WisCon Panel “Gender and Class in Gaming”

World of Warcraft branded Monopoly set.

The Shepard/My avatar discussion from WisCon was one of several gaming related panels this year. A section titled “Gender and Class in Gaming” had the following description:

This panel uses Dragon Age II, Mass Effect and classic tabletop games as a starting point to discuss class and gender issues that have been raised by players. We’ll discuss the ways in which class and gender are used in past and current games. How are gender and class issues used in the plot of the game? Does this detract or add to the gaming experience? Is it possible to be a feminist gamer?

It is clearly possible to be both a feminist and a gamer. I assume that line was added to get people enraged at the dismissal of such a person existing and get audience members fired up for the panel. WisCon is a feminist science fiction convention, therefore most audience members were likely feminists and gamers.

 

The following are my notes from the panel:

 

Games that discuss these issues

– Tales of Graces f

– Dragon Age series

– Dreamfall (a game that values traits that are coded as feminine)

– Sims 3 (Alice and Kev – roleplaying a homeless family)

 

Representation

– Seeing yourself represented in game/media is important for many people. So, games where girls/women get to be active and integral to the storyline help send the message to girls that they matter.

– It is important to look at who doesn’t get represented in games. Who do companies use their resources to represent? Who gets left out?

– There are so many more options than just a white, straight, male as the lead for games.

 

 Gender expectation/stereotypes

- The avatar you choose in multiplayer games often affects how other players interact with you.

– Some games impose their own stereotypes based on gender -> dexterity/agility high for women, and strength high for men. But ask any acrobat and they will tell you that strength is required along with agility.

– The characters of Sten and Shale in the Dragon Age games address gender stereotypes and expectations in their stories and dialogue.

– The more games rest on sexual dimorphism, the more stereotyping may exist.

– Even if we concede that a female and male character in a game have different strength and size, how much does that matter when the characters are using tools and magic?

World of Warcraft had a line in the Cataclysm expansion where Garrosh Hellscream said to Sylvanas Windrunner “Watch your clever mouth, bitch!” Within the game they use a gendered slur used to silence a female character.

 

Fantasy class and race

- Tolkien fantasy intermingled race and class and has become part of the backdrop for much of fantasy. We see the same stereotypes repeated over time.

Dragon Age had two different classes of elves and neither one were the high/rich elves of Tolkien fantasy. But while class and race were present, did the stories discuss either one enough to our satisfaction? The strata of dwarves allowed for a discussion of class, power, and oppression. What more could they have done? What do we want to see done next?

 

Board games/ Role playing games

- Monopoly was based on The Landlord’s Game, which was meant to show the negatives of monopolies. But the more popular Monopoly game is all about acquiring as much property and money as possible.

Small World is a world conquest game that allows players to play with a mix of fantasy races but is still about world conquest and occupation.

Puerto Rico is a game where players each run their own plantations using colonists (represented by brown pegs) as the workers.

Eclipse Phase role playing game lets your characters play with/change genders throughout the course of the campaign. You can be gender neutral, change gender, or inhabit other characters.

 

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The panel covered a very broad topic, but what are some of your thoughts on gender or class issues in games? What other games have discussed class issues but were missed in this discussion? What has been done well and what do we want to see done differently?

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16 Responses to WisCon Panel “Gender and Class in Gaming”

  1. Ari says:

    I almost universally loathe it when games (be they video or tabletop) give different stats to different genders. I’ve never seen it done well – or, I should say, I’ve never seen it done in a way I agree with. Men get +1 to Strength, you say? What if they’re disabled? Sickly? Undernourished? Very old/very young? Would they automatically be at a strength advantage to your healthy female fighter? I think not. And to be sure, while the difference in average upper body strength is considerable, in lower body strength it’s not so clear-cut. How do you reflect a skewed upper-body strength average but a fairly equal lower body average in stats?And strength is probably the most uncontroversial bonus, even then.

