We’ve talked a bit about race and culture at the gaming table, it’s long overdue that we talk about gender as well.
To preface this, I’m a cis dude, and easily the last person who should be writing about gender issues, but I had a damnable time finding any articles on the subject, so while I’ve barely dipped my toes in the shallow end here, I game with entirely too many cis dudes who don’t register that there’s even a pool, so this will hopefully help us all get our feet wet.
Like race, gender tends to appear right at the top of most character sheets, which suggests a lot more thought put into its inclusion in most systems and settings than has actually occurred. While most systems at least know better than to pin numerical advantages to gender like they do with “race,” the number of games that don’t at least passively squeeze gender through a very narrow gap is achingly small.
So step one is recognizing we have a problem.
The association of gender with character class, profession, or role in the party can follow some troubling trends in many games – healers and casters as feminine, front-line fighters or tech monkeys as masculine, etc. There are also troubling intersections – heroic femme characters may play into chaste stereotypes while evil femme characters become seducers and the like.
If you spot your players starting to play into these tropes, it may be good to pull them aside and ensure they’re aware of it. While it seems antithetical to gaming for a GM to tell a player how to play their character, we do expect players to stay within certain boundaries for the good of the group (avoiding griefing, for instance). This is just another boundary to make sure they’ve considered.
As the GM, lead by example. Ensure that your NPCs aren’t falling along similarly trope-laden lines as far as role in society goes. Examine who your blacksmiths or army generals or police officers are and how they present. Take an especially close look at your villains and the NPCs you imperil to motivate the party. Making sure not all your “bad guys” are guys and not all your “damsels” are damsels is a good start.
Beyond role and profession, gender tends to intersect with ageism when it comes to masculine versus feminine NPCs, with most feminine NPCs coded as 20-somethings regardless of their actual age. The most complete way to break the pattern is to take every opportunity to include older feminine characters in roles not traditionally associated with old age – don’t just make the swap for mountaintop sages or ancient wizards, include 40-something master thieves or aged-but-active soldiers to mix things up.
Now the part that tends to be especially tricky for cis folks: remember that male doesn’t mean masculine, female doesn’t mean feminine, and that those aren’t the only options for gender or gender presentation.
For my D&D and Pathfinder folks, you might find that the Alignment system works like training wheels. Just as a character can be Lawful and Evil at the same time, a character can be male but feminine, and their femininity doesn’t erase their maleness. You create a new point on the grid with its own characteristics and context.
Somewhat trickier is registering where Neutral fits, but just recognizing that it’s there and equally valid is a good start. Gender presentation, from the outside, is just an average of a wide array of factors, from voice to attire, even word choice and stance, just to name a handful. We’re trained to “round up” to masculine, but if you look closely, chances are good you’ve already been playing NPCs who fall into the broad, grey area of the spectrum.
Avoid the classic “genderswap” trope, it tends to reinforce the notion of a binary spectrum which erases a host of players in between. Belts of Gender-bending, vexing shapeshifters and awkward reincarnations should be replaced with more creative transmutations that don’t rely on a black-and-white worldview.
Get out of the habit of describing NPCs as “male” or “female” when the PCs first encounter them. Instead, opt for descriptive qualities like build (buff, lean, lanky, hulking), posture (graceful, imposing, aggressive), hair style (frizzy bun, long and curly, shaved), clothing style (robes, armor, suit) and voice (soft tenor, gruff alto) – things you should be describing anyway, but without the problematic shortcut of gender as a package deal for secondary characteristics.
When talking about your NPCs in the third person, use they/them pronouns with all of them, even once the PCs have met them. Up until the point someone asks, your NPCs effectively have Schrondinger’s gender, just like real people. It’ll be good training for you and your players to get in the habit of not assuming they can guess just by looking, but it only works if you do it even for NPCs who aren’t nonbinary or genderfluid – do it for all of them.
Yes, this may lead to momentary confusion over singular versus plural pronouns. If that’s the worse confusion you have as a GM when describing a scene, I envy you deeply, and would like to borrow your telepathic powers for my next convention.
In fact, if you ever start to wonder if it’s worth the work, take a moment to imagine what it’s like for players constantly forced to shoehorn themselves into an ill-fitting type both at and away from the table. Make your table an escape from all that.
One last note: given that all this is part of “step one,” you may think that step two is “feel bad you’ve been screwing up this whole time.” Good news: step two skips right past that and leaps headfirst into “do better from here forward.”
Do not get hung up on retroactive guilt or let yourself be paralyzed by fear of doing future harm – that helps absolutely no one and hurts you. Accept that you didn’t know everything (not exactly an uncommon malady) and move forward with what you’ve learned. Also recognize that growth is a ongoing process, not a fixed state – you will be learning and screwing up and doing better from here on out. The point is that you will always be better than you were, and that is enough.
And along the way, you’ll make a whole host of gamers more comfortable at your table and hopefully give your players something good to take with them when they game with others. Little by little, maybe we’ll all figure out how to swim.