Guest Post: On Representation in RPGs, from Monica Valentinelli
I met Monica Valentinelli years back … I think it was at GenCon. We got to hang out again last year at Launch Pad. (Confession: I might have name-dropped her from time to time when I wanted to impress people by talking about how I was friends with someone who co-wrote the Firefly RPG.)
She’s a full-time writer of stories, games, essays, and comics for media/tie-in properties and her original works from her studio in the Midwest. She’s also a former musician of 20+ years. She’s the developer for Hunter: the Vigil Second Edition, and was the lead developer/writer for the Firefly RPG books based on the Firefly TV show by Joss Whedon. Her book The Gorramn Shiniest Dictionary and Language Guide in the ‘Verse, featuring the work of the show’s original translator Jenny Lynn, debuted in April 2016 Titan Books.
In other words, she knows a lot about media properties and RPGs. In April of this year, she’ll be teaching a class on Writing Inclusive Games. Why does that sort of thing matter? Read on…
Why does representation in RPGs matter? The answer is simple: players play games so they can be the hero in their own stories. The characters they choose (or build) allow players to perform heroic acts with their group, and they’re crucial to a player’s ability to have fun. There’s even a joke told about this at conventions. What’s the best way to get a player excited to talk about their game? Ask them about their beloved character!
Characters are important, and I feel it’s a game designer’s job to acknowledge different styles of play to offer a broad range for players to choose from; the other side of that coin, however, is to remember that players also possess different identities. In order to consider both in the games we make, developers, designers, writers, and artists address inclusivity through the lens of representation.
Representation intersects into a game’s design and presentation in a few different ways. The first and most easily visible method is through the art; the decision-makers for the art will vary widely, however, and will depend which company you work for. The second way that representation comes into play is through the game’s design itself. An alternate history game with magic that intentionally limits the role of women, for example, is not well designed, because you’re sending a message to players that the female identity is sub-par to their male counterparts. Often, the argument used to justify designing games based on a player’s identity is: “Well, it’s not historically accurate!” Only, historical accuracy doesn’t apply once dragons are involved. Even so, designers opting for realism know that many history books have erased or ignored the contributions and presence of women and minorities. So, in some cases, when a designer is making decisions that are historically accurate it might appear to be “wrong”, because those details are not what a player or reviewer had internalized as true.
Lastly, representation is incorporated into the text itself. The text, which includes rules, setting, and fiction, is what the players and gamemasters of the world cue off of. While it’s true that some players and GMs absolutely take a game and modify it for their table, over time I’ve found that many players want a fully-developed and well-researched world before they’ll do that. Most players place a lot of trust in the material, and when those details are done well it can have a huge impact on their creativity and the time they invest in that world. RPG enthusiasists tend to be avid readers, and many will read more on a subject (both fiction and non-fiction) to prepare for their games because they’re inspired by what the designers wrote. Mind you, there are games designed with different goals in mind, so including detailed setting isn’t a one-size-fits-all-games approach or solution to representation. In general, however, representation is addressed through the game’s text to varying degrees, and the setting portrayal and characters are an important part of that effort.
If done well, corebooks, supplements, and adventures will place a player in that world, entice them, and get them excited to play. Most players won’t notice when representation is done well, because different identities will be ingrained into the worldbuilding and presented in a natural fashion. Thus, players will be able to spot themselves in the game, and won’t feel excluded. The game’s design will clearly say: “You can slay the dragon. Can you see yourself wielding that sword?” “Yes!!!” If done poorly, however, representation can cause harm by perpetuating stereotypes and by hurting a player who either sees themselves represented badly—or not at all. A game that falls down on representation can do significant amounts of damage, because there is a strong, social component to playing games.
The good news is that there are more resources and tools to facilitate better representation in RPGs than ever before. Those tools include the classes conducted by K. Tempest Bradford and Nisi Shawl. I have the honor of teaching a class in April with K. Tempest Bradford, lending over a decade’s worth of experiences to address the issue of representation and help you be successful working in games. If interested, please consider registering for our class called: “Writing the Other: Writing RPGs Sans Fail.” Together, we will show you how to address representation in RPGs, and how to be inclusive so players say “Yes!”
