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Author Topic: Feminist Game Design [split from Religion in Role-Playing]  (Read 17002 times)
james_west
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« on: February 11, 2004, 09:55:07 AM »

Hello, all !

Some discussion in the 'more on religion and role-playing' thread made me think about what a game meant to address feminist/race issues would look like. I surveyed the existing discussion here on the Forge using the keyword 'feminist' and didn't find anything along the lines I'm thinking. Previous discussions seemed to focus around whether RPGs were sexist, and whether this drives women away from the hobby. I'm interested in thinking about feminist game design in a positive, aggressive sense.

Let me have as a caveat that I certainly do not propose that every game ought to be feminist, any more than I propose that every game ought to be about Vikings. If you were, though, how would you do it?

Here's my thought:

Feminism is not something you do by avoiding sexism. It's something you do by explicitly addressing gender issues in your game. Same thing for race. It's not enough to treat women fairly; you have to explicitly deal with the issues confronting them in modern society. This is a bit of a kicker, actually - the modern society part. My first thought when this came to mind is to set the game in the past, when these issues were more extreme - but that's very much avoiding the issue. If you set it in the past, you allow folks to say, "Sure, we were racist/sexist/whatever THEN, but it's all different now."

The other problem is how you make a game that addresses gender or race issues without yourself seeming sexist or racist. For instance, I might include a stat called 'alienation' which would increase whenever they were explicitly oppressed by the power structure. But then, I'm sure, people would complain that not all minorities respond through alienation. Perhaps ... but should I even care about this complaint?

To sidestep a little, whether Paul meant to or not, his game, My Life with Master, can be very easily read as being about abusive relationships. Since he's thrown it into a different context, though, he doesn't get grief about how not everyone responds to abuse with weariness and self-loathing. Thus, perhaps it might be easier to do a game about racism if you set it in Palestine, rather than in the U.S. - but might this also not allow one to displace? Place is as bad as time, perhaps, although since we so closely identify with the Israelis, perhaps it wouldn't be too bad.

Race, for me, is easier than gender, in thinking about how you'd design a game. Both from the stories of colleagues who grew up in inner city Harlem before becoming medical doctors (and the race-related problems they -still- face), and from my interaction with folks who are still 'in the ghetto' through my social work, it is clear to me the sort of blatant, no-way-out discrimination that -poor- minorities still have to deal with. Essentially, I've seen folks work out the problems inherent in different ways, which makes the problems themselves a lot clearer. I think, following similar lines to Paul's, my first step would be to have something like an 'alienation' metric, which made it harder to deal with authorities of any stripe, but easier to deal with subculture folks. I might also have a stat called something like 'humility', which is a willingness to take sh*t without responding. One might question my ability to write a game like this, as a white, middle-class, bookish type; my point is that this is not a game -for- minorities, it's a game -for- white, middle-class, bookish types to understand the frustration inherent in trying to get by as a member of certain subcultures.

Writing a game to address feminist issues is a little harder; I can see the problems women face. One of my techs just had a kid; I got a lot of grief and resentment for giving her six weeks paid leave (it was considered excessive). In general, it is obvious to me that, even in my circles, I get more respect than my colleagues -because- I'm one of the (now relatively rare) white males doing medical research. Really no idea how I'd make these themes strong enough to make an engaging game, though.

To be clear, let me restate that my interest is not how one makes -all- games less sexist, but how one would write a game specifically designed to address gender or race issues, but make it as much fun as "My Life With Master", and avoid preachiness.

- James
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #1 on: February 11, 2004, 10:15:47 AM »

Hi James,

My take on this very thing is provided in Sex & Sorcery. It's probably not the final answer by anyone's standards, but it's what I had to say.

The thesis of the supplement is that the imaginary content of the game-events is subordinate to the actual gender-based interactions of the real people in and out of play.

Therefore one does not correct, fix, alter, or improve the real-world issues by focusing on the imaginary content - the other way 'round, yes indeed, but not from in-to-out.

Best,
Ron
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Nick the Nevermet
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« Reply #2 on: February 11, 2004, 11:24:46 AM »

Quote from: james_west
Hello, all !

To be clear, let me restate that my interest is not how one makes -all- games less sexist, but how one would write a game specifically designed to address gender or race issues, but make it as much fun as "My Life With Master", and avoid preachiness.

- James


I think the word 'preachiness' is going to need to be carefully considered here.  The reason is your entire premise of a feminist RPG problematizes and (IMHO) politicizes something a lot (most?) gamers don't think about much.  As a result, I suspect that practically anything that meets the criteria of a 'feminist' RPG would be seen by many as 'preachy.'

