It's a bit strange to be writing again. My online presence had dwindled for about 2 years, I know, but the past 4 months in particular have been a bit of time for and about me and have been a good capstone for my multi-year transformation.
For those who don't know, I suffer from both anxiety (pretty much all the time) and depression (more cyclical). It's pretty much always been that way. I was always shy as a kid and afraid that people wouldn't like me and I remember periods of my childhood when I didn't want to eat food because its taste didn't seem worth the effort of chewing. When I started playing D&D a few years ago, it helped me get out of a depression I was in then. But, unfortunately, it also triggered the sort of attention that often causes me to sink back in, namely sexism and negativity for negativity's sake (versus constructive criticism which some people seem to conflate).
In addition to dealing with that stuff in the gaming sphere, there were a number of real life things that made me require a space where sexism couldn't flourish. One of my friends who had been a big support of my work (in part because she too didn't like the sexism in our culture, especially the latent, unquestioned type) was suicidal and eventually killed herself. Fred was rather close to her and was someone who was trying to get her to get help. Someone else who was very close to me was also suicidal and went to the hospital. Then Jared got cancer. Playing support for so many people led to an ever deepening depression of my own that I tried to put on hold as I helped others. There should be a mechanic for that with paladins, I swear. To top everything off, I found out last October that my job was going away at the end of the year and also that for much of my career I was paid significantly less than market.
So, starting January 1st, I put my mind towards becoming a phoenix and reemerging from the ashes. While I still felt fragile, my depression had stabilized and my mood improved thanks to therapy and medication. I decided that it was a good time to check out the rest of me and it's good I did, my insulin resistance had gotten worse and my blood sugar was no longer steady. This of course can impact one's mood and mental health, so we found at least two things that were probably negatively reinforcing each other. In the past I've suffered from anemia and the doctors always told me to eat more iron to help. Well, it turns out that I actually had non-iron-deficiency anemia, a condition that's common among some mediterranean people that is caused by genetics, similar in concept to sickle cell. Mine isn't that bad, so I probably carry the recessive gene, but it could explain some of my fatigue. In brighter news, my stress test and cardiologist visit went pretty well considering that I was born with a heart defect, so small victories. Oh, and I've lost about 20 pounds.
In addition to dealing with the mind and body, I worked on our house! We put up bookshelves in the dining room, turning it into a book and game library. We finally put up curtains and our landlord bought us a new fridge when the old one died. My parents got to visit me for an extended weekend and we worked on some of the house projects together.
Then I got a new job which is absolutely awesome. I love the people I work with and I have a bunch of support now that I didn't quite have before (larger companies are good for some things). To celebrate, we got a new couch and chair for our living room and made our guest room into a lounge which is much more useful for us. I'm also going to be able to go to more tech conferences with a goal of speaking at some in the next few years. I've already presented here at work during our big group lunch.
I presented at PAX East! On a panel about anxiety and depression in gamers. It was one of the hardest panels I ever did because, like this post, it was the real me and sometimes a bit close and personal. It was also hard because of some of the questions. For instance, one person asked what video game characters did we escape into as kids when we had issues. The hard part for me was that video games at that time didn't have that sort of escape for me. Instead I found hope in books like Little Women. I felt bad because the question brought up that divide that exists for some in gaming. I wanted to be able to name a character because it would make him feel better but at the same time, I could tell my honesty resonated with a number of the women in the audience because they were nodding their heads.
I also took up gardening. We have a bunch of herbs and some small number of fruits and vegetables. We don't have a yard to grow them in so I found some great containers for our deck area. I also got a bunch of indoor citrus trees for the living room and a big split leaf philodendron.
Last week we took a vacation to Seattle, in part for the wedding of two of our college friends. I got to meet up with a bunch of my gaming friends that I hadn't seen in a while (in part because I had to miss GenCon last year) and we also had a mini college/fraternity reunion. It was during that week that I felt my old self resurface a bit. As an added bonus, I came back to find that Jared had spent a fair bit of time fixing up our "house" in Starbound.
So why am I writing this? Well, partly because I want to thank of you who have stood by me in the past and been the rays of sunshine that I needed. I also hope it explains a bit why issues of representation in games are important to me. Also, my experience at PAX East reaffirmed my belief that there can be healing in sharing our stories.
When I talk about my experiences and the experiences of others who have shared their thoughts with me, I am often presented with a paradox by some commenters. They present two ideas, often within the same comment.
1. When will you acknowledge that there are just differences between men and women?
2. I though this was a gaming blog. When will you get back to writing about gaming and not women and politics?
Sometimes I think people have become so desensitized to those arguments that they can't see how confining and paradoxical they are. For instance, if it's true that there are differences between male and female genders (we can leave aside which are due to nature versus nurture for now), then why wouldn't what I write be influenced by my gender? Why call it political rather than just another perspective on gaming? Why aren't the posts that focus on things traditionally coded as masculine called political as well? Why don't we ask men why they can't seem to write about more than men?
The people who say these things often have the best of intentions. What they often see is me banging my head against the wall and complaining about the headache. Much like the joke, "Patient: Doctor it hurts when I do this, what should I do? ::pause:: Doctor: Don't move it!" it's easy to treat the symptom and not explore its cause.
That's why I can't help but to write about gender and biological sex and gaming. My culture raised me differently than it raised its sons. Having a uterus means my body does things that others don't. All of those things affect me and my approach to games and stories in the same way that others are affected by their own backgrounds. Not talking about those things would be like I was role playing in real life, taking on a personality and character that is not my own.
At the same time, there is so much we all hold in common regardless of our background. Intra-group differences tend to be much more pronounced than inter-group ones. When you have the time, take a look at your favorite "gender" study and notice the spread within a gender versus the difference in average between the genders. It might surprise you. For instance, while men outnumber women when it comes to being an NFL fan, the spread is actually along the lines of 56-44 with 55% of women watching the sport.
For some, it's hard to deal with the reality that we are all different, that gaming isn't about a monolithic world view with "us" versus "them." That saddens me. These are often the same people who constantly confront me with this gender paradox. At the end of the day, they want me to either conform to their standards or shut up. They misrepresent my arguments, trying to say that I won't be satisfied until everything is done 100% my way, but those libels and slanders are false. The real issue is that they cannot and will not see a pluralistic world. They only see things in terms of hierarchy. There can be only one....
If you wonder where my anger comes from sometimes, that is where. The harm being done is often hidden away under academic pretext or polite phrasing. It comes in the form of seemingly reasonable and rational arguments that never get more than superficial scrutiny. "Men notice breasts. Breasts are a secondary sex characteristic. Therefore all women who show their cleavage do it to attract mates." Sigh.
And it's difficult because others in the discussion, often because they are in over their heads themselves, think all sides are equal, that all theories are valid, even though we know academically it's not the case. In addition, we are so terrible as a species at actually being objective, even when we think we are. But often we don't actually judge people on an objective measurement of concepts like niceness, but on what we expect from the individual. So, when we live in a society that tells us that women should be quiet, demure, nice, and then men should be aggressive, loud, steadfast, we will call women vitriolic for saying the same thing that we considered to be a symbol of restraint from a man.
It's strange to me sometimes that gamers don't notice this. Games, in many ways, are meant to deal with those exact issues. That's why people can be so picky about dungeon masters who fudge dice rolls. They don't want their success (or failure) to come down to how the DM was feeling at that moment in time. That's why many games that allow for narrative control often have a system for bargaining and a lot of advice about talking about things up front.
So, what I ask in the end is that people start questioning some of these assumptions they've made about all manners of things: gender, biological sex, race, ethnicity, sexuality, sexual orientation, the color of the sky, etc. Try to find ways to talk about these things that don't create a paradox. And let's see where it can take us.
War Witch (also called Rebelle) follows the life of 12 year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a child soldier from a rural village in Africa. The movie starts with her being kidnapped from her village and forced into service. The invaders give her a horrible choice, kill her parents with a gun or watch them butchered with machetes. The movie doesn't pull many punches. There is kidnapping, war, rape and attempted rape, and murder. However, under all of that is also a tale of love and survival. It keeps the protagonists human despite the inhumane acts around them.
The rebels drink "magic milk," a hallucinogen created from tree sap that is believed to give magic powers. When Komona is the sole survivor of an ambush due to warnings from ghosts, her group believes she is a witch and it falls onto her to be able to determine when and where government soldiers might attack next. She befriends a fellow soldier, an albino boy named Magicien who is protective of her and practices a form of magic of his own.
The movie was written and directed by Kim Nguyen, a Canadian of Vietnamese and French ancestry. He was inspired by a Burmese story of child soldiers. It was filmed primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, using local actors. While it is written and directed by a foreigner, this story stays local. Unlike many movies set in Africa, it is not told through the eyes of a white person and no one is saved (or directly harmed) by whites.
