The Struggle to Create Gender-Neutral Characters

In early April 2014, I had the privilege of playing in College of Wizardry, which inspired my partner Maury and I to contemplate running a College of Wizardry game in the United States.  Among the design choices implemented in that game that we wanted to keep was the idea that every character in the game would be written as gender neutral.  Only after the character was cast would the player make the decision to add gender specific elements as they fleshed out the concept presented to them.

While progressive, letting the players carry the weight of gendering their character also alleviated a common logistical problem in creating characters and casting them according to the player’s gender preference.  Simply put, many larp organizers have found themselves in a scenario where their larp has enough player interest to be run, but that the players themselves do not necessarily conform to the gendered characters as written, requiring players to play outside their comfort zone and costuming, or hasty rewrites that themselves might also challenge players comfort zones when character relationships now change to a different dynamic.

The CoW design also did not presuppose relationships in the character sheet, explicitly assigning that responsibility to the player.  Connecting with other players before the game and forming those relationships themselves allowed the player to make their own choice regarding their character’s gender expression, and then also collaborate with other players regarding their character’s romantic attachments.

As we started our pipe dream of making a United States version of College of Wizardry for the summer of 2016 (stay tuned), we began to start creating our characters, and found that writing them as truly gender neutral proved to be particularly challenging.

The most obvious case was the first character written, who was a third-year student who had a younger sibling that was a first-year student, both player-characters in the game.  As I wrote about these two siblings, I found myself defaulting to male gendered nouns and pronouns, “your younger brother” instead of “your younger sibling”.  So, I would correct this, and continue writing.

I did it again.  Repeatedly, I’d have to reread and find instances of “his, him, brother” over and make those corrections.  This was quite humbling, since I had thought that I could count myself among the enlightened progressives and feminists.  I felt that I, like most people, had implicit biases that affected my point of view and my judgement at any given time, but as a dutiful progressive person, I was making good strides in being aware of them and counterbalancing.  How arrogant in retrospect!  To imagine that you can outsmart implicit bias is highly absurd, but it was only driven home when I had direct evidence of it in front of me; that I myself am affected by implicit bias, and this implicit bias was harming my ability to create genuinely gender neutral characters.

The bright side, is that I’m not alone.  It was a great comfort when my partner gendered a different pair of siblings as male, and I pounced on the opportunity to jokingly shame her, and to declare I was not alone in this mistake (even ironically shaming someone is questionable ethically, so I will state that it was a moment of weakness born from my frustration and disappointment in myself, and I’m sorry.) Further, when we had volunteered as part of the CoW editing team to review their characters in preparation for their three November 2015 events, we found a lot of cases where the writers of these supposedly gender neutral characters wound up also accidentally adding gendered pronouns, nouns or other characteristics and descriptions.

There is some satisfaction that, through practice of writing these characters, the implicit bias that genders all these gender neutral characters is surmountable.  Since writing a character is imagining what a person is like, being able to consciously make a decision not to imagine the character as a specific gender while creating the character attributes feels like I’ve taken a significant step in being a better writer-of-characters, and that the characters that I create going forward will be better characters for people to play regardless of their gender expression.


Recap: Gaming with Empathy Panel Discussion Part 1

Our presentation of “Gaming With Empathy: Creating Play For and With Others” went fantastic. Thank you to everyone who attended.  As requested, we’re blogging some of the bullet points we’d discussed.  This is about one-fifth of the presentation and focuses on strategies players (as opposed to designers) can do to play with empathy and empower others.

This main purpose of the workshop was to help participants identify cases of transferable privilege, determine plausible opportunities to empower others, and enjoy the freedom to make choices unfettered by win conditions and other arbitrarily constructed restrictions that limit play and fun. Our solution to noticing and possibly subverting in-game privileges and reimagining a new social co-creative space is to play with empathy.

To recap, we identified three types of empathy

  • Affective empathy, which tends to happen first, is the emotional reaction that happens neurocognitively through mirror neurons and amygdala reactions. You notice that someone else is feeling a certain way, sad for example, and you feel sad, too.
  • Cognitive empathy, which tends to happen next, is the thinking reaction whereby a person identifies and understands other peoples’ emotions and needs (a point of roleplay itself); also known as “perspective taking.”
  • “Compassionate empathy” or “active empathy,” whereby after feeling and thinking, you make the conscious choice to take a helpful, righteous action on behalf of others. This is the motivation to action we hope to incite in players who can make choices to make a gameplay experience that is collaborative and empowering for all players and can highlight and/or challenge institutional structures that may limit play for some.

