The Politics and Misconceptions of Gender

One of the problems with Desborough’s text is that it presupposes through implications. At the start of the chapter on gender, Desborough states that wanting to make games more inclusive when it comes to gender comes at a cost.1 It’s as if Desborough is arguing that the lack of women in role-playing games is somehow something we should not strive to change because we might lose something by doing so. He states:

Laudable as this goal (inclusion, my note) is it sometimes comes at a cost. As with racial struggles there’s a certain amount of disrespect of the struggles of the past that can come from whitewashing the diminished position of women in history. On the one hand you don’t want to – necessarily – gloss over the restrictions and societal rules of historical or fantastical (canonical) worlds, on the other hand you want to allow characters and players of either gender the freedom to play as they wish and to rebel against and defy those restrictions.2

So the question, for me, is – what could we possibly lose by including more women? Even if we showcase this “canonical” fantasy world with restrictions and societal rules that restrict women’s movements and opportunities, this is not the only problem with fantasy worlds. There’s also the question of representation, which is – to be fair – almost always abysmal. Another question I have to ask is this. If we’re building power fantasies, why not break with the past and create worlds that celebrate women instead of oppressing them?3 Desborough seems to understand this, at least the text hints as much, but at the same time, stepping away from traditional gender roles appears to be something that is just not done. Again, this is justified with the argument that a “fair and just world is a boring one”. With these statements and the emphasis on history and canon, the impression I get is that Desborough wants to keep the status quo. The text doesn’t even entertain the idea of reversing gender roles. It just assumes that women are disadvantaged and subservient.

Looking at games such as Sword Princess, which turns society upside down by putting women in power, isn’t even on the radar it seems4. Sword princess borrows a lot from Egalia’s Daughters5. Even the language is adapted to a world where women have been in power for a long time. It’s far from “canonical” fantasy worlds and I’ve only rarely seen it in books, but if you want to create worlds wherein women have access to the same type of power fantasies as men, it’s time to look beyond the obvious.

Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy 6 7 8is an excellent example of a world that is neither toothless or lacks for conflict. What it does do is turn tradition on it’s head. The protagonist – who is a ship, no less – has no way of even recognizing gender and thus calls everyone “she”, much to the dismay of the men they come across. Another novel using a similar setup is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness 9, where humans come across the Gethenians who have no set gender. Just as with Leckie’s books, Le Guin’s premise does not lack for conflict or interesting societies as Desborough seems to imply. We’re not losing anything by investigating other ways to look at gender, apart from possibly the traditional power distribution of the patriarchy.

Still, Desborough uses “traditional” gender differences to reinforce the “canonical” way of seeing men and women as binaries. In Diversity Dungeons women are what men are not, and vice versa. Despite saying that these differences should not necessarily be used, Desborough nonetheless very carefully lists them – thus reinforcing stereotypes despite himself.

The physiological differences between men and women are quite stark and while it’s not suggested that you actually use the following statistics. The following section is intended to illustrate quite how stark those differences can be in reality, not how you should or would seek to represent them in fantasy. 10

To me the question becomes if the statistics and differences are not to be represented, why even bring them up? Maybe because that would be to call explicit attention to the sexism in games, and not just reinforcement through implications or no representation. A game like F.A.T.A.L.11 is after all generally agreed to be quite sexist, and in addition to that, one of the worst RPGs in existence to date. I’d agree since I actually read it and sort of reviewed it.12.

Bringing up game stats, and the implication that comes with game stats, is another way to reinforce stereotypes. Just as with the other chapters in Diversity Dungeons, this seems more invested in sticking with the status quo than to change it. I’m not even sure if it’s intentional. Desborough goes on to list the usual RPG statistics with explanations as to how women are this, men are that, not taking into account that the range of biological similarities and differences really can’t be so strictly measured. Look at intersexual people. They exist too. Non-binaries that throw a wrench in the binary system. Transgender women and men. None of them are even given a thought. As a society we’re obsessed with slotting women and men into different boxes when the truth is that we’re not binary. We’re a spectrum with everything from men to women. In a booklet like this, about diversity, this should be obvious, but Diversity Dungeons barely touches on gender fluidity apart from some comments about science fiction and angler fish.13

