only game of its kind thinking about this sort of thing -- as a result ending up with many women both playing it and on staff.

    Thank you for writing this. I didn't tolerate you half as much as I should have, and that's always been a regret.

  8. As a long time gamer who growing up was most often then not the sole POC/female in any gaming group I was in, I want to thank you for this post. I can only hope more gamers/GMs/Game designers read this and really soak in the lessons learned and the changes that could still be made. Still too often female gamers, and gamers of other marginalized groups are often mistreated or invisible in the gaming scenarios. Think of how amazing stories and adventures could be if everyone could have a voice, if everyone could be the hero?

  9. Appreciate the posting. I've never understood the people who are threatened by inclusive art, when non-participation or disinterest is such an obvious solution to any "problem" it might pose.

    I assume it frightens them when people do not pander to their worst moral weaknesses every minute of every day? *shakes her head* Anyway. Thanks for sharing some of these horror stories. Makes me realize how fortunate I've been in my own social life.

  10. I deleted an anonymous post which had a pretty awful accusation leveled at one of the authors of H&H. It had a weblink which I did not follow back. I don't have an expertise or personal knowledge of the matter at hand. An anonymous and potentially libelous comment here feels a little out of bounds. I have no idea about the details of the matter.

    I assume it is unrelated to that, but the Kickstarter for H&H has been withdrawn, after reaching and significantly beating its funding goal. I hope that this isn't a bad sign for RPG products aimed at giving insight into the needs of historically marginalized groups of gamers.

  11. Nice arguments here got me quite thinking for a while. As a player of these games I'm quite oblivious to these facts. Good food for the thought.
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  12. The topic of women in gaming is a tricky one. Any discussion of gender differences is going to have to include extremely broad generalizations. The fact that "gamer girls" almost universally reject the norms of modern American femininity only adds to the confusion.

    I recently read an interesting sociological treatise on RPGs and blogged about it. Specifically, the author spent several pages discussing why there were so few women in gaming. As a note, the time frame in which this was written was the late 1970s, so there have significant changes in both the gaming population and the female population since then. But, some of his observations were extremely interesting. You can see my post about it here: