In graduate school, a professor once told me my short stories might be a wee bit feminist to appeal to mainstream journals, and that I should seek out fringier, feminist presses. Of course, like many writers, I don’t want to write about “feminist issues,” I want to write about the essential human truths, truths that I perceive, of course, through the lens of my own identity. After my prof’s pep talk, I took on a gender-neutral pen name, started writing stories with male point-of-view protagonists, and promptly amassed a file of rejections beginning “Dear Mr. Stark…”
Because of course, books about men and men’s issues — even books that evidence an adolescent understanding of gender relations — get to be “great literature” because they’re about the universal human experience, while books that delve into the humanity of women are often relegated to the chick lit corner of the book store. This is not an argument for removing Moby Dick or The Road from the classics shelf, but it’d be cool if they could share it with Caramelo and Corregidora.
As I’ve embarked on a new hobby of roleplaying design, I’ve realized that the lady game designer faces a similar quandary. Do I want to write games that seem relevant to me in my life right now? Or do I want to write games that people will play? If I decide to write about stuff like my mastectomy, does that immediately get me sent to the chick lit game ghetto, or do I have a shot at being taken seriously on same grounds as other (largely male) game designers?
For me, writing about what I perceive as my essential humanity risks turning off a majority of the potential audience audience. I don’t think it’s a necessity for dudes designers to think about gender and game design in the same way.
Here, and in the rest of the piece, when I talk about writing games or roleplaying scenarios, I’m mostly thinking of larps or freeform games in the Nordic style — that is to say, games about regular people living their lives and aimed at evoking emotion rather than the rush of battle.
The nature of the gaming community further complicates the equation. Although there are plenty of women gamers out there, men predominate. If I write a game with a host of female characters, will men want to play it? Will men choose to run it? Or will it run a few times before disappearing down the memory hole forever? And if it disappears down the memory hole, is that because I’m a novice and wrote something crappy, or because I wrote about an experience of the world structured by femininity?
Cross-casting provides another sticking point, given the gamer demographics. In my experience, it’s easier for women to play men than the other way around. I dimly remember my college course in feminist theory, in which we talked about how we can all relate to the experience of men because that is constructed as the norm in our society. People who lie outside the norm for whatever reason get special knowledge of the dominant subculture, because there is pressure to conform. For example, many black women have special knowledge of hair — how to relax it, style it, extend it, etc. — because the norm of hair beauty in US culture is European and straight. Women are often asked to imagine themselves into the default position — that of men — while the reverse is seldom expected. Little Women is for girls because it’s primarily about girls and because of that we don’t expect boys to relate to it, but Lord of the Rings, with its all-male cast, is for everyone. This attitude contributes to gender inequity in all sorts of artistic canons — film, novels, visual art, short stories, video games, etc.
As a GM, I’ve noticed that it’s easy for men playing women to slide into stereotype, and that I’ve got to work hard to help players add complexity to their cross-gender roles. One of the super-powers of roleplay is that it can create empathy, so I think it’s good to try to step outside the roles we play every day — including gender, race, class, etc. roles. But meaningful immersion demands a certain degree of reality, I think. When play lapses too far into stereotype, this empathetic benefit is lost. And instead of walking in the shoes of someone dissimilar to you, you run the risk of reinforcing negative dogma.
Games Can Be About Gender Without “Being About Gender”
I’ve run the jeepform game Previous Occupants by Frederik Berg Østergaard and Tobias Wrigstad perhaps half a dozen times at various conventions. True to its mission, it’s a great way to introduce Americans to this style of roleplay. In the game, two people portray a young Christian couple about to get engaged and away for the weekend at a hotel where they will have sex for the first time. Two people portray an older married couple who stayed in the same hotel room 15 years ago, when the husband committed murder suicide. You play the scenes in parallel, cutting between the two, and eventually the ghosts of the past (the husband and wife) invade the present and try to work out their issues by possessing the young Christian couple.
On its surface, the game is about death and sex, past and present. But in all of the runs I watched, more than anything, it ends up being about masculinity and the demands that our culture places on men. The husband tries to contain his rage leading up to the murder, but often ends up struggling with feeling the financial burden of supporting a wife, even though this arrangement is not stipulated in the game materials. He feels put upon by his wife in some way, because she just doesn’t understand how difficult it is to be in charge. Her real or perceived infidelity — the suspicion of it, but not the actuality appears in the game materials — disrupts his constitution of himself, contributing to the crime. He is the culpable one, and she is collateral damage. Similarly, in the young couple’s story, the responsibility for initiating sex (which is not played, for the record) almost always falls onto the boyfriend, who struggles with his desires to be cool and have sex, weighed against his commitment to God. Although the girlfriend knows of his plan to propose, we infer that it’s up to him to take action and make the offer officially.
The women end up falling into traditional roles — slightly prudish girlfriend (or guiltily sex positive girlfriend), and abuse victim — and while they play a major part in the story, the growth of their characters often seems less complex, perhaps because the set up does not endow them with agency.