There’s a resistance to anything stepping outside of the bounds of “normal” genders in this booklet. If the idea is to only reproduce “reality”, I have to ask myself why isn’t it representing reality? Because in reality biology is messy and not very straightforward. The truth is that this booklet is just as damaging and restrictive as the Google Memo 14 and to nobody’s surprise (at least certainly not mine), it uses the same language when describing the inherent qualities of women and men as the Google Memo does. Diversity Dungeons was published in 2016. The Google Memo just a few weeks ago. The stereotypical view reinforced through role-playing games is the same view currently being reinforced through a long winded and wordy doc from a former Google engineer. This isn’t new. This isn’t surprising. It’s what women live with every day. Read Aristotle and you’ll find the same conclusions. “Women are less than, because of this”. Read Christine de Pizan’s The City of Ladies15, and you’ll find she struggled with the same issues we struggle with today, and that book was written 1405. Here’s an interesting take on the memo by a woman at Google16, by the way. We so very rarely get to say what we think about all the bullshit circulating about us, that I thought it was time.

Reinforcing norms and binary thinking, repeating methods of oppression in fantasy worlds – what’s the point? The answer is of course to strengthen the patterns that already exists. Diversity Dungeons is a handbook in the art of the Male Power Fantasy. Through calling out the “normal” – the straight, white male – Desbourough is not as he claims, opening up to new realities and alternate power fantasies. The text simply serves as an instruction manual to create manly worlds where men – white, undamaged, heterosexual – are at the pinnacle of power and simultaneously feeling good about it, because they happened to read a booklet on diversity. Why else is there a conspicuous lack of alternatives? Those alternatives should be the focus. We already know how to write male power fantasies. We need help breaking out of that (by now) 2000 year old pattern. We need the Eclipse Phase17 role-playing games. We need the subversive power of the new Wonder Woman18 movie. We need the gender blindness of Breq in the Imperial Radch trilogy 19 20 21. We don’t need another text explaining what women aren’t or what restrictions we already live with. We already know this. Intimately.

Desborough continues his text by implying that there are differences between the personalities of men and women (Google Memo warning), all the while wrapping it in wording that seems agreeable but is really there to strengthen the stereotypes.

All of this is controversial and none of it speaks to an individual, but it supports ideas that the gender stereotypes that we have, have at least some slight basis in real causes. You, by no means, need to include such in your games – at least where the characters are concerned – but if you’re going for realism some degree of difference may need to be introduced, at least
in non-player characters.22

Desborough delivers that pearl of wisdom after suggesting that women are risk averse, passive, warm, open to feelings, agreeable and neurotic. Men on the other hand take risks, are aggressive, assertive and open to new ideas. Does this ring a bell at all? Because I’ve got alarms clanging in the background. Not only does he deliver these gems of wisdom, he’s not even Google Memo guy. There’s not even uncertain science to back his claims23

I, and Cordelia Fine, the author of Delusions of Gender, have a different opinion. Fine brings up the Implicit Association Test 24, developed by social psychologists Anthony Greenwald, Mahzarin Banaji and Brian Nosek, which is basically a test that measures associations. We all have them, and worse, we learn them in an unconscious manner. Fine says:

(…)the learning of these associations is also a process that takes place without the need for awareness, intention, and control. The principle behind learning in associative memory is simple: as its name suggests, what is picked up are associations in the environment. Place a woman behind almost every vacuum cleaner being pushed around a carpet and, by Jove, associative memory will pick up the pattern. (…) Unlike explicitly held knowledge, where you can be reflective and picky about what you believe, associative memory seems to be fairly indiscriminate in what it takes on board. Most likely, it picks up and responds to cultural patterns in society, media, and advertising, which may well be reinforcing implicit associations you don’t consciously endorse.25

This is probably why – to Desborough – there seems to be truth to the stereotypes. We get bombarded with media that play on the stereotypes, the assertive and risk taking man. The agreeable and empathetic woman. This is also yet another reason why representation is so very important. As marginalized groups within gaming – be it persons of color, women, LGBTQAI-persons or those with alternative functionality – we continuously see the same stereotypes repeated over and over. For us to feel and be empowered, those stereotypes must be altered, or at least diluted. Playing the same oppression over and over isn’t fun. But it will – as Cordelia Fine points out – make those implicit associations even stronger. Fine even has a response to the claim Desborough makes about gender differences being stronger in more wealthy societies.26 Some may see this as what will happen if we “really have a choice”, but Fine has a different explanation. Because we live in societies that tell us – through commercials, through conversations, yes – even through role-playing games – what we are supposed to be, expected to be, we’re not really free at all. If we are continuously told that women are less assertive then yes, it will become a self fulfilling prophecy. Again, this is why representation is so important.