I love this movie. Komona and Magicien aren't portrayed as helpless victims. The complicated feelings that can result from these experiences comes through. The struggle Komona has between the traditions of her family and the world she finds herself in grounds her character and help the audience to connect with the story. Nguyen did a wonderful job of changing the story beats to help the audience along. There are moments of levity and hope mixed in at just the right time amid the despair and loss.
I also think the movie did a good job at showing how gender would influence a child soldier's experience. At the age most of these children were taken, there isn't a ton of difference between the sexes, especially when you factor in that most of the "work" is being done by guns. While not directly addressed in the movie, it's important to note that about 40% of the world's child soldiers are girls and that their role is much more complex than the typical "sex slave" narrative often propagated.
As for using the movies as inspiration for tabletop roleplaying games, the use of children in war is nothing new. Many fantasy and science fiction stories explore similar themes. For some groups who want to roleplay a similar scenario, this movie would provide an insight that perhaps isn't always seen or discussed. Given the use of magic in the story, I could see a number of the scenes translated into many fantasy world setting. I could see it working best in a system with narrative currency, since part of the movie is about people who lack power trying to carve out a life for themselves. It also provides some examples of how someone can try to come to terms with the horrors of what they've had to do during war. How do you work past being forced to kill your own parents?
I found the movie through Netflix and it was available in the US for instant streaming. It appears to also be available through Google Play and Amazon Instant Video. It is primarily in French with English subtitles. The movie won a number of awards and was a nominee in the Best Foreign Language Film at the 85th Academy Awards.
Jared and I watch a lot of video game play throughs together. There are more video games out there than we have the time (or money) to play but knowing about them is a great idea given what we love to do. Additionally, some of the commentators are just awesome. Recently we watched one that just blew us both away, Jesse Cox playing the first act of Broken Age by Double Fine Productions.
Two years ago, Tim Schafer and his company Double Fine Productions asked fans to fund his idea for an point-and-click adventure game through Kickstarter. Originally asking $400,000 to create both the game and a movie about creating the game, they raised $3.3 million. Promising to put the extra money into the game, the result is just beautiful. Not only does the game use great voice actors such as Masasa Moyo, Wil Wheaton, Jennifer Hale, Jack Black, Ginny Westcott, and Nicki Rapp, the art is amazing under the lead of Nathan Stapley and the music ties the whole game together.
Over the course of the game, you play two different characters, both question authority and tradition in their attempt to be heroes. Vella, a maiden from the village of Sugar Bunting is expected to dress up in a fancy costume and sacrifice herself for the greater good. In this case, it's to appease Mog Chothra, an ancient creature from far away who visits the villages every 14 years. Out of fear of having their villages destroyed, they hold maidens feasts where the girls are on the menu. Vella, encouraged by her grandfather, thinks there has to be a better way and sets off to find a way to kill Mog Chothra.
The second character is Shay, a boy in spaaaccceee...er, sorry about that...a boy in space. He is watched over by the ship, largely through a computer interface that represents his mother. After a hearty breakfast of cereal (I particularly liked the one named Soylent Dreams), he's given a choice of missions to undertake such as saving people from an ice cream avalanche. We quickly learn that he is in a protective bubble in the form of a ship. He feels like there has to be something more out there.
I can't quite give a proper review of the game as I had watched the entire play through by Jesse Cox before playing it myself. I grew up playing point-and-click adventure games like Kings Quest and I love the genre even if I didn't always love the finickiness of some of the older games. For instance, Jared and I have been watching "I have no mouth, and I must scream" and I don't think I'd ever play that one. The people playing it are often frustrated with the difficulty in clicking just the right pixel and figuring which of the commands are the right one to use.
Broken Age is different. Gone are the multiple commands and limited vocabulary. With very few exceptions, the pixel areas are rather forgiving. You interact with the environment by clicking and/or dragging items from your inventory to the environment element you want to interact with. While watching the play through, I never felt stuck although there were times when the commentator wasn't quite sure what to do although I imagine it's hard to give commentary while playing. The simplicity of the game play isn't for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed the game.
The humor throughout was refreshing and often made me laugh. While I think gender definitely influences the adventure each is on and what is expected of them, no element of the game feels gendered. I also love that Vella is definitely a self-rescuing heroine while Shay is someone who likes to rescue others and that the creatures he rescues don't have a gender. Overall, I found the game delightfully subversive.
