Why Random-Role Gender?

Posted: 11 August 2012 in The Hobby
Tags: , , ,

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

  1. This is very similar to my own thoughts in her comments section. I don’t want to repeat it all here as anyone following your link need only scroll a wee bit further down. Summed up though; some of the worst RPing I’ve seen is at games events where someone has been given a female character through no choice of their own, and haven’t had a clue how to do it justice. Either hamming it up the embarrassment of all present, or not even acknowledging the gender of the character. Far from a great way to promote gaming girls now is it?

  2. llanwyre says:

    I’m a female gamer who plays female PCs, and I WOULD love to see more (sensibly-clad) female artwork in the games that I play and more attention given to the importance of gender in RPGs. That being said, I think this is one of the strangest articles I’ve read in a long time. Just because someone plays a woman in a medieval RPG doesn’t mean he’s going to then go on a trek to seek out historical knowledge about the contributions of women in the thirteenth century. My players had to imitate pig farmers in one scenario last year, and none of them went home and looked up info on pig farming. It’s a nice thought in the abstract, but it doesn’t represent much about how people actually act at the table. In fact, I’d say that I generally don’t think much about my PC’s gender in most gaming situations, unless the GM explicitly asks me to do so by including some gender-specific task in the adventure. I might be more afraid in a certain situation in real life than a man would be, but my PC has a sword and extensive training in fighting…I don’t think she’d react much like I would to MOST dangers. 🙂

    Now, I would like to see more games that did ask us to think about how gender shapes us, but I don’t think the majority of games on the market ask us to do that in any meaningful way–and forcing gender-bending wouldn’t contribute to meaningful thinking, either.

    • Jack says:

      I strongly agree regarding artwork — it bothers me that we (the sci-fi/fantasy community) are still stuck in this sort of “sex sells” mentality (as far as The Industry goes, at least), but I think that has more to do with our over-all culture (ie, world culture, human culture) being very “sex sells.” It’s in movies, TV, commertials, so it’s not surprising to find it in our form of entertainment as well. I just feel like we should be able to grow beyond that; we’ve traditionally been niche and intellectual, why are we still bowing to this?

      Anyways. My point is, it’s not a problem with RPGs or gaming so much as it’s a problem with people. The Industry should sit up and recognize that this isn’t what we want, but we’ve also go to tell them as much, too. I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I linked to a neat female-positive Tumblr site in one of my older posts. If it’s still running you may find cool things there.

      As a final aside, I didn’t mention it, but I know (proportionally) as many female gamers who don’t want to play men as male gamers who don’t want to play women. I don’t think it’s about bias (in a sexism way) as much as it is about being able to connect to your character; some people don’t have any interest in being the other gender, and I think that’s OK.

  3. casewerk says:

    In my opinion, rolling for the character’s gender is every bit as valid as rolling for character class, race etc. Few games ask the player to do that, so why should they ask players to roll for their character’s gender? I wouldn’t want to roll for it, I’ll say that much (though to be honest, I’m not even crazy about rolling for my stats – I prefer point buy). I get what the writer is trying to do, but this is very much the wrong approach. Yes, we should encourage more female gamers, and encourage more male players to appreciate the contributions of women etc. There are much better ways than forcing a player to create a character that they may not want to play, for whatever reason.

    Say, if we want players to come to understand that a character’s concept can be gender-neutral or that women can contribute, and yet none of the (presumably male in this example case) players are interested in crossplay? What about putting some strong and well-played female NPCs in the milieu for the players to interact with, have as allies/contacts/quest givers/adversaries/what have you, and have those NPCs having been designed in a pretty gender-neutral manner, Say, perhaps a female paladin, high in her respective order, that’s dressed in sensible armor, doesn’t care about gender politics beyond how they can be inconvenient impediments to the performance of her duties, and isn’t interested in romantic subplots. She’s there as an ally or potentially as a rival, a source of information or such, and can (if handled well) win the respect of the players. Alternately, perhaps the fantasy realm is ruled by a queen along the lines of Elizabeth I, who’s not what we’d call a modern feminist by any means, but is focused mostly on governance and everything else is secondary. Said Queen serves as a quest-giver or leadership type, not as a damsel in distress.

    I’ve been pretty blessed in the respect that a fair chunk of my gaming career has included female players, sometimes as numerous as the male players in my group. Also, a lot of the players I’ve worked with (of either gender) have been in no way afraid of crossplay, and could do it well and respectfully. Maybe I’ve just been lucky or stumbled over those players, but it hasn’t been such a big problem for me (though anecdotal evidence is worth squat of course). I’m also perfectly comfortable with crossplay – the ratio of male to female characters that I play is actually pretty even, and over the last 12 years or so may even be skewed slightly towards females. Frequently I do decide a character’s gender perhaps midway through the character design process, sometimes right at the start and sometimes towards the end.

    Anyways, long story short (too late) and trying to avoid any (further) tangents, I must say that I think that this attempt at fixing the perceived gender inequities in play is well intended but misguided and likely to do as much harm as good to player enjoyment of the game and character creation.

  4. San says:

    I just want to add some context to start.

    Regarding gender representation, one steep hill to climb is the way fantasy rpgs are oriented to masculine activities. In the stock fantasy game, characters leave their homelands to go adventuring in dangerous places in the pursuit of riches. Every time and place I can think of in out-of-game history that this has occurred (e.g. Columbus’ voyage to the new world, gold prospecting in Alaska, Shackleton’s disastrous travels to the South Pole, just to name a few) has been run by men.

    But even early tabletop rpgs like wargames from the 1960s and Gygax’s Chainmail assumed this logic of adventurism and carried on.

    Ways to put gender into question in the game would be to create NPCs who have a particular agenda regarding the PCs’ gender, and/or LGBT NPCs. And cyberpunk or fantasy gender-bending.

    But requiring a roll for gender as part of procedural character generation sounds rather imperious to me, just like the original post argues.

    • Jack says:

      I guess I’m not sure I understand the… meaning behind saying such-and-such is a “masculine” activity, or that “feminine” activities aren’t represented in games. On the one hand, I’m inclined to say, “it sounds like you’re complaining about published adventures, and should be talking to The Industry rather than The Community,” but on the other hand I find it a little bit offensive — that is, what are you implying? That girls shouldn’t be interested in ‘standard’ exploratation-and-combat adventures? Do girls not like Lord of the Rings? Isn’t “girl breaks tradition and becomes a knight” a stock trope in any number of stories? Should we have more adventures centered around bread-baking and gossip, since those are “feminine” activities? And just because it hasn’t be done in history, it doesn’t appeal to women? That seems nonsensical on it’s face.

      I don’t intend to direct all this venom at you specifically — I think we’re on the same page, generally — but I just don’t understand what differentiation is being made and what “problem” we’re supposed to be solving. There are plenty of strong female protagonists in books, TV, and movies doing things that “men do” (I’m looking at you, Buffy). Is there really a strong contingent of would-be RPers saying “I don’t want to explore and find treasure”?

      As to the rest? Adding in gender-concious or LGBT NPCs? That’s something that, I think, each group should decide on their own. You might petition the Industry to publish such materials, but in the end each group is going to decide what topics they want to address in their games and which they don’t. And that’s perfectly fine — some people want to discuss Ideas in their games, some people want to hash out questions of religion or philosophy, and some people just want to kill orcs. Find a group that likes what you like and have a ball — but don’t imply that those who aren’t interested in the same topics are somehow doing something wrong. Whether that implication is intended or not, that’s the impression I get whenever someone says “we need more X in RPGs.”

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