Contrary to what you might expect, people from more gender egalitarian countries are often less egalitarian when it comes to the gender stereotypes they typically endorse. Charles and Bradley suggest that we in the developed West are “indulging our gendered selves,” (…). Cultural realities and beliefs about females and males represented in existing inequalities; in commercials; in conversations; in the minds, expectations, or behavior of others; or primed in our own minds by the environment—alter our self-perception, interests, and behavior.27

Desborough is relentless in his assertions that stereotypes exist for a reason. For me, and most science I’ve read on the subject, stereotypes are a way for us to quickly make sense of the world. To Desborough, though, it seems as if stereotypes are ways to find the truth about hte world, if that makes sense. In an article in Psychology Today, John Bargh of New York University states:

“Stereotypes are categories that have gone too far,” says John Bargh, Ph.D. of New York University. “When we use stereotypes, we take in the gender, the age, the color of the skin of the person before us, and our minds respond with messages that say hostile, stupid, slow, weak. Those qualities aren’t out there in the environment. They don’t reflect reality.28

It’s a return to the in-group thinking that also affects racial prejudices. We tend to define our in-groups through what those not belonging to them are not. Worst case scenario is that those not belonging to our in-group is seen as less than human.

I’ll concede one point to Desborough though. Until the 19th century there wasn’t even a division between the genders. Women were seen as defective men, incomplete and less than. In this society, men are the in-group, women the people men use to measure themselves against. This can all be traced back to Ancient Greece, where women were seen as domesticated animals. Men were cultured. Women were not. Women were men who had degenerated into irrationality and emotions. Aristotle saw women as defective men, weaker, inverted and – in the end – a deviation from the norm, which was men. The reason I bring this up is because a lot of the discussion around diversity and inclusion is related to power. Who has it. How it’s used. Within the gaming culture, both analogue and digital, the power rests firmly with predominantly white men. Men decide what’s to be written, how it’s written, how it’s played and what parts of gaming culture are endorsed. This means that booklets like Diversity Dungeons are more likely to be raised and listened to and trusted than this rebuttal.

The questions of power and liberty are not even touched on in the chapter on gender. The fact that women were in effect the property of men until the early 20th century when we gained the right to vote and coming of age, isn’t even mentioned except as “we shouldn’t be whitewashing the past”. To not acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, this uneven division of power might have something to do with why women are viewed as they are, isn’t even raised. Instead Desborough claims that stereotypes may have a grain of truth to them no less than four times in this one chapter.

My point is that we have a 2000 year long history where men have traditionally been in power. They’ve been the receivers of education, they’ve been the people deciding our cultural heritage through selecting what history to write down and what events should be important enough to make note of. Women, during most of this time, have been excluded from power, from governing, from history. To not even mention this – just as the repercussions of imperialism is never mention in the chapter about race – is to neglect where power has historically rested and how this has reinforced, strengthened and established stereotypes around women. Sometimes I think men write fantasy games just to relive that power. Maybe not consciously, but certainly as part of a power fantasy.

Returning to the stereotypes and the truths in them, Cordelia Fine – again – has an excellent example on why we should approach all of those scientific results gained from neuroimaging and other scientific methods with a grain of salt. Or maybe even a bag. This is a long quote, but the punchline is hilarious.

(…) does this neuroimaging study simply confirm what everyone already suspected—that “men may take a more analytic approach” to emotion processing while “women are more emotionally centered”? Or is it possible that these interpretations are, to paraphrase Fausto-Sterling, unwittingly projecting assumptions about gender onto the vast unknown that is the brain?

