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in another's voice

When it comes to "geek culture," my experience is slight—I've long thought of myself as a computers-and-engineering-and-hacking kind of geek, not a gaming/comics/fantasy kind of geek. There's at least a post's worth of potential self-reflection there, but my point is that despite currently showing few signs of involvement with the second kind of geekdom, I spent several of my high school and college years participating in tabletop role-playing games like D&D and Ars Magica. I probably would be now if I'd been invited into a group in the post-undergrad years before my plate filled with other things.

diceWhat I'm interested in exploring in this post is playing across gender lines—that is, role-playing a character of a different gender than your (the player's) own. (Yes, there is a pattern here.) I don't imagine this is entirely untrodden territory, but I hadn't processed my own experience of being disallowed from doing it in the gaming group I spent the most and longest time in. Specifically, I hadn't processed how bullshit that is. The GM's reason for the ban: verisimilitude. Fellow players would not be able to imagine the character accurately when that character's words were coming from the mouth of a player of a different gender. Such a difference would overtax players' ability to suspend disbelief; it would break the collective fantasy.

An obvious counterargument: if players can overcome the differences between a late-twentieth-century t-shirt-clad, Mountain Dew-chugging American teenager hanging out in a friend's parents' rec room and a pious sixteenth-century Saxon blacksmith trekking along thief-ridden roads, a difference of gender identity is barely material, let alone insurmountable. I may have expressed this argument to our GM, but I had no support from any other players, all of whom identified as male, so it was a take-it-or-leave-it situation. Since these were not only fellow players but friends, and I had a painfully hard time making friends, I took it. In retrospect, I wish I hadn't, not because cross-playing was important to me, but because this absurd essentialism should have been a red flag.

None of the role-playing-game rule systems I've used have either banned cross-playing or discriminated among characters' genders when it came to abilities or characteristics, as far as I remember. However problematic game publishers have been when it comes to issues like objectification, they weren't the problem in this case. No, this was our GM's own policy, informed of course by society-wide ideas about gender, and I'm curious how widespread that kind of thing was and is among GMs.

The one specific instance where I remember cross-playing was with a casual D&D group. To give you an idea of our silliness, I named my character Gillette just so that I could cap a victory by quipping that he was "The Best a Man Can Get." There, though, we didn't embody our characters so much as describe their actions in the third person. We moved figurines around a map of a dungeon. We did not often speak in our characters' voices.

What have been your experiences with role-playing games and playing across genders? As a player and/or GM, have you encountered rules against it? Groups that encouraged it? Systems that imposed gender-based modifiers? Or supported non-binary character genders? And not just for creatures? Did the level of character embodiment make a difference? At the height of embodiment, have you had any experiences with live action role-playing across genders?

[For an overview of some feminist issues in tabletop role-playing games, see the Geek Feminism wiki.]

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 25th, 2013 08:45 pm (UTC)
As a GM, I did at one point forbid it but it was because we had a male player who consistently chose to play female characters who were stupid bimbos. I think my logic there is pretty clear and I won't defend it further than to say it was the best solution I could come up with at 15? 16? I don't know what I would have done if, say, the person I knew at the time who was transitioning had wanted to play. (Not true: I am fairly certain that I would have suggested she play a female character since that was her gender identity. I'm not sure what I would have done if she had then shown up to play in her male persona, which she still used off-and-on at the time.)

I am an old-school enough gamer that I've played the original AD&D wherein female characters got at -1 STR / +1 DEX modifier. I'm sort of glad it's gone, but I never felt strongly about it. It was an attempt to represent real differences in human bodies, whether or not it's accurate, and it didn't actually create a significant disadvantage for either gender. (This was also back in the day when one actually rolled dice to create stats; I'm not sure if that changes how one should feel about it.)

I think about a third of the characters I've played over the years have been male, but that's just a general feeling based on zero actual data. I've gamed for over 30 years; I've played a lot of characters. Typically, it is that the character I want to play happens to be male: "I want to play a surfer dude who's a Cleric of the Goddess of Music and Healing." (Or something. I have definitely never played that character.)

In Earthdawn, the t'skrang lizard-people are ungendered until adolescence and have a female-dominated society, per the books. They also don't have secondary sexual characteristics that are readily identifiable to other races, IIRC. I don't honestly know how that plays out for other gaming groups, we basically didn't do much with it. (My t'skrang character was male.)

While I was working on the Ingressaverse setting for Royal Archivist, I made the dwarves into male-looking biological hermaphrodites. Again, I don't know what anyone else went and did with that, but it was a fun idea to toy with. (And it answers the question of why we basically never see female dwarves: they are a biological anomaly that just doesn't happen very often.)

I probably have more thoughts on this, but I need to run away for a meeting now...
Apr. 29th, 2013 02:48 am (UTC)
I never role played until grad school. And then most? Half ? Of my characters were male. My husband plays mostly women. Of course, gender roles in our house are often reversed, too. ;)

Since I was a novice, I often played big, dumb brutes. But my best character ever was the stereotypical sorority girl. I even had the voice for it ;)

May. 1st, 2013 05:52 pm (UTC)
I've been roleplaying for nearly three decades, and I've only encountered one GM who enforced PC gender. Curiously enough, said GM was going to allow a woman who was either lesbian or bisexual (I don't recall which) to play a male character. My feeling is that this is fairly uncommon, at least among gamers who've finished high school and aren't living in their parents' basement.

Even aside from the obvious feminist issues, I think the gender rule is short-sighted. The GM is going to have to run NPC's that are cross-gender, so the verisimilitude argument is meaningless. I'd like to think that my own GMing has actually benefited from playing PC's that are drastically different from myself, gender or otherwise.
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