Gender Issues In Gaming

There seems to be a bit of traffic at the moment regarding gender issues in gaming, so here’s a quick roundup and my thoughts.

peasantbutcher from tenletter has been posting installments from her college paper called “the case of the bitch: gender and identity construction and formation in role-playing narratives.” The latest bit, Part 5, got under my skin a bit.  Its main argument appears to be that since society is inherently gender biased, so are RPGs (Q.E.D.), and their designers are clearly partly at fault for propagating those stereotypical views – but with no evidence of that.  In my opinon, though there are of course the occassional game that is quite sexist, many are not.  Many of the gender complaints about more modern games seem to be to be of the specious variety.  Take John Kim’s “Gender Roles in RPG Texts.”  It faults D&D 3e because of the evenly gender split four iconics, Lidda and Mialee are less ass-kicking in combat than the two male characters.  However, even if this were reversed, you get complaints about the “Amazon stereotype” (as in Part 4 of the paper).  Of course if the woman is a sorceress then she’s the “femme fatale” stereotype (see the Hero Wars part of John Kim’s article.)  I start getting that “So what exactly would make you happy?” feeling about it.

Then we have the “Geek’s Dream Girl” and her Open Letter to Shelly Mazzanoble, whom she chides for her girly-girl-ness as discussed in Mazzanoble’s book, “Confessions of a Part-Time Sorceress.”  It’s a strange letter, as it offers a collaboration after calling her “ditzy” and “idiotic.”  I can’t say I’m the target market for the book; it does seem a bit over the top – I have a friend who’s a pedicure-loving show/purse/makeup-aware woman who also plays D&D, and I’m pretty sure she’d dislike it as a bit condescending.  However, I must also admit some ambivalence about a gaming/dating advice site with the tagline “Helping guys like you get girls like me.”  Now who’s stereotyping?  Most of the commenters seem put off by the whole thing, though none of them have had the class (unlike me!) to make Seinfeld-esque “Rowr!  Catfight!” references.

And where’s our old friend dungeon_grrl in all this?  She’s a gamer, and likes showing pictures of titties.  We men love titties.  Now that’s feminism we can get behind.  But apparently her “Alban Elfed” celebration went horribly wrong and she’s been off the grid for more than a month.

I think what is making me grumpy about this is that I’m currently playing a female character in our Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign.  I like to widely vary my character types over time in race, gender, skill set, and personality.  I’m an immersion player and enjoy constructing alternate personas and trying to “get into their mind” during the game.  I recently read, and I wish I could find the link, a blog post criticizing (men) playing cross-gender players in general, and one in particular, for his offense of referring to his character in the third rather than first person, which means of course that he is objectifying women as “the Other” blah blah blah.  Jesus, I refer to all my characters that way, male or female, even though I’m an immersion guy (I say “I” at the table, but in later writeups it’s just good form for clarity).  And I feel criticized by proxy by all the people complaining about every cross-gender depiction anyone does.

Let’s say an offer of sex comes up in the game, then if you do it, you’re playing a slut stereotype.  If not, you’re playing the bitch/ice princess stereotype.  If you just kick the guy’s ass then you are the Amazon stereotype.  If you buy him a drink and talk instead you’re a tease.  If you Charm him you’re a femme fatale.  I would think that feminists would learn that it is this exact same labeling that is the cause of much of the sexist hassle real women get!   (Or you can claim that an offer of sex to a female character is inherently sexist, because a) Lord knows that never happens in the real world and/or b) sex isn’t something any woman would ever want, it’s just a form of male subjugation.  I regard both of those beliefs poorly.)

All characters are going to have something in common with some stereotype.  Assuming you regard all stereotypes as negative, and see any commonality as “being” that stereotype…  Then you’ll never be happy with any depiction.

In general I think complaining about stereotype is poorly thought out anyway.  Sure, if you are playing a one-dimensional character that is nothing but a stereotype emulation, that’s one thing.  But stereotypes exist for a reason – in the real world, there are many different familiar categories into which people, despite being unique and precious little snowflakes, fall.  There are jocks and goths and soccer moms and hipsters…  And though unique, they share certain common bundles of behavior and belief. Objecting to characters taking any part of that is to object to the very nature of simulation!