The main difficulty I see with the game is the price. On Steam it is currently $24.99 for the base game and $29.99 for the game with soundtrack. I played it in about 3 hours but I had already seen a play through. In one of the reviews I read, the writer said he played it in about 5 hours of casual play. I was worth it for me and I'm glad to support the game but I could see it an issue for wider adoption. The other difficulty I see is that the second act isn't out yet and there doesn't seem to be a firm release date for act 2. Act 1 leaves on a cliff hanger, so I could see some fans wanting to wait so that they can play the whole thing through at once.
All that said, please check this game out. Not only does it have a female protagonist, but she is a person of color. Both main characters question the world around them in important ways. The story, art, and music are all superb. It's a great example of innovation in gaming. Now I must find some way to be patient until Act 2 comes out.
This afternoon we found ourselves in a local game store, The Games People Play. Fred took the opportunity to buy one of the games he's loved for years, Diplomacy, and I splurged on a few items: Once Upon A Time (a card story telling game by Atlas Games), Story Cubes - Voyages, and two knowledge card sets, Forgotten English III: Long Lost Insults and African American Art.
Forgotten English III: Long Lost Insults
The set of insults should be good fun for gaming, allowing me to throw out random insults at player characters. Each card has the word on one side. The other side often has the word's definition, source for the definition, and an illustration that shows or evokes the behavior referenced by the insult.
Examples of Use:
- My rather straight-laced character always worries that the new people she meets are sinful. I select a card at random and say that she hopes that the new person she just met isn't one of those people. "Did you see how he just interrupted their conversation like that, asking such foolish questions and not letting them get on with it? I hope he's not a nargyle!"
- During character generation, whether for an NPC or PC, I want to add a unique character aspect. I select a card from random and apply that insult to the character. For instance, if I pick rum-gagger, I should make a bard who loves to tell her stories of woe wherever she goes, trying gain the pity of the poor folks who hear her tale.
- The PCs decide to go in a direction you hadn't anticipated and you need to create a scene for them and quickly. Let's say that they go to see the local magistrate. You could pull a card and have two or more parties there trying to figure out what to do about the insult. If pre-planned, it could give background information on the NPCs.
- Some of the images could easily inspire NPCs, scenes, adventures, and more. For instance, the back the Hogs-Norton card contains two well-dressed humanoid pigs.
- Party game: Everyone gets an package with the list of insults, definitions, and one of the cards. They then have to act like a person referenced by the insult. Other guests have to figure out which you are. Using rules similar to Dixit, you get points based on how many people guess which insult you personify so long as at least one person got it but not everyone.
African American Art
The second set of cards will find a variety of uses in my life and games. I've wanted to become more knowledgeable of art and artists for a while and African American artists and their art are one of the areas where I'm least knowledgeable. By becoming more familiar with African American art, I'll be more likely to include and suggest pieces that would work in my games. Additionally, for games that are meant to fit into our history, I will enrich the characters I add to the game world. For instance, a number of these artists would work well in a game set anytime from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. Finally, picking a piece of art can bring all sorts of inspiration to my games since the art runs the gamut from landscapes to cityscapes to portraits to abstract works.
Each card has a piece of art on one side and information about the piece and the artist on the other. These cards appear to be made in collaboration with The Smithsonian National Museum of Modern Art, so it also includes details about the art such as call numbers, media used, and size. Just as a note, one of the limitations of this set is that it leaves out many contemporary artists.
Examples of Use:
- A scene takes place in an art gallery or museum. The cards could be laid at random to provide ambience or chosen beforehand to support the story being told.
- A game scenario, such as a Spirit of the Century game, takes place during a time period with multiple artists. The artists could be used to inspire characters in the scenario.
- Playing in a game set now or in the future? Pick a piece from the deck that would interest your character. Research more of the artist's work and use that art at the table as a way for her to speak.
- Tell a story using the cards. Each person takes a turn as storyteller, taking one card from their hand and using an element of the piece of art to add to the story.
The company that makes these sets, Pomegranate Communications, Inc, has a number of other sets that might also provide inspiration such as these.
