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.

Well written Beth. I have to agree with a lot of what you stated here. Playing any historical fantasy setting does raise a lot of issues not present in modern day games...

Once again Gamer Chick writes a great article.

I must point out though that not every gamer is "mature" enough to face prejudice in a game without taking it personnaly. Either the lack of gaming experience or the fact that people have unresolved issues might keep them from seeing prejudice as a nice roleplaying challenge.

I can tell you right away that the two women playing with us would react badly to this if it happened on a regular basis. Fortunately, our campaign is set in the Silver Marches a country known for its open mindedness so this issue doesn't need to come up often. Once we go to Calimport or Narfell… things might get ugly knowing my girlfriend's character's temper… But then a black eyed barkeep or town guard is always funny.

As a GM I often find it necessary to state that the opinions expressed by my NPC's aren't my own, especially when I have to play narrow minded NPC's or evil NPC's. All your NPC's can't be enlightened people (especially your pimps, slavetraders, humanis policlub members and what not.)

Cthulhu Matata

Excellent article Gamerchick. Reminded me of a game of Cthulhu set in the '20's. One of the characters was Asian and was going to try to go into the same speakeasy as the rest of the party. The understandable bigotry of the doorman forced the party to get even more creative and plan ahead for times when he wouldn't be able to come with us. It also afforded us a moments discomfort as the player of the character was also the only minority in our group. Fortunately, everone was mature enough and he knew none of us ever felt that way about him. (Hell, we were always trying to find reasons to get over to his house for the home-made tamales around Christmas. Mmmmm. Soooo gooood. Mmmmm.)

Sam is absolutely right. A lot of players may not be ready to deal with issues like this. Give it some thought before throwing it in willy-nilly.

I feel I am also stating the obvious by saying excelent piece of work there, Beth. While true that some players sometimes have "issues" or a sensitivity with discrimination (even if it is justified), a good GM (read: who knows his players) will try and steer them out of trouble with scenario. I personally have found that advising players that discrimination might be a problem during their character creation helps them build some parts of their character around it, or avoid it alltogether.

But a confrontation can't always be avoided and other players do get annoyed if someone is never put-down for their marginalised choice of character/style, so an open minded player is generally needed to steer a character like that.

Nice article and comments by all. This is definitely a point players and the ref should discuss in advance of a campaign. I do have one concern -- I think maturity may have little to do with whether a player enjoys having their character face prejudice in the game setting.

At least one female player and one Hispanic male player have commented to me on separate occasions that they had zero interest in playing a game that incorporated sexist or racist prejudice as an obstacle. Why? Because they felt they already had to deal with prejudice on a daily basis, and the idea of dealing again with it in a game was a turn-off.

I agree with all that overcoming prejudice can be a very interesting dramatic conflict in a game, but let us recognize that those who are not interested are not necessarily immature - just uninterested.

Very good call there Madison.

After all gaming is about Fantasy, experiencing what you otherwise could not or may not want to in reality, however doing so without going so far as to losing your true identity.

So suggesting someone who is of a minority race in our world, who is also playing a minority race in the gaming world, should seperate the want to play the minority race in the game world from the want to not feel prejudiced against could in some ways damage that fantasy.

On maturity and prejudice.

Let's not confuse lack of interest and lack of maturity. Wanting a change of pace is fine but that doesn't mean that every RPG has to be a pinacle of political righteousnes where even the warmongers are enlightenend people. If you're the target of racial prejudice in real life and want to avoid it in RPG's that's fine, but don't start crying if your Drow, half orc or tiefling hero is the target of prejudice. Those races aren't well liked by others it's part of what they are.

The same thing applies to a non evil cleric of an evil deity or a non evil member of the Bleak Cabal or the Red Wizards. One should be aware that the price to pay for playing such a character is having to earn the trust/respect/love of others.

But if you really wanted to, you could ask for the game to be a reverse of the situation you're facing in real life. Playing a dark elves campaign would reverse sexual prejudice, playing in Karatur, Chult, Al-Quadim or other Non-European setings could reverse racial prejudice situations.

There's always the "Impossibly enlightened" states like Waterdeep, Silverymoon and Sigil where people are judged mostly on their actions and their membership into certain organisations.

Again players have to want to experience that or have the capacity to deal with it in a way that is good for the story unfolding every week or so around the gaming table...

It's all a matter of choice.

Vive la difference.

Yes, exactly...very good point, everyone. I agree 100% and probably should have made that a little clearer in the article... (c;

Interesting, but I noticed not much is commented about how prejudice is inacted. For example our OA game is ran by a lady who is very meticulous on the socal taboos of feudal japan and I find the do's and don'ts are not necessary lumped under "you are a woman/different race and can't do that". Each early culture had a way of doing the same things we do to day, they just did it differently and did not advertise how they did it. Modern culture has the bad habit of looking at other cultures and saying "that is not how we do it and it is wrong". Don't believe me? Ask a Moslem woman in America to take off her headdress

"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"

Somebody had best tell your GM that there *were* female samurai in feudal Japan. They were called 'samurai-ko' and were accorded just as much respect (for the most part) as their male counterparts. ~switches 'history geek/trivia queen' mode off~

Say Arin,

Isn't that just a myth?
I find it hard to believe there were many samurai-ko since japanese women had almost no place in their military for most of the 20th century.
I'd love to be proven wrong and know more.

There may have not been very many samurai-ko, but they *did* exist.

They did exist, but there were many reasons that they were extremely rare. First, women had a very defined role in their society- that role did not include training in the use of a Katana or any other 'manly weapon'. Second, and probably more important, a woman had a duty to her family to marry well and produce children. One who forsook that would dishonor her family.

A very accurate analogy would be middle ages Europe. Sure, there was Joan of Arc- but how many female Knights do you think there were?

Also, watch Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon if you want a good loook at how the women who broke such social taboos were viewed.

Er... Crouching Tiger and Hidden Dragon, that is fantasy not reality. Michel,s character should have been much more ostracized than that.

On that account Mulan is much more accurate (in terms of how women wer treated at the time in China).

I am an avid player of AEG's Legend of the Five Rings, the game that birthed the current incarnation of the D20 Oriental Adventures. I have copies of both sets of rules (both Alderac's r&k d10 and the D20 system), and just want to make a few citations from AEG:

1. Legend of the Five Rings Player's Guide, 2d. Ed, p. 11. "Rokugan is not Japan."
2. Same text, p23. "In Rokugan, a woman's caste - not her gender - constitutes her position in the Celestial Order." Text goes on to say that in Rokugan, the gender gap is less of an issue than it may have been in Japan.
3. Oriental Adventures, various pages. Descriptions of Hida O-Ushi, Bayushi Kachiko, Utaku Kamoko, Matsu, Mirumoto Hitomi, Daidoji Rekai, and, of course, Toturi Tsudao. Also see the Rokugan D20 text.

Yes, sexism and racism are touchy subjects, and if they make players (not characters, but players) uncomfortable, then they should be dropped...generally. You do have things well-pegged with your comment on mature players...but your DM needs to read the source material...

Sorry about the rant. Check out the D10's so much easier to keep track of.

I'm glad this thread has remained 'civil' if you know what I mean

Whoa, no messages till now? Um yeah, as someone said before, the Rokugan setting is less sexist. People are considered powerful on their skills, not sex.