Unintentional Sexism in RPGs (Even Women Do It!)

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We’ve all seen a lot written about women in roleplaying games. We’ve read about the kinds of games women prefer (roleplaying vs. combat-heavy). We’ve read about how the “boys-club mentality” tends to discourage women from the gaming table. About how the depiction of women in rpg game books can turn female players off…

This isn’t one of those posts. In my experience, most players and GMs want to do everything they can to avoid being sexist, men and women alike. Most are horrified if you find something sexist about their games and will be more than happy to fix the problem. But sexism is very deeply buried in our society and we — both men and women — unconsciously insert that into our games without realizing it.

For those gamers trying to eliminate those elements from their games, I’ve identified eight issues that I’ve noticed tend to creep into my own games, if I’m not careful. With each, I’ve got some suggestions on how to counter-act those issues. If you’ve some tips along the sames lines, please share them! I’m always on the lookout for more ideas.

8 Common Gender Stereotype and How to Fix Them

  1. Watch how you describe NPCs. What words do you use? Do you tend to describe more women as “pretty”, “delicate”, “shy”, “timid”? Are your male characters usually “brave”, “strong”, “fierce”? There’s nothing wrong with brave men or shy women — the problem comes when most (if not all) of your NPCs are described with gender stereotypes.
    • Solution: Make two lists — one of “masculine” adjectives and one of “feminine” adjectives. Pick a certain number of NPCs — say, every fourth NPC you describe — and try to find an adjective on the “opposite” list that will fit the character and use that. You may have to change the adjective slightly — like describing a male NPC as “handsome” or “good-looking”, instead of pretty. But you can have a shy male character, for example, or a “sturdy” female one.
  2. Watch what animals you compare your characters to. If you compare your NPCs to animals, which ones do you tend to choose for women and which ones for men? Are your female characters like does or cats while your male characters like lions or bears?
    • Solution: Similar to above. Make a list of animals you normally associate with “masculine” behavior and one for “feminine” behavior. Draw from the “opposite” list from time to time. A woman can be “fierce as a lion(ess)” and a man can be “retiring as a deer (stag)”.
  3. Watch your character’s professions. What professions do your female NPCs have? Are they all traditional female roles, like caretaker, cook, or cleaning woman?
    • Solution: Mix it up. Occasionally have a female blacksmith or a male pre-school teacher.
  4. Notice any character patterns. A few years ago, I noticed that I tended to make my male characters magic-using types, while my female characters tended to be fighting-types. It wasn’t intentional — just for some reason I have that male = sorcerer, female = warrior association in my head. Do you have a similar type of pattern?
    • Solution: Break your usual pattern from time to time. I still have to consciously make a male warrior character or a female wizard.
  5. Watch your characters’ clothing. I’m not talking about the rampant problem of women in bear-fur bikinis while their male counterparts dress in full plate. This is a matter of having all of your characters wearing appropriate clothing for the tasks at hand.
    • Solution: As you describe characters, make sure their clothing is functional for the kind of work they do. This also goes for things they might be carrying or tools the might be using.
  6. What are your characters doing? When the PCs come across any one of your NPCs, are they always working at gender-specific tasks? Are the women washing, mending, serving drinks, walking the streets? Are the men smithing, fighting, playing chess?
    • Solution: When an NPC isn’t important to the plot, try alternating female and male characters. Have a female fixing a sword or a male playing with children.
  7. How comfortable are you with players who play characters of the opposite sex? As a GM, you have to play both male and female NPCs. Are your players any less capable of do that then you are.
    • Solution: The obvious solution is to allow players to play the “opposite” sex. However, if doing that makes you so uncomfortable you feel you couldn’t GM it, let your players know. A large gaming group (about 12-14 people at any one time) I once belonged to, half the players were women. One of our occasional GMs was honest with us that it really bothered him when women played male characters and vica versa. Because he took responsibility for his own feelings (saying it was his personal “hang-up”), I always played a female character in his game. So did the other women in the group. If you’re honest and up-front about your feelings, most people will respond positively.
  8. Watch for reverse sexism. A game setting where men are never warriors and women are never caretakers is just as sexist as the reverse.
    • Solution: Use the tips above to help you create a more gender-balanced game.

If you’re deliberately creating a male- or female-dominated setting, these tips don’t apply. But if you’re trying to create a more balanced game, these ideas should help. These tips are designed to help those who are trying to avoid unintentionally creating gender bias in their game. I keep this list with my game prep stuff so I can do a quick double-check before each game session.

Are there any steps you take to help gender-balance your games? Please share them!

2 responses to “Unintentional Sexism in RPGs (Even Women Do It!)

  1. Jade,

    Great points and I appreciate you taking the time to articulate them so efficiently.

    I’m a guy, but I’ve grown up in a family of women who are mountain climbers, carpenters, activists, and executives, so my game worlds tend to feature women in “non-traditional” roles. I realize that this viewpoint is new for some people, and I feel like it’s part of my mission as a storyteller, to plant the seeds of change.

    I game a fair amount with my daughter. I often choose female characters and play them in roles that run the gamut of stuff available in RPG systems. Recently I started playing in a game where the (male) GM asked me not to play a female character. As you mentioned, he said it was his hang up. However, why should the GMs “hang up” have that much bearing on the character I play? I’m playing a role. I’m exploring choices and behaviors that I wouldn’t normally. What’s the issue? I gave in to his request because I was new to the group, and didn’t want to cause friction. But I’m sorry I did. That “hang up” is exactly the sort of thing that role playing can be used to educate people out of.

    • Hi anarkeith. Thanks for the feedback. You’re welcome. I felt like we needed an addition to the topic of women in gaming. Something that went beyond pointing out the “flaw” in the genre and actually gave some advice on how to help change it.

      I often play male characters myself. I let my character choose their own sex during the creation process; only rarely do I sit down and say “okay, this time I’m playing a female character”. I also game with my son, who often plays female characters in non-traditional roles.

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