Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The sexism of roleplaying games

In my previous post on women in roleplaying I asserted that:

You don't need to design roleplaying games for women. You just need to stop designing roleplaying games for slightly autistic men.
Traditional roleplaying games require extensive learning and understanding of a game world and a quite elaborate rules system before play. These are qualities that most people do not quite see the charm with, but it is a great bit more appealing if you're high on the Autism Spectrum Quotient. .

This set roleplaying up for a specific crowd upon it's inception, a crowd of which women are not as common as men. Nerds, so to speak.

Okay, why the hell did I need to point this out? Haven't we gamers had enough of stereotyping and name-calling? The answer is, I was feeling frustrated with the issue of recruiting new players and more women to roleplaying. From my community and contacts, I get the feeling that many are asking themselves how to do just that, without recognizing that roleplaying games are traditionally designed to appeal to a minority.

In the discussion that prompted my blog post, and in the discussion that followed it, I was humbled by some very insightful comments on the subject, and I'd like to expand this analysis - Okay, so the first roleplaying games where designed for nerds and autists, of which many were men. What kept the roleplaying hobby from changing? What preserved these demographics?

  • Objectification - I did not consider chainmail bikinis and objectification of women in fantasy illustrations as such a big deal, gender bias if anything. As some posters brought this up, I started imaging what it would be like for me to enter the hobby as a woman, rather than a man. Jesus! I feel alienated by trad gaming already! What if I had to confront illustrations that said "You're not part of us, you're for our pleasure", as well?
  • Masculinism - As I outlined in my previous post, male values (conflict, groups, hierarchy, etc) are strongly present in the traditional roleplaying game design. This sends the message that these games are by men, for men.
  • The Other - As in preserving The Others different from Us. A friend of mine pointed out there are some real asshole male gamers in the hobby, gamers with a habit of treating female gamers in a really shitty way, pouring their stereotypes over them, belittling them or assuming they don't know how to play, what they're looking for in a game store... This is the kind of attitude that can grow in a group that's already homogeneous.
  • Invisibility - Another friend of mine pointed out that tabletop roleplaying, doesn't have... stuff the way that LARP or boardgames do. It's a lot harder to show, photograph and describe the hobby, making it harder to promote it. New players come by word of mouth, which cements old patterns and demographics. 
  • Minority in itself - And of course, by a feedback process: These patterns preserve themselves. They reproduce. Do I want to be the only woman in our gaming club or group? Do I want to go into an established system and fight to change it myself? No, not really.

I'm still just figuring these things out, and I've seen more insightful analyses on priviledge and power structures in gaming, Geek Feminism Publish Post101 for instance, dealing with things I'm still learning and internalizing from feminism. It does feels good to piece together what I've got so far, to connect my frustration with the assumptions in trad gaming design, with feminism's tools and analyses. That's how I learn, I write.

Despite this, I believe that things are changing. I have no statistics to back it up, but LARP has a rather even distribution of gender in Sweden, and Story Games seems to attract a more varied demographics... I think? I've heard testimonies both pro and against this statement.

Also, there are very few immigrants playing roleplaying games in Sweden. I don't know what to say about that though.


Arvid Axbrink Cederholm said...

Updated the last two paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

Immigrants are probably very busy migrating, and less so for RPGs. Or what the heck does "immigrant" mean? An English dude coming over here because he met a Swedish girl, he's an immigrant and likely to go looking for a group of gamers. I guess you don't mean immigrant at all, but "people living in Sweden of non-Western decent"? Or am I wrong?

Arvid Axbrink Cederholm said...

Yeah, you got me there. :) After closer consideration "people living in Sweden of non-Western decent" is probably the correct category.

Arvid Axbrink Cederholm said...

I don't know. This post is still a bit stinky with essentialism and categorizing, but this time it's autism.

I'm really struggling with putting words on an idea that's pretty simple - If you want to appeal to new audiences, then write for everybody - but it's hard.

MidMad said...

As for the "immigrants" not being a noticeable group among RPG players in Sweden, I believe I can shed some light on this situation, being a person - and a woman - who moved to Sweden from an EU country. I've been an active player and GM back in Poland and I wanted to continue my RPG hobby in Sweden. I've been searching for clubs, sf&f organizations or RPG groups in my area, but I haven't found any groups open for new players/members. One of the reasons may be the language - it may take a few years until one can feel comfortable enough in Swedish language to try RPG and I haven't found any English-speaking RPG groups either. Yet. But I keep on hoping something will change:)

Anyway, the language barrier and the not so easy task to actually find a group of Swedish RPG players who would be interested in having a new (foreign) player among them - those two would be the top reasons for current situation.

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