This is a guest post by Katie, who divides her time among operating an interplanetary spacecraft, turning the gearwheels at her local hackerspace, practicing the Japanese Way of Tea, and an optimistic number of other things. It was originally posted to her blog.
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.
What 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. 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.]