We moved to highlighting some things you can do as a player no matter what type of game you’re in. We acknowledge, however, that some games make it easier to play with empathy than others. In a hierarchical larp with betrayal mechanics? Trust may be harder to come by. The bottom line is that you’ve got to play the game that you’re in.

One of the strategies is a shift in personal objectives of the game. We’re asking players to take risks and consider letting go of win-condition thinking. Games can fall along a ludus-paidia spectrum, and play includes both types, as Roger Caillois noted in 1961.

  • ludic goals are explicitly set up to demonstrate superiority, either in skill, strength, or good fortune of the winner or winners. There are clear victors and clear losers; the game has explicit win-conditions that require separating into winners and losers. Your goal is to be a winner, even though you know that not everyone can be. Players are expressly competitive with one another and their personal ludic outcomes are primary.
  • paidia is more open-ended, improvisational, play. Though sometimes characterized as not having goals, paidiac play does have rules, but it does not define winner and loser. There are goals and subgoals, but not win-conditions. The key objective is generally  to play together. We contend that although larps will have ludic goals and characters can and should play with a measure of competitiveness, that a larp itself operates primarily on the paidiac level of players choosing to play together for the experience of the event. The characters are competing and accomplishing ludic goals; the players are enacting paidia when you are gaming with empathy.

But how can I give up my competitiveness? Are you saying I should “play to lose?” Losing doesn’t feel good! We’d like to remind players that there are no non-diegetic (out-of-game) consequences to diegetic (in-game) failure, and that diegetic failure does not necessarily mean the game is over (barring permadeath, of course, but that’s another story).

Some of the tricks and techniques we offered to help encourage empathetic play include:

“What does failure feel like when it can’t hurt you?” – When you find yourself having difficulty letting go of ludic gameplay, I find it’s helpful to ask this.  It lets you assess that the risks you take in larp, do not often have very punishing failure conditions.  What would the gameplay be like if you didn’t have to try so hard to win at every turn?  Try exploring this!

  • “Imagine Others Complexly” – As a simple mantra of thought, it helps us resist our first conclusion regarding someone’s motivations and circumstances, which are often both knee-jerk responses and judgemental.  Entertaining the possibility of complicated motivations or circumstances helps get our thinking into a less reactive and more mindful state, necessary for empathetic play.
  • Dual Consciousness – In addition to trying to achieve immersion in your role, it’s helpful to try to also be conscious of the fact that you are a player in order to be mindful of others while you’re playing together.  When considering consequences for choices, it helps to think about how the choice will affect me as a player, other players, other players’ characters, and the overall gameplay experience.  Even if those questions are difficult to answer, merely raising them primes one’s thinking towards more mindfulness.
  • Betray Up – many larps are designed with a significant intrigue component to drive the game’s plot.  Intrigue, and it’s climax of betrayal, is not exactly all that conducive to empathetic play.  I’d like to suggest that in games like that which are also cases where power is distributed hierarchically, that one tries to avoid betraying “down” the hierarchy, taking a betrayal action against a character who is powerless to retaliate (which I call “kicking the dog”), and instead try to find ways to betray “up” the hierarchy, taking action against a character with plenty of means to retaliate (which I call “punching the man”).  Betraying up is incredibly risky, but as an attempt to try to reverse the standard flow of above in hierarchical games, I think it’s worth trying to explore. See letting go of ludic goals, above.
  • “Yeah!  What she said!” – Under normal circumstances, we don’t imagine a supportive voice to contribute much of value.  I would like to suggest that in larp, supportive voices are of incredible value.  A single supportive voice to someone’s idea or suggestion can help significantly to that person’s voice being heard, and their idea being given due consideration.  Our panel’s participants contributed the experience of making a suggestion which is ignored, and when the same suggestion is made by a player with some privilege, the suggestion is then deemed meritorious.  “Yeah!  That!” may feel a bit like the waving of pom poms, but in larp spaces, where so much of gameplay is derived from imagination and consensus, the act of being cheerleader for someone can produce great results.
  • “Reinforce Non-Standard Roles” – Similar to the above remark, explicitly supporting someone who is in a leadership role that defies non-diegetic (out-of-game) power dynamics can help.  Making it clear that your character firmly believes that the person in the authoritative role owns and deserves that authority can help overcome other players’ often unexamined tendency to disbelieve a player enacting the role whose embodied appearance doesn’t conform to their expectations of what that role would look like (e.g. a small female battle leader).  
  • “The Relationships You Form Are Better Than XP” – It helps to remember that when you leave a larp, all that you’ve achieved and accomplish don’t follow you back into non-diegetic space once the game is over.  The exception is that the relationships you form with the players do stay with you, and they are of incredible value.  Even in cases where gameplay is resumed from session to session, or there are opportunities for win-conditions during gameplay, it’s easy to imagine someone “winning” the game, but alienating other players to the point where they are not invited to form relationships.  Likewise, someone that “loses” but plays well with others and forms positive relationships with other players, can be said to leave the game with far more than they entered it with, and has, to a certain perspective, “won.”

