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Iron Jockstraps and Chainmaile Bikinis: Gender in Gaming [Aug. 16th, 2008|01:20 am]

Today I attended one of the best gaming seminars I've ever been to: "Iron Jockstraps and Chainmaile Bikinis." As per your requests, I took notes. I'm going to talk about the highlights and discussion topics below. The following will weave in and out between talk from the seminar, my own thoughts, and verifiable facts. Citations will not be used. Stereotypes and generalizations will be.

The start of roleplaying games is a hotly debated topic. Some people equate it back to the military miniatures games of the late nineteenth century. Others say it wasn't until the fifties when modern mini games were developed. Regardless, the age of the modern roleplaying game is generally agreed as beginning in the 70's with Gary Gygax's publication of the original Blue Box D&D set. In the early years the game was excessively gender biased. Female characters had several stats limited to lower levels than male characters did; Strength obviously but also (strangely?) Intelligence. Such blatant sexism was removed fairly quickly and the result has been the gaming industry's trend towards equality in game mechanics.

Other issues of sexuality beyond gender, including but not limited to homosexuality, has been much slower to be reflected in games at all, though there are notable exceptions including, but not limited to, White Wolf's World of Darkness and Abberant and Green Ronin's Mutants and Masterminds.

This brings up the first of many questions about the treatment of gender: should gender be reflected in the game. On average, men are stronger than women while women are more charismatic than men, but player characters are not intended to be average. Given how often players play the pinnacle of a concept, should a player have to have a male character to play the strongest Fighter or a female character to play the most powerful Sorcerer?

Moreover, is gender something that should be reflected in the mechanics or the story? Most games - and there are exceptions - use genders interchangeably. There are some excellent D&D adventure modules out there, but I can think of very few where the NPC's gender makes a difference to the plot of the adventure. That's not treating gender respectfully; it's burying the issue.

A great deal of fuss is made over the art of RPGs and, everyone must acknowledge, that a lot of it is blatantly sexist. Has anyone ever in the history of the universe gone into battle wearing a chainmaile bikini? Do women really have spacesuits custom fit to hug their hips? Now there are exceptions - White Wolf tends to have great art that doesn't objectify women and even depicts a variety of body types (exception: Exalted) - but they are few and far between. And despite the outrage it provokes from female gamers, companies continue to print such artwork.

And yet, it's undeniable that this art sells books. Before WotC launched D&D: 3.0 they did a very extensive market survey that was available on EN World for a long time. This survey revealed a fact no marketing director at a game publisher could fail to miss: 80% of the books are purchased by 20% of the players. Now if you think of a typical gaming group as four players and a GM, that GM is 20% of the players, and he's going to need new monsters, magic items, special rules, and so on, so the players all get core books, then the GM buys an assload of supplements.

And most GMs are men.

I went to school with the largest college gaming club in the country at a school that was 60% female. I don't know if we had more men or women in the club (I recall it being pretty even but I never counted) but even then most games were run by men. This isn't to say the women didn't run games - they ran a lot of games, most of them pretty spectacular - or meant to imply that they were rare, but if even under those ideal circumstances you get more male than female GMs, it means you've got mostly men buying the books in what's already a male-dominated hobby.

And that means the books are going to be marketed towards men.

Now this becomes a Catch-22. The books are marketed to men who buy the books and remain the dominant sales audience so the books are marketed to them, etc. etc. ad nauseum.

The idea was put together that this will repeat because small companies can't afford to take the risk on using less than guaranteed artwork, but doesn't it make sense that it's the big companies who have to pay rent and meet payroll every month who can't take that risk? It's the small companies, the ones who write as a part time job and do $5 pdf files from their house that can take a risk. Furthermore, there's already an effective business model out there: White Wolf.

