This would seem to be a strange post with which to begin a blog, and not only because its somewhat ambiguous title perhaps runs the risk of giving the more conservative elements of my family a bit of a fright! 😉
The issue of gender in board games has been on my mind for some time. I play a lot of adventure/fantasy/science-fiction games, in which each player ‘takes control’ of or ‘becomes’ a character (or sometimes a group of characters) for the duration of a game. More often than not, these characters are individualised, given specific attributes different from other characters, and – whether they’re depicted as human or some anthropomorphised creature of a particular species or ‘race’ – provided with certain gendered characteristics. Sometimes, the character’s name makes the sex of the elf or dwarf or dungeon fighter clear; at other times, the associated picture and/or figurine leaves little to the imagination. Usually, gamers are allocated their character randomly. And when I’m being completely honest with myself (and you), I have to admit that I often experience a slight though undeniable sense of disappointment when I turn over the character card and I’m about to spend the next two to three hours as a woman. I want to be male…
The naturalised process of aligning oneself with the frequently male protagonist in literary works has been reiterated and reinforced over the centuries. As Rachel Brownstein (1984, p. xxiv) wrote in Becoming a Heroine, ‘young women like to read about heroines in fiction so as to rehearse possible lives and to imagine a woman’s life as important’. Sounds straightforward enough, but options have been limited: women (and men) have been primarily positioned to read (or watch) stories about, and empathise with, male quest figures throughout most of their childhoods.When playing with my brother and me in our inventively-titled game of ‘War’ when we were kids, I’m sure my younger sister must have felt somewhat differently about the endeavour (not that we, sadly, would have thought of that at the time). But this is not simply a thing of the past. Could anyone confidently say that the Harry Potter extravaganza would have been as successful if it was actually Harriet Potter (even if the latter does have her own Facebook/Twitter profiles and a series of fan fiction stories dedicated to her!)? Present day board game designers and marketers are also constantly and undeniably influenced by the assumption that ‘male = sale’.
Of course, beyond the general societal and cultural discourses around the ‘value’ (or lack thereof) of women and men, some board games themselves possess elements that do not necessarily encourage players – female or male – to want to take on the role of a woman. Just for starters, there are usually more male characters than female characters. It’s also clear that there might be some ‘disadvantage’ to being Sally, whose ‘Lightweight’ (in)ability means she won’t have the strength (or nerve?) to hold a shotgun when the growing horde of ravenous zombies in Last Night on Earth is closing in on you… I do enjoy this game and others like it, but it’s important to acknowledge their limits. As Deb Waterhouse-Watson (2012) has noted, rulebooks that don’t simply use the exclusive ‘He’ are few and far between. And I was only briefly bemused that the makers of Furt would distinguish between ‘games nights’ and ‘girls’ nights’. As for the voyeuristic eroticisation of women’s bodies within countless game worlds (still the rule, but with many exceptions)… well, that would be a post (or book) of its own! It would be unfair to say that such problems are never noticed – as in the case where a six-year-old girl and her mother emailed Hasbro asking why there are only five female characters in Guess Who? – but the crucial point is that they are usually not.
So, to stray away from my tangents and return to the issue I started with, what should I do when I find myself about to take on the role of a woman and I experience that automatic desire to slip the character card back into the deck and choose another? Many game rules give the option of randomly dealing or choosing one’s cardboard doppelgänger, so one can’t necessarily fall back on the compulsion to follow set convention. Having taught and published on the gendered representation of women in various contexts, do I really need to set aside my preference? Can’t I just play at being male as long as I’m aware of what I’m doing? It’s tempting to be sure, but I make myself resist this – even though articulating why isn’t the easiest thing to do.
Some new board games, such as Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island, have double-sided character cards that allow the player to choose between being female and male but keep the same character traits beyond this. Time will tell whether or not this will become a trend, but I’m in two minds about this: experiencing the game by ‘being’ a member of the ‘opposite’ sex may well have some positive value, and it might be the case that making this more of an ‘option’ renders this scenario less likely. And female and male characters sharing the same characteristics raises the interesting issue of what is distinguished and what is blurred. I haven’t yet played such a game, so I have to reserve judgement…
For now, I have to go and be Runewitch Astarra, and try to ignore the fact that she has much nicer legs than me… for both reasons 😦
Brownstein, Rachel M. (1984), Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels, Penguin, New York.
Sherwin, Adam (2012), ‘Guess Who’s Sexist? Classic Board Game’s Gender Bias Leaves Six-year-old Fuming’, The Independent, 17 November, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/guess-whos-sexist-classic-board-games-gender-bias-leaves-sixyearold-fuming-8324067.html (accessed 25 May 2013).
Waterhouse-Watson, Deb (2012), ‘Girls Play Games Too (and They’re Pissed)’, The Media, the Universe, and Everything, http://debwaterhousewatson.blogspot.com.au/2012/02/girls-play-games-too-and-theyre-pissed.html (accessed 25 May 2013).
Photographs taken by Adam Brown