This blog post is an adaptation of a talk I held at FemCon in March this year. The issue of sexism and the misogynistic character of games has popped up here and there recently and I felt I had to say something, because apparently this can not be repeated or explained too many times.
The talk I held at FemCon was about how the male, heterosexual norm – masculinity for short – affects the way we write and to some extent play role-playing games. We can put this in a larger perspective as well, because table-top role-playing games have had a tremendous impact on the gaming scene in general. Computer games grew out of Dungeons & Dragons and many games take their cue from that origin.
The game that Gygax and Arneson created was, of course, Dungeons & Dragons. And at the time of this writing, almost 30 years later, virtually every element of computer role-playing can be traced back to that humble mimeographed rulebook: all of the tropes of playdungeons, character stats, character classes, NPCs, packmules, “+3” magic items-and even the preference for high-fantasy medieval settings. Tradition is a good thing. Tradition is a bad thing. The deciding factor is whether we understand the reasons why certain choices were made so long ago. Some elements may be worth keeping. Others may have been superseded by technology and could now be replaced but have become frozen into the fossil DNA of computer role-playing games.
Dave Morris, Leo Hartas – Role-playing Games
All of them are a part of the same tradition, and it’s a very male dominated such tradition. It’s not a secret that Gygax, one of the creators of the game was to put it mildly not that impressed by women. This blog post will however hopefully prove him wrong, and also point out the way the performance of masculinity plays a central role to these games.
Originally created by Gary Gygax, an insurance underwriter, high school dropout, and avid gun collector, D&D is the child of a self-described “biological determinist.” Gygax believed that while “it isn’t that gaming is designed to exclude women,” there’s “no question that male and female brains are different” and that “females do not derive the same inner satisfaction from playing games” as men do. This, explained Gygax, was why “everybody who’s tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed.” These opinions, while fairly in line with the overwhelmingly male niche culture of war games that laid the groundwork for D&D in the early 1970s, have helped enshrine a legacy that the game has had difficulty leaving behind.
Reading a book like Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds gives a pretty good overview of the creators involved in making table-top role-playing games during the 70’s and 80’s. They’re 90% men and the subjects covered by the games are predictably male power fantasies.
Looking at the mainstream triple-A market, you’ll find that things haven’t changed that much, despite the fact that the discussions and thoughts around the subject of women (from an equality perspective) have gained some momentum.
Origins of the Species
The origins of role-playing games and computer games was a table top war simulation. Kriegspiel created by a Prussian father and son team in 1811 became one of the first war simulation games to spread in a wider circle. Kriegspiel used little miniatures and terrain to visualise troop movements and dice to introduce a random element to the otherwise predictable sequence of events. von Rieswitz and son had created the first miniature war game.
In 1913, H.G. Wells and his friend Jerome K. Jerome created Little Wars, an adaptation of Kriegspiel with simpler and more accessible rules. Little Wars is regarded as the origin of table top miniature games. Out of these games came role-playing games.
In the 60’s Dave Wesley became interested in the theory behind simulation games. He started thinking about games with multiple players where each participant had their own abilities and motivations. He also considered games that were not zero sum meaning that there could be more than one winner.
A similar idea had appeared in Michael J Korn’s head, who also suggested one player per miniature and an impartial judge to interpret the rules. In 1971 Dave Arneson brought these rules into the fantasy genre. Together with Gary Gygax he started developing what would later become the most well known role-playing game of them all. Dungeons & Dragons. As previously stated, virtually every element and mechanic in contemporary computer games, both role-playing and adventure games, can be traced back to Dungeons & Dragons. Levelling up, stats, classes, races, it all comes from there. And so of course does the content structure.
Both computer and pen and paper RPGs focus on game mechanics that solve problems through violence. You will be hard pressed to find RPGs without a combat system, just as it is difficult to find a computer game that doesn’t use violence as primary mode for conflict resolution. The mechanics of these games focus on violence.
So do the stories. In computer games it is rare to find a game that doesn’t have some form of boss fight and multiple smaller fights to drive the story forward. It seems that all we do in games is fight. Sometimes it is realistic, sometimes it is cartoony. Regardless, the violence is used to push the action towards an inevitable and pompous* bossfight.
