Gender specific games

Roleplaying and board games reviews, podcasts, videos and interviews

iStock_000000862569MediumBy Paco Garcia Jaen

Recently I came across an indie game called Kagematsu and I was very taken by the premise  that the GM is meant to be a woman, while the players are meant to be males playing female characters. I thought it was intriguing and started to wonder how much thought is given to gender and sexuality at the time of designing games.

In my life as a gamer, I have played many characters, both male and female. However I must admit that it only started as a laugh, and not really giving any consideration to the realities of being, feeling, behaving and reacting as a person of the opposite sex.

Let us leave sexuality out of this equation. Although I am a 38 years old man, I understand there are young adults and quite a few children playing Role Playing Games, and these games are not necessarily the best place to explore that issue.

However, as an adult and as a psychotherapist, I do find the subject fascinating, and even more fascinating that very little thought it is given to the whole thing generally.

Our hobby is predominantly male. The percentage of men to women is overwhelming (at least in the UK, and in Spain when I was growing up) and I have always wondered why women didn’t find the game scene at all interesting.

I actually think I might have found part of the reason: Games companies are not run (usually) by women and few women are hired to write about games.

This would appear to sound feeble as an excuse, but think about it.

Let’s make something clear. Men and women don’t think the same way. We look at things in a different way, appreciate things differently, react differently… Of course that is not always the case and it is very often that men and women do see eye to eye. I do believe, though, that the different sensibilities are not really kept in mind from the moment go at the time of writing or even coming up with adventure hooks.

This lack of women in the game scene is genuinely surprising to me. It is surprising because the women I have met and I have played with make a fantastic job of it. Also the women I know of who write games material are indeed very good they have nothing to envy to any male writer.

When I started to think about this subject a few days ago, I went to LinkedIn and asked in the three groups of role players I frequent. As usual, people were only so happy to offer ideas and opinions about my question, and one jumped at me that also gave me a great amount of insight:

“FWIW, I’m pretty sure that if any game tried to limit the gender of GM or players, every gamer I know (male or female) would completely ignore such stipulations”

Although probably very true, I also felt it was missing the point of gender in games completely.

When a game expects a player or a character to be male or female, is for a reason. Or for many reasons. Games and adventures are not written “on the fly”. A lot of thought and consideration is given to plot, characters, situations, motivations and a long etcetera. If a character, or a player, is meant to be female (or male), to ignore that, or not to make attempts to represent the gender in accordance with the scenario, could have a very detrimental impact on the way the adventure is meant to run, and spoil the fun for everyone. Needless to say, it is also disrespectful for the team of people who came up with the idea and spent so long working on it.

Something else that also surprised me is that not a single woman replied to my question.

It does appear, though, that there are a good number of games that do require to have PCs or players of a certain gender, and I have to thank Aaron McLin for his generous contribution of the following list. The list comes partly from memory and, to his own admission, it could be incomplete or mistaken:

  • Thirty – by John Wick. The players take on the roles of Knights Templar that escaped the Inquisition. They are, pretty much by definition, men. Wick does allow for players to create female templars if they wish – he “won’t show up on your doorstep with the Historicity Police.” But he’s also quite clear that there are no female knights in his own games, and the male pronoun is used throughout. Thirty is more of a programmed campaign than a fully-fledged role-playing game.

The next two games on the list are both set in girls high schools, and the only player role available is that of schoolgirl, so all of the PCs are expected to be female – there’s no “well, if you really want to play a boy” out given. And teenagers at that.

