Today I’m going to do a post about visual depictions of women in the RPG hobby. If you just want to go to my usual ramblings about my rampant consumerism, skip to the next post.
Although I often find myself advocating for the rights of other women at work and in my hobbies, I don’t often consciously think of myself as a feminist. Perhaps that’s because I don’t have much in common with women when they tend to be doing the things that women do when they get together. I don’t like to shop for clothes, go to the spa, or receive chocolates/flowers/ diamonds. Even the most fleeting thought of becoming a mommy makes me nauseous. Engaging with ‘adorable’ small children bores me to tears. I don’t find the majority of television, films, or books targeted towards women interesting. Not surprisingly, I find the vast majority of blogs about the female experience profoundly alienating, because while most feminists argue that we shouldn’t stereotype women, many feminist bloggers use those same stereotypes to engage with a of “sisterhood” of readers whose preferences exclude me.
Not too long ago when someone on my Twitter feed pointed to a post on Wundergeek’s blog, Go Make Me a Sandwich, I was surprised to find myself entirely engaged by her arguments. The post in question was about Shelly Mazzanoble, whose writing I generally find abhorrent because she glorifies a type of anti-intellectual, attention-seeking gamer that I wouldn’t want in my game regardless of his/her gender. After I finished Wundergeek’s spot-on critique of Mazzanoble, I sat for a few hours reading Wundergeek’s previous entries. She catalogs and critiques the implicit sexism in the video game and board game industries with wit and nuance. She’s dedicated much of her blog to making us see what’s right in front of our eyes. We see so many distorted and sexualized images of the female body in our hobby that they start to look normal after awhile, even to a woman like me who not only knows that her own body doesn’t look like those images, but who also does quite a bit of media studies scholarship during her daily life. When I started reading Wundergeek’s blog, I didn’t think I was as bothered by most of the sexist imagery she was seeing as she was…and that rather bothered me.
Back in my teens and early twenties when I used to play D&D because it was the only thing widely available, I used to joke about wanting to see “a few female miniatures with their clothes on.” Generally speaking, miniature companies have accommodated me a bit more each year; it’s easier and easier to find women who aren’t in fur bikinis on the rack at my FLGS with each passing season, although boobs do still tend to be these tiny figures’ main feature. Overall, though, I wouldn’t have said that the body images of the women in RPGs mattered to me that much. Then I started thinking about the four games I find the most engaging.
Warhammer 3e, Fantasy Flight Games
As most of you know, I’ve GMed Warhammer FRP 3e for the past year or so, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time contributing to its fan communities in various ways. I’ve found the people there engaging, friendly, scholarly, and not willing to take much BS (all traits I appreciate.) You won’t find many vocal women in the WFRP fan community because it’s not a community that prizes sharing one’s personal history; they may be there, but I’m not sure I’d know it. On the company side, WFRP does have a female art director, Zoe Robinson. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that iconographically, WFRP is one of the best mainstream RPGs on the market for varied and non-sexualized images of women. A good chunk of the career cards (the depictions of WFRP’s equivalent of “classes”) include pictures of women, and the women are surprisingly fully clad, dressed in clothing that makes sense for their particular lot in life. Best of all, they’ve been posed in ways that represent their personalities and attitudes, not in ways calculated to show off their T&A. Check out some of these depictions from the Core Set:
Even the images that do show more skin seem to do so for the sake of emphasizing grace and athleticism rather than overt sexuality; this woman’s legs, arms, and midriff seem on display to show her agility rather than to highlight her boobs:
Fortune’s Fool, Pantheon Press
Classical paintings or modifications of classical paintings grace many of the pages of Fortune’s Fool, but the company does produce some of its own art. Take a look at this image, in which the woman’s clothing and body language underscore her regal authority:
Although this rulebook makes a distinction between the stats for men and women, both genders get a different kind of bonus, and the fact that the designers saw fit to talk about those differences seems welcoming rather than punitive.
Burning Wheel, Luke Crane
I adore the BW system because it manages to be simultaneously more gamist and narrativist than most other games I play. (That alone may suggest the flawed nature of those distinctions, but I generally find them helpful when talking about the kind of games I like, which tend towards the narrativist.) BW’s open system allows the GM to create his own world, so perhaps the rulebook is automatically less likely to put women in one box or the other–it leaves that task up to the GM. Still, BW’s graphics go out of their way to feature sensibly clad, non-sexualized women whose clothing and gestures that emphasize their personalities and jobs, like this one:
Mouse Guard, Archaia Entertainment
Okay, so you may laugh at me about this one, but I have to mention it. David Petersen, the creator of the Mouse Guard comic, has made sure to include lots of positive female role mice, including Gwendolyn, who runs the Guard wisely and garners the respect of mice from throughout the land, so the RPG begins with an advantage because of its inclusive setting. In the early pages of the rulebook for the RPG, Crane points out that he’s going to use the masculine pronoun for continuity throughout the text, but makes sure to remark that there “are just as many girl players as boy players of Mouse Guard,” and discusses his reasons for choosing the male pronoun, partly because “the main character of the series, Lieam, is a boy mouse” (Crane 14). The author both considers his pronouns carefully and walks his reader through his reasoning for choosing the pronoun; most RPG books are seldom so overtly welcoming to female players!
The mice in the images in this game have no clothes on and yet manage to be less sexualized than the partly clad women in most RPGs! Okay, yes, that’s a little silly, but first, check out the heroic pose of Sadie, one of the Guard Mice included in the Sample Mission section of the text:
She stands in a heroic and commanding pose, ready for action with her sling and double-dagger belt. Only her pink cloak gives her away as a girl at all.
You may argue that the whole point is silly–how could you sexualize mice in the first place? Well, there are certainly anthropomorphized animals in games that go out of their way to emphasize the sexual parts of the female form; think about the ridiculous boobs and narrow waist of a WoW Tauren, for instance. Yet you don’t even have to morph the body to make the depiction problematic. Take a look at this image of Minnie Mouse:
Here, Minnie poses in a traditional pinup girl pose, exposing her leg and rounding her rump for the viewer, while wearing a bow and high heels to mark her femininity. Absurd as it is, this is a sexualized image of a freaking female mouse–a mouse that you may have around your home as a role model for your children. Parents of children, please go gather up all the Disney junk you have lying around, put it in a box, use it as fire starters this winter, and replace it with Mouse Guard comics. Petersen’s guardmice are much better role models.
To sum up, I think that for all the frustration that women might feel about the hobby, there are a handful of dedicated, thoughtful writers and publishers who actively seek to include women in their games. Every time a game makes a series of inclusive gestures, it takes a step towards normalizing those gestures within the hobby. Perhaps one day, we’ll play in a hobby where we find it odd if there aren’t as many images of women as men on the pages of our rulebooks. Better yet, we might play in a hobby one day where men and women both laugh openly at a publisher who chooses to include an overwhelming number of improbably sexualized images of women. Until then, though, what we can do is support those publishers who choose to depict a range of powerful and interesting female characters and buy miniatures whose boobs, midriffs, and legs won’t freeze off during the winter from overexposure.