As for actual suggestions about a feminist RPG... I got nothing substantive yet.  Its an interesting idea, though, and I wish I had an idea.
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Bankuei
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« Reply #3 on: February 11, 2004, 11:41:09 AM »

Hi James,

just as good, issue addressing books, movies or plays are made, I don't think there is a way to assure play itself will address the issues in a reasonable fashion.  

I mean, you could develop a game that is anti-sexist, anti-racist, and it could just devolve into a hack and slash of nazi kkk chauvinist pigs....which doesn't really teach anybody about anything.  Compare the difference between how Princess Mononoke and Captain Planet both deal with the issues of ecology vs. economy and society for examples of same theme, handle well, or very poorly.

I do think it is possible to "load" up these themes in a game, but unfortunately the people who would be able to really utilize them are the people who least need the message.

What is easily within reach, is the portrayal of strong, positive gender(and race) characters.  All artists know that you everything you do, is conscious, or unconscious, and either way, your art says something about how you view things.  If you include certain things, or exclude them, you are making a statement.  These are things within your control, beyond that, well, the best you can do is hope that someone is gettings something from it.

Chris

PS- For an example of portrayal that never happened, Greg Stafford apparently envisioned much of Glorantha as brown.  Check it out here:
http://glorantha.temppeli.org/digest/gd9/2003.08/2529.html
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timfire
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« Reply #4 on: February 11, 2004, 12:25:36 PM »

The problem with trying to address these issues is that it takes alot of knowledge from both sides of the fence. (This is probably why these issues rarely get resolved in the real world.) This is because the different sides often have different perspectives on what issues are/aren't important. A game that only addressed issues from one side might seem meaningful to that side, but might seem totally useless to the other. Also, different sides also have different mindsets, so they approach the same issues differently.

How would you practically design a meaningful game? Don't ask me, I don't know. My only guess would be to find a partner that belongs to that other group. First work out what issues/ themes are important, and then work out how those issues should be resolved. Then translate it into game form.
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John Kim
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« Reply #5 on: February 11, 2004, 02:14:16 PM »

Quote from: james_west
  Writing a game to address feminist issues is a little harder; I can see the problems women face. One of my techs just had a kid; I got a lot of grief and resentment for giving her six weeks paid leave (it was considered excessive). In general, it is obvious to me that, even in my circles, I get more respect than my colleagues -because- I'm one of the (now relatively rare) white males doing medical research. Really no idea how I'd make these themes strong enough to make an engaging game, though.  

Well, what are feminist issues?  For example, you could have a situation/setting where care for children is important -- the PCs are heading a clan, family, or perhaps school.  This is something that was used in X2, for example, which was feminist without seeming at all preachy.  

A similar principle could be used with relationship mechanics.  Many games have that relationships (like Champion's Followers Perk or HeroQuest's follower stats) which require no effort to maintain.  You could have alternate rules that make relationships very powerful mechanically, but require active effort of some sort to maintain.
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- John
GB Steve
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« Reply #6 on: February 11, 2004, 04:03:40 PM »

Quote from: John Kim
Well, what are feminist issues?  For example, you could have a situation/setting where care for children is important -- the PCs are heading a clan, family, or perhaps school.  This is something that was used in X2, for example, which was feminist without seeming at all preachy.  
With the feminists I know, my wife included, childcare is definitely not an issue just for women, as it mostly portrayed in the media. Of course the one of the issues for feminism is to address this portrayal. Including this in a game is not easy, especially when you try to avoid anachronistic societies.

I'm not sure I see the issues of Feminist game design as any different from designing a game to address any issues of disempowerment. But as Ron indicates, all you can do is highlight the issues, and possibly educate, rather than change. And as such, preachiness is hard to avoid.

On the other hand, you can design games for women that are not explicitly feminist. These are games that look at themes that women seem to enjoy more than men. Of course, as soon as you state that as your aim, you run the risk of alienating women whose tastes diverge from the majority. In such cases it's better to stay silent.
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Doctor Xero
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« Reply #7 on: February 11, 2004, 07:00:38 PM »

I think that addressing issues of bias against women (misogyny) or simply bias for
men (androcentrism) through attempting a strictly feminist game misses the point.

For one thing, there are more than twenty different schools of feminism, many of which
disagree pointedly.  Put an Essentialist Feminist, an Equity Feminist, a Radical Feminist,
and a Liberal Feminist together, and ideologically they will tear each other's throats out!

A more important issue is that such a game misunderstands the cause of such problems
(IMHO in my humble opinion).

The cause of bias against women is the same as the cause of bias against men in this
country : oppressive gender roles.

In the United States, women most often become frustrated with gender roles because they
restrict their opportunities in (for example) politics and employment and general social
authority.  Men most often become frustrated with gender roles because they restrict (for example)
their opportunities in family care and domestic issues.

