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The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths

Grab Me Another Beer: Objectification Among Equals

by Hilary Doda
December 4, 2001
Edited by Drew Meger  

We all know That Guy. Heck, some of us are That Guy, that one person in each gaming group who can never quite seem to draw the distinction between game events and reality, or between his or her (defaulting to 'his' for clarity from this point on. No gender-wide insult intended) character and himself.

You know him -- the one who tells character stories as though they happened to him, abuses other players or characters hiding behind the excuse of in-character play, or constantly spouts off about his own (sometimes highly controversial) beliefs and philosophies under the guise of playing out her character's motivations. Some games call for that sort of thing, and it can be a real blast playing an only slightly modified version of yourself in certain cases. Yet when taken to an extreme, a blurred line between player and character can become a problem for both the player and the people around him.

One thing that I think most of us would agree on is that roleplaying is an escapist pastime, a hobby which can be used to take you out of yourself for a little while. It's a game which permits players to experiment with ideas and personalities, to take the place of a different and often more-powerful person in a different world and situation.

The limitations of acting and imagination, however, mean that a lot of us end up playing characters who have at least some similarity to ourselves, whether we realize it at first or not. This piece-of-self which gets included in each character can be as limited as the man who only feels comfortable playing male characters, or as blatant as the grocery store clerk who only plays other grocery store clerks, no matter the world in which the character lives. Where that line gets drawn depends on the player herself, and unfortunately is not always readily apparent to others around her.

It's only to be expected that characters will hold some different opinions than that of their players, except in the case of our grocery-store clerk. Characters created for a modern setting may be much closer to their players' attitudes than those created for 'strange new worlds' or historical settings, but when we hold to the basic idea behind roleplaying-- acting as another person in another life for a short time -- the expectations remain.

Usually, playing a character whose prejudices are different from yours is a great way to stretch your imagination and, in some cases, acting skills. When That Guy comes into it, however, things can become awkward. What do you do when a player begins spouting racist or sexist dogma and then insists that it's all right because "he's just playing his character?" What do you do when another player -- or the GM -- insists that you change the way you play your character because you've tried to incorporate some of the less politically-correct perspectives he has on the world?

Thrud the Rampaging Barbarian isn't going to join a debate in favor of affirmative action, nor should he be expected to, but is there a line to be drawn when Thrud's player begins to insult the female PCs (or players)and then insist that it's all just in-game characterization? How do you stop The Preacher from hijacking an entire game session to spout off about 'nuking Afghanistan' or why doctors are secretly using vaccinations as vectors for mind-control drugs?

Subduer of the Meek, Degrader of the Greek:

Modern western culture, or at least the hegemonic social strictures which bind our public behavior, demands that we not display certain non-politically correct opinions and theories in public discourse. These rules are reinforced by reprisals when a line is crossed, something which can be seen in recent posts to the main forums on this very site. The idea that we should moderate our speech and choose words carefully in order not to cause offense to those around us has been co-opted over the last couple of decades, however, turned into a ludicrous parody of itself with hyper-correctness crusaders bound and determined to remove any word from the English language which could possibly trigger offense in another person.

The unfortunate byproduct of these outcries by the 'humor-impaired' is that generally moderate people who take offense at the words of another can now be dubbed a member of the 'political correctness police' and have their objections summarily ignored. Caught between a few responses (leave the area with or without comment, say nothing, and let the offender believe that her speech is appropriate, or call him on it and be blasted for being 'politically correct' or not having a sense of humor)many of us choose the first or second response, opting not to 'make a scene' over something as simple as an exercise of free speech.

When it comes to gaming, however, the rules begin to change. Groups tend to range between three and nine people, meeting in a small area (a home or back room of a store) for a set number of hours every week/fortnight/month/year. Add to this close-quarters situation a game which gives you the freedom to do and say things you wouldn't otherwise feel comfortable doing (mass monster murder, hot vampire love, spandex in public) and the protections we've placed on our public interactions begin to peel away.

Our characters can become siphons instead of personalities, means by which to express the feelings and ideas that we're not permitted to explore elsewhere. This can be an incredibly valuable tool in some cases; a sexual assault victim of my acquaintance used her character within a D&D game to explore the internal conflicts she herself was experiencing and developed new methods to deal with real life. It can also be a problem, as those with less popular ideas use characters as an excuse to offend and degrade.

Playing a non-politically correct character in a game is pretty standard; not all of us are interested in playing Paladins or Superman. Thrud the Barbarian is pretty much expected to think of women as chattel or rewards; Thrud's player, on the other hand, is expected to keep his hands off of the other players, even is he is just 'getting into character.' It's easy to draw the line at unwanted physical contact, but not so easy to draw a line when the verbal assaults become too much.

