Saturday 19 November 2016

Guest Post: Women in Historical RPGs

From the British Library collection.
First up, I have to tell you that my project The Age of Miracles is still funding, still crawling towards its goal. Help a neomystic cryptotheologian out, people?

While I'm working on it, I've commissioned some guest posts, which I've scheduled to appear in the next couple of weeks. First comes Dymphna, someone I've enjoyed interacting with over the last few months, and who very kindly agreed to supply some words for my Inner Worlds series on a subject that I felt very strongly needed someone more qualified than me to write about properly.

Dymphna tells me she shifts uncomfortably when asked "Where are you from?" She's largely been published by White Wolf/Onyx Path, and you can find her work among the recent product lines for Changeling: the Lost, Vampire: the Dark Ages, and Vampire: the Masquerade, among others. She blogs at Gaming as Women and you can follow her on Twitter as @dymphna_saith and on G+ as Dymphna C.

Howard asked if I would write something of a “how-to” guide regarding the representation of women in historical RPGs.1

In this post I'm going to assume that two things are true: the first is that misogyny is bad and should be avoided when possible; the second is that historical accuracy, or something like it, is desirable in historical games.

Should women be included at all?

There is a certain amount of angst surrounding the mere inclusion of women. This is partly because we have difficulty imagining women’s existence in historical settings. People who want to include women in their historical games often find that there are very little record about what women were doing in that historical period. Judging by our popular history books, it seems as though roughly fifty percent of humanity has been doing nothing but sewing, weaving, and occasionally dying in childbirth since time immemorial.

This is a feature, not a bug, so to speak: women’s history has been actively erased by misogynistic cultural forces for thousands of years. Those records that do survive are circumscribed by the limits of the culture that produced them. Even when they exist at all, records of women doing things that fit their prescribed societal role are maintained; records of women who resist patriarchy are destroyed or altered to make them more socially acceptable. Records of cultures that supported powerful women were destroyed and supplanted with a conqueror’s narrative. Men who prove unpopular after their deaths are re-imagined as effeminate. Again, this did not happen by accident.

It’s a subject I’ve spoken about with Moyra Turkington, editor and creator of War Birds, an upcoming anthology of games about women in World War II. I asked her why she wrote about World War II, and her answer was something like this:
The commonly-held stereotypes of the role of women in the war – Rosie the Riveter, the white, middle-class housewife with a victory garden – are largely bullshit. They’re propaganda. Women contributed in countless ways to the war effort – including both directly participating in combat and in doing difficult and extremely dangerous industrial work – and we, as a society, have forgotten that. World War II is on the edge of our living memory: if we can’t get that right, then how can we even begin to imagine the past properly?2 How can we even imagine ourselves, modern women, properly?

But what about misogyny?

Of course, it’s not the case that historical sources about women are woven entirely of misogynistic falsehoods. Misogyny existed in the past, just as it exists in the present. Women’s roles were genuinely limited by misogyny in many cultures and time periods. They genuinely experienced oppression, and their lives were limited by the misogyny of their cultures.

Therefore, people who want to include women in historical games are presented with something of a quandary: do we portray women as contemporary sources depict then, naïvely accepting the truth of our sources, or do we invent something entirely new for them and risk losing something important?

“Historical accuracy, my ass”

Including women in a historical setting will typically involve a certain amount of fantasy on the part of the players. But don’t fool yourself: everyone in your game is playing pretend and imagining the past as it never was. To an extent, every historian is engaging in a flight of fancy when they imagine the past.3 The key, of course, is knowing when your imagination has some basis in historical record and when you’re just piecing stories together from our own problematic cultural assumptions about what the past was like.

It's also worthy to mention is that virtually no game cares about total historical accuracy in the same way that virtually no game cares about total realism. For example: I’ve seen very few games where the player characters risk death from mundane intestinal parasites, even though there are an uncountable number of pseudo-medieval RPGs on the market.

So why do we care about “historical accuracy?”

