There are few topics in gaming today quite as hot as that of gender in games. Questions of gender equality, representation, and fair treatment have been rampant throughout the geek community. Within LARP, however, these topics represent a challenge to designers and game organizers who must keep in mind the complexity of gender when creating game plots, modules, and NPCs for their worlds. Organizers have to consider a lot of questions to provide gender-friendly plots that will make players feel comfortable while on their fictional adventures.
What does it mean to write gender-friendly plots for your games? The key comes down to creating and managing player expectations about how gender will be represented.
Who is your game written for?
Each LARP is helmed by a game organizer whose job it is to not only set the tone for the in-game world, but whose choices set the tone for the way gender is perceived in their game world. A LARP organizer has a difficult task of deciding how gender is defined and accepted in character in the fictional world they want to create. While this task might seem like a no-brainer on the outset, there are a lot of tricky pitfalls that come with accepted gender norms that a designer can build in out of simple subconscious habit.
The first question that is often taken for granted is whether gender in-game is only a biological factor or a question of gender identification, i.e. whether or not the game world has transgender characters. This often runs hand in hand with the question of whether or not transgender players are welcome in a game, a fact that sadly is not a universal in all LARPs. While that question is more out-of-character, if a world does not have a place for transgender characters, then the designers are making a frank statement about their consideration of what is and is not male and female. That can signal to a player that, even though transgender players may be welcome in the game, transgender characters (and by extension their players) don’t have a place in that game universe to tell their stories.
A second question when considering your game audience is the way in which characters are treated based on their gender. Are all of the characters who are powerful NPCs male? Are the women expected to portray themselves in a particular manner, such as those of submissive to the man? What about the way in which male NPCs are constructed and perceived? The main fact to consider is whether or not the portrayal of genders in the game world adheres to a stereotype that might pigeonhole players into a particular portrayal without room for diversity of expression. If that is the case, players whose values, ideas, and identity out of character do not line up with your design might find your game world restrictive, stifling, or just unwelcoming.
The third question is the often attached but separate and complex issue of sexuality, which can come hand in hand with gender representation. In a modern day, it shouldn’t have to be asked whether or not gay characters are allowed at a game, but if players identify that all of the NPCs and plots are designed towards male-female relationship lines, then that will also inform the way in which relationships are considered the game.
Bottom line: whatever gender decisions you make when creating your world will be mirrored back in what players perceive as acceptable or ‘in genre’ for your setting. The organizers, as in all things, set the tone.
Be Prepared To Be Held Accountable
It’s important to note at this juncture a very troubling and difficult idea: some games will choose to represent gender in a way that might be considered problematic. Game designers have the right to choose to represent gender in their games in a way that might establish ideas about men and women that do not conform to what an individual player, or even a section of players, feel comfortable with or want. As difficult as that may be to accept, that is the game designer’s right. An organizer has the right to choose to make a game world that does not allow transgender characters, or that establishes women in a place of ‘traditional roles’ that excludes women from positions of power. What an organizer must realize, then, is the kind of message that sends not only about the world they design, but the kind of community of players they want to cultivate. By making these design choices, an organizer is signaling that they want to tell stories that will include this content, whether to reinforce those ideas or to challenge them. Those design choices will then tell players to expect certain treatment of gender in game and will signal to a player whether or not the game is right for them. Organizers then, as cultivators of their community, must be prepared to be held accountable for those choices when they are questioned if a player does feel excluded. If a player approaches a designer and asks, for example, “Is your game welcoming to transgender characters? Why or why not?”, you should be able to answer this question. After all, as a designer, you should have made that choice for a reason.
How To Continue Managing Expectations
Once the game organizer has fleshed out how gender is treated in their setting, these established design choices must continue to be mirrored throughout plot implementation. If players are to feel comfortable with the ongoing treatment of gender in the game, they need to see the trends set at the beginning of the game continued through ongoing plot and new hooks that enter game.
When plots are introduced by game organizers, they may force players into situations where they must conform to gender ideas outside of their character design. This may put said players in uncomfortable situations. A typical example that can come up is the introduction of an NPC that makes romantic advances towards characters. Do the NPCs only hit on the opposite gender, or are same-sex relationships a possibility? Are you accidentally assuming when writing NPCs that all the characters they might interact with are straight? In fact, are you assuming all your NPCs would also be straight? Similarly is the issue of genderizing plots that are put out in the first place; When someone comes running into town looking for help to rescue their kidnapped children, are they automatically a distraught mother? More importantly, do they always look for the male fighters to save the day? That kind of implied bias in NPCs can set a standard for gender expectations in play that will be mirrored back by the player community. If your sexy succubi in game are always women out to enslave men with their sexuality and you don’t consider putting in male incubi too, you’re reinforcing stereotypes with your ongoing design and you’re signaling that that trope (and what it can say about women in general) has a home at your game.
An even more insidious example comes when any game has mechanics which take away player choice in relation to genderized activities. Love potions and mind control are typical dicey plot points, as they take away a player’s right to choose not to engage with romance or a sexual element being introduced. This kind of mechanical removal of player agency is problematic to begin with for removing a player’s choice, but it becomes doubly so if it puts players in a situation that violates their character’s gender or sexuality choices.
Maintain The Player Trust
If whatever gender choices were established by the organizers are not upheld by the in-play hierarchy and ongoing story, then the game has effectively pulled a bait and switch on players. It established cues in the design which are not then provided to the player base. At that point, the organizers have committed a cardinal rules violation: messing with player expectations. Players come into games trusting that the rules established by the organizers will be respected, even by the organizers, and rules established about the treatment of gender are no different. Should they be changed during gameplay without a good reason, both in and out of character, then the basic trust between organizer and player has been violated. Players have a right to speak up and to require explanations as to why their trust has been misused. If things are not resolved to their satisfaction, they then also have the right to vote with their feet – and dollars as might be the case – and seek a game where their game expectations will be met.
These problems can be headed off by a simple application of forward design thinking and clear communication with your player base. In a time when so many gamers are taking a critical look at representation in gaming, it will save a lot of time and turmoil in the long run if designers make sure they’re doing the same.