  • Hellcats and Hockeysticks – by Andrew Peregrin. This game is set in St. Erisians, a British girl’s school modelled after “The original St. Trinian’s cartoons and films.” As an American, I’m not at all familiar with these, but the overall concept, British schoolgirls creating as much anarchy as they can get away with, seems to be pretty clear.
  • Panty Explosion – by Jake Richmond and Matt Schlotte. Despite the resoundingly unfortunate name (WHAT were these guys thinking?), this is actually a serious game, featuring schoolgirls (Japanese this time), some with psychic powers, attempting to deal with supernatural threats, and advance their own agendas. “Mai the Psychic Girl” comes to mind, along with any number of other anime and manga titles.
  • Recon – Palladium games Vietnam war game. I think all of the PCs are American infantrymen, so all PCs would be male.
  • Behind Enemy Lines – Allied Soldiers in WW II. Again, the limitation to male PCs is created by the historical setting of the game.
  • All For One: Régime Diabolique. It states that Musketeers must be male, but allows the GM to waive that rule. But within the “standard” rules, the only way for a PC to be female is to masquerade as a male (the Spy sample character does just this).

Another game that has been mentioned to me recently is Maid. A Japanese role playing game in which all PCs are female and maids in a house or another. Unfortunately I have also heard pretty disturbing things about that game, such as the appearance of a 10yo female maid wearing a transparent uniform. Although some people have dismissed it as “a Japanese thing”, I have to say I find it too close to many paedophiles fantasies and can’t condone it.

So what is gender’s place in Role Playing Games? Is it a tool to provide with a different and more interesting experience. Does it help us think out of the box and empathise with the opposite sex? Or is it just another excuse to end up behaving like silly grown ups and have a laugh with our mates?

Over to you!


4 Responses

  1. It is about having fun, but sometime it can be fun to try and think like someone else. I have played a wide variety of races, genders and character types. I do not know if I can empathise any better, but I certainly find it easier to look at things from other viewpoints.

  2. pedr says:

    I’ve not read or played Kagematsu, but isn’t the point not quite that the ‘GM’ should be a woman and the players men? Rather is seems that the player of one (inevitably male) character, the ronin, should be a woman and the player of the other (inevitably female) characters, the young villager women who seek to influence the ronin’s actions, should be men.

    That’s different from a game where all the characters should be of one sex due to the nature of the setting. As I said, I’ve not read the game, but I expect that it’s aiming to both be a fun game and an opportunity to consider gender roles through play. I don’t know how well it works, but I’ve read some reports of good games on UKRoleplayers.

  3. bredbored says:

    Thanks for your article, which I have read and re-read and pondered for some time. I think you ask a range of questions which I have distilled to;

    Are RPGs inherently a male pursuit?
    Are games and adventures designed to appeal to just men?
    If not why are there relatively few women players?
    Is playing a PC of the opposite gender useful/ relevant/ appropriate?

    Are RPGs inherently a male pursuit?

    I think it is highly relevant to distinguish between the male and genders and the less specific concepts of masculine and feminine attributes or appeals. The first RPGs grew out of war-games which I would classify as masculine pastime on a masculine subject – I don’t feel that they have much feminine appeal. That’s not the same as saying they don’t or shouldn’t appeal to any women, but it’s quite a limited “market”. We’re each either male or female, but we’re also a varying portion of masculine or feminine views and interests.

    RPGs are unusual games in that the reward from playing them is not typically based on competitive success or failure (competition being a masculine trait). At their heart RPGs work based on a recursive loop: set the stage, introduce conflict, resolve conflict, determine results. The conflict can be based on any human-comprehensible drive
    where two or more parties can’t all be fully satisfied, but that can be derived from either masculine or feminine desires.

    So, no, I don’t believe that RPGs are a male pursuit inherently.

    Are games and adventures designed to appeal to just men?

    As I mention above, early RPGs were effectively a development of squad-based wargames to the level of individual characters. Aging but re-developed rulesets still spend the bulk of their effort on prescribing combat activities. But the newer rulesets don’t have that bent and oblige the players to concentrate their playing energy on other aspects of their PCs action – some are positively deadly to discourage fighting, whereas the ‘Dr Who’ RPG gives players opting for non-violent actions the stage first. Interactive fiction, narrative-styles are popular and rules-light and have no inherent bias towards masculine or feminine preference. It would be ludicrous to suggest that either gender has a stranglehold on the creativity and imagination which is at the core of RPG scenarios or adventures.

