Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Why Female Pronouns in RPGs Matter to Me

In response to:
I mean this in the nicest way possible: I don’t care if an RPG uses “he”, “she”, “him or her”, or “it” as a pronoun throughout their examples. Whatever gets your point across. If certain pronouns in your examples help you deal with your white male guilt, go for it.

from RPG Blog II

First: I totally admit that this kind of thing can be taken too far. You've all seen the kind of thing I'm talking about. The "strong female character" is probably one example. Ridiculous, immersion-breaking gender inclusivity in an otherwise pretty straight up medieval fantasy world is another. In general, white guys patting themselves on that back for how sensitive and PC they're being is annoying, not inclusive.

And fundamentally? The way Zach's phrased it? That's cool, too. He doesn't care. Either way works. Good for him.

But me? I really, really like it when game manuals use female pronouns.

I don't really care what system you use. Alternating between sentences? Not perfect, but okay. The DM is female (or male) and the players are the reverse? That's pretty good. Characters referred to with one gender, and players with another? Also good. Alternate by chapter? Sure. Alternate by character class? Great. (Especially if it's a book where you have iconic characters used as examples throughout -- if you flip through the 3e books sometime you'll see that all the examples referring to a rogue use female pronouns, because Lidda is female. Props.)

Not that I won't use a book that only uses male pronouns. Sure. Grammatical clarity. Technically, it's "gender neutral." Okay.

But you know what? RPGs are a male-dominated hobby. Massively. Painfully. Most of the times, the books assume they're being read by men. The cover of the 4e player's guide came complete with a HALF-DRESSED SEXY WOMAN contorting her body in order to show off all of the "good bits", next to a completely reasonably dressed male dragondude. Okay. Whatever. For the most part, they are.

But it sure is nice when the makers of a game book go, "Hey! We know there are women reading this! We'd like there to be more!"

When I was 14, I never felt like RPGs were a male-dominated hobby. I knew it was. I was often the only girl there when I went to the game store. I hung out enough online to know that wasn't unique to my area. I knew the history. But my game-group was mostly female, and there were female players in the 3e D&D guides.

That was pretty cool. I'm not sure it would have kept me out if that hadn't been the case -- in fact, I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have. But I appreciated it. It impressed us. I still remember flipping through the Player's Handbook, and the DMG, and seeing "she" and "her," and thinking, "Right on! The designers know that girls are playing. They like that we're playing!" And talking about that with my friends. It made D&D into something that helped us be 14 year old female nerds, that helped us get through being 14 year olds, period, instead of something we had to fight against to be who we wanted to be.

Pronouns aren't the only way to do that. LotFP: WFRP doesn't have any female pronouns in it, but it's got a picture of a female player, and that's pretty rad, too. It's got equal opportunity grimdarkviolence and sexiness. Both of which are appreciated.

But goddamn, do a few female pronouns help.


  1. I'm a big fan of using they/they're/their myself.

  2. I think that, eventually, they/they're/their is going to become something that's used formally, as well as colloquially, to denote gender-neutral single subject, but it's not quite there yet. I envy people who speak languages with an indeterminately gendered singular pronoun.

    Some folks have used made-up constructions like Zie (Zie is a great GM), Zir (I like zir new dice), but they require a lot of explanation outside of the circle of their regular users, and mostly I've seen them in written form, not spoken. Based on some of this I saw at Shakesville, a feminist political blog, I used the following in a game I was attempting to write last summer. Here's the opening section on character creation.

    "Each player will have one or more characters to represent zheir actions in the game. While this game assumes the basic archetypes associated with other prominent RPGs (e.g., fighter, cleric, thief, and mage), we wanted to include some degree of additional flexibility in character design. Hence, players can select one of the archetypes and go with it (there are good reasons to do so), or zhey can begin with an "average" person of some sort (human, elf, dwarf, halfling, or hybrid/other race, as allowed), and customize it based on some degree of design and some degree of chance. At the heart of this is the character's personal attributes and talents, and zheir chosen skill sets."

    Here I chose to use the they/their construction, but used zhey/zheir to differentiate singular form zhey/zheir from plural form they/their.

  3. Yeah, I think examples involving a specific person/character that alternate gender of players is nice.

    But for body text, I'm with Blair, it should strive to be gender neutral. I've actually gotten into fights with my boss over this. She learned English as a second language and considers singular they absolutely an error.

    I use singular they every day of my life. You can't really say "Someone just got his or her car towed!"

    She eased up a bit after coming into work and relating to me that she heard Obama use singular they in an official speech.

    Languages change. I think whatever confusion might result from the singular/plural mash-up far outweigh the historical idea that male was the default.

  4. There has been at least one female in my groups since I graduated high school in 1987. My current group is 40 to 50% female. (The gals tend to be more regular than the guys, so it leans more towards 50%.) So, to me it looks the male dominance of the hobby has been breaking down for years and that it is pretty balanced now.

    Obviously your experience is different, but I’m not convinced your experience is any more generalizable than mine.

    FWIW, I personally use singular-they simply because that’s how the language has always worked despite the prescriptivists.

  5. @robert Fisher

    There are -way- more men in the hobby than women. You know that, right? Like 90% of my players are female, but I still know that.

