Category Archives: Gender & Gaming

Content on the Margins: How we know what’s in.

Originally published by Mo at Gaming as Women on June 16, 2014

I’ve been having many thoughts recently about stories and gendered (and other marginalized) content, and the practical challenges that groups and individuals face in introducing diversified content to games. While it comes out of a long history of reading and musing and discussions with other Cultural Studies geeks, its recent momentum to get it out of my head and on to Gaming as Women was sparked by (the very smart and articulate) Samara Hayley Steele’s talk Beyond Lords and Ladies at the Living Games Conference in New York City this February, a recent social media discussion that was initiated by GaW’s own Rowan Cota about “the call to adventure”, and after I have just completed a playthrough of Ubisoft’s new video game release Child of Light.

When we come to gaming (or any activity) we come to the table with a framing context. We have a pre-established understanding of what a “game” is and what it does, about what a “story” is and what makes for a good one, and about what behaviour appropriately constitutes the “heroic” or “protagonistic”. This understanding is developed through our lives via a cumulative and learned process. It is influenced by our locality, our community, our media environment, our critical and educational institutions, and very, very strongly through the process of our socialization (in gender and other attributes).

Our understandings are maintained performatively: when we play or even when we talk about games, stories and characters, we create and talk towards the ideas that confirm our understandings, and casually – often unconsciously – reject those that don’t. When gaming with others we are in a constant process of negotiating, cultivating and policing our communal and personal understandings (even if we never have an actual conversation about or can articulate what we think they should be). Social feedback can come as overt and direct policing: “This plot sucks, dude”. However, the majority of feedback is more subtle and subtextual: ideas get picked up by the group’s attention, excitement, or engagement… or they don’t. As communities form and operate, they are in a constant state of reinforcing communal standards of many things, including what a game, a story or a protagonist is and should be.

Some play communities exist in more isolation than others. For instance, some localized groups have been playing the same game for 25 years with each other who might not be engaging with the culture of gaming as part of their hobby: they don’t talk about it online, go to conventions, or really know anybody outside their home group that plays. However, it’s important to note that even groups like this aren’t operating fully in a vacuum; they will watch movies, read books, and have life experiences that will influence their individual understandings and the way their communal standards evolve over time.

Highly cultivated communities like this will likely have strong network of community standards. Standards will be custom-fit to the needs of the community in question (1), they will feel consistent, be more entrenched and will change with greater difficulty. If newcomers come, they will be more likely to be subject to the community’s standards than to be able to use their own. In short, strong community standards are established enough to form a contextual social gravity. That social gravity is also strong enough in the gaming context to override appeals to the standards of society-at-large.

On the other end of the continuum there are play communities which exist in much more open field. Games may be short or long with a continual ebb and flow of different players that have more, but weaker (and even sometime absent) ties in the gaming context. These players intermix across many different types of games and styles. Greater transitional movement also brings a wider network of ties to the wider culture of gaming through conventions, community events, social networks and social media. Less time in play with specific playgroups provide less consensus-making effort resulting in a more diffuse common core understanding of ideas like game, and story and protagonist. This creates a greater propensity to directly use inherited definitions and recreate power structures from dominant culture and mass media as a shortcut to play.(2)

All this is to say a number of things. Every participant’s experience in the game is subject to some kind of (strong or weak, custom or inherited) definitions of what appropriate play, stories, and characters are, and of what they should do and what they are permitted to be. As I move forward, this is the basis in which I’ll be evaluating how marginalized content, especially gendered content) might meet that model and experience challenge and resistance in integration.

(1)This is not intended to imply that standards in an entrenched community will serve all community members equally; the standards we create recreate and reinforce of the power and status dynamics existing within the community. Socially powerful members of a community will have a greater say in legitimizing standards than others.

(2)This reflection about re-creating the dominant paradigm within open systems is sparked by Samara Hayley Steele’s talk at NYC Living Games. Steele was addressing the propensity for players to recreate dominant power structures within the games fiction when playing in an open world. Once the Living Games publications are available, I highly recommend checking it out. On an unrelated note, you should also check out her talk on LARP and Leisure Labor, it is fascinating!

You Could Be Me, I Could Be There: The Joy of Representation

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women, September 28, 2015

Act One: In Which I Am Changed

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a little obsessed with women’s history, particularly when it comes to the role of women in WW2. And anyone who reads me on GAW knows that I am particularly interested in the Hx/Relationship/Bond mechanics in Powered by the Apocalypse games and how they related to gender socialized play.

So when Jason Morningstar asked me to consult for him as he was fine tuning Night Witches, I was all in. As a thank you, he gave me a gift that he would later offer backers of the Kickstarter: a portrait of me (done by GAW’s own Claudia Cangini), in a Nachthexen uniform. This delighted my inner history geek! But I didn’t realize then how important that it would become to me.

As part of the campaign, a deck of cards was produced to enhance the experience of the game. In it, were plane diagrams, medals, ceremonial dedication speeches…. and portraits of sample Night Witches, new ones plus all of the portraits that had been commissioned for the Kickstarter – including the consultants.

Once Night Witches fulfilled, people started posting pictures, of their books, of the cards, and of their games. As I came across those posts on social media, I would often get a moment of cognitive distortion when I noticed my portrait was on the table in people’s game set up. There I was: a Hawk. There I was: a Pidgeon. There I was: a Raven.

People were picking me as the visrep of the person they wanted to be in their game.

Now, I’m a woman living in the age of media-mandated perfection. And as such, I’m subject to the cruel and usual punishment of the Beauty Industrial Complex. I have not – just like every woman (and most men) I know – come through life without a complicated relationship with my appearance. I think most women, secretly or openly, whether they are beautiful or not, spend a lot of time hating on their bodies. We look into mirrors and see all the ways we fall short.