    But if you give men strength, what do you give women? No question there are physical advantages to being physiologically female. Flexibility is hugely different – women are, on average, much more flexible. And the lower center of gravity has been shown to help balance. But is this sufficient for a bonus to Dexterity? How do you take into account men’s slightly faster average reaction times? Do you need to, since there’s a great deal of evidence that this is largely the effect of socialization, as women/girls who play sports and video games have reaction times in the masculine range?

    Are women’s greater resistance to disease and heightened ability to survive the effects of privation and extreme conditions sufficient for a bonus to Constitution, or would men’s resistance to injury, faster recovery times, and great red blood cell count be better for Con?

    Of course with any of the mental stats, Int/Wis/Cha, you really kick open the hornet’s nest.

    Most of the time I find games are better off ignoring sex differences when it comes to stats altogether. Let players play what they want to play. Some might argue that this is “unrealistic”… but is it really? Wouldn’t a woman who was already far stronger than average be drawn toward a fighter role, regardless of what the overall average might be? Why penalize her? Same goes for a male thief, or bard. If he wasn’t uncommonly pretty and charming he never would’ve gotten into the profession in the first place, so why should he be penalized?

    I loathe it even more when the explanation is ~magic~. I was in a Wheel of Time RP for a while, and if you’re not familiar with that series, simply put: men are just better at magic. No real explanation for it, the “male” half of magic, saidin, is just straight up better than the female half, saidar. Women get a few token consolation prizes, like “finer weaves” of magic and an “affinity” for water and wind elements (while men are fire and earth, yaaaaaaawn) but dudes are still better at everything overall. Why in the world did he do this? And, as a scientist, I couldn’t help but wonder if which “magic” you got was based on gender or sex. If it was gender, would gender dysphoric persons reveal themselves by using the “wrong” half of magic? If it was sex, would intersex persons be saidin-saidar dual-wielding super mages? Needless to say this issue is never explored or explained. Gender disparate magic assumes a binary, not a spectrum, and is such hopelessly, hopelessly dense.

    • Deviija says:

      I wanted to add a little comment on the hard-coded stats being different from one gender/sex to another in games. It is something I really, vehemently detest. It drives me up the wall. The worst offenders I have often seen are men getting +1 strength-type stats while women get +1 intelligence stats. Not only is that insulting the prowess of women, but also insulting the mental capabilities of men. All in one fell swoop. As always with sexism and gender essentialism, it hurts everyone.

      • Ari says:

        That’s just it: it’s role reinforcing. Gamers like to min-max, and min-maxing with gender-dependent stats means you’re always going to play a male fighter and a female thief/mage/bard (depending on whether you think they should get Dex, Int, or Cha). And always seeing roles gets so, so tiresome.

        I’ve sometimes pondered trying to do it fairly and/or well in my own games, but I always end up abandoning the idea. Even if you take objectively factual predispositions, they can always be overcome by training (women can work out, men can stretch, etc.)

        Social differences, on the other hand, might work. But they lead to their own boring cliche. You said Society X bans women from Occupation Y, then everyone just wants to be the First Female Y, a story that’s been told a billion times before. (Case in point: C.S. Friedman creates a class of mages that only men can join in her latest fantasy series – naturally, the story is about a woman who breaks into the occupation.) The First Male Z is told less rarely, but the second the civilization in question is matriarchal, once again, the story of the First Male Z gets served up ad nauseum.

      • Laurentius says:

        I am not sure though that sexism is main the reason for this. I would assume is mainly for entertainment purposes and to differentiate game play, I mean if there is option to select let’s make sure the difference matters. Like for example “race” and I don’t even mean the most popular differences in stats between humans, orcs, elves, dwarves but even human “races” in Skyrim has different stats bonuses. I am not saying that essentialism of fictional races is the same as essentialism of real world gender but the reason behind its appearance in games does not need to be so malevolent. It’s not like amd specificly defend this option as i understand its being problematic.

    • 3Jane says:

      I’m not familiar with the Wheel of Time, but in our culture specific kinds of (non-fantasy) magic are gendered and it’s implied that men are better at some things, while women at others. This reaches back to Middle Ages and beyond, when magic became ceremonial, requiring grimoires, astrological calculations and expensive equipment, all of which was of course only available to men, women generally being uneducated.

