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The Fine Art of Role-Playing

Part 3: Girls Don't Roleplay

by Jonathan Walton
Feb 05,2004


The Fine Art of Roleplaying
A Column by Jonathan Walton

Part 3: Girls Don't Roleplay

      The fact of the matter is that there have been no supremely great women artists, ...nor have there been any great Lithuanian jazz pianists, nor Eskimo tennis players, no matter how much we might wish there had been.

      -- Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971)

Let me start with a confession. One of the problems with writing a column that tackles "hot issues" in the aesthetics of roleplaying is that there is not a lot of easy source material to go to. For example, in this week's article, I'll be quoting Linda Nochlin a bunch, and she's a pretty early feminist theorist, relatively speaking. Since her time (the 70's), there've been what're called "Second Generation" feminists who take completely different tactics, but they haven't really made it into aesthetics textbooks yet, not having stood the test of time.

So the ways I'm going to discuss women in roleplaying are distinctly old hat. However, since roleplayers are not, by any means, the most up-to-date minds in the world, as far as feminism goes, I don't expect it'll be a big issue. Even if you grok all the stuff I'm about to dish out, you're still behind the times. Hell knows I am.

Coincidentally, while I was getting my notes together for writing this article, Green Ronin announced their new big OGL game, Blue Rose, which claims to be "a roleplaying game of romantic fantasy, inspired by novelists like Mercedes Lackey, Diane Duane, and Tamora Pierce." In the Green Ronin forums, people were quick to notice the word "romantic" and the fact that all three novelists mentioned are female, and began pegging Blue Rose as a "girl's game." Some interesting discussion ensued, excerpts of which I've stolen to help make some points here.

      Allow me to play devil's advocate for a second... Do girls not play RPGs because there isn't a girl-friendly RPG or is it that they aren't interested in the idea of RPGs?

      -- Iain, in the Green Ronin Forum (Here, 2004)

First of all, here we have one of the oldest arguments around, yet it still pops up every now and then: that there are some activities that are just more "male" and some that are more "female." Nowadays, most people are willing to admit that there's nothing especially "male" about art or business or government or music or academics or science or any of the other areas traditionally dominated by middle-class white men. Just as there's nothing especially "female" about early childhood education or cooking or textiles. However, people still argue over the nuances of where nature and nurture meet. For instance, are males biologically geared to be more aggressive? And, if so, does that make them better hunters and cutthroat negotiators? Likewise, there has been much discussion over the supposed ability of females to be nurturing caretakers, based on their biological role as mothers.

So what about roleplaying? Are there things about roleplaying that are more likely to appeal to one sex or another? If so, is that appeal based on biological things that we can't change or social conditions that we can? And what basis do we have for trying to prove any of this?

Perhaps it's best to start with the most obvious evidence: the roleplaying community -- including players, designers, and other industry people like retailers and distributors -- is predominantly composed of middle-class, white males. For the purpose of this article, we're going to put aside economic and race issues for now (thought they're definitely related) and talk about while roleplaying is such a male-dominated hobby. In other words, we're asking the question:

"Why aren't there any female roleplayers?"

Traditionally, feminist aestheticians have three main concerns: "1) a concern with the canon and women's under-representation in the arts, 2) a concern with artistic representation and the ways in which women are traditionally depicted in and positioned by works of art, 3) a concern with the biases of the fundamental values of aesthetics" (Thomson, 2003). Feminists looking at roleplaying would have parallel but distinct versions of these concerns.

While roleplaying's "canon" is overwhelmingly written by males, the prominent appreciation of work by such authors as Margaret Weis, Jackie Cassada, Nicky Rea, Cynthia Summers, Deird're Brooks, Rebecca Sean Borgstrom, Beth McCoy, Genevieve Cogman, Ann Dupuis, Leanne Buckley, Melissa Uran, Rebecca Guay, etc. (and those are just the group I'm familiar with from the games I play) does keep roleplaying from being in quite the same shape as the 99% male world of art history. While it would be nice if there were more women working and gaining prominence in the field of roleplaying, that's often considered a secondary issue to the larger problems raised by Concern #2. Sure, there would presumably be more female roleplayers if there were more women involved in the creation of roleplaying games, but that doesn't address issues of content and depiction in the greater community.

      Nine by knife, two of them suicides; three by fire; two who jump; two consumptives; three who drown; three poisoned; two of fright; and a few unclassifiable, thank god for them, dying without anyone knowing why or how. ...All that is left is to write their names above them: Violetta, Mimi, Gilda, Norma, Brunhilde, Senta, Antonia, Marfa... Butterfly... Carmen...

