Sexism, Realism, And Other Gaming Dilemmas
Most gamers got their start with D&D or one of the other classic fantasy RPGs, but for me that wasn't the case. The first games I played were modern-day games like Vampire: The Masquerade, with the occasional superhero game or Shadowrun session tossed in for good measure. I didn't pick up any epic fantasy games until later on in my gaming career, and even then I didn't play them very often.
Most gamers got their start with D&D or one of the other classic fantasy RPGs, but for me that wasn't the case. The first games I played were modern-day games like Vampire: The Masquerade, with the occasional superhero game or Shadowrun session tossed in for good measure. I didn't pick up any epic fantasy games until later on in my gaming career, and even then I didn't play them very often. You could argue that because of the way in which I was introduced to gaming, I missed out on a lot of important first steps within my chosen hobby, and you would probably be right. But recently, I realized that by predominantly playing games with a modern-day or future setting, I also missed out on some other facets of gaming that, while less obvious, are even more interesting to investigate.
In modern-day games, unless you're playing in a really strange alternate or parallel world, our characters usually have a set of social values and beliefs that are not too far from our own generally open-minded, tolerant, bias-free worldview. The same goes for games set in the future, even those with post-apocalyptic settings; even if the world itself has gone to hell, the characters are just as enlightened, if not more so. In the present and the future as most RPGs see them (and as most gaming characters experience them), racist, sexist, homophobic, or otherwise prejudices beliefs either do not exist or will not become an issue unless the characters choose to make them an issue.
Play a historical or fantasy game like D&D, however, and everything changes. To a certain extent, adopting a lower level of technology in a game means altering the game world's predominant social mores to match. If you're playing a Vampire game set in a modern-day city, a character who is female and in the Army might cause a few raised eyebrows, but thanks to equal-opportunity employment laws she won't experience much in the way of discrimination (not on an official level, anyway). However, try to play a similar character in the medieval world of D&D, and it seems logical that she'll face prejudice at every turn. How can this affect a gaming group, particularly one in which the players or the characters are mixed by gender or race? Quite dramatically, it turns out.
I started to think about these ideas just recently, when a friend began forming a new gaming group to play D&D in the Oriental Adventures setting and invited me to join. As the group came together, it turned out that not only was I the only female player, my character (a Scorpion Clan samurai) was the only female character as well. Like any female gamer, I'm used to being a gender minority, so I thought little of this fact until the first session rolled around. I'd been in other groups with the DM and a few of the other players, usually while playing a female character, and in all that time no one had ever called my characters' skills into question (well, except for the time that I botched seven rolls in a row, but you didn't come here to hear my gaming stories, did you?). But less than half an hour into the first session, an NPC was telling me that because of my gender, I wasn't fit to be a samurai - something I had never experienced in the DM's other games, all of which were set in the modern day. As you can imagine, it was more than a little disconcerting.
What's even stranger is that, while I was rather upset in character, out of character I quickly realized that it was absolutely correct for that particular NPC to react to me in that way, and that OOCly I might have been more annoyed if he had not. It's true that you could make the argument that topics like sexism don't have a place in RPGs, since they're supposed to be games and not forums for discussions on world-changing issues, and because of the potential for hurt feelings that such controversies always contain. But when you choose to sanitize a particular historical setting in this way, you always run the risk of getting so far away from "the way things really were" that you lessen the campaign's dramatic impact. To use an extreme example, it would be like a DM eliminating combat from his game because people's feelings might get hurt if their characters fell in battle. It's perfectly reasonable for characters in a fantasy setting to experience prejudice (or in almost any setting, for that matter, although this phenomenon will most likely be less prevalent in the present or the future).
The problem, then, is how to determine how much is too much. Campaigns that involve prejudice and the struggle against it are ripe with drama, but they also require that the GM, to a certain extent, play with fire. This becomes especially important to remember when the player and the character are members of the same minority group. In other words, if you throw too many obstacles in a character's path simply because she's female, as is her player, don't be surprised if said gamerchick starts to feel like you've got it in for her out-of-game. So use caution, and know when to stop. When getting anything done is an uphill battle because every town leader or authority figure has to be convinced of a character's worth (especially when other characters can get the same things done with ease), it's a good sign that you've gone too far. A few bigoted NPCs are understandable, but you should make sure to let the character meet just as many who are open-minded or at least grudgingly accepting of "the way things have to be in this day and age."
In the case of my D&D group, my group needed to demonstrate society's sexist attitudes toward Hitomi without being sexist toward Beth in the process, and I'd say their solution was very effective. Since that first session, my character has confronted prejudice because of her gender on a number of occasions, but it was always outside the party rather than from within it.
While the society may have been a bunch of backward bigots in general, the members of the party were assumed to be enlightened enough to overlook my character's second-class status and value her skills. This was an effective tactic because it forced my character to confront and reconcile society's attitudes toward her while still having a safe, accepting haven within the party, and I'd suggest it to any group dealing with similar themes.
As always, exploring such serious themes in a game may not be everyone's cup of tea, and the DM should always make sure the party is comfortable with such strange and disconcerting situations before forging ahead with them. The pseudo-medieval worlds of games like D&D can be ugly places at times, and sometimes situations that would realistically occur there might result in hurt feelings. If you find that you can't have both, as much as it pains me to do this, I'd advise you to sacrifice realism. In the end, it is just a game, which gives the DM a substantial responsibility to make it fun for everyone. Still, if this article convinces you of one thing, it'd be not to dismiss storylines based on prejudice out of hand if you're blessed with sufficiently mature players. After all, angst and drama can be fun, too.