      It is argued that it was a huge mental jump for educated people such as clergy and lawmen to rationalise why women as witches could do magic. At first witchcraft was called a delusion since women obviously couldn’t do (ceremonial) magic, but eventually they arrived at an explanation that magic powers were simply gifted to women by the devil, in exchange for worshipping him and providing sexual services (sound familiar?).

      Mediumism is also coded as feminine (in our culture), since the medium has to open and passively convey another’s influence. Ceremonial mages would employ either women or young children to act as mediums for spirits they’d evoke. For this reason the Spiritualism movement in late XIXth century was pretty empowering to women – as mediums, they were finally in the center of attention as masters of ceremonies.

    • tahrey says:

      One point of sort-of-argument, and a bigger one of agreement –

      If the male characters are getting +1 STR, then… well, why wouldn’t that still apply if they’re sick, old, injured, haven’t worked out, etc? It’s a modifier, based on generalised genetically-based gender differences. You could rationalise it on the basis of this (often fairly small, especially when you get up to higher class levels) boost being down to slightly greater average height, slightly bulkier average build (broader shoulders, different fat distribution, slightly increased propensity to build muscle etc) and the like. Comparitively, as mentioned, women do seem to be more flexible and… I don’t really want to use the words, but, lithe / gymnastic, even acrobatic. That can be a +1 DEX. Just for your base character. But everyone gets the same number of points overall (or at least, the same chance of having a certain number between two diceroll extremes), and as soon as you start levelling and being given a choice of stats to distribute your discretionary points among, you can “correct” that imbalance if you prefer.

      Both(/all) sexes would be just as capable of both bulking up, or getting hurt/sick, or remaining as comparitive weaklings (with an untrained F civ being a bit more “graceful”, if you like, but not -quite- as strong as an untrained M) if they concentrate on magic, ranged weapons or other less physical skills and abilities. Which adds another modifier on top of the other ones that they start with.

      Another choice you then have to make with the game mechanic is if you implement level or stat caps, and if they are explicitly different for the different sexes (and races / species…), or exactly the same, or perhaps have the same “base” cap but are affected by the same modifiers as the starting characters.

      This would actually be reasonably realistic, wouldn’t it? It not only easily allows for starting female characters that are stronger and less dextrous than a similarly random-rolled male one (just the average is a little weaker and more sure footed), but makes the differences far smaller if not completely nullified as soon as they start to train up, with both groups being better in both stats than an unimproved character of either sex, but converges again to peak level which is effectively just the same but with that slight average-max-stat difference (+/- 1 meaning a lot less at that point, as they are effectively superhuman vs the “norm” either way; a female olympic 100m runner might be a few tenths of a second slower than a male, but she would leave an everyday working man in the dust; a 400m competitor would probably lap a network sysadmin (the equivalent of a hardline Mage) before he even made it to 100m). That’s quite close to the physical reality of the world in which we live isn’t it? You could even add a touch more Realism From Nature into it by having the modifiers differ according to species – not least for some species having stronger/faster/larger females.

      OTOH, I know exactly where you (and the commenters below) are coming from with “certain” games. Like, the Final Fantasy series, which quite badly nerfs almost all of its female characters (minus some exceptions notable by their rarity, e.g. Tifa) for anything but magic and speed/sneak attacks. I’ve been replaying FFX recently and, on noticing just how *crippled* the leading ladies are in terms of physical attacks (yes, the same three who carried X-2 entirely…), and somewhat how bad the men were with magic and response time, purposely set about to try and equalise them if not reverse the stat balance. I’ve been told by a much more ardent player of the series that I’m mad, and will never be able to beat the final boss if I don’t min-max the way the game authors intended us to. I’m worried they may actually be right, as it’s proving slow and uncertain going even when gaming the experience system as hard as possible – e.g. swapping like billy-o so, if at all possible, every character does *something* in each battle, so they all get experience continually. But some progress is possible – EG, Yuna and Lulu are actually starting to cause more than single-figure damage when hitting things (it’s particularly stupid given that Yuna has AN ENORMOUS STAFF WITH A HEAVY THING ON THE END to hit things with… and Rikku belongs to one of the few groups of people who know how to use all the ancient weapons technology that’s knocking around, but is limited in how she can use it), and Tidus can cast almost-useful healing -and- offensive spells if Khimari is knocked out…