- Black Film: A Quiz Deck on African American Movies, Actors, and Directors
- Great African Americans
- African American History
- African American Wisdom
- African American Women
- The Civil Rights Movement
- American Abolitionists
- Who Was She? A Quiz Deck of Notable Women in Literature
- Who Was She? A Quiz Deck of Notable Women in Music
- Royal Women Quiz Deck: Queens, Consorts, and Concubines
- What Do You Know About Women in Sports? A Quiz Deck
- Women Explorers
- Women Who Dare Vol. I
- Forgotten English
- Intoxicants & Potions: Forgotten English II
- Mathematical Games
I enjoy props at a table and I find that toys can often make for wonderful props. For example, at a variety store a few years ago, I bought a miniature Stonehenge set.
Inside the box there are three groups of things: puzzle pieces for creating the base of Stonehenge complete with numbered areas to help you with placement of the pieces, the "stone" pieces, and a booklet of information about the site.
Even without the stone pieces on top, the base could be used to help describe an area in a game. Anything could be in those numbered squares. For instance, they could be statues (or living things turned to stone). You also could hand out the puzzle pieces over time as pieces of a map or an ancient scroll that showed how certain artifacts had to be placed in order to complete an intricate and ancient ritual.
In addition to the base, the construction of Stonehenge could be used in multiple ways. For instance, it could be off to the side as a form of clock to show how much progress an adversary has made towards obtaining their goal. Or the PCs could be tasked with finding some or all of the pieces of Stonehenge and put it back together. Or maybe the dragon they fought had knocked the pieces down and it is up to them to set everything up right again. Additionally, the fully finished model could be used as part of a puzzle that involves how light would shine on the location at a certain date and time.
The Stonehenge set was made by a company called Running Press. Amazon has a number of their kits.
Similar to this set is another toy I found (although I didn't buy it quite yet). At a local store, I saw a toy penguin that is made up of seven stackable wooden pieces.
As with the Stonehenge set, this could be used as a clock for either the PCs or their adversary and help illustrate their progress towards a goal. Similarly, one could take the image of an important NPC or location in the game and create a puzzle out of it using card stock or cardboard. The nice thing about the puzzle is that it's possible that the players can guess it before the final piece but it helps keeping you from giving too many clues at once. However, if they still can't get it after they have all the pieces, it may be time to allow them access an expert or take 20.
What sorts of toys inspire your games?
When we talk about women fighters in medieval-inspired fantasy games, people will often go on about how we're really trying to reinvent history. In some ways, they are right. Few women fought in organized armies at the time and most of history was written about those armies. However, in many ways they are missing the point.
Most Men Didn't Fight
A combination of ancient and modern warfare clouds our understanding of much of Medieval Western European combat and armies. We're used to large standing armies and large drafts to create larger and larger armies, especially in the two World Wars. We're used to large percentages of young men and smaller percentages of young women shipping off to war.
This view of war would have lost many Medieval wars. The simple reason: food. We have much higher crop yields today, coupled with machines to make harvesting easier, and this frees up more hands for the war effort. I read on one site that we're talking about something like 1 in 30 seeds would mature to feed us in Medieval Europe versus 1 in 2 to 1 in 7 today.
Lower crop yields required much more land and labor than today. To send significant numbers of men, especially young men, off to war would have put the fields and harvest in jeopardy. The exception to this would be the sons of nobility. Since one of the defining characteristics of the nobility is that they didn't work with their hands, they often didn't work the fields. And since titles couldn't be shared or split and a titled family often needed as many resources as possible, spares didn't always have much of a future to look forward to.
Since the overwhelming percentage of men were commoners tied to land and were needed to farm it, the vast majority of men simply wouldn't have been involved in the formal military campaigns of the period, the very same campaigns we often rely on for our information about medieval warfare. We ignore this for games like D&D because it's just not exciting. If it's not exciting for male characters to keep to historical realism, I might suggest it's not exciting for female characters either.
Overlooked Combat Opportunities
With the focus on formal military campaigns, other sources of combat experience often are overlooked. For instance, we know of a number of peasant uprisings during the period. Rebellions have long recruited whomever they could get and have been a source of opportunity for women who yearned for something more. Likewise, when under attack, women could be employed in a variety of defensive positions. They could pour boiling water from above.
In addition, women have long provided combat support roles throughout history. Wives, daughters, and other women might accompany a military campaign. Some would have been noble women, often attempting to get pregnant since that was their and their husband's duty.
Why Do I Find This Important?
There isn't as much documentations on women in these positions in part because it just wasn't that important to the people at the time. Portraying women as independent and strong went against the typical narrative of the day. But when we look at the vast amount of data from the past 300 years, we see plenty of evidence that the formal narratives of the time often differed from women's lived experiences. We should keep that in mind as well as remind ourselves of the limits of history:
- Someone had to find the information important enough to record.