That these two men feel the parallel weight of responsibility is part of what makes the game work; but it’s interesting to me that players almost never explore issues of femininity — of why the wife might stay in an abusive relationship, or why the girlfriend feels she must wait for the boyfriend to make his move. Without writing it out explicitly, the game suggests traditional relationship roles for the women. The husband and wife are older, and from the past, and therefore, we infer, more traditional, while the younger couple is Christian, and since it is mentioned at all, American players infer that that younger couple must be very conservative and evangelical indeed. The traditional relationships weaken the ability of the women to push the story into a more feminine place within the game by inadvertently scripting more submissive roles for them. Their plot lines and roles are contextual and bound up in each character’s past, but the game demands that the action take place right now in the present for each couple.
The scenario is quite a good one — usually the players get a lot out of it — and I have no idea whether the writers wanted to make a game about masculinity or whether it’s an unintended emergent property of the game, or of the fact that I’m running it for an American audience. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to imagine that with so many dude game designers — there are plenty of lady designers, but they’re vastly outnumbered!– writing about stuff they find interesting and important, masculinity is going to emerge as a major theme whether designers intend it to or not.
The New Wave of Women Game Designers
In the last couple years, a number of women (and men) have written games that tackle femininity complexly. Maybe the trend stretches back further, and I’m simply ignorant of it, but to me, the current wave is tremendously exciting. Here are a few of the ones I’ve seen — are there more out there?
The Remodel (2013) by Emily Care Boss
A short scenario about four friends going through mid-life transitions while remodeling a house. It’s got timeless themes — how do we define ourselves when a core aspect of our situation/identity shifts?
Summer Lovin’ (2012) by Trine Lise Lindahl, Elin Nilsen, and Anna Westerling
This very short scenario is all about the post-convention gossip session. Three ladies got it on with three dudes, and now the men are on a train together and the ladies are in the car home. A scenario about women being awesome and unapologetic about it. In both runs I took part in, overhearing the women talking to one another was a real highlight for the men.
Robin’s Friends (2012) by Anna Westerling
A game about friendship among three people, and the ways that petty disagreements can distract people from the true meaning of their relationships. Interestingly, though Westerling had women in mind while writing the scenario, she made all characters gender-neutral to better fit the demographic makeup of her roleplaying scene. She also made the point to me that friendship isn’t a gendered topic, so why should the characters be locked in?
Mad About the Boy (2012) by Tor Kjetil Edland, Trine Lise Lindahl, and Margrete Raaum
A full-out Norwegian larp for 30 written and run twice there in 2010, played again with an all-women cast in Connecticut this year. A game about a world without men. Original text here. It runs twice in Sweden — one mixed gender run, one all women run — this summer.
…and this year my first game will be at the Danish convention Fastaval. It’s called The Curse, and it’s about relationships shaped by hereditary breast cancer. Will these women choose to remove healthy breasts and ovaries, or gamble with their high risk of cancer? And how will they and their partners feel about that?
Supporting Women Game Designers
I noticed a few things while recruiting women for last October’s re-run of Mad About the Boy. Plenty of women were interested in playing the game, but sign ups weren’t going great. I had a lot of conversations with various women who seemed like they might get something out of the game. Most of the conversations went like this:
Me: I’m helping organize this all-women game, and I thought you might be interested.
Her: It sounds really cool, but you know, I’ve only been roleplaying for like ten years? And a lot of it hasn’t been larp? And it sounds like really good roleplayers will be there and I don’t want to ruin the experience for everyone.
Me: We are very friendly to new people and have a bunch of people who have never larped before signed up. Inexperience is absolutely no object, and we’ve got this whole workshop thing happening to help get people in the mood to game. We would love to have you.
Her: That sounds cool. <signs up>
What I gathered from this process is that a lot of women secretly wanted to come to the game, but were afraid — even if they had lots of roleplaying experience — of embarrassing themselves and screwing up other women’s games. All it took was the simplest of gestures — an organizer saying, yes you are welcome and we will support you — in order to enlist players to the game. In other words, sometimes women don’t take space — they need to be expressly invited into it. I know I’m not immune. I never dreamed I could bring Nordic larp to the states until one of the Mad About the Boy creators off-handedly said, “you should run this larp.” She offered the space, so I took it.
My guess is that the same holds true for game design. While reporting and touring for the book, I was lucky enough to meet a bunch of game designers. Being the persistent reporter type, I asked for lots of design advice, and many people were kind enough to offer some. Not every woman is an irritating reporter, though — so I think it’s important to reach out to women who say they want to design and offer them support, to expressly invite them to occupy the role of designer. Sometimes a heart-felt invitation is all it takes.
Here’s my philosophy on trying new stuff: it’s not rocket science. Larp and roleplaying are relatively new forms. We’re in the first generation, still, and many of the first wave of designers are still living. I may not always know exactly what I’m doing, but then, imagine the first person to try metatechniques, or Ars Amandi or whatever. They were starting from a different baseline, and now we’re in the position to build on the institutional knowledge. Larp is not rocket science. And if we fail, so what? All we’re risking is a few uncomfortable hours. So get out there, take space, and fail loudly.