White Wolf tends to appeal to women more not simply because of the art but because they have involved stories and characters. Early studies on video games showed that women were interested in video games but didn't see the point in the kinds of games available. Video game companies countered by creating games where you shot hearts instead of bullets. Women weren't interested and were given up as a lost cause. Fast forward twenty years and you have video game companies pulling the same shit by trying to "target" women as consumers through the inclusion of things like in-game shopping (something that appeals as much to men, as anyone who's say around a session of Def Jam Vendetta will tell you). Most women, studies have shown, want games that afford them the chance to explore stories and character, and they tend to get bored with hack-and-slash style games.

When considering starting gaming, one of the biggest barriers is learning to play. Making a D&D character doesn't take complicated math, but it takes a lot of it; a Champions character requires first year calculus. One could ask if men's traditional dominance in math plays a factor in this.

Yet that answer obviously won't fly. Most women geeky enough to be good D&D candidates can do the math, but they don't bother because they don't see the point. If you've ever had someone tell you about their character by reading off stats, you'll understand how most women feel that first day when they come to play a game and all they hear about are numbers.

If you want to get women into gaming, make better games.

[User Picture]From: terrie01
2008-08-16 03:09 pm (UTC)
As a female gamer, what bores me is not stats, per se, but purely stats driven combat, when that's all that happens. I think that just like men don't respond as strongly to written depictions of sex, women don't respond as strongly to passive simulation of combat. Saying "I hit it with my axe" and rolling dice, or pushing buttons on a controller to make things blow up on screen, isn't very satisfying to me.

What I love about character and story is not just the social aspect. I love that those kind of games make me use my brain. Combat rarely requires use of my brain. It comes down to 1) Pick a target. 2) Hit target until one of you is dead. The End. How very, very dull.
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[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2008-08-19 12:13 am (UTC)
It's not that combat focused games are dull, it's that they're a specific type of game. When the focus is entirely combat without context, the tendency (and there are exceptions) is that it doesn't appeal to women as much because women tend to be more interested in the overall context in which things occur.

I love D&D. I love the system, the stats, the dice, the adventures, the quests, the game style, everything. But I also love how adaptable it is. I love that I can use d20 for an intense roleplaying game or for a squad-based tactical combat game, and I'm fine with either - as long as I know which one I'm signing up for in advance.
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[User Picture]From: kaelwinters
2008-08-19 05:15 am (UTC)
Heres my take, as a male gamer. I find that combat basically boils down to the group. I've played in games where combat was basically ... acquire target, confirm target, hit target, target destroyed. And I've played games where the GM and players both went into great detail about how their characters were doing battle.

I find that there is a lot of brain usage in combat with the right GM and players. Use of tactics, the environment to make hitting them harder etc etc can mean that you actually have to think about how you will pick a target and how you'll attack.

I've seen many woman get into combat as much as men do. But it normally comes down to how involved you make it.

I do however find a lot of combat to be dull. Some exciting scenes here and there are great. But when combat becomes the norm, it gets boring for me.

In a nutshell if combat makes me feel like I'm in an action movie or watching an FMV from Metal Gear Solid or Final Fantasy then I'm cool. If combat comes off more as just a series of random encounters then I'm bored. I think alot of people are in the same boat.
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From: thegelf
2008-08-16 03:26 pm (UTC)
I don't buy the math argument. It's not because of how much math there is, it's because in D&D, the math seems in many ways divorced from what it's supposed to be representing. Rolling stats? Please. If you take a system like SR3, which had ridiculous amounts of arithmetic in char gen and for calculating hits and damage, but the arithmetic still decently represented what was happening in game, people (women?) are more likely to put up with it. And not just mathies like me.

...Champions seriously requires calculus? Seriously?
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[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2008-08-19 12:15 am (UTC)
C'mon Gelf, we all know the reason you don't play D&D is because you suck at math. Totally. Um, yeah...

And no, Champions doesn't really require algebra. It does, however, require Algebra II and has tables that are derived using pre-calc (though that bit of work has already been done for the players).
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[User Picture]From: kaelwinters
2008-08-18 09:59 pm (UTC)
Makes me wish I had been at the seminar.
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[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2008-08-19 12:10 am (UTC)
I'd have liked to see you there. You have some interesting views on gaming; I don't always agree with them but they're always provoking to hear.