But here people were, picking me to be what they wanted their character to looked like.

And then this happened:

Someone posted their character sheet with me as their Sparrow. In the options under Body, they circled “beautiful”.

I can’t quite articulate what happened then, but it feels in my memory like that cartoon moment when the Grinch’s heart which is three sizes too small suddenly is pictured expanding so big it takes over the square it’s confined in. And between this lovely thank you gift and this innocuous social media post, I have – even if only a little – changed how I feel about my own body. In the moment that my picture and that option were chosen together by someone far away, the two ceased to be incompatible by default.

And that right there is both the power of representation, and the power of role-playing games as a medium to provide unique and innovative ways to make representation matter more.

Act Two: In Which We Need to Change Things for Others Too.

Games are our dreams. Stories are the way we make sense of our lives, and understand our place in the world. Seeing myself in a game made me dream about myself differently. And sure, this is a pretty specific example: It’s specifically an image of me, and specifically coded in a way that will drive the point home. But we don’t need to go so far to have exact pictures of ourselves to feel represented. In fact, short of actual portraits of ourselves, detail can get in the way. Scott McCloud talks about this idea in Understanding Comics: The less detail a character on a page has, the more a reader can project themselves into their place in the story. Our minds differentiate and create distance from characters by difference: when we see something that is not us, we categorize and say this is me and that is not.

I’m a white cis woman. While there are a lot less white cis women in game art then there are white cis men, there are a lot of white cis women too. Few of them look anything like me. They conform much more magically to the strange and terrible demands of the Beauty Industrial Complex, often even where those demands include the need for anti-gravity technology or spinal surgery.

The art in game books include enough things that aren’t me to make my brain trigger distance. People who look like me do not exist in this game. But the art in game books include enough things that are me to make my brain trigger proximity too: I see white faces, female faces, cis people. They read: the people in this game are more beautiful versions of me. That might not be the best thing, but it’s a place we’d all like to escape to.

But if I’m not white, or I’m trans, or I’m otherwise absent in the visual field, all the game says to me is absence. This is not a place for you, you are not here.

I’d really like everyone engaging with games (and other media) to have equal opportunity to dream themselves beautiful.

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 7 – The X Card as Care Overlay

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women, October 23, 2013.

Last time I talked about ways that care and justice players could come into agenda conflict in games while discussing some personal experiences in White Wolf LARP and MUSH. I’m reaching the end of the care and justice part of the series (at least for now) as it’s only one of the topics I wanted to explore and has gone on longer than I had originally intended! In this last article I’ll be talking about the X-Card, how it relates to care and justice, and how discussing it reveals things about our orientation.

For those unfamiliar with the X Card, it is the brain child of John Stavropoulos. John is the President of NerdNYC, one of the team leads for Games on Demand GenCon, and was part of the team (along with fellow GaWdians Jessica Hammer and Meguey Baker) that went to Ethiopia last year to develop practical social justice development games for Girl Effect. He is an all-around awesome guy and a GM for literally thousands of players a year. The concept of the X card is simple: There’s an index card with an X on it. It sits in the middle of the play table. At any time, if any person involved in the game becomes uncomfortable, they can tap or pick up the X card and the thing in progress will stop – no questions asked, no explanations required.

The X card is a mechanic – one that negotiates social play. But it’s a mechanic that is independent and transferable. It can be used in conjunction with any system. It serves as an overlay to the game as it exists – a rule zero over every other mechanic in a game’s system. The X card works functionally at several levels:

First and most powerfully (IMO), the X card frames play and shortcuts social contract of the game. Introducing the X card initiates a conversation among all participants at the beginning of play. It sets (particularly when introduced as recommended) a clearly communicated set of priorities to everyone involved. Directly from the X Card document: “The people playing are more important than the game we are playing.” Participation within this framework – effectively achieved only via buy-in – establishes a firm group commitment to tend to the emotional and social needs of the people at play, even, if necessary, at the expense of the fictive outcome, the flow of play, the play experience, or the game’s design.

Next, the X card enables and facilitates social safety at the table. It is a particularly important and powerful answer to dealing with hard psychological triggers being set off in or around the fictive content of the game (e.g. rape, child abuse, addiction) which could slide an otherwise happy play experience towards trauma. However, it is also fully legitimate to use the X card to overcome barriers to social enjoyment (e.g. undesirable subjection to in or out of game racism or sexism) or personal comfort (e.g. a player experiencing too much bleed).

Thirdly, with most playgroups, even talking about the X card in a way that frames the priority up front will influence the social environment in a way that makes the participants more mindful of monitoring comfort and distress around the table. This can create an environment that is more inter-personally supportive, and in which the X card is actually less likely to be used(1).

I shouldn’t have to explain too much at this point about what kind of facilitator this overlay can have for care oriented people, especially in unfamiliar groups where relationships are not pre-established (e.g. con games, first time groups) or where relationships may be known but the system is unknown or may feel dauntingly justice-oriented. It states upfront that even if the rest is unknown, the priority is that we as a group will take care of you, and will make sure our relationship with you is OK. This kind of overlay can literally make access possible for some players and some games or communities. I personally don’t think it’s a co-incidence that the X card grew out of John’s wealth of experience in communities of play that have an explicit – and successful – agenda of attracting and promoting diversity among participants.

Unsurprisingly, the X card does also have its critics. As an example, players who find their fun in an agenda that prioritizes brutal (but consensual) brinksmanship legitimately don’t want safety nets to overlay the game. Players who find their fun in unsafe (and again, consensual) edgeplay with strong bleed and do not want anyone to have an out(2). There are many games that are at legitimately at odds with X card use. That’s not surprising! All mechanics, both core and overlay should serve the goals of the participants and their desired outcome of play. The X card can actually help clarify terms for players that like these kinds of games. Right up front, the X card is a clear and present signal that the game does not support their kind of play, and allows them to opt out.

