A friend of mine gave me a beautiful little pamphlet from Region Värmland. It’s called “Schyst!” and its all about how to communicate in an equal and diverse manner. I thought I’d borrow the basic idea from this wonderful Little pamphlet and do the same thing, primarily for role-playing games. This post is focused on how women are represented in role-playing games, but the same goes for people of color or other non-binary genders or sexualities. The thing is, everything we see and read affects us to some extent. This is not a blog post where I say “games make you violent” or “games make you sexist”, because I don’t think that reading a sexist or violent game will immediately turn you into a gun-toting gangster or a rapist hiding in the bushes waiting for a victim. I think it’s more insidious than that.

A study made in 2007 by Thomas E. Ford showed that sexist humor can lead to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women. Basically, treating women negatively through encouragement of sexism will reinforce the belief that this is an okay behaviour. The research that has been done about stereotype threat indicates that the same thing happens when we are exposed to racist stereotypes. We simply become more inclined to trust the stereotypes, and will change our behaviour – sometimes only minutely – to match our prejudices. Note that this isn’t a conscious decision. It’s all stored in the subconscious parts of our brain. The good news is that you can counter these effects on your brain by reading and seeing positive role-models. The brain is a wonderful and very flexible thing. We can teach it how to think about things and about people. And since nobody wants to be excluding… right? If we can agree on that, then perhaps we can agree on the following three points.
• It matters what is said and shown
• It matters that it is said and shown
• It matters how it is said and shown
-source, Schyst! by region Värmland

You’ve got HUGE charisma!

Let me start by an example from Aberrant. This is a game about superheroes, the precursor to the outstanding RPG Trinity. In Aberrant, some of the superpowers are not only abilities but also attributes.

Hey Girl. Let me flex these muscles for ya.

Hey Girl. Let me flex these muscles for ya.

To illustrate strength, the game shows the concept by a man flexing his muscles. To illustrate appearance, the game shows a woman with big boobs.

Hey boy. My nickname is "she whose bosom defies gravity". Also, the explosive growth of my boobs hurt like hell.

Hey boy. My nickname is “she whose bosom defies gravity”. Also, the explosive growth of my boobs hurt like hell.

Now the texts accompanying the images actually aren’t that bad. It’s just the images that need a serious once over. Why? Because they reinforce preconceptions that men have to be strong and women have to be beautiful (also, placing beauty firmly in the sexualised body). Remember, this is a fantasy. You can be anyone you want, so why stick with stereotypes that, in addition to being-stereotypes, may be regarded as off putting?

Keep an eye on how women and men are depicted. Women are often relegated to passive roles, while men get to be active and in motion. Lets take a look at the cover for Dead Reign. It’ll be depressing, but let’s do it anyway.

Halp! Zombies want lady brains, not bro brains. Halp!

Halp! Zombies want lady brains, not bro brains. Halp!

First of all, as far as I can see there are two healthy and snackable brains in this image. The zombies, with one brave exception, seem to think that lady brain is to be preferred to man brain (bro brain?). This reminds me of a comment uttered by Wednesday Addams when faced with Mercedes McNab’s overjoyed girl scout exclaiming “I’ll be the victim!” upon which Wednesday replies “All your life…”

Women are often portrayed as victims, because to be a victim is to be passive. You have things done to you. Men aren’t victims. They’re active and strong. I think the Dead Reign cover shows this in a very informative way. Not only are the zombies totally turned off by bro brain, but the bro in question has a purpose. Look at his face and where he directs his eyes. He’s out to save this fair damsel! To the rescue! Whereas the woman is looking at the encroaching horde of zombies and in addition to that is absolutely terrified. I would be too. The only thing I can say for this image is that zombies have good taste in brains. It’s obvious they prefer substance to fluff. I mean, the dude isn’t even scared. How stupid is that, when surrounded by zombies?

If that wasn’t enough, we’re also throwing in a bit of sexualisation in this image. She’s almost popping out of her dress, and we have two zombies who seem more focused on her breasts than her brains. One of them even seems keen on an audience. The direction in the image is strongly focused on her, and on how scared she is. Wednesday Addams put her finger on a pretty strong stereotype. The thing is, men can also be victims, and women can be active and strong. Whatever “strong” really means. To me, it’s about being honest and open. Including those times when it really hurts.

A good example from a role-playing game would be the excellently illustrated Swedish edition of Joe Dever’s Lone wolf, or rather the role-playing game with the same name, also known as Ensamma Vargen in Swedish. In this RPG you won’t find sexualised women. You’ll find clothed and active ones. I love this image. Three Kai Lords about to take on a horde of dragons. Kick ass!

Look ma! I'm wearing proper clothes and I'm fighting dragons!

Look ma! I’m wearing proper clothes and I’m fighting dragons!

But the boobs…?

Another thing that I should probably mention, you can show breasts without sexualising the women showing them. Compare these two images. The first one is from the Swedish RPG Eon which was recently published in a new edition. This woman has a naked torso, because she damned well pleases, not so you can feast your eyes. How can you tell? Well, she’s not posing for the viewer. She is about to fuck someone up permanently, not fuck them. Also, note the hairy armpits. I love this woman. She can kill me with her pinkie.

Men. Can't live with them, can't hit them with an axe. Wait. Yes I can.

Men. Can’t live with them, can’t hit them with an axe. Wait. Yes I can.