      I wonder who decided this would be the division of labour? Was it an entirely conscious decision, or did they actually randomly generate them and that’s just how it happened? It’s hilariously unbalanced. I suppose it sort of guarantees you have to have at least one of each gender in your party to avoid being disadvantaged in one or other area, but as I said before, you do a lot better by continually swapping (mid-fight) the 7 available characters in and out of your 3 battle slots… Realistically you wouldn’t have all guys or all girls anyway… or, not for any length of time, anyway.

      And… why should the women (and the blue werewolf type guy) be automatically better at magic anyway? Witches always seemed to be on an equal or inferior footing to Wizards, magical strength wise, and now it’s all back to front… (being able to fly because of a genetic, sexually dimorphic tendancy to grow or not grow wings, however… that’s fine by me :p)

      • Ari says:

        I see the argument from biology – I brought it up myself in fact ;p – but it doesn’t change the fact that a stat differential enforces stereotyped roles, even if it is “realistic” and “relatively minor”.

        Players like to min-max – at least mine certainly do – and to make the best character possible, who has the best chance of surviving. If the Warrior class has mostly Strength-based skills, who in their right mind would play a Warrior with a guaranteed Strength penalty right out of the gate? Ditto for Rogue and Dex-based skills.

        Let me put it like this. You roll up your character, you have a sheet with your stats. If you’re playing a game where it’s allowed, you arrange them to taste. If not, you’re likely to choose the class based on what stats you rolled. Either way, the effect is the same. Let’s say you want to be a Warrior and have these stats:

        Str: 16
        Dex: 14

        But under your “relatively minor”, and “realistic” +1/-1 scenario, a male warrior is thus:

        Str: 17
        Dex: 13

        And your female warrior is:

        Str: 15
        Dex: 15

        I.e., your female Warrior is, from a mathematical perspective, objectively worse as a character than the male Warrior. She’ll be less effective in combat 100% of the time. It’s a fool’s errand to play one. Ditto the reverse for a male rogue in that scenario. There’s literally no point, unless some other bonuses elsewhere make up for it. It’s why people only played Grey Elf mages in 2nd Ed. D&D – with a plus +2 to Int and a -2 to Str, you were going to be a crappy warrior compared to a Human warrior who rolled the same stats, every. Single. Time.

        It might be fine for NPCs, where you get to see the averages play out over a broad population, but for PCs, who wants to play anything less than the best character they could play? And so, at least at my table (I’m usually the GM), when you make a stat differential, even if it’s just a “minor”, “realistic” +1/-1, you end up with all male Warriors and all female Rogues. No one wants to make themselves a worse character right out of the starting gate.

        Which is tiresome. And why I don’t use them. If a game has them, I remove them.

      • Ms. Sunlight says:

        I find the whole thing with Final Fantasy games particularly tiresome as, in 5 and 6, they got it so spectacularly right. In 5, your strongest melee fighter is a woman. Your strongest mage is a girl. 3 out of 5 playable characters are women or girls. In 6, Terra and Celes are your powerhouses; together with Edgar they are balanced between physical attack and magic just right to mean they are useful in any situation. Why they stepped away from crude gender stereotypes only to go right back to them I don’t know.

  2. Caecus says:

    Regarding Puerto Rico–what are you supposed to do in a historical simulation game if the history it’s simulating doesn’t align to our modern values? Let’s say you are making a game simulating a plantation. Do you not make the pegs brown (which isn’t fooling anyone, and sort of denying history)? Do you, I dunno, have cards describing the lives of slaves? None of those sound ideal to me. I’m being honestly curious here, not snarky.

