Sex - biological dimorphism; male and female; irrelevant to this article
Gender - social identity; man, woman, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, transexual, polyamorous, and many more, few of them exclusive; what this article is about
I make games about people.
People are gendered.
Gender appears in every game I make.
Gender appears in every game I make, either explicitly or implicitly, because there's no such thing as an ungendered person and good roleplaying games are about people. I always include gender consciously, because I know it's important -- and, quite frankly, because it's fun and engaging. Additionally, because I live and write in a gendered societal context, I cannot escape including gender unconsciously, too. If I do my job well, the balance falls into the conscious category.
One of the best things that's happened to gaming recently is the (re)introduction of sex and gender into games, the recognition that it can create compelling stories, and that it's as much if not more a part of the human experience as gaming's first love, violence. This really should come as no surprise to us -- every player in the world is gendered, after all, which means that gender in games provides something that they can relate to, whether it's sympathetic (that's me!), alien (that's not me), antagonistic (that's bad), or idealized (that's good).
Gaming has a history with gender, though. One which has been the topic of much brouhaha, well-meaning diatribes, and vitriolic flame wars. Gaming's history includes objectification, infantilization, and stereotyping of genders, primarily women. We've all seen the covers of Avalanche Press; we've all heard the bullshit arguments. All of this, though, really should come as no surprise to us. Every player in the gaming world was gendered, after all, which means that gender provided something that they could relate to, whether it was sympathetic, alien, antagonistic, or idealized. Moreover, it sold books. It sold books primarily to one gender -- boys -- and it did it well. That these games did not appeal to girls and women is very similar to complaining that the Lifetime channel doesn't have enough programming for men. That wasn't the point. They had a market; they knew what their market was; they knew what their market wanted. They supplied the demand of the market -- and went home to feed their kids.
For every young girl who was told that they couldn't play D&D because it was a boy's game -- well, to some extent, that was true. It was a boy's game, made and marketed for boys. Girls did not have any more right to have a roleplaying game written for them than the boys had a right for My Little Pony action figures made for them. Or to take it a step further, they had no more right for a roleplaying game than the boys did in the first place. Nobody has a right to have a roleplaying game written for them. Roleplaying games exist so the guy who makes it can play it, enjoy himself with friends, and maybe make some money to pay for rent. The game is the creator's property, and nobody -- girls or otherwise -- had any right to say what the game should be. The roleplaying hobby didn't fail the girls in its demographic -- girls weren't part of the demographic to begin with.
More seriously, that gaming's history with gender may have led to objectification of women outside of games -- that's a completely different argument, and one that is difficult to prove. Did gaming promulgate destructive stereotypes that gamers applied to real women? Probably. I like to imagine that in the deluded young gamers' encounter with real women, the real women kicked the shit out of the boys' stereotyped expectations. On the other hand, I like to imagine a lot of things that are rosier than reality. But if the boys decided to apply make-believe principles to real life, is it really the fault of the books they based their make-believe on? To me, as one of those boys, I'd say it was way more our stupid fault than the books we read. Isn't it the approximate equivalent of trying to cast Magic Missile on the schoolyard bully? What happens in make-believe doesn't happen in reality -- somehow, I don't think that's a warning label that was really necessary.
Which brings us back to the present day, where the young boys have grown up and hopefully figured out that Magic Missile doesn't really work, and the girls who were excluded from first-generation games are in a position to write and publish games that are made for them. So we look around and we ask ourselves what we're going to put in our games. It will surprise absolutely nobody that I'll now point out that answering this question is a marketing concern, and an important one. What we put into our games is determined by who we write the games for. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not writing games for prepubescent boys. Consequently, I've got a pretty profoundly different palette to work with.
Part of that palette is gender, and I am absolute ecstatic to have such juicy material to work with. The gender material that I get to work with in writing games for adults, though, is almost completely different than the gender material that I would use in writing for boys. Adults have different interests when it comes to gender. Boys are exploring gender for the first time, and everything comes in broad strokes; adults are familiar in at least some corner of the vast gender landscape, and are either exploring new corners or are delving into the details and subtleties of their own psychosocial backyard. Boys don't recognize stereotypes as stereotypes because they have little to no empirical experience with which to compare and evaluate them -- what is presented is accepted. Adults, on the other hand, know stereotypes well -- so well, in fact that they are often quite adept at manipulating them to their own ends (this means you -- if you're a man, you've accessed your male privilege before; if you're a woman, you've let a guy carry something heavy for you). Boys accept things at face value (girls don't like adventure stories); adults know that there is always something behind what they're seeing and experiencing (my wife doesn't like this particular movie for about a thousand different reasons). I could keep going for quite a long time, but already the adult gender palette is familiar, detailed, nuanced, manipulable, subversive, layered, multifaceted, and quite simply complex. What's not to love?
On the other hand, there's all sorts of useless crap that I can pitch over the side once I abandon my plans for selling thousands of books to wide-eyed young boys. The cheesecake can go right out the window; in the simplest terms, it serves absolutely no purpose any longer. The embedded assumption that men must take up violence in order to save helpless women I can discard -- but I can keep the shape of the assumption so that it can be held up to the light, with players poking and prodding it and challenging it and subverting it. The superfuckingcool overpowered giant dick-replacements -- the mechs, the daiklaives, the endless angst -- can go swirling down the drain. The mechanical underpinnings that say that all conflicts are solved with violence, that power is an end to itself, and that bigger is always better can evaporate away. The thus-lightened game is liberated, flexible, adaptive -- and so much more capable to let the players tell their own stories rather than participate in a story the gendered skeleton of which is embedded in every book written for boys (cause they need the skeleton for guidance).
It's not that gender assumptions and stereotypes need to be ripped out of gaming. We're reinventing gaming from the ground up. We're writing for new, more adult audiences. We now have access to so much more gendered content -- assumptions and stereotypes included -- that we can include in so many more ways. What might be a stereotyped constraint in OGL 17 Magical Lands of Wonder can be put to better use in our games rather than expurgiated wherever it appears. We can take it and use it, encourage our players to examine it, to identify with it and evaluate it, to challenge it and perhaps even find a little corner of it where they still find some truth. Instead of rejecting what has gone before, we can adopt and subvert it and make it ours.
And that sounds like a whole lot of fun to me.