But back specifically in terms of care and justice: some (often strongly) justice oriented people find the concept of the X card deeply uncomfortable. Remember that justice orientation assumes separation, prioritizes self , serves goals around autonomy, agency and is deeply concerned with rights management as mitigated and enforced by an external system. This all means that the X card inserts a fundamental short circuit into their desired game structure. It says: “At some point in the game, I may suddenly and unexpectedly lose my right to safely proceed in pursuing my goals without any explicit justification”. And because justice oriented individuals reach to universalized principles or points of view rather than localized ones, creating a mechanic that specifically prioritizes the needs of an individual in the moment over the global laws of the game can seem extremely arbitrary, and feel violating to their base need for fairness – and justice – in the game.

Notably, this is a barrier for some justice players and not others, largely because as an accepted overlay it is part of the express and explicit mechanical system of the game, and as such can comfortably fulfill many justice-based players’ conceptual understanding of what fairness means as the course of the game. But if that is not that case, and we come across a game where there is a critical divide between actual players at the same game, what then? This is the point that things become political. To quote Leonard Cohen: (i)“it’s the homocidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat”(/i). Whose needs will get met, how will they be met and why? (3)

To me, it’s critical to evaluate these situations contextually. As an overlay to an existing system it should be contextually compared to that system’s degree of support for care or justice. For example, an X card may be a small ask when used as an overlay on a system that offers strong justice support, especially one that also restricts care orientation. But when the situation is reversed (strong care support with strong justice restriction) the X card may further disenfranchise a justice player at the table. Whose needs are more consistently being met, who needs more support, and what is the X card doing in service of those goals? Also, worth considering is the context of the game. Within the community of practice (organization, con, single group’s history) what is the level of systemic support for players of each orientation? Will offering concessions like the X card create an environment where fair access and inclusion can be more equitably be distributed until more care supported games are designed and offered?

It’s also important to contextually evaluate the whole X card frame structure rather than just looking at individual moments of its mechanical invocation. The X frame as asserted in the social contract emphasizes a responsibility to tend to the communal social environment. This means that as well as creating opportunities for players to invocate their safe space, it should socially influence the participants towards containing misuse. In practice, those that have greatest opportunity to report on the X card’s use in actual play (like John) report that the X card itself gets used very infrequently. I personally think that people who have been socially conditioned towards care orientation are by the same conditioning more likely to invoke the X card, more likely to respect the boundaries of accepted use, and more likely enact autonomous acts of reciprocity(4).

And that’s some of my thoughts on the X card! Next up: Who knows? I’m going to choose a new topic for the next chapter of posts.

(1) For an first hand use of the xCard in game, see Brie Sheldon’s article on her X card experience
(2) There are strong similarities between the X card and the Nordic larp safewords Cut/Kutt and Brake/Brems both in terms of desireability (for use in emotional situations), and in the mechanisms themselves.
(3) This conflict is also at the heart of many of the con harrassment policy debates.
(4) Please be clear that I am not implying that care orientated people are any more immune from personal dysfunction, transgressive or coercive behaviour than justice folks. A person’s quality of behavioural interaction is not determined by their orientation, the orientation is only the paradigm we see their choice of actions enacted through. There will always be assholes on all sides!

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 6 – Self Organization with Care and Justice

Last time I talked about how care and justice models can come together in harmony and I used Powered by the Apocalypse hacks as examples. This post I want to talk about a few experiences I’ve had where care and justice disputes were at play, what players did about it, and how play environment was affected. This post is where my personal experience meets the heuristic model I’m using to explore, so mileage may vary.

When I was a kid, I played D&D at a creative cultural centre. There were several groups that played at the venue weekly. I was the youngest of all the players, and the only girl. Eventually there came a time where I couldn’t return, and since I didn’t know anyone who played at school or my neighbourhood, I drifted off. I had a brief sojourn into Paranoia in high school after discovering the box set in a bookstore, but my friends weren’t into it. It wasn’t until university, when I was deeply involved in theatre that I came back to gaming.

My coming back story is a little unusual: I had acted in a number of “soaps” (improvisational serial theatre in which a dedicated audience would come back to watch week after week). In many ways, they were not unlike modern Nordic art-larps, but staged for a paying audience. One of my friends from the soaps who happened to be a gamer decided to make a new soap out of a tabletop game that had just been released, Vampire: the Masquerade. The series ran for 12 episodes, had a consistent audience and was a lot of fun to do. Later when Mage: The Ascension came out, we did a five-part “miniseries” based on it, too. So when V:tM (Mind’s Eye Theatre) LARP was released, it seemed natural to get the cast and some of the old audience together to give it a try. Back then, we played pervasively in a square six block radius in the city we lived in, and used our theatre and an art gallery as safe spaces to play scenes that might otherwise “spook the norms”. I was hooked.

Over the years, I’ve encountered a lot of women who talk about coming back (or to) gaming through these games, and when people talk about this, it seems most often attributed to theme and genre. This was a draw in my era, for sure. Back in the first wave of V:tM most of us had been fans of Lost Boys, the Buffy movie, The Hunger and Dracula, and most of my female friends were die hard fans of all things Anne Rice. For the group of women I re-entered gaming with, dark romance was absolutely core to the attraction. I am sure is still true of young Twilight, Vampire Diaries and True Blood fans today. Genre and theme can not be underestimated, but I also don’t think it’s the whole story. While many of the women who came to LARP went on to play tabletop White Wolf games, a good many more did not. So what was sticky for us about LARP?

