Reading Heteronormativity into Imaginary Worlds

Cards on the table. I am, and will probably always be, a feminist. I’m one of those pesky people criticizing the gaming industry and culture because it lacks an inclusive and diverse point of view. In short – I’m most likely one of the people that Desborough talks about in the introduction to Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age1.

After some consideration, I’ve decided to divide this text into several posts, in part because the original text is very long, and in part because the topics are kind of diverse and would benefit from a proper treatment. I also find myself needing to do research on several topics, since there are no sources in Desborough’s text. This text does contain sources, which is also something that takes a bit of time to organize and structure.


In part, this is a rebuttal of Diversity Dungeons, but it is also a queer and skewed reading of the same. By putting rule mechanics to some of the privileges and drawbacks of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and ability, Desborough clarifies with numbers the uneven power distribution that is still prevalent in today’s society. Preconceptions and opinions shine through, and there are no sources to support the statements made. There is instead a sense of “everybody knows” permeating the text. I will, where I can, present an alternative point of view. A perspective, if you will.

I’ll not be able to present research that is specifically focused on table-top role-playing games because frankly there isn’t much out there. I’ll however use research made on literature and digital games, as well as design and game design.

Before digging into the text, though, I have to ask this: we are creating worlds that are entirely made up. In some cases – Old School Renaissance (OSR) in particular – the absurd and slightly twisted is a common occurrence. In the book Vornheim2 snakes are bred and kept because they are books, and can be read using the right tools. The more uncommon the snake, the rarer the book. If these things are possible in an imaginary world, how come diversity, equality and/ or a complete reversal of power like that of Egalia’s Daughters3 is not, except as a malfunctioning, inherently evil matriarchy in the form of Drow?4 Why is that? I will try to answer that question as well, using both research and some anecdotal reasoning to support the research.

The Right to Go Unquestioned

Enough about that for the time being. It’s time to start reading Diversity Dungeons and it starts off pretty… interestingly. I followed Desborough for quite some time on Twitter until early 2015 when he became more and more focused on GamerGate. He was at that point a strong advocate for GamerGate, a movement with an underlying purpose I found despicable. At that point I saw no value (only frustration) in following Desborough. I also muted him. I don’t know what his stance is at this particular time, but I can see some of the attitudes shining through in the introduction.

His opening statement is more or less a rehash of what the “status quo” side of gaming culture has been saying ever since diversity and equality was brought up on the agenda. “Don’t touch our creativity”.

Desborough says that:

The position I hold being that free expression and the vision of the author or creator should trump any and all concerns – including diversity, representation and so on. To my mind the answer is for people to create according to their own conscience, not to be condemned out of hand or for their motivations to be presumed and for diversity of ideas to be the benchmark. I want a world in which Varg Vikernes and David Hill can both make and sell games and I can ignore both of them.5

There is something flawed in the reasoning here, and it’s something I think comes from the gaming culture in general. The first is the assumption – the way I read the statement – that an author of games should not be held accountable for the work they create. I think this is where most of the disconnect occurs.

If you are a creator – someone who does things – your work will be questioned by people. It’s, simply put, unavoidable. You can either go with it and learn from it, or you can write long essays on why it’s unfair. I’m not sure that this is what Desborough actually means by what he’s saying, but I have a hard time interpreting it in another way.

As a designer, as an author, I have a responsibility for the things I create. I can either own up to that responsibility or discard it. Because what is a designer? According to the Wikipedia definition6, “A designer is a person who designs. More formally, a designer is an agent that “specifies the structural properties of a design object””. So yes, we who make games are designers. We determine the object we are creating by making decisions. Sometimes hundreds of decisions. We spend our time shaping at least one half of the experience. If you instead choose to look at it as writing – large parts of table-top RPG design does happen in words – the definition is “a person who uses written words in various styles and techniques to communicate their ideas.”7

Common for both of these definitions is the language of decision making. Regardless of if we look at table-top RPGs as a method of collecting structural properties together – game mechanics – or if we look at it as a means to communicate ideas, the basic notion of a willful decision is always present. I myself choose what I make. It may be a thousand tiny decisions that lead me to the end result, or it may be one overarching idea that I’m working towards, but unless the result is totally out of my hands, unless I say I had no part in the decisions that led me to that point, I can not claim that I am not responsible for the things I have created. The mechanics by which I do something does convey a message.