The short answer is that we don’t care about it – at least, we don’t care about historical accuracy as such. Well, you might care about it if you’re a re-enactor, but most of us (and certainly myself) are not re-enactors: we’re storytellers. We care about historical accuracy because it expresses a theme or an atmosphere that we want to explore in a game. We care about it because it captures a moment that we think is important.

When, then, should misogyny be included in your games? There are no easy answers. Nonetheless, I’ve listed a non-comprehensive list of principles that players should keep in mind when designing their games below.

Recognize the weight of misogyny. Do not invoke misogyny lightly. Don’t use it as a cheap way to show everyone who the bad guys are. For the female players of your game, misogyny isn’t a game. It’s something they have to deal with every day. It’s screamed at them from moving cars; it’s insinuated at them in their boss’ smiles; it stares back at them from meagre paychecks; it seeps into the cracks of their most intimate relationships — and that’s if they’re lucky and they are not one of the 35% of women worldwide who will experience domestic or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Misogyny hurts, and sometimes it kills, and it is virtually impossible to escape. If you’re female and not especially bothered by misogyny, do not be indifferent to the suffering of other women. If you decide that you want to include misogyny in your game, you must understand this as well as you can.
Do not include misogyny as a “default” for your historical settings. Do not assume that “historical” means “misogyny as commonly understood in my culture in the 21st century.” Modern misogyny is expressed differently from how it was expressed in other cultures and contexts. Do not assume that a 21st century understanding of binary gender is the default of every setting.

Consider the Edo period: the predominant systems of philosophy and law were nakedly misogynistic. Yet the gendered power dynamics of the world were very different from our understanding of what “sexism” looks like. Men, monks, wakashu (a young man who dressed in feminine clothing and might have sexual relationships with men or women),4 married women, married women with no children, unmarried women, sex workers (which were further categorized depending on economic status), widows — all of them belonged to a distinct sexual category. This is not a world that can be understood by slapping Leave It To Beaver-esque ideas about gender roles onto it. Anyone who wishes to portray the misogyny of the Edo period ought to have at least a basic understanding of how gender worked at the time.
  • Include misogyny if it is important to your game. Justify to yourself, why your game needs misogyny. Does it support the themes of your game in a crucial way? Be prepared to justify this to your players.
  • Consider respecting your players more than your game. If a female player says to you, “I want to play a woman in this game and I don’t want any bullshit for it,” listen to them. You might say, “Then this isn’t the game for you,” in response – you can say whatever you want – but don’t dismiss her outright.
  • Tell your players ahead of time. If your game is going to include misogyny, tell your players in advance. Surprise misogyny from an unexpected source is the least fun kind of misogyny.
  • Allow women to imagine themselves. Misogyny and patriarchy cannot end until women are free to imagine themselves independently from those structures. That’s one of the reasons why I love roleplaying so much: it allows me to imagine a world where patriarchy never existed. I create heroines because I must: the world I live in has done its best to destroy the memory of the women of the past, to great and tragic success.

We cannot be free in the real world until we can imagine what a free world might look like. When you impose additional misogyny on the collective imagination of your group, be very careful.

1In the Western RPG player’s imagination, “historical” generally refers to an RPG set before 1980, almost exclusively in Europe, the Mediterranean, or occasionally Japan, or fantastical ersatz versions of those regions. (back)

2To be honest, her literal words were, “... then we’re fucked.” (back)

3OK, I don’t want to be the kind of glib post-post modernist who just nihilistically decides to deconstruct everything without actually bothering to learn how anything is constructed or indeed engage in any sort of rigorous intellectual activity at all, but. You know.

It probably also bears mentioning that I don’t necessarily use the word “imaginary” as a pejorative. Some of my favorite theorists and academics are crypto-theologians (and I expect crypto-magicians). (back)

4Okay, a wakashu is technically not a man at all but I’m struggling with words here. Wakashu were assigned male at birth and many only stayed as wakashu during their youth, generally transitioning to manhood as older adults. Some, however, remained wakashu for their entire lives. (back)