      -- Catherine Clment, Opera, or the Undoing of Women (U of Minnesota Press, 1988)

      Madelyn Pryor (clone, brood mare, demon queen, dead, brought back)
      Mantis (child taken away, dead)
      Marlo Chandler -- Rick Jones' wife (former prostitute, killed and brought back mindless; got better)
      Marrina (insane, dead)
      Mentalla of LSH (dead)
      Mera (insane, child murdered)
      Mirage of Team Titans (impregnated by rape)
      Mockingbird (abducted and mind-manipulated into a relationship, dead)
      Moira MacTaggert (diseased)
      Ms. Marvel I/Warbird (mind-controlled, impregnated by rape, powers and memories stolen, cosmic-powered then depowered, alcoholic - SHEESH!)
      Ms. Marvel II (became a monster in Fantastic Four, de-monstered but enslaved by Dr. Doom, depowered)
      Mystek of JLTF (dead)

      -- Gail Simone, the 'M' section of "Women in Refrigerators" (Full List Here, 1999)

The two authors quoted above are making points about the use (abuse, really) of women in two art forms clearly related to roleplaying: opera and superhero comics. In both cases, the writers and librettists who "controlled" these females characters were, until very recently, 100% male. Now, they're still 98% male. And audience wise, comics -- like roleplaying -- enjoys a similar imbalance, leading its writers to compose works for young male readers.

Looking around in other areas of art and literature, it's easy to see the same kinds of "female character abuse" repeating themselves, especially when men are writing for a predominantly male audience (look at hard science fiction, for example, or horror movies, or erotic fiction, or boys' anime). Where does this come from? Is it possible that male writers empathize more with male characters and so are less inclined to treat them as roughly? Is that why you never see male superheroes being raped? Is it part of some unconscious desire to exert power and abuse women? Perhaps. Perhaps not. This, according to some feminist thinkers, is the story of history, men creating a world for themselves (in reality this time, and not in their imagination) and assigning specific roles to women and everyone else who's not a part of the design process.

But come now, roleplaying isn't really a part of all that, right? I mean, aside from the occasional horror story about in-character sexual harassment of female players, there's not a systematic plan to abuse women in gaming, is there? I mean, Avalanche's cheesecake covers are one thing (can you believe the cheesecake got THREE Origins Award nominations last year?!!), but every genre has its tasteless porn, right? Look at the stuff that gets filed under "romance novels."

Well, do a mental exercise with me, will ya boys? Imagine that you are a young woman who's interested by the idea of roleplaying, but doesn't really know that much about it. You pick up the average roleplaying text, say D&D or Rifts or some d20 product, since they're the majority of what tends to fill the shelves where you are. First thing you notice is the art: most of the images depict male characters, with maybe a female or minority character here and there to spice things up. The male characters are usually dressed in combat gear, armed with giant battleaxes and such, looking ready to go toe-to-toes with beasties. The female characters are often scantily clad, or cloaked by waves of fabric and mystery, or given a bow so they can stay out of the fighting.

The game will almost inevitably be about violence. Sure, the book may talk about other things, but when the combat mechanics are the most detailed and emphasized part of the game (and every character carries weapons), it's hard to focus on much else. Any in-character relationships between the PCs and female NPCs are almost inevitably shallow, because the NPCs are played by a male GM, and roleplaying emotional interactions with them would just be "weird" or even "gay." Instead, the relationships that develop are the kinds of chummy comaraderie and love that binds together men in a military unit. While female characters can sometimes take part in that, it's modeled on relationships that are, essentially, "male" in character. Playing G.I. Jane can be rewarding for a few sessions, but not all the time.

Okay, you got that mental picture in your mind?

What you've got is very, very old hat. This is something every game designer worth his salt (yes, HIS salt) thought of a long time ago. It's pretty obvious. It's also a male perspective. In it all are kinds of assumptions about what women like and don't like: women don't like violence, women like deep relationships, women are turned off by scantily-clad women. How do we "know" these things? We learned by watching the women around us. We talked about roleplaying or anime or action movies with them and watched our friends and girlfriends collectively roll their eyes. This is our proof.

So what does every-game-designer-worth-his-salt do? He asks women what kinds of games they'd want to play, of course. After all, if existing roleplaying games seem to appeal more to males, surely we can write games that will appeal more to men AND women. Because if, ultimately, we can get everyone to roleplay together, that would be better.

So what do women want?

      ...TSR had no interest in making even the slightest concession to female interests. ...If a "fantasy romance" game had come out back in '84, I'm certain there would be many more women in this hobby. ...Where are the cute animal companions and pegasi and the crystal castles in the sky? ...Most women know how to roleplay, even if it's only with dolls. ...Look at the "girl" games like Amber, Ars Magica, or the WoD line.