In short – you can’t avoid being criticized. It really doesn’t matter which side of the fence you’re on, if you’re controversial or bland, a feminist or ultra conservative.

Desborough says that these topics are “interesting, fascinating and important in terms of world, character and scenario building”.8 And yes they are interesting, fascinating and important, not in the least because these topics, these realities, exist outside of games and they are very real to us. To describe and relive them in terms of games, the way games are written for the most part, is not our idea of empowerment.

That said, the struggles we experience can still be a part of games. The injustices can be portrayed without repetition. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road 9, and the women it portrays. They’re stuck in a patriarchy where strength is what’s required to rule. But they rebel. They refuse to be things.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent example of how to portray injustice without reproducing it. The same thing can be said for the recently released game Horizon Zero Dawn10. Ethnicity doesn’t matter in Horizon Zero Dawn. It has a fair and even representation when it comes to gender, sexualities and ethnicity. The world is still interesting, still full of conflicts that need attention.

Why do we feel the need to reproduce old patterns?

Gary Alan Fine in Shared Fantasy says the following:

Since these games involve fantasy – content divorced from everyday experience – it might be assumed that anything is possible within a cultural system. Since fantasy is the free play of a creative imagination, the limits of fantasy should be as broad as the limits of one’s mind. This is not the case, as each fantasy world is a fairly tight transformation by the players of their mundane, shared realities […]. Fantasy is constrained by the social expectations of players and of their world.11

In other words, we play what we know and what we’re comfortable with. Since game design has been the arena of men for a long time at least when it comes to table-top role-playing games, the stories told are those about men and masculinity. Most role-playing games are about navigating different masculine ideals. Kevin Schut expands on that idea in his essay “Desktop Conquistadors”:

Like the personal computer, the computer game is a prime site for negotiating the ideology of manhood.[…]The ideology of powerful, aggressive manhood — what Kline, Dyer-Witheford and De Peuter (2003) call “militarized masculinity” — plays a major role in the literature surrounding games and in the games themselves. Games allow the player to experience the extraordinary and to break social taboos. […] popular genres still reveal a fascination with power and domination: racing games, space battle games, fighting games and war simulations all indulge rough masculine fantasies.12

In the book Från Atlantis till Blekinge (From Atlantis to Blekinge), the Swedish free-form RPG group ASF write about their process of creation, which I find interesting. It describes a subconscious bias for men that I can’t help thinking that many of today’s game developers share. That bias may be driving the repetition of ideals central to male gender roles. ASF, in their book, starts out by saying that the gender differences when playing are small, that it shouldn’t be something that you as a player should be worried about or see as a problem. Male or female, there aren’t any notable differences. So far, so good. The interesting stuff happens a paragraph later. This is my translation from Swedish:

Unfortunately, most of the characters in this book are men. The explanations for this are many. Primarily, it’s because we who wrote the adventures are men, and it’s often easier to relate to characters of your own gender, at least when it comes to putting thoughts and emotions into writing. The fact that two of the adventures take place in a reality and history where women were more or less untinkable as characters has also played a part. Having women as soldiers in the American civil war was unthinkable.

It should also be mentioned that the adventures were originally written by role-players, who sadly enough is a strictly male dominated group.13

Moving from the idea that playing a gender different to your own isn’t a big deal, to the idea that men are better at writing men, to the “unthinkable” situation of having women as characters in certain situations, are statements I would like to pick apart further. I think they strongly relate to the question why it’s so hard to step away from the current heteronormativity and gender patterns that exist in today’s games.