I always find it particularly entertaining when I am portraying a specific character trait, or modeling a scene, after something a real female friend of mine has done, and people criticize it as “wish fulfillment”/”a woman wold never do that”/whatever.  I think, “on the behalf of my friend X, fuck you…”

All right, apparently I need my nap now.  Good night!

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12 responses to “Gender Issues In Gaming

  1. As with any argument, there are those that are pro, against and those that wonder why people are making such a stink about potentially nothing. :p

    When you refer to an in-game offer of sex, the responses you list (and thus classifying of the persons involved) also happens in RL, just as the situation does.

  2. @jatori – exactly. So it’s sexist when people categorize women as stereotypes based on their behavior IRL – but for some reason it’s OK for the gender-concerned to do the exact same things to someone’s portrayal of a female character. It’s the pot calling the kettle black.

  3. Also, I think it’s certainly justified to “make a stink” about real gender bias – in gaming or otherwise. There are certainly games, gaming groups, and character portrayals that I feel are discriminatory. However, what I see at work is a type of critical mindset that finds gender bias in absolutely everything. I believe that is not only intellectually incorrect, but also certainly lacks all utility. If “everything” is sexist, then why change what you do? If you’re “sexist” whether you are playing a character clearly based on Andrew Dice Clay , or trying to play a woman warrior?

  4. This is just typical academia, which I gnore and occasionally scoff at. Remember, “Those who can’t do” get degrees in “social sciences.”

    Anyway, was there anything in there about the chainmail bikini of the eighties? Or about how the fact that every woman in Wayne Reynold’s artwork has her back arched ike she’s dancing on an invisible stripper pole or having a perpetual orgasm? See, these are items that they could possibly draw attention to, but instead I find most of these papers focus so much on the use of ‘he/him’ as a masculine noun that perpetuates female oppression so that reading most RPG rulebooks these days (or books in general for that matter) is a jarring experience as the pronouns change every other paragraph in order to promote ‘diversity.’

    The problem is that the neo-feminists are so obsessed with trying to prove there is no difference between men and women (a fact totally at odds with reality) that they’re actually arguing against femininity itself. Woman can’t be portrayed as feminine because that’s putting them in a ‘gender cage’ but that’s what men (particularly the roleplaying market of 12 to 30 year olds) want: feminine women. They don’t want to see some butch she-male fighter when they’re looking at their RPG art, they want Mailee. And that makes them sexist? Of course it does! They’re thinking of SEX…!

  5. Hi

    Firstly, thanks for reading the paper…..I often wonder if it is read 🙂

    Secondly, I want to point out that my paper is an ethnographic study, so it was based on my experiences – I just wanted to make what I do for fun work for me in academia.

    You mention a critical mindset that finds gender bias in everything, the reason that gender bias can be found in everything is because it is there……..my paper does address that there are stereotypes within DnD for both genders, so I don’t see the problem you see. As an aside my MA thesis is on the move away from gender in certain forms of popular culture and the implications thereof, so I think the intellectually incorrect comment can be ignored.

    What you’ve said about woman and sex is taking your discomfort with the topic a tad far; to say that sex – according to feminists – is just a form of male subjugation is uncalled for. The labelling you use is labelling that has come about due to gendered bias, if I hadn’t used the labels used by society then my point – and exploration of the topic – would be mute.

    The focus on stereotyping occurred as the paper explores identity formation and gender performance. Yes, characters will have something in common with stereotypes as they are what we’re socialised to see as the norm and are tools used for identity formation…..it’s not the stereotypes that are negative themselves, after all it’s just something we use to term a type of behaviour, but the behaviour that they represent that is negative………I believe that society can move away from it, but in order to do so there needs to be an awareness of the behaviour.

  6. Gender politics, like all politics, is a filthy business. Without getting into a “who’s wrong and who isn’t” argument, just realize that there’s a lot more at stake here than first appears: self-image, political affiliation, even religious beliefs all play a part in how we see ourselves, and therefore how we expect others to see us. And unfortunately, ALL of these things are hot-button issues.

    The best attitude you can have, I think, is to smile and nod in a non-patronizing, non-condescending way, much as one does when someone with opposing political views starts espousing doctrine in your direction. Wait for them to run out of steam, polite excuse yourself, and then later shake your head in disbelief at the benighted ignorance of the poor fool.