      -- Olivia, in the Green Ronin Forum (Here, 2004)

      Another attempt to answer the question involves shifting the ground slightly and asserting, as some contemporary feminists do, that there is a different kind of "greatness" for women's art than for men's, thereby postulating the existence of a distinctive and recognizable feminine style, different both in its formal and its expressive qualities and based on the special character of women's situation and experience.

      -- Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971)

As much as I appreciate Olivia comments and perspective, I think I'm going to have to disagree with her here. Animal companions and crystal castles might appeal to 12-year-old girls, or the 12-year-old girls inside of older female (and even male) roleplayers, but they're not going to sustain interest over time. And not all women have (or will acknowledge having) a 12-year-old girl inside of them. In order to create games for women, what you've ended up doing in this case is making huge generalizations about women and the type of things they like. Sure, there are quite a few girls I know who would be enthralled by a game about crystal castles and animal companions, but there are even more who wouldn't be interested at all. I don't think there are many 25-year-old women who would play such a game more than once (and the first time would be for kicks or nostalgia's sake). Unfortunately, this is the approach that many game designers take, thinking that if they lasershark** enough "girly" material into a game, that it will somehow magically attract female players.

** Lasershark (v): Needlessly adding gamer-Emeril, kick-it-up-a-notch, k3wl powerz to something. Origin: Jack Spencer Jr.,"If a gamer had made Jaws it would not have been a shark but a shark with a laser on its head."

All the celtic-romantic-unicorn-fairy-princess-goddess-badgirl-goth-amazon stuff in the world isn't going to keep women roleplaying. Even most male roleplayers "drop out" and quit roleplaying at some point, usually after they emerge from the fantasies of their teenage years and enter college or the workforce. Some drop out earlier, trying to regain the "coolness" so critical in building your identity in high school. Many of the ones who stay -- both male and female -- are still living out unfulfilled adolescent fantasies. But not all of them.

Look at the female roleplayers who have stuck through it all to become prominent figures in the industry. What are they writing? Not animal companions and crystal castles. Well, mostly not (Ann Dupuis does have Animal Companions and R. Sean Borgstrom has her Sailor Moon fetish). But then, there are plenty of male designers who haven't gotten past "stab the ork" either. And look! If you pick up some of the work that female game designers has produced... some of it has violence (Margaret Weis's epic Dragonlance setting) & shallow relationships (all the implied fun & meaningless sex in Beth McCoy's GURPS IOU) & scantily clad women (like this pic by Melissa Uran [only because I couldn't find a good Kaja Foglio piece]). But I thought we said women didn't like those things...? Well, guess that presumption goes out the window.

Basically, all this build up is to get to the point: writing so-called "girl-friendly" material is not the answer, I don't think. As much as I love to see tastefully done stuff like Blue Rose and HeartQuest and Castle Marrach and most of Guardians of Order's products and some aspects of the World of Darkness, where the intended audience seems to be at least 50% female, that won't save us. We're going to have to acquire a paradigm shift for the whole culture of roleplaying, which won't be fast in coming.

      Everything from the art to the play paradigm is male-oriented. ...And that's why the market is dominated by males. ...The market has been stunted from its inception so that the only relevant demographic is male.

      -- Olivia, in the Green Ronin Forum (Here, 2004)

      Thus the question of women's equality -- in art or any other realm -- devolves not upon the relative benevolence or ill-will of individual men, nor the self-confidence or abjectness of individual women, but rather on the very nature of our institutional structures themselves and on the view of reality which they impose on the human beings who are part of them.

      -- Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971)

It's not hard to see that, over time, the "maleness" of the gaming community has become institutionalized. Now, I don't mean there is some kind of formal, structured institution that denies women their "proper" place. That's not what Nochlin's talking about either (though we do have such things in religion, government, academia, etc.). Instead, we have an naturally-occurring institution built on the existing status quo: most of roleplaying's existing consumer audience is made up of young, white males with relatively large amounts of disposable income. So what inevitably happens is that, in order to be successful and have their products appreciated, game designers and companies create products for this existing audience. But, because products are aimed at existing audiences, the consumer base never changes much. Sure, some people stop buying roleplaying games, but they are replaced by similar male consumers who enjoy the same types of products. This is the self-perpetuating situation that I'm referring to when I talk about the "institution of roleplaying."

Of course, it often seems doubtful that things could work differently. There have been games, like the "girl-friendly" ones mentioned above, that occasionally try to target a community outside the one that's already roleplaying. But how do you encourage people who've never tried roleplaying to buy your products? Vampire did it by trying to find a foothold in goth culture. Amber did it by going diceless and appealing to Zelazny fans. However, success stories are few. If you're going to try to really change the status quo, you can't do it quickly, or the change won't be permanent and will quickly correct itself. If you look at the success of Amber or White Wolf in changing the face of the roleplaying community, real change is really only evident in the long run. Is roleplaying a different place now than it was 10-15 years ago? Definitely, and those kinds of games (and the companies that produced them) definitely had a large part in that, but we still have a long, long way to go...