    There may be a current perpetuation of a male-dominated industry at a commercial level, but the internet means that anyone can publish their ideas and have an instant audience – regardless of their gender.

    If not why are there relatively few women players?

    I don’t doubt that there is still a very strong male bias in RPG players. I’d guess that the proportion of women at Conception might have reached 5%, though of course that’s not necessarily a good sample of active players.

    I know very few women RPG enthusiasts. I currently work with one, long-lapsed one and asked her views on role-playing’s poor take-up for women. She was aware of some D&D players at school but had no interest until seeing a Tom Hanks film (I assume “Mazes and Monsters”, 1982) at which point she joined their group. The offputting aspect of
    the pastime until then had been the depiction of women (chainmail bikinis et cetera) and an ignorance of what it could offer in terms of entertainment.

    Media exposure in the developed world is becoming ever more pervasive, and marketing opportunities flourish. Thus interactive entertainment (games etc) being at least as valid a pastime as passive entertainment (traditional fiction, TV, films) becomes ever more just part of life. Developing and participating in the activities of favourite media creations will I believe be seen as a natural progression, for either gender. At present computer-based gaming has the upper hand. My observation is that the vogue for vampiric fiction is very heavily demanded by women and I see no reason whatever why (role playing) games based on that apparent demand would fail to be well received by that same audience.

    So we might well be looking ahead at an increasing number of women playing what we’d consider to be role-playing games.

    Is playing a PC of the opposite gender useful/ relevant/ appropriate?

    RPGs are not concerned with reflecting some alternate reality as accurately as possible, they are about providing scope for an interactive, fictional storytelling where players have an opportunity to be protagonists in situations beyond their normal life experience.

    Is selecting a PC’s gender any more or less significant than choosing an unfamiliar profession, or historic era, or race (both inter and extra human)? I think not – it’s just that we are all surrounded by the other gender and therefore identify more easily with the ‘success’ of the role-playing effort, or leverage cliched or stereotypical views
    for an easy laugh.

    I don’t know anyone who considers role-playing in a who’s-best-at-it masculine-biased cloud of competition. I could list the various players I’ve gamed with in some sort of order of effort in creating a meaningful character, but it would mean very little as the main objective is to have a social interaction with a group whose aim is to enjoy each other’s company. Compared to passive entertainment or most boardgames the RPG is a highly social activity where enjoyment is in interacting with the other players. As humans are social animals I can’t see anything with any gender bias there.

    In conclusion, gender is a huge part of our psychological makeup and you know a lot more about that than I do from your professional background. Whilst there are gender bias problems in individual aspects of RPG rulesets and adventures I have found it difficult to identify anything about the role playing pastime which makes it inherently more appealing to men or women. Role playing has an image problem and a historic bias towards male participation as a result of its birth from the masculine wargaming hobby, but modern life is exposing both genders to ideas compatible with spending leisure time
    in social, interactive fiction which is role playing.

    It’s a positive future ahead I think, where both genders will possibly enjoy some form of RPG without necessarily even knowing it because it evolves into something which doesn’t bear that label. We’ll have to sit quietly in the corner brandishing trusty stories starting “Now when I was young games went like this…”


  4. The issue of gender limits in role-play is a very minor factor in why girls are less likely to take up the hobby than boys. And I use the terms girls & boys deliberately because most players get into the hobby in our early teens.

    Issues such as atmosphere in many gaming shops which can seem very much like a boys club or the subject matter of the games which tend to focus on male-oriented power fantasies. Peer pressure also plays its part.

    These problems are not going to be overcome by saying a fighters can be male or female or by having female wizard on the cover of the book. The problem goes much deeper than that.

    Girls enjoys imaginative play just as much as boys – watch any mixed group of children below ten and both genders will be playing “lets pretend” in one form or another. But as they mature and head towards puberty, social expectations and a lack of suitable games / gaming culture prevents most girls becoming role players.

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