The second image is from No Salvation for Witches, an adventure module for Lamentations of the Flame Princess. This woman is posing. Look at the position of her hands, her smile. She wants you to fuck her, the creepy vagina like opening crawling with bugs notwithstanding. This image is for your grati­fication. Or possibly for your fear of women. I get a bit scared, looking at that.


Or you could just do it like they did it in the late 80’s. Throw in a naked woman in the middle of the text. This particular one is from Dödens väg an adventure written for Drakar och Demoner. I have to thank Piruett for this particular find.

The really funny part of this layout is the headline. It says "The most important part of the adventure". Yup.

The really funny part of this layout is the headline. It says “The most important part of the adventure”. Yup.

Yes, text as well

In addition to this imagery, it also matters what is said in the text about women and men. Do you describe how women look, but not men? What words do you use to describe your characters? This is an example from the role-playing game Cthulhu Tech. The first concerns a woman politician working for the Nazzadi.

Though Catavy is overweight, there’s something captivating about her. She might not win any beauty contests, but she knows how to grab your attention and hold it. She’s a skilled politician who enjoys honing her edge against rivals in the Parliament. She’s made it her mission in life to insure that the voice of the Nazzadi will never fall silent within the halls of government.

In this text it is important to point out that Catavy is fat and ugly in order to juxtapose this with her skill as a speaker. She’s not pretty, the text says, but she’s really competent, despite the lack of looks. Another quote speaks of an equally talented man, but his looks never play into it. He’s just talented, without any references to his weight, or general attractiveness.

”How to Survive a Migou Attack” may have been a best seller, but Morgan doesn’t believe a word of it. He knows that the whole world is going to hell, despite what the government says and he’s here to make sure that people see the truth through his work. Morgan is an extremely creative and talented artist, though his self-stylized crusade might interfere with the realization of his true artistic potential.

We often do that. We judge women by their attractiveness and men as whole people. This quote from an adventure in the Cthulhu Tech RPG not only reinforces that women should be beautiful in order to be desirable, but more insidiously, that the characters should be men, and that Laura is heterosexual, implicitly suggesting that the audience of this game are heterosexual men as well.

At some point each Character is summoned to a conference room to meet with a gorgeous, young dark-haired woman wearing a professional business suit (…)

Through eye contact, body language, or other feminine guile. Laura should hit it off with one of the Characters immediately; her personal interest barely constrained by her sense of professionalism. Though the business side of Laura will try not to acknowledge the chemistry between her and the Character, the promise of what might happen during off-hours is a different story. (…). It’s important that the Character who has taken an interest in Laura finds himself alone with her.

It continues in the same vein for a little bit, ending up with having the merest touch by the character or Laura causing nightmares in the character. Awesome. All players are men, women are all heterosexual and they cause nightmares! Yay. Win.

Or you can go straight into “piss me off royally” land and use irony to send the same message role-playing games have sent ever since they were invented. This quote is from Baron Munchausen, and honestly, it’s not funny in the least, because too many men actually think like this.

The words “he,” “him,” and “his” are employed throughout this volume as generic pronouns of the third-person singular. With this usage the author, a man of great gallantry, wishes it to be understood that he is in no way implying that members of the fairer sex are any less likely to have extraordinary adventures than their male counterparts despite their seeming frailty, lack of education, and great aptitude for gossiping, giggling, and fainting. He does not assume that flouncy crinolines and a décolletage like alabaster would not be of the greatest use when engaging in espionage against the French while disguised as a Corinthian column, or that extensive skills in needlepoint, household management, and whist would be anything but an asset for single-handedly invading Abyssinia. In short, he believes that in many ways women are just as brave, capable and interesting as men, and in occasional circumstances more so. Bless their little hearts.

(Edit for the above quote: a reader made me aware that my C-pen missed a couple of words. They’ve been added. Yes, I have a C-pen. Yes, I’m a gadget nerd. No, it’s not the most reliable of scanners…)

So, what to do?

Think about avoiding stereotypes. Men can also be beautiful and vulnerable. Women can be creative and have potential. The player can be a man or a woman or neither. Unless the world you describe discriminate against any gender, neither should you.

In 2008 I did a statistical analysis of how many men and women were visible in images in a selection of 40 RPGS. Women ranged from 9% – 40%, while men ranged from 26% – 74%. That count included all images, those of landscapes and items as well. Counting only images with people, the average was 30% women and 70% men. Keep in mind, though, that images only of men and not a mixed group consisted of about 80% of the images, while the amount of only women and not a mixed group, lowered the count for women to 20%. This is by no means a definitive result, but it does show a trend. Men get a lot more space, image wise. Another aspect of my count was to look at poses and sexualisation. On average, 40% of the images of women portrayed them as sexualised, subjugated or a victim, while this number for men was around 3% on average.

What difference does this make? Well, if women are underrepresented, image and text wise, the idea that role-playing games are not for women will continue to thrive. The message signalled is simply that there is no room for women in these games. If half of those images show women as victims or sexually available objects, then we’re in an even nastier position. Add to that that women are described by their outer attributes to a higher degree than men, and you’ve got a right soup of stereotypes to wade through.

Representation is important, because it creates a sense of identity and belonging. Be aware of the messages you send with your creations.

Schyst! – Region Värmland
Sexist Humor No Laughing Matter, Psychologist Says
Stereotype Threat: An Overview
Aberrant – White Wolf
Dead Reign – Palladium Books
Cthulhu Tech – WildFire
Baron Munchausen – Magnum Opus Press