First off I think it’s important to note that we are talking about modern social and gender patterns appearing in modern games. These are the patterns we know. These are the patterns we reproduce. Secondly, I think it’s important to note that we’re seeing any historical past through the lens of our own prejudice. For a long time history has been written by men, and men (as we saw in the somewhat anecdotal quote above) prefer to write about men. From the statement that there’s not much difference between playing a man or a woman, what is really meant is that it’s expected of women to be okay with playing men. Men are the norm, after all.

Basically, what this indicates is that men write games for men, and that any historical fantasy written is just that – a fantasy. A fantasy where prejudices, biases and the idea of a past were women were subjugated or, indeed, unthinkable in some situations are overlaid on top of a mechanics system that more often than not seem to focus on a combat oriented conflict resolution tool. In all the hundreds of role-playing games I own, most of them have detailed combat systems.

Most RPGs – in short – are male power fantasies, written by men, for men. In that context as in many other contexts, women become othered, the stick that masculinity measures itself against. Masculinity defines itself not based on what it is, but based on what it isn’t. Not a woman. In her essay “Playing with Identity”, Michelle Nephew touches on the inherent misogyny in role-playing games such as Call of Cthulhu, Tékumel and Pendragon. She uses a quote from Andrew Rilestone, a game developer, to illustrate this “yearning” for a world of heterosexual male friendships built on hunting honor and warfare. Nephew goes on to say that:

From this perspective, including the historical facts of sexual inequality and other discriminatory practices as part of the game setting allow male players to escape into a game world that validates their own sense of worth by making their characters physically and socially superior to others around them, whether those “others” happen to be monsters or women. The constructed pseudo-histories of many RPGs represent a purposeful blurring of reality and fiction to create this kind of androcentric game environment[…]. Role-playing games that incorporate historical information usually don’t include footnotes to indicate historical sources, for example, so the reader has no way of finding out which elements are only products of the writers’ imaginations. This mixing of historical reality and fiction allows the players free rein in constructing their own male-dominated fantasies.14

Role-playing games are vehicles for wish fulfilment. That wish fulfilment is predominantly male, and in that male fantasy world, women are subjugated.

When Desborough states that Diversity Dungeons is his attempt to simulate and understand the plight of “minority groups” within the context of fictional worlds, I interpret the text less as an investigation and more as a way to, through game mechanics and rules, reinforce the present status quo.

None of the suggestions by Desborough step outside of heteronormativity. All the suggestions made are firmly based in current norms surrounding gender, ethnicity, sexuality and function. Diversity Dungeons is a book rooted in a fairly conservative state of being. Any deviation is held up as “other”. That way the book may seem to be an investigation into prejudices and preconceptions, but what it really does is reinforce them.

The next part in this series will be about ethnicity and racism.

  1. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  2. S., Zak. Vornheim.7-8. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, 2011.
  3. Brantenberg, Gerd. Egalia’s Daughters. London: Journeymen Press, 1983.
  4. Baur, Wolfgang and Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel. Expedition to the Demonweb Pits. Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2007.
  5. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age.1.Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  6. Designer.Wikipedia. 2017. (Accessed 2017-04-20)
  7. Writer.Wikipedia. 2017. (Accessed 2017-04-20)
  8. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age.1. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  9. Miller, George. Mad Max: Fury Road [Movie]. 2015.
  10. Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerilla Games.[Playstation 4 Game]. Sony Computer Entertainment. 2017.
  11. Fine, Gary Alan. Shared Fantasy: Role-playing games as Social Worlds. 3. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  12. Schut, Kevin. Desktop Conquistadors: Negotiating American Manhood in the Digital Fantasy Role-Playing Game. Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games. Willams, Patrick J., Hendricks, Sean Q. and winkler, Keith W. (eds.). 107. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
  13. Alm, Magnus, Edman, Gustav and Engström, Fredrik. Från Atlantis till Blekinge: Tre resor i friformsrollspel.
    15. Karlshamn: ASF Produktion, 2004.
  14. Nephew, Michelle. Playing with Identity: Unconscious Desire and Role-Playing Games. Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games. Willams, Patrick J., Hendricks, Sean Q. and winkler, Keith W. (eds.). 130 – 131. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.