- Future generations had to find the information important enough to save.
- Our generation has to find the information important enough to seek out.
With all of that said, I'm not arguing for historical realism in the majority of games, such as D&D. Instead, I'm suggesting that we cease using inaccurate "historical realism" as an excuse to perpetuate the gender bias and stereotypes we have today.
To celebrate my birthday, Fred and I decided to try out a new boardgame cafe in Brookline, MA called Knight Moves. We met a coworker and his wife there and played a game of Shadows over Camelot. I had a lot of fun and it's a wonderful space.
The cafe has three rooms. The front room has the cafe area including Equal Exchange coffee, pastries, tea, hot cocoa, and chocolates. There are also at least 4 game tables, the game library, and a chess table in the window. Most of the tables easily sit four, although we had to put two of them together to play the Shadows over Camelot game.
The middle room has a bunch of science decorations including a microscope. It also has a nice looking fireplace with mantle. I didn't take a picture of the table because it was in use but there was one decent sized table in there and room for more. Devon, the owner, said that there were additional tables for the room that he could bring out when needed. There's also a curtain between the front room and middle room so that area of the store can be reserved for special events and the like (more on that later).
The back room has one large table as well as the facility's restroom. One thing to note about this place, they put in a fair bit of time and energy to make it look nice. Since it doesn't serve double-duty as a retail establishment, there's lots of room and the emphasis is on you and you being able to try out a bunch of games. Since they don't have a retail portion, though, that means that there is a cover charge. The price for a single entrance is $10, but for that price they don't mind if you pop out for a bite. As far as I can tell, there's no limit on how long you can stay so compare that to say a movie ticket. If you want to save some money, you can buy a pack of 6 of entrances at once for $50. If you're likely to frequent Knight Moves often, they also have memberships. The casual membership is $15 a month and it lowers the price to $6 per entrance or gets you 3 additional entrances if you buy the multipack. You also get a free coffee per visit. A premium membership is $120 per month but gets you unlimited visits. Additionally, you get a free coffee plus a free snack per visit. At least the casual membership also gives you a 5% discount at Eureka! up the street.
Overall the cafe was inviting and Devon has a love for games and, from what I could tell, was good at explaining them. The selection seemed pretty good although I'm half tempted to get copies of some of the games they don't have. I know the price may seem steep to some, but when I thought about what I spend on other venues, I think it's pretty reasonable and may help keep overcrowding to a minimum while keeping them open. He also mentioned that if I wanted to throw a special event that we could work out a deal, so keep that in mind if you have a monthly get together or if you want to do a launch party for a game you designed. I'm looking forward to visiting again in the future. Next time I'm going to bring Race to Adventure so he can try it out.
I recently found a profile of Samantha Swords from the Fight Like a Girl blog (part of Combatant Magazine). For those who are unfamiliar with Samantha Swords, she is a Western Martial Arts (WMA) fighter, actor, prop maker, stuntwoman, and more. Earlier this year she won the long sword competition at the World Jousting Invitational in New Zealand.
I particularly enjoyed her insights into fighting and I think it could be useful to gamers and other creators of fantasy stories. Too often I hear that women are just smaller and, thus, have no chance in combat. She talks about this a bit but points it out as an advantage.
We ladies have a unique advantage over our sword brothers. As well as having a lower centre of gravity, we’re predisposed to be physically inferior, which means that we have to work harder, be accurate and quite cunning to maintain the edge against most of our competition.
It may sound like an illogical advantage, but developing these attributes should happen anyway as a fighter; it’s just necessary for women to get a headstart because we have less to offer in the brawn department. Due to WMA being in the infancy of its revival and having no solid divisions of weight or gender, we’re allowed to be outmatched in competitions. This is good, it teaches humility for learning proper defence. We need to apply tireless dedication to getting things right, because the result is much more obvious when we don’t.
While I know a number of women who are physically bigger and stronger than the vast majority of men out there, I agree with the overall point that not being to fall back on brawn means that women fighters often have to dedicate themselves to their craft. While I don't always find it important to replicate our sexism based on differences in physical size in fantasy literature and games, I do think the concentration on training and practice would be important to anyone of a smaller size regardless of gender and especially among women.
Additionally, Swords points out a number of martial arts that work well for people who aren't as large or physically strong.