To help people understand women's issues, you need to help them understand gender role
issues or it becomes lopsided because it addresses only part of the picture.

I would recommend that such a role-playing scenario would be one which specifically places
women (and men) in situations in which their gender roles conflict with their goals.  In general,
individual women almost never feel personally restricted when it comes to the right to care
for children and individual men almost never feel personally restricted when it comes to the
right to work a physically laborious job.  So the scenario needs to require that the female
characters accomplish a task which does encounter such restriction (same with the male
characters).  To make this incite insight rather than simply recreate social problems, have
the male characters be played by women and the female characters be played by men.

A "masculine" female character does not problematize gender roles, it reinforces them by
showing women as having to behave within the restrictions of either one gender role or
the other but never free of gender roles in general.  A male or female character who is
neither continuously masculine nor continuously feminine points out the artificiality of gender
roles far more effectively -- and often disconcerts people far more than do strictly feminine
or strictly masculine characters.

To point out the invisibility of gender roles and their oppressive aspects by way of a campaign
setting, the description for the races might actually address gender role issues, ideally outside
romanticized stereotypes -- the AD-&-D drow lampoon patriarchal oppression by substituting
matriarchal oppression, but in making the matriarchal oppression exotic and even dominatrix-sexy,
they end up trivializing gender-based oppression in general.

For a simplistic problematizing of gender roles for a feminist game, I suppose one could
give stats bonuses which defy conventional gender stereotypes, such as giving all female
characters +1 CON +1 MOVE and all male characters +1 CHA +1 EMPATHY or somesuch;
I think this would work best if each fantasy race had different gender roles and different stats
bonuses then.

Or imagine an SFRPG scenario in which only women are allowed to take care of children
and the player-character is a single father trying to keep from losing his child and in which
only men are allowed to pilot a spaceship and the player-character is a woman who is
the only person with the necessary piloting skills surrounded by women and men who are
genuinely terrified by the "unnaturalness" of defying gender roles even for the sake of
keeping the spaceship on course.

I'm sure there are other ways to play off this idea.

Doctor Xero
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"The human brain is the most public organ on the face of the earth....virtually all the business is the direct result of thinking that has already occurred in other minds.  We pass thoughts around, from mind to mind..." --Lewis Thomas
John Kim
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« Reply #8 on: February 11, 2004, 09:22:48 PM »

I agree with Doctor Xero.  By "feminist issues" I meant more than just simple misogyny -- I meant gender roles.  For example, I consider "The Full Monte" to be a feminist movie because of how it questions male gender roles.  

Which brings to mind another idea for a feminist RPG:  "The Left Hand of Darkness: The Role-playing Game".  For those who don't recognize it, LHoD is a science fiction novel by Ursula Le Guin.  It is set on a world where everyone is hermaphroditic.  Most times they are effectively genderless, but they go through a fertile period every month or so, known as "kemmering".  During that time they tend to find a mate also in kemmer, and each will express as opposite sexes (randomly).  

Here the issue arises naturally and regularly from the setting.  With every NPC they interact with, there is a sudden disjoint where the players subconsciously try to fit the character into familiar catefories, then realize that it doesn't quite work.  

It's a bit lacking in cool hyper-tech toys or magic for most RPGers, so I'm a bit concerned that it would only be preaching to the choir.  You'd have to come up with some sort of cool twist on what was shown in the book for it to really work, I think.  Hmmm...
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- John
james_west
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« Reply #9 on: February 11, 2004, 10:03:59 PM »

I like the direction that Doctor Xero and John Kim are going with this; projecting the issue onto an SF or fantasy society is a good way of examining touchy issues in isolation. Now that I think of it, to a certain extent that's the original raison d'etre of SF as a genre ...

- James
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sirogit
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« Reply #10 on: February 12, 2004, 01:31:43 AM »

I had this idea of a game that parodies WW and their typical caste systems, with the game based on the creature Human with two seperate castes, Man & Woman. Each having a written doctrine on how they view the other. Guess it's a lot lighter than what people were aiming for in this thread but it's intereasting as a different method.
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pete_darby
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« Reply #11 on: February 12, 2004, 01:44:13 AM »

LHoD: well, LeGuin managed to get at least one novel out of it, so there should be enough to get at least one session of a game ;-)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it all about the politics? (confession: I've been following the Guardian's recent UKL kick, so I'm better "externally informed" about her stuff than I have bene for a long time). In the novel, there's at least two big political situations: the slide into war, and the intervention of the Ekumen. Both of these are subtly informed and modified by the hermaphroditism of the Gethenians.

(linkage: The King is Pregnant, UKL Q&A)

So, you take any archetypal (even stereotypical) rpg situation, and drop Gethenians into the situation, and Gender roles immediately become a theme, because of their necessary absence in a Gethenian society.