This is a direct legacy from Kriegspiel and the table top miniature wargames. This legacy wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that the whole industry builds on war and conflict, a traditionally male area of interest and performance. This means that the first hurdle for women who are interested in games are the expectations built into the setting. Who should go to war and want to fight, and who shouldn’t? The odds are stacking up against women participating.
We Write What We Know
We build cultures and subcultures based on our expectations of “how the world is” or perhaps rather how we want it to be. Coming from the background of wargames and a male dominated field of play, it is then perhaps not surprising that many role-playing games are the manifestations of very stereotypical male power fantasies.
A variety of features in the digital FRPG offer men the opportunity to negotiate the often conflicting demands of respectable, rough, and playful ideals of manhood.[..]The field of contemporary masculinity studies has documented the constant turmoil that many men experience while trying to work out their gender identities. In other words, a large body of research argue that many men do struggle over exactly what it means to be masculine, and they constantly engage with their surrounding culture [..] in an attempt to negotiate these tensions. Elements of digital FRPGs also correspond to these conflicts. In my survey of common features that play around with the competition of the ideals of manhood. The theme of playing the hero exemplifies the demands of respectable manliness. The themes of ideal bodies, conquistador advenure and powering up give the opportunity for players to be paragons of rough masculinity. Finally, the theme of fantastic playgrounds provides virtual adventures for the eternal boy.
– Kevin Schut, Desktop Conquistadors: Negotiating American Manhood In the Digital fantasy Role-playing Game
In other words, the men who make these games (because it is still predominately men who make games, both digital and analogue) create worlds that are conducive to telling very specific stories, with a very specific purpose. It is the dream of negotiating masculinity, of being a “real man” without the complexity of reality where manliness is full of demands that are impossible to meet. Better then to be able to squeeze into a narrow but still very manageable version of masculinity that will satisfy the player’s need to fit in to the expectations of society. Just as being a woman is performing a part, so is being a “real man”. Games allow men to not have to think, just pick up the controller and be a man for a while. Unfortunately, the negotiation of masculinity found in both fantasy role-playing games and computer games is full of sexism and objectification of women or in some cases a complete lack of women.
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. While players can, in theory, create anything, they in fact create only those things that are engrossing and emotionally satisfying. Fantasy is constrained by the social expectations of players and of their world.
– Gary Alan Fine, Shared Fantasy
Parts of these expectations of the world is that “we know” that women don’t play games. This is an idea that has hung around role-playing games – and other games – ever since the earliest days. Gygax’s quote is one indication, but the prejudice about women or girls and games predates even that. Little Wars had this to say about it’s audience.
A game for boys from twelve years of age to a hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.
The “knowledge” that women don’t play is deeply ingrained in the gaming culture, and perhaps also a prerequisite for the performance of masculinity that takes place in games. Statistics proving the opposite (primarily for computer games) are “disproven” by statements such as that the games played by women are not real games or that women aren’t hardcore gamers enough for the statistics to count. I have a quote in swedish from a team of adventure writers that sums the situation up pretty well. There’s a translation of the quite lengthy quote below it.
Av naturliga skäl har varje karaktär i ett scenario oftast ett förutbestämt kön. Det innebär inte nödvändigtvis att du som spelar karaktären är av samma kön. Chanserna att samtliga får karaktärer som motsvarar spelarens kön är egentligen väldigt små. Det brukar däremot inte vara något problem. Att spela en karaktär som är av ett annat kön innebär inte några större skillnader. Kvinnor och män är inte från olika planeter. När du får en karaktär av annat kön bör du lägga märke till det, men inte låta det ge någon större inverkan på hur du spelar. Var naturlig och gestalta personen som du anser trovärdigt. Samma sak gäller om en person med utländsk bakgrund spelar en blond och blåögd viking eller att någon som är homosexuell spelar hetero. Vi tror att kön, sexuell läggning och etnisk bakgrund utgör en ytterst liten del av hur väl en person kan gestalta en karaktär.
Tyvärr är det så att den övervägande delen av karaktärerna den här boken är män. Förklaringarna till det är många. Främst handlar det om att vi som ligger bakom scenariona är män och det är ofta enklare att relatera till karaktärer av samma kön, åtminstone när det gäller att formulera känslor och tankar i skrift. Även det faktum att två av scenariona utspelar sig i en verklighet och historia där kvinnor mer eller mindre är otänkbara som karaktärer har spelat in. Att till exempel ha kvinnor som soldater amerikanska inbördeskriget var otänkbart.
Det bör också nämnas att scenariona från första början är skrivna för rollspelare, vilka sorgligt nog fortfarande är en strikt mansdominerad grupp.
Translated: For obvious reasons, each character in a scenario often have a predetermined sex. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you who play the character have the same sex as the character. Chances that all the players get a character representing the sex/ gender of the player is pretty small. Usually this is not a problem. Playing a character of another sex/ gender than your own won’t make much difference. Women and men aren’t from different planets. When you get a character of another sex/ gender, notice it, but don’t let it affect the way you play. Be natural and portray the person in a way you judge to be believable. The same thing goes for if a person with a foreign background plays a blond and blue eyed viking or someone who is homosexual plays a heterosexual. We believe that sex/ gender, sexual orientation and ethnic origin is a very small part of how well a person can perform a character.
Unfortunately, most of the characters in this book are men. The explanations for this are many. Most of all it is because we who have written the scenarios are men and it is often easier to identify with characters of your own sex/ gender, at least when it comes to formulating emotions and thoughts in writing. The fact that two of the adventures are set in a reality and history where women are more or less unthinkable as characters have also affected the choice. To for instance have women as soldiers in the American civil war was unthinkable.
It should also be mentioned that the adventures are written for role-players, which is sadly enough a strictly male dominated group. End translation.
What this quote says is basically that it shouldn’t matter if you as a woman play a man, or for that matter if you as a man play a woman. It has no meaning. Although it’s a lot easier to write a man if you are a man yourself and also the setting precludes participation for women, because women were unthinkable where they chose to set the stage. Also, there are no women who play role-playing games. So what they’re actually saying is “we’re going to set this adventure in an environment where you won’t find women, and we’re not going to write any women characters because we feel uncomfortable with it. This shouldn’t matter, because women don’t play anyway.”
The Myth of the Real Man
This brings us to the myth of the ideal man and what he should be doing with his time. Ever since Aristotle, women have been used as a basis for comparison for men. As long as you are not like a woman, you are a man. Look at the quote from Little Wars. For boys and for girls, but only for girls who are not like girls but intelligent enough to understand that it’s better to be a boy and act like a boy. Implicit in the statement is of course that “normal” girls are stupid, whereas boys on the other hand are smart.
Role-playing games and computer games are surfaces for reflections of the ideal man. Gaming culture and dare I say, game development, is a monoculture made up of men’s stories and ideals. What this means is that one vocal minority decide the meaning of the word “gamer”. That meaning changes if the person living up to the ideals doesn’t fit in other respects – or the vocal minority decides that the person isn’t a gamer for other reasons. This “mono-ism” is supported by financial institutions inside and outside of the culture, such as forums, magazines, blogs, publishers and developers. In short, this homogenous environment creates opportunities to “be” many (limited) aspects of masculinity and thereby construct an identity through them. Games allow men to perform or live out certain aspects of manhood. There are several different masculinities but the ones most prominent, I think, are the following.
This is the image of the man as stoic, restrained and emotionally muted. An orderly, responsible and controlled man. A man who despite exterior pressures keeps it together and moves on. Not without cost. Examples of perfect stoic men are Max Payne in Max Payne and Ethan Mars in Heavy Rain. These men are faced with horrors, but remain unflinching and undeterred from their goal (which is usually to kill the bastard that killed their family).
Rough masculinity expresses itself through a man who is forceful and individualistic. It’s a testosterone stuffed bad boy, who is irresistible to women**, a physically strong man who matches his physical strength with a stoic calm, and if he expresses any emotions they are mainly feelings of anger or revenge. Kratos is definitely one of these bad boys, and most men who populate military shooters use this stereotype as basis.
The eternal boy
This aspect of masculinity allows the man to remain playful, have a sense of humor and avoid responsibility. Who among you have not heard the expression “boys will be boys”, even in the context of talking about fully grown men? This role is primarily expressed through the societal approval to play games, so it’s not an expression in the games as much as an allowance to play. Simply put the persona the man adopts when playing. I suspect that the eternal boy is also one of the underlying reasons why the expression “just a game” has such a strong staying power. Boys will be boys, and what they play is just a game.
