Sex and Gender in Games

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 06 January 2013

© 2012 Grace D. Palmer© 2012 Grace D. PalmerIn my last post, Exploring Women's Power, I gave a list of common restrictions on women during the medieval European time period and ended with the following:

So, that's the power structure you find yourself in if you are born a woman. While some women, particularly those of noble birth, can break those rules, for the vast majority of women, that wasn't really an option. And remember, you're still a person with basic needs and desires, such as food, water, shelter, sex, etc.

So, if you were a woman with those restrictions, how would you navigate society, providing for your own future and, perhaps if you have them, for your children?

The framing of the question is my first suggestion for how to deal with sex and gender in a more inclusive way in gaming books. I realize that D&D traces its roots to war gaming and in those games, it's common to provide modifiers to an entire class of people, such as all Greeks or all musketeers, based on commonalities within that group. This is common in other games as well, such as the Civilization franchise. For instance, in Civ, I often played the English because the benefits that country received fit well with my game play style and what I wanted out of the game.

But the thing with those games is that we are rarely playing an individual and are instead acting in a removed role, often from an almost god-like vantage point. These sorts of decisions make much more sense when we're dealing with a 10,000 foot viewpoint because fine details and differences are meant to be excluded because they are unimportant for the simulation we are doing.

However, when we move to a level of the individual, as we often do in games like D&D, this perspective can become stifling. We are often the protagonists of our stories, and those sorts of characters are usually most interesting because they struggle against or break away from the norms of their society. Bilbo and Frodo both go on adventures, something that is fairly scandalous for a hobbit to do. Part of what sets Drizzt apart is that he is male and that he was not sacrificed as a child, although tradition dictated he should have been.

In fact, we often strive to ignore these dictates, often through providing additional rules, classes, races, etc. Additionally, usually male norms of behavior for the time period are completely left off the table. Getting married and raising children was often considered a duty for both men and women. Likewise, I hope you don't start your adventuring campaign during harvest as every hand was needed to stave off starvation. In our works, somehow farm hands not only get swords but magically have the training to wield them.

With all that in mind, here's what I would suggest as a starting point.

Separate sex from gender

While some consider this a relatively modern thought, throughout history, there have been examples of societies offering the ability for people born of one sex to take on the trappings traditional for someone born of another. Shield maidens are a common fantasy example of this, women who act like men often at the cost of never having sex or experiencing motherhood and sworn virgins are a real world example. We can also find examples of this in How We Came to Live Here.

As studies of sex and gender have started to examine trends across cultures, we've found that many things people in the US or maybe even Europe thought were tied to one sex or gender doesn't universally apply across the globe. It appears that culture has a strong ability to determine how we act, what we're good at, and how we think. Furthermore, the differences within a sex are far greater than those between them.

Finally, as much as we like to think of sex as binary, the biology is way more complicated than that. While we think of testosterone as being a male hormone and estrogen as being female, both are present in just about everyone and hormone imbalance is a common condition. Furthermore, we have people who are XXY and some who are XY but their bodies lack the ability to process the male hormones to create male sexual features. Attempting to simplify the world into one with binary sex erases these people from existence.

Given these, I would like to suggest to game designers that they separate out sex from gender. When creating the game or the game world, be conscious of which elements would be biologically based and which would be the result of gender and gender roles in society. We don't have a great vocabulary for making the two distinct in the work itself, but if designers and developers learned to distinguish between the two, that would be a nice move, in my opinion.

For Sentient Races, Make Sex-Based Mechanics Rare

It's hard to find sex-based traits that are universal and, even with the ones that seem to be tied to sex, the differences within the group are often far greater than the differences between groups. Any limits imposed by sex will, as a result, seem arbitrary, something even Gygax pointed out when they removed sex-based ability caps.

So, when should they vary? We can all point to a number of animal species where there is obvious and clear dimorphism between males and females. Perhaps the males have horns or bright, showy colors. Carefully consider which of these differences you add to the game and, if you include any significant number of them, look at them as a whole to see if you are biasing them towards one sex over the other. For instance, if you are creating a game where the object is to go into dungeons and steal treasure from monsters, and the majority of your sex-based mechanics make it easier males to accomplish that goal, then I might suggest adding some mechanics so that female members would be better at it too.

Furthermore, by moving most of the differences from sex to gender, and having gender tied to culture, that makes sexism and gender stereotypes something characters can fight against if they wish.

Vary Your Cultures

Once we move most of the differences to gender rather than sex, it becomes easier to create an inclusive game world that supports the telling of many different types of stories. What if in culture X, the most famous military victory was won by a group of women defending their homes? How would that effect the culture as a large? Would children grow up studying the tactics used? Would there be statues and paintings of those women everywhere? What if the culture thought that only women had the patience to master math and science?

By the way, these different cultures don't have to be their own nationalities or tribes. Even within a larger group, there are often sub groups and people are often members of multiple subgroups at once. So a character's race, religion, class background, birthplace, and gender could all combine to make them unique and give them a unique set of tensions to work through (In the real world, this is part of intersectionality). What happens when someone who comes from a poor background where people use everything they can from an animal finds himself called to a religion that forbids using certain parts of the animal?

Recruit a Diverse Crew

When creating a fantasy game setting, look at the world as a whole and see that there are areas likely to be interesting to your different groups your fan community. I'd even suggest making a point of inviting and hiring people from those various groups to create parts of the world with you. No one of us can understand every perspective in the world, and hiring people from diverse perspectives helps us find our own blindspots and makes it easier to connect to those various groups. For instance, David Gaider has an excellent blog post about how a diversity of perspectives helped make Dragon Age better.

Playtest with Female Characters

As much as you can, try to get people to playtest the game with female characters. It can be hard on a read through sometimes, to find the issues that might discriminate against female characters in the game world, especially when the bias might come from an interaction between your work and the biases of your community. If much of the game text always mentions a female character's looks, that might be more obvious if you are reading it from the point of view of someone playing a female character.

What are the Male Gender Roles

If you are going to spell out female gender roles, make sure you put out there the male ones too. What are the men in society working against? Is it a belief that they have no intrinsic value? Are they taught to suppress their own desires because they must not only produce children but also provide for them and their mother(s)?

Remember, At the End of the Day, People Still Got Stuff Done

If I could leave you with only one thing to consider, it would be this. At the end of the day, women still had to get food in their stomachs, they still need some form of clothing and shelter, and, often, needed to get their sexual needs met. This is true regardless of gender. So regardless of the restrictions society attempted to place on them and their ability to do these things, those things still happened. How do they happen in your game world? Or, did you create the magical world where people never jaywalk or litter and no one tries to sneak out an extra slice of cake?

(By the way, this doesn't even begin to touch other areas such as LGBTQ.)

Image: "Fighter" © 2012 Grace D. Palmer for the Prismatic Art Collection, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license:

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