Xavid (kihou) wrote,

Gendernormativity in LARP considered harmful

Over the years, there've been lots of things that have bothered me about how I often see gender treated in LARP: as a character-defining characteristic with exactly two options where it's uniquely important to match character and player. There's lots of sexism and genderfail in our society, but I sorta expected better from LARPers, in part because I've seen LARP do noticeably well in other areas. But we could definitely do better in a lot of areas. A fair amount of this post focuses at Intercon, because that's the major place where I've encountered some of these issues, but most of this isn't specific to Intercon (or even LARPing, really).

[Boring Post History Context]I started this post back when it was Intercon signup season, which is the traditional time of year for me to be annoyed about the way Intercon handles gender. Of course, I was also writing a game for Intercon, and also another 10-day-long game, and even spending time on non-LARP-related activities. So, now it's way later and no longer terribly topical. But I thought I might as well polish this slightly and post it, regardless. This was sparked by Intercon signups, but I also talk about some other things about gender in LARP that aren't Intercon-specific or necessarily representative of Intercon.

(Intercon was a lot of fun, by the way! And I didn't have any non-negligible gender-related incidents, crosscasting myself in one out of three games.)

Crosscasting Hurts Immersion/"Gender is different"

A common belief I've encountered is that crosscasting hurts immersion. For example, the game materials for one (excellent) game say: "I suspect that the intensity of the game will be lessened if the players are cross cast, but do as you must." There's often an implication that if someone wants to be crosscast, they're messing up the game for everyone else, which is especially sucky for genderqueer people, people of non-binary genders, and trans people who don't pass.

(I'm, personally, not terribly fond of the world "crosscast". It makes being cast as a different gender notable in a way any other difference between character and player is not. I prefer to think of gender as just another characteristic you can emphasize in your costuming or not. I do use "crosscast" a bunch in this post, for brevity/clarity.)

If a very tall person plays a gnome, or a white person plays Samuel L. Jackson, sure people joke about it. But then we go ahead and play the game, and it works fine. Gender can work the same way. If a female character is played by a player with a beard, say, obviously people will notice. But, from my experience, LARP players are pretty good at using their imaginations, and it doesn't get in the way of serious scenes or games. And hey, we're doing this to have fun. Letting gender restrictions get in the way of players having fun seems counterproductive.

Gender Defaulting

One game at Intercon said: "Please note, both neutral spots are actually male characters, but we wanted them open to crosscasting." There seems to be a lot more willingness on the part of GMs to cast female players as male roles than vice versa. This reflects some standard stuff about how our society treats gender: people are assumed male by default in a wide variety of contexts, but being female is noteworthy. (This topic could support a thorough discussion, which this margin is too narrow to contain.)

A semi-related issue with gender-neutral parts is more generally whether that means a character that can be either gender or a single-gender character that's "more appropriate" to crosscast than the other characters. (I'm not sure exactly what that difference is, but some people clearly have criteria there.) I'm used to GameTeX and related LARP-writing systems, which assume you want a character's name and gender to be variable and make it easy to change them later, fixing pronouns as appropriate. Of course, non-MIT people generally use other systems which don't make that assumption, which can make it more difficult to have characters that can swap gender at casting time. (Though, Intercon games often cast far in advance, which can mitigate this.) Single-gendered "gender-neutral" roles have two main issues. One is, while I support GMs being willing to crosscast any part, not all players want to be crosscast, so you're potentially denying someone optimal casting. Secondly, while obviously for some settings, for example historical ones, addressing sexism is part of the point, in other settings role bias is reflecting and perpetuating stereotypes external to the game, which is really poor. Regardless of how you do it, I encourage GMs to try making parts actually gender neutral, without a committed default gender, when it makes sense for the setting and part.

Rape as Backstory / Trigger Warnings

Another semi-related thing that also comes up in other media is "rape as backstory". There seems to be a cultural standard that says "We want to convey that this woman is bad-ass. How can we do that? By making her a rape survivor!" (I've seen this trope almost exclusively for female characters, but it's just as bad for other genders.) There's definitely room to talk about rape in games. But don't throw it in as part of an origin story that's not actually relevant to game. You're excluding players triggered by rape from your game, and in many cases effectively trivializing rape by putting it in the sheet without realistically addressing the long-term consequences. I'm not sure there's any topic that you can't include in a well-written LARP, but rape is one I've seen too-often thrown in carelessly.