      This product shouldn't be targeting the "geeks," and therefore doesn't need to deal with their screwed up sexual maturity. The health of this hobby lies in leaving the social misfits behind, or else it'll never grow beyond its (aging) current confines.

      -- Olivia, in the Green Ronin Forum (Here, 2004)

The cause of feminism in roleplaying is really the cause of diversity, the cause of people who are tired of playing the same type of games, written for the same kinds of audiences, based on the same kinds of assumptions. Olivia is a little harsh, perhaps, but it's apparent that roleplaying games aren't written for your average person on the street, or even your average 20-something or teenager. Of, if not that, roleplaying games aren't written for the vast diversity of people that exists in this world of ours. If you ask people why, especially game designers, they'll inevitably tell you that it's because those people aren't interested in roleplaying. No, they'll tell you, roleplaying is some kind of elite activity, understood and truly appreciated by only a few enlightened individuals. Then again, these are the same people who'll tell you that roleplaying is like childhood games of make-believe, and is as natural as breathing. Well, which is it? Is it possible that the reason those people don't roleplay is because they've A) never tried it, and B) there may not be a game written that suits their interests and tastes?

But wait now. Here we have a kind of paradox. We've just said that writing "girl-friendly" games is not the way to attract women to roleplaying. But then, if there are relatively few roleplaying games that appeal to the interests of X group of people (be it women or another minority within roleplaying), how do we create those games without patronizingly pandering to what we think their interests are? We need some kind of action plan, but it doesn't look like we have one.

Well consider these options:

#1 -- Hands-Off: Group X knows their own tastes. Let them write their own games, based on what they want to play.
#2 -- Hands-On: Everyone has complex tastes. Write your own games, based on what you want to play.

When fully realized, option #2 is nothing less than a paradigm shift for roleplaying. Heck, for all of art. In some ways, it's a de-commercialization of things, saying that your tastes will no longer subject themselves to the limits imposed by the existing market. I mean, after all, do you want the games that you play to be restricted by what's commercially successful among the tiny, tiny fraction of humanity that the roleplaying community represents? It'd be like only watching primetime television for the rest of your life. Sure, there's a great deal of variety there, but sometimes you'd really rather watch ANYTHING else, just to get out of that bubble.

I may not be a woman, or a racial or ethnic minority, or one of the beautiful people, or an overworked 40-something business professional, but that doesn't mean I can't write games for those people. How do you do that? Not by trying to target some imagined sense of what their interests are, but by finding real interests in yourself that are unsatisfied by the existing roleplaying market. Write games for those interests and, suddenly and without any extreme effort on your part, you've created a game for a completely different audience. And you know what? People will want to play it. They'll want to play it for the same reasons that you want to play it, because many of them have those interests too.

For a more in-depth description of this premise, you might want to check out the discussion that Ron Edwards started in this thread.

What's Next?

      I have suggested that it was indeed instutionally impossible for women to achieve artistic excellence, or success, on the same footing as men, no matter what the potency of their so-called talent, or genius. The existence of a tiny band of successful, if not great, women artists throughout history does nothing to gainsay this fact... And while great achievement is rare and difficult at best, it is still rarer and more difficult if, while you work, you must at the same time wrestle with inner demons of self-doubt and guilt and outer monsters of ridicule and patronizing encouragement, neither of which have any special connection with the quality of the artwork as such.

      -- Linda Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971)

Well, that was a long and arduous journey. Still so much to say on this topic, since it connects to just about every other aspect of roleplaying, shaking the foundation and questioning why we do things the way we do. However, there's a drop in the bucket. Come down to the response forum if you want to blast away at some of these issues.

Next time, on a somewhat related note, we're going to talk about... Bertolt Brecht, one of the great theorists of modern theater, and look at roleplaying that goes beyond escapism and entertainment. To paraphrase Brecht, "It's roleplaying -- but with innovations!"

See ya then.


I would be a horrible plagiarizer if I didn't acknowledge that my limited understanding of feminist aesthetics is mostly due to my philosophy professor, Kate Thomson of Oberlin College. Her lectures on December 2 & 4, 2003, greatly informed this article, especially the quote describing the three main concerns of feminist aesthetics, which I drew directly from her lecture notes.

Thanks also to Neel Krishnaswami, for introducing me to Women In Refrigerators.

Thanks to The Forge community, for the following informative discussions:
-- Sexism and gaming
-- Most attractive setting for female players
-- Men are from Universalis

And, finally, thanks to all the people who've posted in the response forum. Your words inform my writing and help me figure out which direction to head next.

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What do you think?

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