    And seeing that huge swathes of human history has been defined by colonialism and conquest, how do you handle a game that you want to have historical flavor? In Rome: Total War, enslaving a population after a successful siege was commonplace, as was true in the time. In Europa Universalis, it’s beneficial to the stability of you empire to quash native religion and culture to make room for your own. The original release of Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword didn’t allow female protagonists, because women didn’t mount up and become mercenaries around the time of the Deluge. Is this how you’d recommend we address these distasteful, but historical, facts? If not, how?

    • gunthera1 says:

      I suppose one question is -> do you want to play a game that uses the horrors of history as play mechanics? It is up to the individual how they feel about that and under what conditions they want to/would play such a game. The person that mentioned the board game Puerto Rico in the panel said they stopped playing once they sat down and thought about it.

      Similar questions come up when discussing shooters that are set in real wars. Some people will only play those video games if the enemies are aliens or something else that is not based in actual history. There are no easy answers here.

    • KIrving says:

      “The original release of Mount and Blade: With Fire and Sword didn’t allow female protagonists, because women didn’t mount up and become mercenaries around the time of the Deluge. Is this how you’d recommend we address these distasteful, but historical, facts? If not, how?”

      That glorified module, took out the ability to play a female character out of pure laziness. Fire and Sword was based on a fiction novel with a set male protagonist however players could choose any type and race of male character in the game, become a big hero/villain and change historical facts. The story could have been adapted to include the option of a female player character. Fortunately Taleworlds listened to many of the players who protested and reinstated the ability to choose a female character in the game. (Granted the story probably has inconsistencies that way but it’s not like you play a M&B game for its story.)

      The realism debate is one of my hot buttons, especially when it comes to games, loosely, based on reality or history. The M&B games are not even close to being medieval simulators and really shouldn’t be brought up as an example of any adherence to historical accuracy.
      One of my favourite M&B modules, Native Expansion, allows me to recruit a whole army of peasant woman and raise them into Lady Knights. Is that realistic? No, but I have a lot of fun and isn’t that what playing games is about?
      I think it is no great challenge to balance realism, which is highly subjective, with being inclusive and I hope that more game developers will attempt to meet that challenge if they want my money.

  3. marco says:

    That’s a pretty interesting panel, sounds like. At Fanime, there was a panel very similar, but I missed it sadly. I’m glad that more cons are adding these type of panels and approaching the issues though (and hopefully they will continue to while also delving further).

    I’m quite intrigued that ToGf was included as well. I’m very on/off about trying that game, for many different reasons, but also in part because of how the female characters are handled. I love that there’s a female martial artist and a female character that seems to be a mechanic, but I’m also a little put off but the stereotypical (implied) love triangle and what not between a specific group of characters. Did they mention how gender was treated in ToGf, both intentionally and unintentionally?
    (Also, does anyone here have any opinions on it?)

    • gunthera1 says:

      Sadly, they did not mention that aspect of the game. The person said it had discussions of class as an important plot point. I have not played the games so I can’t add anything.

      • marco says:

        Ahh, I see. That’s a pity, but it’s good they tackled class. It does seem very relevant to the game (alongside politics, I would assume).

  4. Tanya D says:

    *waves hello to borderhouse and all the commenters* Tanya D, the moderator (and submitter of this panel idea) The last question wasn’t there to enrage people per se. More of a …can you? I couldn’t assume everyone who might attend would have the same ideas about feminism and gaming that I or the panelists do.

    More of a hey, here’s the greater question of this panel and I’m probably preaching to the choir as the saying goes, but let’s discuss this in greater depth.

    Thank you so much for the write up and for everyone’s commentary so far. I’m planning a follow up panel next year, cross your fingers that it’s accepted!

    • Gunthera1 says:

      Thanks for commenting on this, Tanya! My friends and I had been discussing that last sentence when we first read the panel description. We agreed that “WELL OF COURSE YOU CAN BE!” just the same as you can be a feminist and like any other media. There is problematic content all around us, but we are still fans and consumers. We may just have more criticisms than the assumed consumers. We felt like the audience at WisCon probably all agreed with us on that point as well. But, you are right, we can’t assume anything.

      It was a fun panel! Thank you for moderating it and for submitting it initially.

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