This is why I post my schedule early. Let me know next time if you're thinking about any particular seminars.
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[User Picture]From: kaelwinters
2008-08-19 12:18 am (UTC)
I was so tired at Gen Con that I made very few events and kinda just chilled with my friends when I could.

But yeah from time to time I do have some interesting views on RPG's.
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[User Picture]From: wyndstormhntrss
2008-08-19 01:10 pm (UTC)
Moreover, is gender something that should be reflected in the mechanics or the story? Most games - and there are exceptions - use genders interchangeably. There are some excellent D&D adventure modules out there, but I can think of very few where the NPC's gender makes a difference to the plot of the adventure. That's not treating gender respectfully; it's burying the issue.

I'm curious where the conclusion that using gender interchangeably is considered burying the issue comes from. In my mind, for Conan, there's a Red Sonja. For Maleficent, we have Voldemort. We don't play average characters - we are heroic, and therefore the exception to the norm. Most often we are in fantastical settings, so it naturally follows that NPC's, though "average" by that universe's standards, are still fantastical in comparison to real life.

Given how often players play the pinnacle of a concept, should a player have to have a male character to play the strongest Fighter or a female character to play the most powerful Sorcerer?

I tend to see this in terms of the pinnacle of humanity, rather than the pinnacle of gender. See above, re: Red Sonjas and Voldemorts.

And despite the outrage it provokes from female gamers, companies continue to print such artwork.

And yet, it's undeniable that this art sells books.

Back in my day, when there was far less equality between the sexes, the feminist movement had to counter stereotype with outrage. Any less forceful response would not have gotten anyone's attention.

I might be dreaming, but I'd like to believe that because of that initial outrage and the work of the feminist movement, society has advanced somewhat. Yes, you have men that still go stupid over "Girls Gone Wild" and perhaps one day they will come to their senses (once their own bodies decline and they realize that superficiality is kind of stupid). The old guard (the generation before feminism) will probably always think of women as lesser beings, but they are quite literally a dying breed. Most normal people worth being around are starting to realize that it's okay to be a "normal" woman - one that doesn't have perfectly shaped gravity defying breasts, perfect dimensions, loose sexual morals, and so forth. In short, real women aren't objects any more.

So this makes me question whether it's really a bad thing that a gaming book -- one that is intended to be read, not gawked at -- is dressed up with fantastical women *and* men. For every maille[1] armor bikini, we get Legolas. The pictures are pretty to look at, but after those 30 seconds are over, it should be the substance of the book on which it's judged, not whether it has unrealistic portrayals of either gender.


[1] "maille" is the French word for chain. To call something "chainmail" is to say "chain chain". "Maille armor" or "Mail armor" is the more accurate term. Always been a little pet peeve of mine.
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[User Picture]From: wyndstormhntrss
2008-08-19 01:10 pm (UTC)
Apparently, I talk too much... Continuing from above:

If you want to get women into gaming, make better games.

As you've stated, the better games are out there, such as White Wolf's products. The much more controversial issue to address is making better gamers, and whether or not they should be "made", or just sought out. In my very limited exposure to gaming, the games have had storylines but in the end, have boiled down to combat and tactics. I would not attribute this to gender, but rather, to what the people I've gamed with have wanted to play. Yes, most of them have been men, and perhaps this is what men like to do. I would argue that there are women out there who like that aspect of gaming as well. I myself, even though I'm quite the novice at it, am starting to appreciate the joys of min-maxing.

One of my biggest complaints about 4th edition is that it fails when it comes to encouraging storyline, interaction, character development, and so forth. The skill challenge system turns everything into a combat mechanic of "intention, attempt, influence of bonus/penalty, success/fail". Real life interactions are richer than that - what is the formula for partial success? In my experience, unless one is completely successful in completing a skill challenge, the reward for partial success isn't realistically connected to the original challenge.