I’d advise any female fighters to look at aikido, kumi uchi, goju ryu, and all the fighting guides you can find that use biomechanics to take a pressure or force, and redirect it to compromise your opponent. This will enrich your understanding of historical European combat, because they all point to the same concept: that effective martial arts don’t rely on speed, strength or agility, but an artful understanding of physics and how to apply it to the human body. If your technique doesn’t work because “you’re not fast or strong enough”, you’re doing it wrong!
Often in fantasy stories, we often think that only the strongest or best capable served in combat. The reality was far more complex. We have many different combat styles in part because we were at the mercy of who happened to be available at the time and their capabilities. The challenge put before those responsible for martial maneuvers was how to use what they had to get the result they needed or wanted. We know women have always fought, we just don't always have records of who they were and how they fought.
In a world that didn't tie leadership to combat and/or didn't believe in the natural inferiority of women could easily be set up to teach people of all genders how to fight in a way that used their natural attributes and skills to the best possible advantage. This often didn't happen in the middle ages, at least in the rhetoric, because women's supposed inferiority was an important part of the governance structure, which relied on divine right to rule combined with patrilineal and patriarchal customs. If your fantasy world doesn't have those same strictures, it's harder to argue for the continued lack of women warriors in a society.
I'd like to ask you to consider one further reason why you should include at least athletic girls and women if not women warriors in your stories. Earlier pulp novels could assume an audience that reflected the sexism of the time. This is becoming less and less true. For instance, since the introduction of Title IX in the US, women's athletics has increased dramatically with a 560% increase at the college level and 990% in high schools. Additionally, around that time self-defense courses grew in popularity as a rape counter-measure. Few girls and women my age and younger want to hear that they are physically incapable of defending themselves or others and fewer people, regardless of gender, are used to a world in which girls and women are kept from physical exertion. It does not reflect our reality and will break suspension of disbelief for many, disregarding the fact that many of us want to be strong when we use literature as escapism.
So, if you want to include more women fighters but also want it to make it feel "real" enough given our society's current views of women, this might be a good start. In fantasy literature, Arya from Game of Thrones is a good example of this. If you want more examples of warrior women, especially those who study WMA, the Fight Like a Girl blog highlights more. I also know quite a few women who fight in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) such as Jeanie Davan.
Also, while I'm on the subject of women fighters, I must point out these awesome sketches by Tess Fowler. Here's an example and you can find more here.
Patriarchy seems to be a difficult concept for some and so I’d like to present what it means to me and, in particular, how it influences fantasy literature and games, particularly those influenced by medieval Europe.
First, I want to say that this article by Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog has an excellent breakdown not only of patriarchy but also kyriarchy. Both are ways of organizing the power structure of a society in an hierarchical manner. Here are the definitions for both that the article references.
Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.
Patriarchy – Literally means the rule of the father and is generally understood within feminist discourses in a dualistic sense as asserting the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men to not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves).
- Glossary, Wisdom Ways, Orbis Books New York 2001
So basically, patriarchy represents the preference of men as a group over women as a group, especially in terms of power and authority. When we look at history, it’s hard to argue against this being an element of most if not all of the civilizations referenced commonly used as inspiration in fantasy games and literature. For instance, in many sects of Christianity women are often forbidden from holding leadership positions, especially over men. We talk about founding or town fathers but rarely founding or town mothers. Until relatively recently, male heirs were preferred over female heirs when it came to succession for the British throne, and other titles still follow that preference structure.
However, it is also easy for it to be argued that this view is incomplete. The English didn’t go through every living man before settling on a woman as regent, women were still allowed to rule. Better someone with royal blood rule than a commoner after all! Likewise, African-American males in the US often had a lower social status than white women, especially white women of the upper class. That is why it’s important to look just beyond gender, which is part of the concept of kyriarchy.
Examples of the influences of a patriarchal system
Now, for me, it’s quite obvious that we have lived, and continue to live, in a patriarchal culture. Take, for instance, the founding of a city. A group of people, often lead by one person or a small group of people, travel from one place to another and decide to set up a community. Many times the leader or leaders are married men and their wives perform duties expected of them due to their status as spouse of a founder. However, the history books often don’t record what both of them did, but rather record the man’s name as the founder. Both of them were there at the same time. Both of them were often instrumental to the success of the endeavor, and yet the man is the person who gets the credit, the statues, etc.