With the previous chapter’s cautionary tale of premature speculation in mind, it’s worth noting that Witelson’s neuroimaging study compared just eight men with eight women on each task — a modest-sized sample. Could the sex differences in brain activation be spurious? When looking for changes in blood flow between two conditions, researchers search in thousands of tiny sections of the brain (called voxels), and many researchers are now arguing that the threshold commonly set for declaring that a difference is “significant” just isn’t high enough. To illustrate this point, some researchers recently scanned an Atlantic salmon while showing it emotionally charged photographs. The salmon — which, by the way, “was not alive at the time of scanning” — was “asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.” Using standard statistical procedures, they found significant brain activity in one small region of the dead fish’s brain while it performed the empathizing task, compared with brain activity during “rest.” The researchers conclude not that this particular region of the brain is involved in postmortem piscine empathizing, but that the kind of statistical thresholds commonly used in neuroimaging studies (including Witelson’s emotion-matching study) are inadequate because they allow too many spurious results through the net.29

In other words, all of us need to be careful when stating with no uncertainty that this is the way it is. We all have biases. Me included.

So what do we do?

If you really want to create a power fantasy for marginalized groups in gaming, I urge you to think about the following:

  • Representation – How are (for instance) women represented? Both in image and in text.
  • Roles – What roles do they play? Passive, active? Central? Peripheral?
  • Power – How much or little power do they wield?
  • Impact – How much or how little impact do they have on the world?

Returning to Desborough’s text somewhat – we are as game designers restricted only by our imagination. So why, then, let our imagination take us only to predictable places? The idea of women in power or even women as part of anything else but the backdrop is worth exploring. Use it to your advantage and surprise your players. Don’t be Google Memo guy.

Next part in this series is about sexuality.

Diversity Dungeons Part 1
Diversity Dungeons Part 2

  1. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 14. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  2. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 14. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  3. There is something interesting about having a world where the oppression is so overwhelming as to make it dystopian. I’m thinking specifically of stories like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where there’s no question that women are being treated in a way that is despicable to say the least. But no fantasy games ever take it that far, and if they do, they’re not doing it with the sharp intelligence of Atwood. They’re not subversive. They’re honest in their intent in keeping women at the bottom of society. Alternately, they just don’t care, because the stories they’re telling are not the power fantasies of women. They’re the power fantasies of men.
  4. Artfert, Tomas and Batista, Natalia. Sword Princess: Rollspel i Amalteas värld. Saga Games, 2017
  5. Brantenberg, Gerd.Egalia’s Daughters. London: Journeyman Press, 1983.
  6. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. London: Orbit Books, 2013.
  7. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Sword. London: Orbit Books, 2014.
  8. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Mercy. London: Orbit Books, 2015.
  9. Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace Books, 1969.
  10. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  11. Hall, Byron. F.A.T.A.L.. Chicago: Fatal Games, 2004.
  12. Roos, Åsa. F.A.T.A.L. and norms. Discordia. (Accessed 2017-08-13).
  13. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 21 – 22. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  14. Conger, Kate. Exclusive: Here’s The Full 10-Page Anti-Diversity Screed Circulating Internally at Google. Gizmodo. (Accessed 2017-08-13)
  15. de Pizan, Christine.The Book of the City of Ladies. London: Penguin Books, 1999. E-book.
  16. Kovach, Steve. Female employee on the Google memo: ‘I don’t know how we could feel anything but attacked by that’. Business Insider. (Accessed 2017-08-13)
  17. Boyle, Rob and Cross, Brian.
    Eclipse Phase: The Roleplaying Game of Transhuman Conspiracy and Horror. Lake Stevens: Catalyst Game Labs, 2009.
  18. Jenkins, Patty. Wonder Woman.(Movie) Warner Brothers, Inc.
  19. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Justice. London: Orbit Books, 2013.
  20. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Sword. London: Orbit Books, 2014.
  21. Leckie, Ann. Ancillary Mercy. London: Orbit Books, 2015.
  22. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 17.Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  23. Barnett, Rosalind C. and Rivers, Caryl.We’ve studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn’t support the Google memo.Recode.net (Accessed 2017-08-13).
  24. Greenwald, Anthony, Banaji Mahzarin and Nosek, Brian. Project Implicit. (Accessed 2017-08-13).
  25. Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. 5. New York: Norton, 2010
  26. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 17 .Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  27. Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. 95. New York: Norton, 2010
  28. Murphy Paul, Annie. Where Bias Begins: The Truth About Stereotypes. Psychology Today. (Accessed 2017-08-13).
  29. Fine, Cordelia. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference. 150. New York: Norton, 2010