I feel the skill challenge system is a crutch for gamers who lack adequate eloquence or creativity to roleplay social situations that go beyond their range of experience (and I should point out I have no disdain for them - I used to be one of them!). Some people (both male and female) - are fine with that. Others may be interested in growing from that place, and if all they play is 4th edition, it makes it a little more difficult.

Maybe the answer, then, is to make games that have extensive combat rules and extensive social interaction support. To make this work, though, the system has to be flexible enough to accommodate combat-only and story-only gamers. Perhaps one way to address this is to include both extensive and quick-resolution versions of either type of gameplay. It would help expose less social and less tactically oriented gamers to "the other side", and maybe help them to become more well-rounded gamers.

Now, how one *grows* a more social or more tactically minded gamer? That's a question that's entirely too large to address in this post.
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[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2008-08-19 01:58 pm (UTC)
I say gender as an issue is buried because equality does not mean it's handled respectfully, it means it's ignored. In nearly every published adventure out there, the gender of the NPC's is irrelevant and could be flipped (or even changed to one of the rare alternates) without it affecting the storyline. This is often, though not as overwhelmingly so, the case for PCs as well

The question of whether the game is defined by the rules or the players is an old one. A good GM can make any system fun and a good player can have fun with any system. Likewise, a bad GM or player will turn any system into an unpleasant experience. The issue is what the game is designed to do and what it adapts to. D&D is designed for small squad tactical games; third ed. and 3.5 made it easier to integrate roleplaying because they were intended to be highly adaptable. Fourth ed. seems very focused on the small squad tactical aspect and is geared towards getting everything else out of the way so it can provide smooth and entertaining combat.

White Wolf (and in particular the Old World of Darkness) is geared towards storytelling. The base character system is fairly simple and most of the powers and abilities are defined in ways that only effect the story or require a sense of story to move on (powers with a duration of "til end of scene" for example). L5R has a detailed combat system, a detailed social interaction system, and an abstract mass battle system, and all have methods of interacting with one another, thus allowing a game to take on such aspect and transition from one to another. I could go on about other games, but the point is that games are intended to do something and while any good group can find a lot of wiggle room within that something, it is still an undeniable heart of the game.

When I run a game, the choice is always, "what story do I want to tell?" that determines the system, not the other way around.
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[User Picture]From: kaelwinters
2008-08-19 05:23 pm (UTC)
I'm personal very impressed with L5R's and WoD use of combat and storytelling. Both system work well to give that great lethal combat feeling while still supporting a great social structure.

My biggest gripe with d20 as a mechanic is that it isn't free following. Character development happens in a pre determined way with little say on how a character develops outside it's niche.

That has always annoyed me about the system.
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[User Picture]From: benndragon
2008-09-08 03:28 am (UTC)
Frankly, given how much Bart (bad art) shows up in gaming manuals I sincerely doubt they would lose out at all if they gave women useful armor and the like. I mean, how is a woman with misaligned tits or creepily impossible hips going to be attractive in the first place? At this point they would only gain by making the art less sexist since $deity knows they're not going to shell out the money to make it any better. . .
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[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2008-09-08 06:31 am (UTC)
From a marketing perspective it's a weird situation. People don't buy game books for the art - well, they rarely do - but the art still affects sales. Books that have less art than average, lower quality than normal, glossy print books with only black-and-white illustration, all of these things have a demonstrable correlation with sales. This suggests that it's not that people care about the art, but that they care that a book looks and feels like the other books out there. In other words, I may never give the illustrations more than a passing glance, but if I pick up a core book for Uncle Joe's Crazy Gaming System and the art feels inferior to the art in the D&D core book, there's a subconscious link that says, "the rest of this book must be inferior."

From a marketing perspective this means keep the art the way it is because it's what people expect from a game. Of course it also keeps a lot of people out of gaming because... it's what those people expect from a game.
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