The feature of pervasive play was an important factor to the new-to-gaming female players in these particular games. Because respecting the “masquerade” was critical to your in-fiction survival, the everyday people surrounding you at the bar, cafe or city street shouldn’t really be able to tell that you’re a vampire. Because being subtle and pervasive was critical to the smooth continuance of the game, random cops, business staff, and private property owners shouldn’t really ever get concerned about your behaviour in their space. This generally meant a large volume of quiet play in small groups with a close focus on relationships, social structures and political maneuvering. It also meant considerably less physical combat overall and less invocation of the formalized system. It also meant that private zones (like the Masquerade-lifted theatre and art gallery, and their rooms occasionally used for blackboxing) were often intense, full of combat, and where the “main plots” and Storyteller attention were focused.

In general, many more women than men held a sort of stationary court in the bars and the cafes, and many more men than women roamed from site to site and filled up the space in the masquerade-lifted zones. I think that’s significant, and that there were probably a lot of causative factors involved in that behaviour. Most of the female players were brand new to gaming, and public spaces probably felt more accessible. The Masquerade-lifted zones were often loud and aggressive, and you knew if you hung out there that you would end up drawn in to conflict eventually which for some was less desirable. Many women were drawn to the transgressive nature of pervasive play (being in a place that expected you to be yourself, and being able to subvert that by being someone else) and I remember a lot of discussion about how doing it changed the way people felt about the places themselves and their relationship with other people. I also remember that when complaints came about pervasive play, that the complaints were always from guys and usually about how having to think about who was watching / listening in public spaces and act accordingly limited their play. I see some Care and Justice themes in many of these factors.

I also have a sense that MET LARP, as a very loosely governed system provides some freedom due to a wide player to storyteller ratio. That gap means that there’s plenty of room for characters to cultivate pockets of play that suit their their own micro-cultural preferences. If a subgroup is content to be non-demanding of Storyteller time and not to feature in the main spotlight , they’re mostly free to do their own thing on their own terms. As we looked at before, care-orientated folks may navigate more comfortably within the fiction through freeplay(1) and choose to engage the justice-oriented system as they have desire and confidence. Because LARPs are so big and populated, and particularly geographically dispersed pervasive LARPs like this one, they give room and rise for care-oriented players who are good at this kind of thing to go do it on their own.

But while the nature of LARP allowed micro-communities of care to be symbiotic at times, this structure could also create conflict. As the Camarilla organization rose up, and LARP tourism started to occur, status mechanics were introduced to track and enforce social status within Vampire society. I remember this being a particular place where care and justice oriented players would end up coming to hard odds. Care players, deeply concerned with the cultivation of relationships, necessarily awarded characters who did the in-game social work a natural respect and social status independent of the game’s mechanical system. Meanwhile, some justice-oriented players who had high Status stats (and were therefore mechanically supported) expected that their social standing should be in effect even though they did not invest in the social fostering of the relationships with other characters (and players) around them. Mechanical system status and social system status – even though they were ostensibly supposed to be the same thing in the game’s context – were obtained, enforced and respected at the expense of one another.

I’m going to switch here to MUSHing, another form in which I played White Wolf games (here primarily Changing: the Lost). Here we have an even greater player to storyteller ratio. MUSHes (online, text based multiplayer games) have a few staff members that interact as Storytellers with players to varying degrees, but in general would do so very rarely. More commonly, the staff would play important QPCs in the setting that maintained the status quo, and occasionally run special events or code more play area on the in-world game map.

MUSHes of this type had a consent-based policy (you could consent or non-consent to aspects of play) with strong caveats about the need to accept in-character consequences for your in-character actions. Interaction on these MUSHes were primarily social, mostly via in-character interactions about the characters’ relationships, and were exploratory of the tropes of the setting. Each player had a private “home” space to go to and invite people into, and gathering places like cafes, bars and freeholds became the local hotspots to meet-up and talk with other. This is an extremely different model for play than WW tabletop with a focus on plot that is driven by a Storyteller, but closer in nature to the micro-culture freeplay in LARPs as described above. However unlike LARPs, where low-system, personal freeplay developed as an ad hoc alternative to the systemically supported play, this kind of cooperative freeplay was the primary mode of the MUSH. As an example, a quick search online found me the consent policy at War Dawn that was typical of the MUSHes that I am referring to. The end line of the policy says it all: “Please be aware that no combat system is a substitute for cooperative RP.”

However, this was complicated by the idea that despite the fact that this was the primary mode, these games were also ostensibly based on the mechanical system of the tabletop games: Your character had character sheets and stats, you could use the system to roll dice, but where the system was (rarely) invoked it was done autonomously and negotiated by the players in conflict. Also significant to the consent-based play, XP was earned by earning other player’s votes for good roleplay. This dichotomy often created a strong clash of agendas in the game. Often this clash was described disparagingly as “roll play vs. role play” or “plot vs inertia” some times this plot was about “playing grim” vs. “playing light”. There were a lot of agendas smacking uncomfortably into a lot of other agendas, but underpinning many of these clashes was the idea that the ethos on a MUSH often boiled down to concepts such as “we work things out between us” or “we build harmonious relationships” or “everyone must make room for one another” and the value/reward system tied to it coming at harsh odds with “This should be arbitrated by staff/system”, “I am pursuing my goals/plot/development” or the “the system says I can” of independent players.

Now one last note: I’ve spent a lot of time talking here and in the series so far about freeplay, or micro-cultures, or ungoverned space as a place that care oriented players can make their own way in. These spaces may not restrict care oriented play, but they also don’t systemically support care play either. Those two concepts are very different things. I believe that while the former might sometimes suffice care players, that the latter is a vast and largely unexplored design space that could bring real innovation in RPG game design and in doing so, open up a whole new level of appeal to care oriented folks that are already players, and a powerful new draw to new players.

Next up: the X card and how it relates to care and justice.