    On the subject of “a woman would never do that”: I think your reply of “My friend X did exactly that” is right on (the “fuck off” less so, though admittedly understandable). However, if you’re not looking for an argument, might I suggest playing a *non-human* female? That way you can easily reply, “Oh, maybe a human woman wouldn’t, but a female dwarf/half-orc/etc definitely would.” Fictional races, fictional gender roles, both of which are poorly defined in canon.

  7. @ Luther: “This is just typical academia, which I gnore and occasionally scoff at. Remember, “Those who can’t do” get degrees in “social sciences.””

    Seriously? From one -ism to another. Gotta love the internet. At least academics have to prove their statements.

    @ mxyzplk: Firstly, apologies; I hope that a horrible argument, about the validity of different schools of study, doesn’t erupt on the comment thread of this post.

    I wasn’t suggesting that it wasn’t worth making a stink about, but rather that there are people that would take that position. In fact, there’s very little, if anything, in this world that doesn’t warrant some study.

    @ Erin: Avoidance is also my favourite defense mechanism. 😛

  8. @peasantbutcher – howdy! Understood, and it’s always good to see RPGing getting serious study from a nontrivial approach (like “Is D&D demonic?”).

    I think the problem is in the assumption – really a requirement – that all things do have gender bias. Let’s say you got a non-gender biased RPG – how would you tell? My point is that any inclusion of a female character doing pretty much anything, from doing her nails to slaying an orc, is “proof” of gender bias if you want it to be. If any work is gender biased simply be definition, then identifying that and/or working to reduce it become trivial and pointless, respectively.

    And I know you didn’t make the claim that all sex is male subjugation, but I think we’ve both heard that claim; it’s not all that uncommon in gender studies circles.

    I do look forward to the subsequent installments…

  9. Just a couple of points.
    1. Would these points stand up to male writers doing stories with female main characters? How could Joss Wheadon write about a teen aged girl and her problems?
    2. Gaming is still a fringe hobby and there are still lots of gamers with marginal social skills and make the more sensible folks look bad. If some guy is playing the slutty Assassin/Ninja/Harlot Drow then you look at his other characters, my guess is that they would just as bad regardless of gender and his real social life is just as dysfunctional.

  10. @grogtard – aren’t you playing an assassin/ninja/harlot right now? At least that’s what I heard 🙂

  11. The problem as I see it isn’t so much stereotyping, as it is the underlying assumptions that lay behind them. In particular, I would argue that what we really need to do is throw off all of the inherent value judgements that we make, both due to culturual and social inertia, as well as some of the reflexive opposites to those.

    To try and put that into clearer terms, look at it from another view. What is the ideal state? I would say that the ideal would be “Anyone can be any type of person they want, and nobody else cares one way or another.” A man or a woman would be free to do whatever they want, whether it be to have a career, stay at home and take care of kids, be an athlete, a soldier, an astronaut, a politician, a porn star – anything.

    Of course, this is easier said than done. We have adopted many of these values unconsciously from our society, and from those around us – even from language itself. For example, the term ‘slut’ (generally meaning promiscuous female) is an insult, whereas ‘stud’ (
    generally meaning promiscuous male) is a compliment. It’s probably also worth mentioning, too, that the enforcement of these gender roles is not a male vs female thing – if anything, the most vocal/militant ‘traditionalists’ are more often than not female, even if they represent a minority among women.

    Before I run completely off the topic of this as it applies to RPGs, here are my suggestion. What matters more than gender stereotypes in RPGs are how they are applied, and the characters that represent them:

    -Are they well thought out, three dimensional characters, or are they caricatures? Not all femme fatales are created alike.

    -What kind of value judgements are placed on that character, and the characters actions, by others (PCs and/or NPCs)… positive, negative, or indifferent?

    -How does the character stack up next to others in the world around her (or him, for that matter)? How does the specific setting judge them?

    To try and sum it up, stereotypes aren’t necessarily bad – it’s how we portray them, and the judgements we make about them (and use them to illustrate).

  12. Hey, sleeping with one NPC a slut does not make and I still think I deserved an extra share of the loot for that one. And I’m a Cleric of Calistria/Rogue. I’m not Evil, I’m Chaotic Neutral. And we all know that Ninja’s suck, Assassin’s in Pathfinder are still blah and Paizo hasn’t released the Harlot Prestige Class yet. Besides my creepy goth chick died saving the paladin’s tin plated ass. 🙂

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