What is the actual, quantifiable difference between being called a bitch or a slut by an old friend -- who has, perhaps, somehow earned teasing rights -- and being called the same thing by a newer friend? Gamers are often accused of having limited social skills, and both body language and intent can be difficult to read when one or more of the people involved are somewhat limited on the level of interpersonal interactions.

Everybody Ought to Have a Working Girl:

Sexist comments can be reasonably appreciated in-game; many of the older fantasy games are placed in a pseudo-historic European fantasy realm with female NPCs relegated to the roles of bar wench and farm wife, and even characters from egalitarian backgrounds can have sexist ideals, based either on upbringing or sheer jerkitude. On the other hand, the player of a female character can very quickly become frustrated with, for example, never being allowed to enter combat because Thrud always pushes the PC out of the way to 'keep her from harm,' or by being called some foul name every time she opens her mouth because Thrud and/or Thrud's player firmly believe that women should be silent in public. This behavior may be reasonable for the character, but directly impacts upon the other players' enjoyment of the game. It's at this point, I posit, that damage starts being done.

On the other hand, free speech is free speech, and gaming is gaming -- it seems incredibly counter-productive to lambaste someone for playing his character the way he feels it should be played, and conflict is, after all, what makes games truly memorable. Who's to say that the put-upon female PC won't suddenly snap and begin to stick up for herself? Are we now to take on the role of gatekeeper and jolly everyone along to ensure that they're not being left behind? At what point do GMs stop telling a cool story and start playing babysitter?

If the rest of the group doesn't see a problem, should it be the offender or the offended who leaves? Do we keep a scorecard or have some system based on seniority to determine who gets spoken to about how they're acting during a gaming session? Does the GM's best friend/SO always win? I wish I could hand over the answers, but the best I can do here is to ask those feeling unduly pressured or harassed to speak up for themselves.

Thrud's player is the easiest of the two to deal with, as The Preacher's modus operandi makes him much more likely to simply turn a confrontation into one more huge game-time-sucking argument. If the group as a whole can be brought to an agreement, certain rules can be set out without direct confrontation, which can make the evenings run more smoothly. Keeping a time-limit on tangential conversations can be one way to get the Preacher to stuff it -- as long as everyone can stick to a five-minute cutoff, he won't necessarily feel personally attacked by the decision. Thrud may not even realize the nature of the offense; if the comments are indeed just misplaced rather than malicious, sitting down -- perhaps with the GM as well, in case things get ugly -- can often make all the difference necessary.

From the crushing teenager who's pressured to make new character after new character because the female player in the group doesn't think any of them are attractive or interesting enough to be played (oh yes, this one's true), to the woman who feels excluded and removed from the game because the GM doesn't know what to do with female players or the player who decides to use someone else's character as a kitchen drudge, the way we interact in-game can have lasting effects on others' enjoyment of the game, both at the table and in the hobby at large.

It's been said that the experience you have with a gaming group has a far greater effect on you than the gamebook as designed and written, and that's not too far from the truth. Exclusion from a game is no fun, especially if you've been invited to play it in the first place. There are very few frustrations greater than waiting around for four hours a week, unable to do anything, because of the actions of the GM or other players. This is when speaking up for yourself becomes of paramount importance; group dynamics will have an effect on how the discussions are taken, but unless it's brought out into the open, things will never change.

It's vital that we open the lines of communication within and between gaming groups, women and men, oldtimers and newcomers. It's easy to say "oh, she's too sensitive" or "he doesn't play like we do" and miss out on an opportunity for change and growth. Jerks can be taught what's acceptable and what isn't, and the thin-skinned can learn to take gentle teasing for what it's meant to be. If we just keep pushing out those we disagree with, however, the game stores will continue to be full of folks with no gaming group and no idea what went wrong in the first place. This is a hobby; it's supposed to be fun. If it's no longer enjoyable, or if it never was, something, somewhere, has gone seriously wrong.

Hilary Doda grew up in Toronto, but managed to escape to Montreal following the HentaiCon Tentacle Disaster of '97. Slaving away in the RPG sweatshop known to insiders as Dream Pod 9, she divides her time between managing the Tribe 8 and Jovian Chronicles game lines and scribbling desperate cries for freedom on smuggled-in sheets of paper towel. She can be reached at hdoda@dp9.com

(Bonus points for anyone who can identify the source of the header quotes this time around.)
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The The Head of Vecna: Women in Gaming and Other Myths by Hilary Doda

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