Next question: why is questioning gender roles necessarily feminist?
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Pete Darby
Thuringwaethiel
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« Reply #12 on: February 12, 2004, 07:53:22 AM »

Quote from: pete_darby
LHoD: well, LeGuin managed to get at least one novel out of it, so there should be enough to get at least one session of a game ;-)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it all about the politics? (confession: I've been following the Guardian's recent UKL kick, so I'm better "externally informed" about her stuff than I have bene for a long time). In the novel, there's at least two big political situations: the slide into war, and the intervention of the Ekumen. Both of these are subtly informed and modified by the hermaphroditism of the Gethenians.


It's been a while since I read LHoD, but let's see.. Great text, BTW, although there was a couple of details that bugged me. But the big lines first: I don't remember the Ekumen stuff, but wasn't the coming war the first actual war in their history? Something to suggest that since there were no males, many reasons to war were absent, but also that not all wars are "male thing". Or something..

The two things that stuck out to my eyes (IIRC): lack of rape and presentation of homosexuality. First, it makes sense that there would be less sexual violence, but the total absence doesn't sound right. Of course in our world vast majority of abuse is by man and upon a woman, but all other variants exist too. And the homosexuality thingie.. Gethenians were represented as majorly "straight" but "gays" were also mentioned. Not very realistic since there was only one sex. That means everybody are homosexual by default (and if someone happens to be straight, they'd be in trouble since there is no opposite sex).

Ok, enough off-topic rant, I had something to say, also..

Quote
Next question: why is questioning gender roles necessarily feminist?


It's not, actually. Feminists tend to do it a lot and loudly, though, thus getting all the "credit". There are professions that study gender roles (historians, sociologists), and gender roles are big issue to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and transsexed people, too. I'd guess people in job life and sports have to grab the bull by the horns every now and then. And let's not forget the RPG designers.... ;)
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Thuringwaethiel
Member

Posts: 17


« Reply #13 on: February 12, 2004, 07:55:49 AM »

Quote from: pete_darby
LHoD: well, LeGuin managed to get at least one novel out of it, so there should be enough to get at least one session of a game ;-)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it all about the politics? (confession: I've been following the Guardian's recent UKL kick, so I'm better "externally informed" about her stuff than I have bene for a long time). In the novel, there's at least two big political situations: the slide into war, and the intervention of the Ekumen. Both of these are subtly informed and modified by the hermaphroditism of the Gethenians.


It's been a while since I read LHoD, but let's see.. Great text, BTW, although there was a couple of details that bugged me. But the big lines first: I don't remember the Ekumen stuff, but wasn't the coming war the first actual war in their history? Something to suggest that since there were no males, many reasons to war were absent, but also that not all wars are "male thing". Or something..

The two things that stuck out to my eyes (IIRC): lack of rape and presentation of homosexuality. First, it makes sense that there would be less sexual violence, but the total absence doesn't sound right. Of course in our world vast majority of abuse is by man and upon a woman, but all other variants exist too. And the homosexuality thingie.. Gethenians were represented as majorly "straight" but "gays" were also mentioned. Not very realistic since there was only one sex. That means everybody are homosexual by default (and if someone happens to be straight, they'd be in trouble since there is no opposite sex).

Ok, enough off-topic rant, I had something to say, also..

Quote
Next question: why is questioning gender roles necessarily feminist?


It's not, actually. Feminists tend to do it a lot and loudly, though, thus getting all the "credit". There are professions that study gender roles (historians, sociologists), and gender roles are big issue to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and transsexed people, too. I'd guess people in job life and sports have to grab the bull by the horns every now and then. And let's not forget the RPG designers.... ;)
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Brennan Taylor
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« Reply #14 on: February 12, 2004, 07:58:22 AM »

This thread got me thinking about something I did in my Freshman game design effort. In it, I created a fantasy nation dominated by women, with almost a complete reversal of traditional (fantasy RPG) gender roles, with men taking care of children and the household and women assuming all exterior social duties--wage earning, property ownership, fighting, leading troops, etc. Some things, like physical labor, are still performed by men outside the home, but the general rule was to swap gender whenever a standard assumption was made.

What makes this interesting from the feminist gaming standpoint is how players reacted to this. In general, female players found it amusing and enjoyable to imagine this society. Many male players reacted in a similar fashion. A significant proportion of male players, however, had a very strong negative reaction, and these players typically make this society an evil/adversarial one in their own games. Among some men, this reaction was extremely strong.

I'm not sure what this says about the individuals involved (although I have my suspicions), but it was a very interesting experience, and it brought many gender issues to the fore in the games.
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