Gender specific games

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!

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