(1) I personally think there are all kinds of people who take advantage of micro-culture LARP space to find fulfillment for kinds of fun that the system can restrict, or just don’t support – not just folks concerned about care-orientation. ↩

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 5 – Hybrid Care and Justice (Powered by the Apocalypse)

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women September 25, 2013

Last time I talked about Nordic larps and provided an example of a game (Mad about the Boy) that had a care mediation bias, though did so not because it expressly provided support for care mediation, but did not constrain care-mediation values and did constrain justice mediation values.

This post will look at some mechanics in games Powered by The Apocalypse and how they are using interesting hybrid models that provide at least partial support to both. By Powered by the Apocalypse, I mean games such as D. Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker’s open source system Apocalypse World, and some of the other games that hacked its engine: Avery Alder’s Monsterhearts, Gregor Vuga’s Saga of the Icelanders, and Jason Morningstar’s game (in development) Night Witches.

The Apocalypse World engine and all of the various hacks have interesting design elements in them that manage, articulate and govern relationships between characters in the game. As relationship management is a core component of care mediation, it makes the suite of games a fruitful cluster for evaluation. In the original game, player characters earn Hx (history points) with other PCs whenever they engage in emotionally intense activity (E.g. sex, healing, harming etc.). You can use Hx as a modifier in certain rolls to help or interfere with their actions in the game, and earning Hx with others is a vehicle to earn experience points. In addition, through special mechanical moves on your character sheet, you can earn Hold on another character (PC or NPC) which allow you to influence mechanically them in play.

This is interesting, because it clearly combines several elements of both care and justice mediation. There is an external system that is built to support the resolution of dispute (justice), and provides tangible tracking for how the relationship is affected (care). It provides mechanical incentive to invest in relationships in the game (care) and mechanical incentive to build a sense of reciprocity when making others do what you want (justice and care).

Notably, while Hx tracks changes to a relationship and creates an idea of providing mechanical support for relationship development (and this seem likes care), what it actually doing is systematizing the relationship. This can actually be used with justice-oriented playgroups to shortcut over relationship management altogether. At the same time, the mechanic does not necessarily constrain care-oriented playgroups from deeply engaging in relationship management. So this mechanic may not interfere with each orientation individually, but by it’s nature it could create cohesion breaks in mixed groups. Also, I am willing to bet that many care-oriented individuals might conceptually struggle with the way Hx gets turned into XP (+3 Hx with a player automatically pays out in 1 XP but Hx returns to 0 as a result) because it conceptually violates the way relationships work (I know you better, it pays out, now I don’t know you at all.)

In Monsterhearts, Avery Alder’s “storygame about the messy lives of teenage monsters”, the relationship mechanics are changed. Hx and Hold are gone. Instead, player characters earn “Strings” on each other through a wide variety of interactions (that are served by mechanical moves) and those Strings can be spent in a variety of ways. You can hinder their actions, you can reduce their successes when they try to hurt you, when you successfully hurt them you can intensify the harm you do. You can use them to put conditions (which can act like hindrances or social stigmas) on others. There is no mechanic in Monsterhearts to manipulate another into doing something, but you can use your Strings as pull incentives to get the other player to make choices you want to see (note that this is both fair and reciprocal). Unlike Hx which is a feature of Apocalypse World, Strings are the driving force behind Monsterhearts. They drive drama and focus into the relationships at the table. It’s a really interesting mix of care and justice sensibilities, and as a care-oriented player, I love the tangible effects that Monsterhearts’ system gives relationships in play – especially as a GM.

In Saga of the Icelanders, Gregor Vuga does some interesting thematic things with gender that I’ll likely explore in another post outside this series, but for the purposes of this article, I’m concerned with the care and justice elements – again, around relationships. In SotI, Hx and Strings are all replaced by “Bond” (Hold is still present, acting as a measure of influence). Bond expressly represents intimacy and social connections and are intended to give the relationships mechanical weight. You get bond by time passing with characters, making moves that focus on your relationship, gaining leverage, giving them gifts, etc. The system asks you to define what about significant relationships are important to you, and asks you to update it with the fiction. This draws players to evaluate and reevaluate relationships over time.

Also, the system has mechanically driven incentives to use moves – essentially hard actions – against the characters that you have relationships with that will put pressure on them and drive social action and relationship change in the game. And while all of the AW hacks have community in their thematic core, SotI manifests it most cleanly. With its saga era settings, players are not just asked to build and maintain relationships with other individuals, but to maintain status, face, and relational standing with the community as a whole. In AW or Monsterhearts, threats and menaces that serve as your situation catalysts are outsiders, often monstrous. They demand your players stand together against the external threat. In SotI the community itself is the threat. It is the life and lives of the people that you live with, who themselves decide your fate and who you must mitigate conflict with.

Night Witches, by Jason Morningstar, is a hack that is still in development, so anything I say about it now may change by the time it gets to publication. Jason shared a copy with me due to our mutual love/obsession with the Soviet Female Fighting Aces of WWII. In the system there is a Bond mechanic which powers relationship management that is similar to SotI. However, what I’m interested in for this article are two differences he’s introduced. Like SotI, Bond is associated with significant relationships in the character’s life. In Night Witches while that includes other characters it also includes the plane you are invested in. Second, the menace/threat positioning models something closer to Apocalypse World in that threats don’t come from inside your community but from outside of it. Here though, a new mechanic is introduced which couples directly with Bond: Stress.

Stress is a measure of your relationship to your environment. For the night witches in WWII that means a charged, often oppressive and unbearable relationship. Characters get stress out of battle, when their close comrades or planes take harm, but more fascinating in the context of gender: they take stress when they act like a lady. This mechanic is set up specifically to underscore the struggling dichotomy that patriarchy exerts on women living and fighting in a world traditionally dominated by men, and (I hope) will serve to illustrate one of the reasons why relationship management is a core value for most women. Stress is relieved through intimacy, contact with family, by fulfilling your story (and also by acting like a hooligan). I don’t know if these extensions to relationship management (the plane, the environment) technically “count” as relationship management for the purposes of care-orientation, but they conceptually and emotionally line up for me on a personal level.

So yeah! I am loving on these games that all really put an intensely satisfying and system supported emphasis on care-oriented values, while respecting justice-oriented resolution. One day I plan to write a series on Gender and GMing, and I will come back to these games to talk about some concepts that are related to this post. But in the meantime: Onward!

Next up: Some of my personal experience around how Care and Justice can interact, in both not so bad and not so good ways. I’ll talk specifically about non tabletop forms of White Wolf: in Mind’s Eye LARP and MUSH play.

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 4 – Care in Action?

Originally published by Mo on Gaming as Women on Sept 11, 2013

This is part four of a series. In the previous posts I talked about how sociology and sociolinguistic studies on gendered communication styles could be useful heuristic tools to evaluate game systems and mechanics. I began with discussing two conflict resolution styles that trend differently by gender (care and justice). I looked at how traditional modes of RPG conflict resolution seem to be justice-oriented, and had a look at how that might affect the experience of care-oriented players at the table. In this post, I’d like to look at mechanics or systems that might have a stronger care-oriented bias, and at hybrid models which seem to combine elements of both.

As a reminder, care mediation is focused on relationship management. It assumes: connection between individuals, prioritizes modes of resolution that are internal to the community (rather than external rules or laws) and emphasizes the need for reciprocity. Tolerance, empathy, and active listening are encouraged and each conflict is seen as particular and contextual (rather than universal). Also, in pretend play, it was noted that girl playgroups generally used care mediation through the fiction rather than stepping outside of it.

So in terms of RPG conflict resolution, what would this look like? I think we could assume that a “pure” care-oriented system(1) would likely not depend on an external arbitrator like a dice roll. We would for certain expect that the system would help make it clear how the relationship of the participants (possibly including any and all of: the characters in conflict, any characters observing the conflict, and all players involved in the game) changed as a result of the resolution. We could assume that conflicts would resolve through a process of talking where being heard is prioritized, and all the participants’ needs are understood, and met equitably well. The conflict in question would likely be understood and considered by participants as a particular conflict (examining context) rather than a “genre” of, or universalized conflict. And ideally, given the tendency to play through the fiction, players should as much as possible be able to reach a resolution on conflict without stepping out of character, or at least out of the fiction of the game.

Are there systems that employ something like this? Recently I played in an all-feme Nordic larp in Sweden called Mad about the Boy(2). The larp was (for the most part) a 360 degree immersive drama game set in a real-world near-future post-apocalypse involving strong emotional themes. The in-game play spanned two full in-character days and the vast majority of conflicts were not governed by mechanics. at all Conflicts between individuals not involving a weapon were handled naturalistically.

When characters came into conflict, they resolved it through discussion in character, much like one would do in real life with another person. Characters did not have stats or abilities, players did not roll dice, roshambo, or do anything but talk. Any player in the vicinity could weigh in as an interested party. No GM/Storyteller/Producer monitored, mediated or interfered with the conflict’s resolution. There was no way for one character to force another character to do anything that they didn’t want to do without the support of, or consequences of the community, unless the character was armed and ready to use explosive violence to do it. Even where weapons were involved (limited to three guns present in the fiction of the game), the rules governing their use were extremely simple:

  • One person pulling a gun assumed control of the room.
  • A second gunholder pulling a gun on the first before the first could train the gun back overtook control of the room.
  • Where two people with guns ganged up on a third with a gun, numbers ruled.
  • A person shot at would be hit, but had the right to determine the severity of the wound received.
  • Is this care mediation? Let’s see: This system is based in talk. It allows players through their characters to negotiate their needs and the needs of others. Meta-techniques in the game like windowpaning (drawing a window to make a dramatic aside to your fellow players) are even present to ensure that where your character is unable to ensure their needs (or your as a player) are articulated, the player can still enter them into the fictive space for consideration. It encourages active listening and tolerance of other players (even when not their characters). It places a strong emphasis on, and provides a strong approval power to the community of play and it’s self-regulating skills (both in and out of character). Because all fiction is expressed naturalistically, the players must confront the changes evident in the relationship as a course of play, or not, as to the dramatic action.

    It certainly supports a lot of care-mediation values, or put more aptly: it does not constrain them. It does constrain some justice-mediation values. While characters in the game could logistically appeal to the authoritative body in the fiction to be a point of resolution the conflicts (there is a government entity in the setting but one that does not have immediate martial power to exert) the game does not provide a source of systemic resolution that clearly determines outcome. Autonomy and independence are constrained by the need to garner and maintain community support to keep power. Reciprocity might equal out to fair but it might not; rights of any individual may not be respected as a matter of community interest inside a charged situation powered by a collective.

    Is it surprising to find a structure which has a care-mediation bias written in large part by women (2 of 3 larpwrights were women) for an all-female cast that prioritizes themes about women and their values and communities? I don’t think so.

    Also, it’s worth noting to find that this kind of structure is not uncommon among art larps coming out of Nordic countries, all five of which rank in the top 10 in terms of gender equality(3).

    Just sayin’.

    Next up: Hybrid Care and Justice in Powered by the Apocalypse games.

    (1) By “system” I am talking about the process play is resolved including social system rather than just mechanics. ↩
    (2) Trine Lise Lindahl, Tor Kjetil Edland, and Margrete Raaum, Mad about the Boy, 2010 ↩
    (3) UN International Human Development Indicators for Gender Equality 1-10: Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, Slovenia, France, and Iceland ↩

Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 2 – Care and Justice Mediation

Originally published on Gaming as Women by Mo on August 14, 2013

Note: The terms “women”, “girls”, “men” and “boys” in the articles of this series are assumed to be inclusive to transgender people who identify as each unless otherwise specified. While I can’t be sure my assumption is valid as none of the research I’ve read have specifically included trans-folks, I have chosen in writing the series to assume inclusivity: that trans-women and trans-men would exhibit the same gender trending as cis-women and cis-men. It’s an imperfect solution, but If I have to choose, I’d rather make mistakes while assuming sameness rather than difference.

One of the areas of sociolinguistics that I find particularly fascinating to read centers around observance and documentation of children at play. There’s a lot of research on this front as sociologists and linguists try to pinpoint the chronology of our psychological, behavioural and linguistic development. It’s fascinating to learn just how early in the process of language, identity formation and interaction that our behavioural patterns become entrenched.

These studies seem especially relevant to me when they are about observing boys and girls playing pretend. Just as our childhood language programming and practice informs our patterns of adult speech, it goes to figure that our childhood pretend play should inform our adult pretend play. As children, we began our patterns around what we think creating shared fiction looks like and how we work with each other to achieve it. As well, we began to form patterns that governed how we work with each other to resolve disagreements while playing our games.

As I understand it, as early as age two, girls and boys generally begin to exhibit a preference to same-gender play groups, and to exhibit behaviour called “benign hostility” towards children of the opposite sex (“Boys have cooties!“). From this point on, and for quite a span of developmental time, play and interaction styles become increasingly gendered. Playing with each other – especially playing pretend with each other – allows us to try on, play with and make sense of roles we might be called on to play, including gendered ones. As sociologists and sociolinguists compare and contrast different genders at play with each other, a lot about our differences are revealed. Conflict resolution styles are one of the major areas of focus.

One of such studies centered around and substantiated a behavioural theory that described two distinct forms of conflict resolution: care oriented mediation and justice oriented mediation(1). Both orientations are offered as two equally viable but convergent paths towards conflict management.

Care mediation is focused on relationships. It has primary concerns which prioritize interdependence, empathy, communion and affiliation. Working from this orientation assumes that those in conflict are connected, and working through conflict is about relationship management. This orientation generally encourages tolerance, compassion, and responsiveness to others. It emphasizes active listening and communicating. It values attention to the needs of everyone involved, including those who may not be central to the conflict. It is agreement seeking, is non-reliant on rules or laws (will also bend rules and laws for the sake of community or agreement) and greets things as particular or contextual and less as global or universal.

In short, when care oriented individuals come into conflict, they approach it this way: We talk through it with each other, we are responsible to each other to fix it together and internally, our relationship must come out in harmony, and there should be a sense of reciprocity.

Justice mediation is focused on self. It has primary concerns which value, autonomy individuality, agency, and self-assertion. Working from this orientation assumes separation, and working through conflict is about rights management. This orientation calls upon a universalized point of view rather than a particular one and centers on one individual’s rights vs. another’s; it aims to ensure those rights be maintained. This orientation calls on an external structure of connection. It values detachment, logic, rationality and control and attends to rights, respect, and status by appealing to rules, principles or laws.

In short, when justice oriented individuals come into conflict, they approach it this way: We assert our case to each other or to those present, we appeal to the external principle to fix it, our individual rights and status must come out intact, and there should be a sense of fairness.

It’s probably not surprising to discover that in terms of gendered play, girl playgroups exhibit a preference for care mediation and boy playgroups exhibit a preference for justice mediation. What makes it all more interesting is the observation that when girls engage in care mediation to resolve conflict, they generally do it through the fiction of the pretend, whereas boys more often step out of the fiction of their pretend space to engage in justice mediation while pointing to things within it(2).

So what does all this mean in terms of roleplaying and mechanics? I can’t of course say for certainty without laying the kind of groundwork in RPG study that sociolinguists do, but there are pointers there that I find very interesting. I think that ideas like this can become useful heuristic tools – we can apply them loosely as frameworks and use them to re-evaluate what we know about games. For example, traditional roleplaying systems have focused heavily on conflict mechanics. In their best known form, two or more individuals come into conflict (the GM and PC(s)) for the purposes of resolving a fictional situation.

Fiction is often suspended while procedure is discussed (who is involved in the conflict, who is taking what agency, what action, in what order, and how we should proceed). Individuals call on rights and privileges (what they are legitimately allowed to bring to the conflict based on the rules of the game and the stats on their character sheet). The participants defer their conflict to an external system of resolution that is separate from all participants and aims to ensure fairness in resolution (a dice roll). The participants return to the fiction and incorporate the judgement into play.

This sequence exhibits obvious justice orientation, and that’s not surprising given that the origins of the hobby were predominately male and strongly informed by other predominantly based male hobbies (e.g. war gaming). People generally and understandably build the systems they are best equipped to build, and which serve their needs to the best extent.

However, today, woman are (in many RPG communities) a pervasive part of the hobby. What can this mean to her relationship to the system, the game, the experience, the people she plays with and the hobby at large? And while women seem to exhibit preference for care mediation, there are male care-mediators too. What does this mean for them?

I’ll posit some potential impacts in the next up: How we fare in Care and Justice.

(1) Gilligan, Carol (1988) Two moral orientations: Gender differences and similarities, p. 223-237.
(2) Sheldon, Amy (1993) “Pickle Fights: Gendered Talk in Preschool Disputes”, Gender and Conversational Interaction, p. 98.

Gender and Game Mechanics Series: Part 1 – Introduction

Originally published by Mo on Gaming As Women on August 5, 2013.

Disclaimer: This is the first part of what will likely be a series on Gender & RPG Game Mechanics. In this series I will refer to patterns of gendered socialization as documented in the field of sociology and cultural theory. When I refer to them as patterns, they are just that: behaviour that has been observed as trending by gender. This series bears no assertion that the behaviours themselves are exclusive to either (any) gender, or that any specific individual person will prefer or adhere to the patterns discussed. Also, I am North American English speaker, and the overwhelming majority of my study has been with North American English language research. As such, this series could probably inform discussion at an international level, but does not intend to speak for it. As ever, context is critical to analysis.

There is a wide body of research in sociology and sociolinguistics that examines how men and women interact, how we speak to each other, and how we differ in terms of preferences, goals, tactics, focus and priorities. As a feminist gamer who has an interest in game theory and design, I have long been interested in using ideas and information gathered from that body of work to explore the games we play, and to inform our theory, design and play practice.

If men and women, have significantly differing patterns of talking and if roleplaying is an activity based in conversation, what does that mean for our games? If the mechanics of the game serve to inform, direct, control or contain the conversation of the game, how do they influence the experience of the people playing it? Through this lens, are some games generally more accessible to women than others? More enjoyable? More equal?

Could a gender-minded design practice invite greater participation of women in gaming? Could it create a greater multiplicity of available experience and practice, and what would this do to our play? Could it serve as an agenda in specialized games that aim to create a cross-gender play experience or to fulfill a feminist design goal?

All of these things are ideas that I’ve been exploring and would like eventually to write about. Hopefully through this series, I can get closer to some of them. As a starting point, I’ve decided to pick a place where there’s lots of juicy fruit. It’s a place that I think might be critical to the intersection between gendered communication patterns and RPG mechanics: where gendered conflict resolution styles meet conflict resolution mechanics.

Next up: Part II: Care and Justice Mediation

Agents of their own Salvation

ABC’s Castle is a fluffy show. On Monday nights, fluff is about all I’m good for.

Tonight’s episode was the second of a two-parter, and I wanted to recommend it to folks looking how to create tension and jeopardy in action genre games without reducing female characters to hapless, helpless, sardoodledum-y plot devices for the male protagonists.

*Spoiler alert for Season 2 Episodes 17 & 18* You have been warned.

The three scenes I’d like to draw your attention two are, well, the three big women in distress scenes. The one at the beginning of Episode 18 where Beckett’s apartment goes boom, the one at the end of Episode 18 when Beckett and Castle go in after the killer and Dana Delaney’s character who he has kidnapped, and the third that happens immediately after the second when Beckett falls at the mercy of the killer and they manage to take him in.

In all three of these scenes, I’d invite you to notice how the women in question are bad-ass agents of their own Salvation, and how in all three scenes, the male protagonist isn’t undermined by their agency at all.

In the first, Beckett, is going to get blown up by a bomb planted in her apartment. Castle, through his magical novelist skill, figures it out in the nick of time and calls her, letting her know that the bomb is there. Cut to her reaction, and the killer’s recorded voice telling her goodbye, cut to the building exploding and Castle’s reaction. Castle heroically busts into the burning building to save her life, but really she’s saved herself by throwing herself into the cast iron bathtub. Sure he helps her out of the burning building, but she’s not really in imminent danger while they go. He’s still a hero – he saved her life by giving her the chance to save herself, he had the hero man action shot: braving the burning building to come after her. He loses no hero points at all, and at the same time, Beckett has been the smart, resourceful, kick-ass cop we’ve always known her to be. Both of them come out of the event more bad-ass than they went in – neither earns their rise in stock at the expense of the other.

Later, once again (it’s his shtick after all), Castle figures out the serial killer’s motive by novelist mojo and he and Beckett go in to save Delaney’s character…

Oh yeah, before I go on with that scene, let me point out that the NYPD have been able to put the storyline of what happened to Delaney’s character because she elbowed the killer in the face and bloodied his nose badly – after he’d pulled a gun on her from the back seat of her car. It isn’t her blood, it isn’t random scuffs of a struggle, it’s an indication that the woman in distress didn’t go into distress without courage and competent physical resistance.

Back to the scene. So Beckett’s given Castle a gun (which has been an ongoing thing in the show) and told him she’s going to lure off the killer and that she wants him to get Delaney’s character free and out and get backup. She confronts the genius killer, and outsmarts him thereby saving the lives of all of the male SWAT team that are about to be unbenownstly blown up in the decoy building. The killer dives for his gun but doesn’t get it because the woman in distress (Delaney) contributes to her own salvation (even though she is tied to a chair) by kicking his gun out of reach. The killer runs off and Beckett follows. Even here when it’s a woman saving another woman, the victim gets to play a part in getting her freedom back. Neither Beckett nor Castle lose any stock or appear any less the heroes for the action. Also, Castle doesn’t rush the scene or steal the thunder. Beckett’s there to do a job and she does it; she’s the kick-ass cop after all. Delaney sends Castle after Beckett to back her up.

Next scene, Beckett’s chased down the killer, there’s a confrontation and a hard-hitting fistfight. The killer does get the better of Beckett, but not until they’ve exchanged a number of forceful physical blows. It’s not an easy for the killer to get the better for her just because she’s a woman. Then he has her gun and he goes to shoot her, Castle who has finally caught up yells “No!’ and gets off a shot which hits the killer. It’s not a killing shot, just enough that the killer drops the gun and scrambles to the ground after it. And here it’s Delaney that takes the last save, with a pulpy high-heeled shoe stepping on the fallen gun, and a gun of her own trained on him.

Taking the killer in to custody, Beckett commends Castle on the shot, and Castle confesses that he’d been aiming for the killer’s head. Here again, the stock goes up on all three characters. Not one of them is ever reduced to a plot device. They all, even the special guest star who could have been red shirted, maintain competence through the episode. Both genders get to be all things: smart and resourceful and physically competent too.

It might be fluff, but as prime time network television fluff goes, that’s some pretty balanced manoeuvring from a character agency perspective. Give it a view through that lens.