The Serpico Effect

Frank Serpico got shot in the face. That is really what I was talking about when I jokingly coined “The Serpico Effect” when in conversation with Maury about our plans for this blog.  Speak up or raise a fuss, and you can get shot in the face.  The context, though, is where it connects to privilege, social justice and gaming.

Frank’s incredible story can be looked at as an example of what can go wrong for anybody when you make an effort to change things and a lot of people are invested in making sure nothing changes.  What I think is worth examining is the fact that Frank’s role when he took action to expose graft and corruption in the New York City Police Department is that of a privileged individual trying to enact a change in a system that privileges him.

It kind of blows my mind to just think that over, the level of retaliation thrown his way.

I referenced The Serpico Effect in that conversation to try and explain how difficult it is for a privileged individual to do anything about their privilege. For a lot of people with privilege, they are caught in a trap of circumstances.  If they care about justice, they know that they appear to the less privileged to be a collaborator with the oppressive institution.  But if they are cautious regarding consequences, they are very aware that the privilege that they have gives the system serious leverage.  If the system doesn’t benefit you, you don’t have much to lose by complaining about it, but if you do benefit from it, complaining can cost you all those benefits.  Worse, if you make a real mess of things, the retaliation you can expect for throwing a monkey wrench in the machine can escalate to something far worse for you than just having your privileges revoked.

Like getting shot in the face.

Or in the case of Veronica Santangelo, voiced by Felicia Day in Fallout: New Vegas, who, as a consequence of pushing for change in the Brotherhood of Steel, endured an attempted lynching (that would likely have been successful if not for the player’s intervention) by Brotherhood traditionalist extremists.

Or to maybe go back a little further, the case of Ramza Beoulve, in Final Fantasy Tactics, who literally threw down his birthright privilege, then was branded a heretic and became a fugitive.

Or maybe any of the many sympathetic characters in David Simon’s The Wire, powerless to effectively make changes in the institutions that control their lives, have to chose to between diving out of the way of the oncoming train (capitulate) or get run down (defiance until defeat).

As Bunk said to McNulty, “Shit is fucked.”

What can we do about this?

I don’t know.

I’d really like to have a lot of strategy and suggestions.  I’d love to talk to Frank Serpico and ask him about the advice he gives the many police who approach him on how they can effectively speak up about the things that they’ve seen and do not want to be silent about, how to be better lamplighters of the truth, and how to do so in ways that would expose them to a minimum of retaliation yet still accomplish the goal of making change for the better.

But for now, the best advice I can give is based on my puny and ineffectual attempts to speak up for others a few times in my life:

  • Prepare for retaliation.  Not quite being blindsided by the people that you’d previously come to trust takes a bit of the sting out.
  • Don’t expect recognition.  Failing to make a real difference and bringing shit upon yourself won’t get you an A for effort, a thank you for at least trying, or acknowledgement of the cost you’ve paid.  It’s also really possible to look like an utter jerk if you appear to think you’re entitled to this stuff.
  • Don’t expect success.  Even if you successfully get your voice heard, and promises to take action are made, don’t believe it.  If the goal is to shut you up, letting you think you’ve achieved your goal is a remarkably effective tactic.

That’s bleak though.  But I think I need to accept that I’m not quite the heroic personality that Frank Serpico was, and that a lot of similarly privileged folks out there are not either.  And even you have the heroic temperament, the will to do what you think is right in spite of what may come, you can’t help but notice that those people who speak out face significantly high costs.

Like getting shot in the face.

More to come.  In the meantime, tread carefully.

Are we having fun yet?

So, if you’ve read the last few posts, you may be wondering what all this talk about privilege and empathy and rhetoric has to do with gaming. At first glance, nothing.  Then, if you think about it, everything. How? Let me give a few ways:

  1. Nerd Entitlement: Aaronson speaks about being a nerdy white male and being less privileged than other white males. Because gamers and gaming is an often stigmatized group (at least in the United States), our subculture is a geekdom and participants are often “nerds” (whether called that in derision or embracing that as an identity). Gamer culture has a proportionally larger number of “lesser privileged males,” who by virtue of their interest in gaming (or their social awkwardness that drives them to seek it out) become part of this group. Thus, Aaronson’s point of view of not recognizing or understanding privilege as a result of his own marginalization and underclass treatment can be a relatively common one in gamer culture. In fact, I’d argue (and I’m pretty sure Ben agrees) that this is the root of certain feminism-resistant groups in gaming culture and their backlash against feminism in gaming. Lots to say here. More to come.
  2. Games are culture: We can learn a lot about ourselves and our culture by looking at the games we play. Play is a simulation of real life, but with differing structures and rules that create new paradigms designed for fun. Roger Caillois notes that play is governed by rules that provide a level playing field for all participants and consists of finding a response to the opponent’s action – or to the play situation – that is free within the limits set by the rules. These rules are socially and culturally constructed by game designers, storytellers, and the players themselves. Even with these game rules and mechanics, out-of-game power structures and representations get replicated, and the empowerment that is possible from games can often be distributed in normative ways rather than allowing and encouraging the liberating possibilities of play. This phenomenon is an ongoing source of inquiry for us and many others.
  3. Privilege exists in games: Games, as a cultural creation, are not immune to the social issues that exist outside of games, privilege included. Some in-game factors such as genre or historical time period call to mind certain representations of gender, race, and class. Yet certain players have power in games, regardless of their character. This power comes from outside of the game and is not fully mitigated through game mechanics. It is the result of out-of-game cultural norms as well as previous personal experience (in- or out-of-game) with specific players. Generally (but not always) at the top of this category are larger or stronger bodied, white, straight, loud-voiced men. By default their character is often deferred to (many times unconsciously) by other characters due to socialization outside the game. Exploring this privilege and how to use empathy to be aware of it and possibly transfer it is the crux of our work at the moment, and the focus of our upcoming presentation at Intercon O.
  4. Games can be safer spaces: Because games are microcosms that have their own explicit rules, a game can facilitate a respectful and tolerant community, a safer space. The injustices, intolerance, and marginalization that occurs outside of a game can be mitigated or upended within it. Many Nordic Larps and American Freeform games explore these opportunities. In addition, a game has the ability to reset the parameters of reality, which also allows awesome opportunities to explore equality. Fantastic settings don’t need patriarchal systems and realism can be reimagined by players, designers and organizers. Gaming communities also have a specific play culture: guidelines, norms, or implicit rules that may not be codified or written into the game rules and mechanics, but are nonetheless expectations of participants and are enforced informally by community members and/or game organizers. It is here that dialog about empathy, equality, and social justice can be translated into felt reality. And what begins to happen in a game or gaming community can begin to happen outside of it. This is what excites us.

These are just a few ways that we believe the discussions about social justice, nerd privilege, feminism, equality, and other -isms come into play with regard to gaming. We plan to explore each of these in more depth here, and we hope you’ll let us know what you think.

Follow Up: Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

Following up on Maury’s post, (who I also owe a lot of thanks for helping me edit this cumbersome word vomit into something comprehensible) I’m going to look at some issues that are raised by Scott Aaronson’s blog comment, and try do it responsibly, with sensitivity, and finesse.  Let’s see how it goes.

The first thing that I want to address is that I believe that the guy is sincerely telling us this story from a place of vulnerability and shame, and that lends some credibility to his sincerity. If you really fight me on it, I’d probably have to admit that there’s a strategic time to offer up vulnerability and shame, precisely to leverage believability, but I’m going to work from the assumption, which I believe to be true, that it wasn’t strategic, and that the things he had to say about himself in comment #171 were genuine.

As others have already noted, I think there’s a case to be made for being sensitive to that vulnerability. That the thoughts he brought to his therapy were those of a young man who was suffering, and while there are some rather profoundly problematic elements to those thoughts, going too far on the attack on someone who is sharing “this is what I was thinking” really only teaches others “never share what you were thinking” rather than “let’s talk about how what you were thinking was problematic.”  Here is an admission from Aaronson’s youth that I found particularly troubling:

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

(For disclosures sake, here’s where I out myself as a white queer cis male, which happened on this blog far sooner than I thought I would, but what can you do, really.)

In the course of narrating his own suffering, Aaronson compares himself to others, making assumptions about women and gay men that are both essentializing and inaccurate. He’s a straight white cis male imagining the life of the Other Other Other Other, and he is imagining that the grass is greener on the Other side. When Aaronson imagines the lives of Others while coping with his own suffering, he really believes that our lives are categorically better:

Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my “male privilege”—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.

But I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things.

Because he is so fully engaged with his own suffering, Aaronson cannot acknowledge his own privilege (which may indeed be less than some men) and he cannot acknowledge the suffering of others. In addition to his struggles in his life that I believe are very real suffering, I believe he would be categorically worse off if he were he any combination of Otherness on top of what he already had to deal with.