January 30, 2017 @ 5:15 pm
I do wonder what Monica’s opinion on keeping a sense of immersion is. As has been remarked many times, in Fallout 4 there is a immersion breaking quest that involves a sane ghoul that is still alive and psychologically healthy after being trapped for 200 years in a fridge. This quest went far beyond any reasonable suspension of disbelief and hurt the gaming experience of many playing it.
This same problem occurs with 90 pound women easily defeating 200 pound men unaided by firearms or magic. While it would certainly be inclusive to continue having this in stories it very much breaks immersion damaging player enjoyment of the story.
So what is your opinion on this potentially irreconcilable problem?
January 30, 2017 @ 6:36 pm
@Rico I started to type out a bunch of stuff, then figured I’d just turn it around and ask this:
Do you find it just as infeasible when a slight elf character (say Drizzt Do’Urden) takes on and handily beats enemies much larger than himself, like Giants, Dragons, etc.? If not, why not?
January 30, 2017 @ 9:13 pm
@Rico – There’s a significant difference between the believability of a character within a narrative (e.g. immersion) vs. a reaction to characters that don’t line up with our personal biases about the physical strength/speed/etc. they possess based on gender/size/etc.
In your first example, the character (ghoul kid) isn’t human and it’s not believable that they would remain lucid after remaining trapped for 200 years. I agree that would not work to suspend my disbelief, because that character’s story feels broken to me regardless of their identity. But, that’s also not a character I’m playing, either, so that mission impacts me in a different way than if I were to play that ghoul kid. If there was a playable ghoul kid like that, however, I understand as a game designer that near-constant fright, PTSD, etc. are hard to sustain as a player and still have fun (and can be challenging within a game’s design), so I’d forgive that detail. Most game designers make decisions that impact the rules and presentation of the game to ensure the game is playable, and that would certainly be the case here since the mission was to rescue the ghoul. That, however, is an example of continuity and doesn’t have anything to do with representation. It also doesn’t cause any harm to a player, it simply was a mission that didn’t work.
In your second, however, you’re presenting your argument as an assumption that size matters to being immersed in a game, and that all players would not believe a female heroine is capable of taking down a larger opponent. That’s not something I agree with–especially given that there isn’t “one type” of male physique, either. The entire point of a game is to allow players to be the hero/heroine in their own story, so the goal is to figure out ways for all player-characters to be successful and win the fight against a tough opponent–not what their limitations “should” be based on stereotypes about identities people possess in real life. Or, to put a finer point on this, provided the story logic in a game is consistent and supported by the rules, then my ability to immerse myself in the experience isn’t impacted. When I play a game, I’m specifically and intentionally suspending my disbelief to be the hero, and the rules/experience are what help me achieve that goal. So, I expect to be able to take down that 200-pound character, regardless of my size.
Oh, and of particular note–I’m usually the one who plays the tank in our games. 🙂
January 30, 2017 @ 9:48 pm
That would depend on the battle. Elves have always been stated to be more dexterous than humans but less physically tough. Now on why I can believe they could be as physically strong, or stronger, then humans with their smaller size I am willing to suspend belief because I’m willing to believe some strange skeletal or musculature feature of theirs allows this. Since they are stated to not even be related to humans I am willing to go with it.
Also, during his career Drizzt had a magical panther, various magical weapons, various magical defense enhancements, and powerful allies. Lots of magic, which helps justify his ability to kill many things.
I was 13 when I read the books and don’t remember his equipment in each fight so honestly we would need to go battle by battle for me to say if its feasible.
January 31, 2017 @ 5:52 am
@Monica Having met you, I am not surprised you play tanks. 🙂
Oh, and thank you for this article. I do shake my head at people who think that playing half-elven dragonblooded giants eminently possible and realistic, but lose their crap at the idea that the default skin color of humans in a particular fantasy world is not white, or that a fantasy world isn’t automatically patriarchal.