This brings me to something new for last Intercon: an explicit focus on trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are great! They help people stay out of situations that are unsafe for them. At the same time, it also highlighted how many games include various triggers. I didn't play these games, so I don't know if they addressed rape well or just threw it in. But, it's sad for friends not to be able to play games they think look cool because they need to keep themselves safe.

Gendered Signups

For those not aware, Intercon requires everyone to specify a single player gender, either male or female. Each game can specify a number of male slots, a number of female slots, and a number of gender-neutral slots. Some games decide to have only male and female slots, some have only gender-neutral slots, some have some of all three.

There are several problems with this. One is, the male roles are often not equivalent to the female roles. In historical settings, realistic gender roles mean that some types of character are not available to the players of another gender. Even in non-historical settings, gender biases/stereotypes of the setting or of the gamemasters often have a similar impact. Female players who want to play a general, say, and get stuck as a demure love interest, get understandably frustrated. And I'm not the only male-according-to-Intercon player that likes playing historically female roles, either. Furthermore, since the role you're cast as affects what you can do in game, I think gender-restrictive casting helps reinforce player-level stereotypes as well.

Another similar complaint I've heard is that, when gender-neutral slots exist in a mostly-gendered game, they're often optional/supporting-cast parts. Putting people who app to be crosscast or similar in these minor and often poorly-integrated roles is highly suboptimal.

The third common complaint is about how, for games with gendered slots, there's often temporarily a waitlist in one gender while the game is not full in the other gender. Imagine someone who really wants to play a particular game more than any other this Intercon and has no preference what gender they're cast as. They see a game that, while it has open slots they'd love to play, they can't sign up for it, because the interface won't let them.

While some of this waitlist unevenness would be expected just by randomness, the gender distribution of roles is also not equal. At the time I started this post (January or so!), the Intercon M schedule had 259 female slots, 316 male slots, and 599 neutral slots. For scale, that's 22% female, 27% male, and 51% neutral. Not really that bad in the great scheme of things, maybe, but still a noticeable bias. In terms of games, there are 18 games with more male roles than female, 3 games with more female roles than male, and 44 equally-balanced games. Percentage-wise, that's 5% female, 28% male, 68% balanced. So, if your top choice game is randomly chosen, it has a 28% chance of being easier to get into if you're a male vs a female, if attendance was evenly split.

Of course, it's not. Population-wise, at the same time as the above statistics, Intercon had 165 female registered attendees and 216 male, or 43% female and 57% male. (According to Intercon organizers, 45/55 is a pretty common ratio. Intercon doesn't allow people to register as other genders, so I don't have any non-anecdotal data on that.) So, the gendered roles are 55% male, compared to 57% of the attendees. Given the small difference, the gendered role disparity probably doesn't make a practical difference very often, though it is understandably frustrating to not be able to sign up for a game you want to play when there are slots open for the other gender and you would be happy to be cast as that gender.

Technical Solutions to Social Problems

So, what do I think Intercon should do instead?

First, let me point out why the obvious "just have every game put all roles as gender-neutral" is not sufficient for all games. Some players don't want to be cast as a different gender, and some games (in a historical setting, say) have many or all characters with an immutable gender. If you have all your parts gender-neutral, you could end up with enough players that are only willing to be cast as one gender that you can't actually cast in a way that satisfies everyone's requirements, given Intercon's first-come first-serve casting policy.

What I, personally, want is to give GMs the option. An individual game could choose to enable players to choose their character gender(s). Then, when signing up for the game, a player would specify what gender(s) character they're up for playing. Instead of taking the slot for their "player gender", they'd take up a slot for the gender they pick; if they pick either, they could take either type of slot. This allows GMs who don't like crosscasting to keep on doing what they've always done, while allowing GMs to be more flexible for individual games.

I guess my overall point is this. LARPs reflect the world, and I understand that. LARPs are going to reflect sexism and other horrible stuff about our society. But, if that's not integral to your game, if you're not doing your best to address it well and respectfully, consider putting the effort in to leave it out of your game and your casting. You'll make your game stronger, not exclude people from the roles they most want, and avoid keeping part of our community out of your game entirely.

(Also, grumble grumble Intercon signup interface.)
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