What I think might be more important though, is that it should not be that surprising that Scott came to that conclusion about his lack of privilege, and that he’s not alone in that kind of thinking in the least. When a person is nearly drowning in their own very real suffering, their ability to consider the suffering of other is compromised.  When white straight cis men who have been bullied, been abused, been harmed, and whose memories of their lives are full of such suffering, is it so hard to imagine that they’d take umbrage when confronted about their privilege?

I believe it’s precisely because of this that it’s so difficult to have a conversation about privilege; that it simply does not compute for those who have led difficult lives. Privilege is an advantage, and when someone is told they have an advantage while their memories of their lives show a distinct lack of advantage, that person is going to feel like they’ve just been falsely accused of a crime. Thus, they will often actively engage in narrating their own version, the one where they are the victim and not the Other.

Aaronson references his awareness of the lack of support and recognition he can expect regarding his difficulties due to being a member of the privileged group.

But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

This received message of blame and shame for being a white male is again, not uncommon.  If a person thinks their life is worse than that of the Other, then when the Other gets recognition for their struggles, and that person does not, they see the Other as the privileged group, not themselves. When you’re part of a privileged group, you may be unable to realize that someone who is not part of a privileged group but otherwise a lot like you, could be looking at you and thinking “If only I could have that.”  All you can think about is that they don’t know about — and if they did know, they wouldn’t want — your suffering. You just wish for the clear undeniable advantages of being harassed just a little less, being scared just a little less, being Other’d just a little less than you are now. These wishes lead to Aaronson imagining that it is somehow easier to be a woman or to be gay, anything other than the privileged heterosexual white male he is. He doesn’t realize that they are feeling the same way he does.

Aaronson’s not a rape apologist. He appears to be rather starkly liberal, in his own words he’s on board with 97% of feminism. It’s just that he recoils every time he’s expected to acknowledge his white straight cis male privilege because he cannot see it in his life, and apparently cannot even imagine it. He simply continues to hear the message that “you are alone.”

But you’re not alone.

One of the reasons that I’m championing empathy is that empathy is one of the tools by which you find out that you’re not alone.  And I’m going to go out on a limb, one that’s admittedly pretty wobbly, to say that had Aaronson actually felt that he was not alone, his suffering would be significantly less horrible.

It’s through empathy that you can make the calculation, come to the conclusion that the suffering of others might be as bad or worse as that of your own.  That it’s also not your fault that things are this way.  That a lot of the time, even when you recognize that you have privilege, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.  That it’s non-transferable, non-negotiable, and sometimes even granted to you by an institution that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be mitigated, and should you try to do something about it, you get the Serpico Effect (which was what I thought I’d write about this round, but that will have to wait.)

You can find that there is a difference between your individual suffering in spite of being privileged, and the suffering of the people who are categorically worse off for being Other, and that it doesn’t actually cost you anything to acknowledge that categorical difference, your privilege, when someone speaks about their experience being Othered.  You can find yourself feeling less defensive when others ask you to acknowledge privilege, because what they want from you is not an apology, but just recognition for the way things genuinely are.

After some reflection Scott makes a follow up blog post that’s so close:

The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?

I think it’s here that we, and Aaronson really, discovered something.  That the idea of privilege isn’t quite so hard to swallow when it’s spelled out.  Yet, being confronted on privilege continues to cause people who are otherwise ideologically aligned with social justice to recoil.  I think that we’re in danger of using “Check your privilege,” to say STFU too often to effectively have any conversations about privilege. When we point out privilege we have to be mindful of what the result is.  Effectively weaponizing it to silence someone that we really ought to have a conversation with is going to bring us closer to the non-communication entrenched partisanship entails, and not the opportunity to listen.  (Maury’s going to address this soon when she examines invitational rhetoric and dominant rhetoric in an upcoming post.)

Engaging with others empathetically, being cautious regarding addressing the problematic thoughts and ideas that someone can have, even while they are being super wrong on the internet, can create better opportunities for getting folks on board with the goals of social justice.  Anger and outrage are necessary responses to a lot of the systemic oppression thrown our way, but I want to make the case that aggressive responses are not the right tool in certain circumstances, specifically ones where patience and understanding, the tools that empathy brings, could achieve a significantly better and more positive result.

It’s not hard to imagine that if Scott Aaronson was met only with contempt, shaming, and ridicule for his post, he would conclude that his assumptions were correct about feminism, activism, and social justice: that they have only one message for him, he’s a monster for being a white straight cis male. He would be lost to us.

The approach from Laurie Penny, and the many other folks who reached out in similar ways, I really believed saved the day here, and I thank them sincerely for approaching this very difficult scenario with empathy.