For years roleplaying games were dominated by guys, like myself. Games, settings and modules were written, game mastered and played by guys and mostly white guys. In recent years things have changed and I believe the gaming industry as a whole is more gender and sexuality conscious now. Or is it?
I’ve played roleplaying games for well over two decades. The AD&D 2nd edition Player’s Handbook was the first roleplaying book I bought and, man, did I read that book through and through! Often I would just flip through the pages and marvel the many images and artwork, by Jeff Easley, Elmore etc. Never did it occur to me how the different genders were displayed in roleplaying games, fantasy artwork and fantasy literature. The dominance of male heroes was something I never bothered to think about, probably because I didn’t know any female players at that time. Just looking at the covers of these rpg-books, some of my first ones, perhaps puts this feeling of mine in better perspective.
Things have changed since then. Today the gaming industry is more gender conscious and scantly clad maidens is a thing of the past. Or so to speak. Many jokes have been told in gaming groups I’ve been a part of about the great qualities of the chain mail bikinis and other ridiculous armours intended for women. Yet, female characters are still almost always in model-like physique, and seldom have the body of a mother of two, shown pregnant or older than 30.
I can’t think of many systems that have certain rules for gender. In recent versions of D&D there have been sidebars explaining why there gender equality in the game, though obviously it wasn’t so in a historical sense of the fantasy (see 3.5 Dungeon Master’s Guide II, Sidebar: Equality and History page 82). Gender is therefor a storytelling device, it is something that we use to define our characters but has no systematic effect.
Still, though things have changed for the better in recent years, I can’t help but feel sometimes that the gaming industry, just as myself as a DM, father and a person, is still learning. I still see the occasional maiden-in-distress type of imagery and in many settings men make up the brunt of the ruling class, are key players and NPCs and are in great majority when it comes to villains. But since I’m a white, middle aged, middle-class man, I live in a privileged world and my best guess is that I spot at most only half of what female players see and experience.
What about Sexuality?
I’ve yet to find many published modules where other sexual orientations than heterosexuality is a part of the story. Whether it’s the barkeep and his wife, the king and his queen or whatever, even in games where there have been female designers, I have not found many bisexual or homosexual characters (though I would love to have them pointed out to me). But things have been changing and are changing, according to this article on Kotaku.com.
I live in Iceland, where studies have shown that +10% of the population has other sexual orientation than heterosexual. And just as the gaming industry has taken the gender issue seriously, I feel that this is also something that needs to be addressed. Why wouldn’t there be all kinds of sexual orientations in fantasy just as in the real world?
Making different sexual orientation a normal part of fantasy world is just as easy as making it not so. All we need to do is to be open-minded. Perhaps the male halfling barkeep has a husband. Could the arch-druid have many partners, both male and female? Is Aron, the bandit king and a transgender man, madly in love with the Julian, the head of the city-guard?
The story doesn’t need to evolve around the sexual orientation of these NPCs, just as it doesn’t evolve around the sexual orientation of heterosexual NPCs. It’s simply a storytelling tool.
But does gender and sexuality matter in roleplaying?
Yes, it does. Simple as that. It might not matter as much to us privileged people, but it does nonetheless. Because we are diverse. Society is diverse.
Every now and then I host games for my 12 year old son and his friends. My son is coloured and I can often feel his lack of black role models here in Iceland. You wouldn’t believe his astonishment when he first read through 5E Player’s Handbook and saw the picture of the fighter. He immediately pointed the character out and said: I want to play that guy! (Which is one of the reasons I love the new PHB!)
I can imagine that players of different genders and sexuality feel the same way when they encounter something in the roleplaying games, books or modules that they can relate to. That’s why representation matters.
The Golden Rule
The main objective of roleplaying games is to have fun and one of the dungeon master’s many roles (and probably the most important one) is to make sure every one at the table has fun. This means that we need to take things like gender and sexuality into account. It’s easy to dismiss as a non-trivial thing, but the fact is, if we pay this no heed, we´ll probably end up playing by ourselves.