Likewise, if you ever do genealogical research, especially in the US, you’ll see that it is often difficult if not impossible to trace female lines. Wives often were referred to only by the husband’s name. I have one obituary for my great-great-grandmother and her surviving family is listed as follows: “She is survived by a sister, Mrs. Frederick Westphal and three daughters and one son: Mrs. Herman Schnoor; Miss Dora Gandesbergen, of Bremen, Germany, and Mrs. William Puetz and William Fillmer of Newburgh Gardens, also by three grandchildren.“
Similarly, if you look at the US Census before 1840, you’ll notice that the only name listed is the “Head of Household.” There are columns for males and females where census takers were expected to enter the number of each age group living under the head of household, who was usually male. Slaves were kept under a separate list and, of course, were listed under a white head of household.
Additionally, sayings like “it’s a man’s world,” “who wears the pants in the family,” and the like point to an assumed male head and female subordinate. In a gender equal world, no gender could claim ownership and, even if clothing was gendered, it wouldn’t matter who wore what.
But many men don’t have it easy!
Besides arguments that patriarchy does not, and has never existed, the second most common argument I get is that many men don’t have it easy and, therefore, I need to stop talking about how women have it so bad as if it’s men’s fault. There are multiple issues with that argument. First, no one says that only men reinforce patriarchal systems. We’re all raised in them from the time we are young and we have a bias to the status quo.
Additionally, while patriarchal systems tend to favor men as a group over women as a group, there is still a hierarchy and not all men are going to come out at the same level in that hierarchy. For instance, sons are also expected to be subservient to their fathers (“Honor thy father and mother”). Men without families of their own might never find a time in their lives when they rule the roost. Likewise, if you read Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, you’ll see that too much subdivision of property meant that a resource such as farm land or manors would cease to support the family. Thus, often the eldest son would inherit the land and other sons may be left out.
By the way, if you’ve ever heard of concepts such as the disposable male (the belief that men’s lives are expendable whereas women’s lives are not), this is where it comes from, meaning the blame rests on the natural results of a patriarchal/kyriarchial system, not feminism. But the belief that we would have to get rid of all of the negatives groups of men face as a result of these hierarchies before we can start on women’s equality is also a result of patriarchal thinking which values male interests above those of other genders.
But this woman I’ve heard of supports patriarchy!
If the system was set up to favor men in these ways and you were a woman, it was in your best interest to reinforce the hierarchy in ways that provided benefits to you and/or your male guardian. When we wonder how it is that women can reinforce a system that restricts them, it’s important to remember this.
What does this have to do with fantasy games and literature?
Understanding how our society’s hierarchies formed and function is important when creating new worlds that make good on their promises. For instance, I’m often told that the Forgotten Realms is a gender equal place. But as I look through the content being created for that world, I see the content often doesn’t match that vision.
The difficulty of course is that it can be difficult to write fantasy worlds for readers in a way where they feel at home and can identify with the characters. Books can’t give us every detail for life and when details are left out, we substitute our own experience in. Since these products serve a wide range of backgrounds, especially ages, and we’ve had a fair amount of change since the end of World War II until now, it’s hard to create the worlds that each broad group expects.
For instance, someone born in the US before the women’s lib movement might find it disconcerting to be in a world where one’s gender wasn’t called into question when it came to business, education, or combat. On the other hand, someone who grew up with stories of the Night Witches and the other women who fought in WWII might find it difficult to believe that women would be excluded purely on their gender alone. People like me might find it unsurprising that some people question whether or not a woman can do “x” but may also dislike highly gendered occupations and societies, especially when we’re asked by the writer to identify with characters who espouse those beliefs. I know many people much younger than me find the gendered messages in early D&D modules strange and disconcerting. Details that were provided as hints that a woman was evil, for instance, don’t resonate with them in the same way.
By understanding how the patriarchal and kyriarchial nature of our society influences us, we can more easily separate out what is reliant on those beliefs being commonly held and which are truly based on sex-based or gender-based differences. I believe that can help us in providing content that speaks to a wider range of audiences and also helps us create worlds closer to what we say we want.
For a closer examination of the lives of women in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend Terry Jones' Medieval Lives : S1 Ep 3 - The Damsel and Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies. I've also found a bunch of examples of warrior women from the time period in Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism. Also, after my last post, David Donnelly recommended Nancy Godstone's Four Queens: The Provincial Sisters who Ruled Europe, Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, and Susan Ronald's Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion.