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 criticising 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 Desborough talks about in the introduction to Diversity Dungeons1

After some consideration, I’ve decided to divide this text into several posts, in part because of the length of the original text and the issues I’m finding with it. I’m also dividing it 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, which is also something that takes a bit of time to organise and structure.

In part, this text is a rebuttal of Diversity Dungeons, but it is also a queer and skewed reading of the same. By putting rule mechanics to the privileges and drawbacks of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and ability, Desborough shines a light not only of power structures, but on the preconceptions and stereotypes within large parts of the gaming culture.

Desborough takes the outside view of marginalised groups in the industry and culture, the same kind of outside view that the privileged tend to take when explaining to marginalised groups what the problem really is.

This booklet intends to examine these issues in and of themselves, outside of the current state of controversy and to ask – rather – how we might better simulate the plight of minority groups, understand them within the context of fictional worlds, make allowances for player-characters who might seek to buck those societal trends or allow characters – through their actions – to affect social change within the game worlds.2

The choice of words, “simulating the plight” of minority groups and “understanding them”, is telling. The way the text is written is more or less othering all by itself.

There are no sources anywhere in Desborough’s booklet. Instead there’s a sense of “everybody knows” permeating the text. Part of what is taking time is finding sources and reading books on these issues. I want to present an alternative point of view, a perspective if you will, and I want to provide sources supporting that alternate point of view.

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: If we are creating worlds that are entirely made up, why isn’t it possible to step out of stereotypes? In some cases – old school renaissance (OSR) in particular – the absurd and slightly twisted is a common occurrence. In the book Vornheim3 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 Daughters4 is not, except as a malfunctioning, inherently evil matriarchy in the form of Drow?5

The Right to go Unquestioned

Enough of 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 6, 7, 8. He was at that point a strong advocate for GamerGate, a movement with effects on the gaming community that I found despicable.

According to Desborough, GamerGate is all about ethics in gaming journalism. This is how he views the phenomenon:

An indie computer game developer – who happens to be a woman (irrelevant) – was exposed as having cheated on her boyfriend (irrelevant) who happened to hold positions in gaming media and to have given her all sorts of booster articles and kudos (supremely fucking relevant).9

In other words, Desborough doesn’t subscribe to the commonly held belief that GamerGate is primarily a harassment campaign aimed at women in the industry. He also believes that the connection between Quinn and Grayson is relevant. This despite that there is no proof that any such boosting of Quinn’s game exists.

It’s important to note here that the charges against Quinn and Grayson hold little water. Neither Grayson nor anyone else at Kotaku even reviewed Quinn’s game. Grayson briefly mention the game once in a March post about a completely different subject, but that was before they began their relationship, according to all parties involved. Kotaku has since conducted an investigation into the matter and said it found no ethical violations.
– Eliana Dockterman, “What is #GamerGate and Why Are Women Being Threatened About Video Games?”10

Instead, Desborough believes in what he calls creative freedom. To me, GamerGate is something entirely different. This is closer to my own definition:

The GamerGate controversy concerns issues of sexism and progressivism in video game culture, stemming from a harassment campaign conducted primarily through the use of the Twitter hashtag #GamerGate, GamerGate is used as a blanket term for the controversy, the harassment campaign and actions of those participants in it, and the loosely organized movement that emerged from the hashtag.11

Considering how different our opinions were at the time, I saw no value (only frustration) in following Desborough. 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.12

There is something flawed in the reasoning here, and it’s something I think comes from the gaming culture in general. One is that creators who are respectful of diversity and equality aren’t doing it because they want to but because they are forced to, which is a strange assumption to make.

When I read stories like that of Guerrilla Game’s Horizon Zero Dawn, and how they had to convince Sony that a female lead was the way to go 13. I don’t see the developers being forced into a “SJW agenda”. I see publishers like Sony being worried and potentially shutting down the creative freedom of the developers.

Another is that an author of games should not be held accountable for the work they create. I think that’s 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 definition “A designer is a person who designs. More formally, a designer is an agent that ‘specifies the structural properties of a design object'”14. So yes, we who make games are designers. We determine the object we are creating by making decisions. Sometimes hundreds of decisions. We spend out 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” 15.

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 wilful decision is always present. I myself chose 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 criticised. 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 character and scenario building” 16. 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 part of games. The injustices can be portrayed without repetition. Look at Mad Max: Fury Road 17 and the women it portrays. They’re stuck in a patriarchy where strength is what’s required to rule, but they rebel. They – in their own words – refuse to be things.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an excellent example of how to portray injustice without actively reproducing it. The same thing can be said for the recently released PS4 game Horizon Zero Dawn18. Ethnicity doesn’t matter in Horizon Zero Dawn. It has a fair and even representation when it comes to gender, sexuality and ethnicity. The world is still interesting, still full of conflicts that need attention.

Why Do We Feel the Need to Reproduce Old Patterns?

This should come as no surprise. In games we are reproducing old patterns where women are subjugated and men are powerful. The most obvious “proof” I’ve gotten with regards to this was a forum post in a Swedish forum (the post has since been deleted and is not archived. The poster apologised, which is why I won’t be stating the source). In this post an angry writer attacked me for pointing out that the NPCs, both men and women, were very stereotypical. This is the response (my translation from Swedish):

In the future, please spare us your rabid attacks on men and masculinity. Spare us from your personal opinions in the debate about genders and keep your crazy feminist thoughts about sexism to yourself. I’m as much for equality as anyone else, but isn’t it enough that we keep it to the real world. Can’t we (men) even fantasise about a world that is unfair, a world where men are worth more than women, a world where humans are worth more than orcs, a world where a lot is black or white, a world where brutal violence is used instead of words.

I’m using this quote because it encapsulates so well how I personally experience many RPGs. They are unfair worlds, racist worlds, black and white worlds where violence is the most common conflict resolution. Michelle Nephew in her article from Gaming as Culture says that the misogyny present in many RPGs use women to enhance or titillate the men. We’re treated as a backdrop, used when needed. She goes on to say:

The dominance of the male adventurers is consistently foregrounded through the game’s thinly disguised gender inequality and focus on combat and violence – the hallmarks of male fantasy – and an outlet for the male player’s erotic desires is provided by the misogyny common to role-playing.19

Maybe this isn’t so strange. Games are, after all, power fantasies. Why not experience something that is allowing the player to step outside of current reality? My response is that it’s fine. Keep doing what you’re doing. But if you do, be prepared for pushback. The gaming audience is growing, expanding, and with that expansion comes other audiences who require other fantasies.

Returning to the original question why do we feel the need to reproduce old patterns?, Gary Alan Fine in his book 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 player of their mundane, shared realities (…) Fantasy is constrained by the social expectations of players and of their worlds. 20

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-Whiteford and De Peuter (2003) call “militant 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.21

In the book Från Atlantis till Blekinge (From Atlantis to Blekinge (Swedish region)), the Swedish free-form RPG group ASF writes about their process of creation, which I find interesting. It describes a subconscious bias towards men that I can’t help thinking many of today’s game developers share. That bias may be driving the repetition of ideals central to masculinity. 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 unthinkable 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 for role-players, who sadly enough is a strictly male dominated group.22

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 are 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. The statement that there’s not much difference between playing a man or a woman basically implies that it’s expected of women to be okay with playing men, but that it would be unreasonable to ask a man to play a woman. 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 prejudice, 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 this writers’ imaginations. This mixing of historical reality and fiction allows the players free rein in constructing their own male-dominated fantasies23

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 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 booklet 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 prejudice 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. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  3. S., Zak. Vornheim. 7-8. Lamentations of the Flame Princess, 2011.
  4. Brantenberg, Gerd.Egalia’s Daughters. London: Journeyman Press, 1983.
  5. Baur, Wolfgang and Kestrel, Gwendolyn F.M. Expedition to the Demonweb Pits. Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2007.
  6. Hathaway, Jay. What Is Gamergate, and Why? An Explainer for Non-Geeks. Gawker. 2014-10-10. (Accessed 2017-05-11)
  7. Gamergate. Wikipedia. 2017-05-11. (Accessed 2017-05-11)
  8. Dockterman, Eliana. What is #GamerGate and Why Are Women Being Threatened About Video Games?. Time. 2014-10-16. (Accessed 2017-05-11).
  9. Desborough, James. What is #GamerGate? Postmortem Studios. 2014-08-31. (Accessed 2017-04-29)
  10. Dockterman, Eliana. What is #GamerGate and Why Are Women Being Threatened About Video Games?. Time. 2014-10-16. (Accessed 2017-05-11).
  11. GamerGate Controversy. Wikipedia. 2017. (Accessed 2017-04-29)
  12. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 1.Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  13. Blake, Boston. Female Lead Character made Sony Worried. Gamerant. (Accessed 2017-04-29)
  14. Designer. Wikipedia. 2017. (Accessed 2017-04-20)
  15. Writer. Wikipedia. 2017. (Accessed 2017-04-20)
  16. Desborough, James. Diversity Dungeons: Worldbuilding and Game Design in the Safe Space Age. 1.Postmortem Studios, 2016.
  17. Miller, George. Mad Max: Fury Road.(Movie) Warner Brothers, Inc.
  18. Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerrilla Games. (Playstation 4 Game). Sony Computer Entertainment, 2017
  19. Nephew, Michelle. Playing with Identity: Unconscious Desire and Role-Playing Games. Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games. Williams, Patrick J, Hendricks, Sean Q. and Winkler, Keith W. (ends). 132. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
  20. Fine, Gary Alan. Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds. 3. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1983.
  21. Shut, 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. Williams, Patrick J, Hendricks, Sean Q. and Winkler, Keith W. (ends). 132. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
  22. Alm, Magnus, Edman, Gustav and Engström, Fredrik. Från Atlantis till Blekinge: Tre resor i friformsrollspel. 15. Karlshamn: ASF Produktion, 2004.
  23. Nephew, Michelle. Playing with Identity: Unconscious Desire and Role-Playing Games. Gaming as Culture: Essays on Reality, Identity and Experience in Fantasy Games. Williams, Patrick J, Hendricks, Sean Q. and Winkler, Keith W. (ends). 130 – 131. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.