Regardless of what aspect of masculinity the game uses to navigate the story and emotional or lack of emotional content, the image of the man reflected in games is still a stunted and mutilated one. Boys don’t cry. Men are never weak (whatever weak means), men are not allowed to feel or to connect to their children or the women in their lives (because men never have alternate sexualities, they are always heterosexual in games). If there are women in the games they are either sexual objects or killed off early to create a raison d’etre for the player to pursue the story. This is not a healthy and well rounded view of human beings on display, not for men OR for women.
This history of creating spaces for men to perform their masculinity has set a stubborn mark on the gaming culture and the gaming industry. The resistance to change is massive, something noticeable not in the least in the reactions toward Anita Sarkeesian’s YouTube series of Tropes vs Women in Video Games. The hatred she faced was so intense that it became a topic of it’s own at TEDxWomen.
But the thing is, it’s not a game. It’s an overt display of angry misogyny on a massive scale. It’s not “just boys being boys”. It’s not “just how the internet works”. And it’s not just going to go away if we ignore it. It’s really not a game.
– Anita Sarkeesian, TEDxWomen
This massive resistance is just as Sarkeesian points out, an attempt to keep the gaming culture a monoculture made up of men’s stories and ideals. I’ve not had nearly as much hatred as Sarkeesian directed at me, but I have experienced it and it does serve to silence me, and people like me who protest the status quo in games. This staunch defense of the misogynistic and sexist content of games is like a final battle before the end, as if the right to treat women as objects, and violence as the only valid solution to problems is a right and not just a cultural expression based on a stale and sometimes strangely conservative idea of “what games are”.
Får vi (män) inte ens fantisera om en värld som är orättvis, en värld där män är mer värda än kvinnor, en värld där människor är mer värda än orker, en värld där mycket är svart eller vitt, en värld där brutalt övervåld används istället för ord. […] När jag spelar vill jag vara den ädla riddaren som dräper draken och räddar det hjälplösa våpet.
– Comment on forum directed at me, the comment has since been removed
Translation: Can we (men) not even fantasize about a world that is unjust, a world where men are worth more than women, a world where humans are more worth than orks, a world where much is black or white, a world where brutal violence is used instead of words […] When I play, I want to be the noble knight that slays the dragon and saves the helpless damsel. End translation.
From the above description it is obvious, at least to me, that misogyny unfortunately is one of the things that have become (using the words of Hartas and Morris) frozen into the fossil DNA of computer role-playing games. Any changes to the contents of both role-playing games and computer games is preceded by violent protests, demands to know why the content has to change and a call to arms against the “rabid feminists” who want to take games away or to censor games. The reactions are always the same, no matter what was actually said.
Why should women play and make games?
With this much hatred going around, the obvious question is of course why we should try to break into the gaming industry and the gaming culture. To quantify the joy one can get from playing games compared to reading a book or watching a movie is of course not the easiest thing, since it’s more of a feeling than anything else.
Video games can be a constructive source of play for anyone, and I hope to one day see them being considered as an acceptable form of entertainment in the ranks of TV, film, and music. I have faith that games will eventually be seen as much more than just boys’ toys if we can move past preconceptions about them and start to appreciate their unique value as a diverse set of entertaining tools that help us have fun, stay sharp, and stay in touch
– Morgan Romine Why Women Should Play Video Games
Games are a part of being human. Experiencing a well crafted game can be incredibly intense and a very rewarding experience. From a psychological perspective, games satisfy many needs we as humans have that we’re not necessarily fulfilling in our everyday life. Not to mention the fact that games can help save lives. This joyful experience of games is starkly juxtaposed to the excluding content and the hatred any call for change evokes.
Scott is convinced that game makers are the renaissance people of our age. In her eyes, developers are contemporary polymaths who can combine elements of art, science, design and social sensitivity to create beautiful machines.
We do create beautiful machines. From experience, a wide variety of perspectives improves the machines made, includes more players and makes the experience even more intense. Performing masculinity shouldn’t be the only reason to play a game. It can be one, definitely, but the possibilities available shouldn’t be stunted by the misguided idea that games can only be used to tell one story, the story of the ideal man.
* Also known as Epic
** To the unreal women who populate the game world, that is.
Shared Fantasy by Gary Alan Fine
Die Tryin’ by Derek Burill
Games as Culture edited by Winkler and Williams
Heroic Worlds by Lawrence Schick
A ton of games, and a ton of table top role-playing games