    Look at the names of the authors of all RPG products: way more guys.

    Look at all the names of all the bloggers and forum commenters: way more guys.

    Hang around the store: way more guys.

    Ask the people who run stores: way more guys.

    Look at cons and registered con attendees: way more guys.

    It is not even close to even. Not even remotely barely close to balanced.

    You would be right to say the male dominance of the hobby is breaking down, but you would be completely, totally, demonstrably, entirely, provably wrong to say it's balanced at this point.

  6. Thanks for the response!

    Yeah, for me, I could play it however the designer chose. If every RPG on earth tomorrow changed their pronoun usage to “her”, it wouldn’t diminish my enjoyment of the game one bit. I can definitely respect where you’re coming from.

    (I’m not sure I’d call that dragondude reasonably dressed, though. To rehash an old complaint, he looks like he’s wearing parts from my old water heater).

  7. Neuter pronouns are nice and all (I frequently use the singular "they" myself), but it kinda misses the point. It's not so much that just using masculine pronouns excludes so much as the occasional use of the feminine is actively inclusive. It's the difference between going to your friendly neighborhood lesbian bar for a drink and being invited by your lesbian friends to join them at their favorite bar.

  8. I would call using female pronouns common courtesy.

  9. Blair, Doc Johnson, Telecantor: Yeah, they/their is fine, but "he/his" isn't a whole lot less-fine, honestly. I like the specificity.

    Robert Fisher: The vast majority of groups I've been in have been all or majority female. But, well, what Zak said. And it's not even so much about straight numbers as it is Who The Covers Assume You Are.

    Zak: Thanks.

    Zachary: Point! And I'm really glad you didn't take this as an attack -- I wasn't sure how it was going to come across through The Bowels of the Interwebs.

    Aaron E. Steele: Yeah, there are definitely reasons not to, and for the most part I don't have have any issue with people who have thought about it and decided against it, but I really, really appreciate it when I they do.

  10. next to a completely reasonably dressed male dragondude

    Uhm, no...I'm not saying the female character on the cover is reasonably dressed, but her male counterpart isn't either.

    Reasonably dressed does not just mean "not scantily clad". No one in the error of dungeon punk is reasonably dressed.

    As for the pronoun thing, I'm curmudgeonly enough to bitter cling to my yellow covered Strunk & White (and make sure I have a spare) over the more recent silver editions over this.

    I'm also lazy enough to just not care. I'm old enough that the thought groves read "she" as gender specific but in situations where it doesn't matter (ie, we're not referring to a specific person or a sex specific topic such as gentiles) it doesn't bother me which you use. I do demand some consistency though. Either use "she/her", "he/him", or "they/them" (least preferred in my mind). Switching by sentence or paragraph is just confusing.

    And for Pete's sake avoid making something, which was really the one driving principle in yellow Strunk & White: clarity.

    However, I've grown to appreciate RPG books that use the male/female pronoun split to convey the player/game master split. Because we're dealing with two different groups of people.

    In fact, a shift to using both he and she as gender neutral with textual consistency is probably the strongest choice in the long run over creating a third, specifically neutral pronoun. With a pair of widely accepted gender neutral pronouns any time we have two groups of people engaged in common (players/gm, performers/audience, prosecution/defense) we'd have differentiated pronouns we could use for each group.

  11. @Odyssey: Oh yeah, no worries. It's an interesting viewpoint.

  12. I can't bring myself to deliberately use singular "they" (though I'm sure I accidentally use it sometimes). I'd actually rather use disjunctions like "he or she."

    As it is, I use the masculine as the default. I don't think of it as "neutral" because it clearly isn't, but it reads better to me than the alternatives. I'm sure placing aesthetics over inclusion is unforgivably backwards of me - especially since I have no pretension to High Art - but to be honest, my prose writing is clunky enough without labyrinthine pronoun constructions.

    I'm aware of the concerns and the alternatives, and can see how reasonable minds could differ.

    (You've no doubt noticed this, and it's apropos of nothing really, but the gender and racial composition of competitive M:tG makes tabletop RPGs look like a rainbow coalition.)

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  14. I will admit that, at first, seeing "she" and "her" in game books put me off -- but


    that was because it seemed like politically-correct pandering. Also, it seemed...weird, though that was just because I wasn't used to it.

    Thing is, I've been gaming with girls since my early days in the hobby, and I've never thought of women as 'others', so the concept was never an oddity -- only the technical use of the female pronoun.

    In time, though, I just kind of got used to it. It makes sense and it's really no big deal. Also, it's realistic.

    I dig whatchoo sayin', Odd. I've gotten to the point where I, too, like seeing both pronouns used in game books. Change 'em up, switch 'em 'round, go ahead. After all, it's just plain polite. Keep it legible, is all.

    ...which is why those neologisms that pass for neutral pronouns bug the HELL out of me.

    ALMOST as much as that damn dancing cursor does.

  15. I thought a lot about this when I wrote Weird West. The text refers to "your character" rather than using male of female pronouns. There is a male character on the cover and it refers to a male character in one example of play (the character from the cover). That will be balanced with the cover art for the next book and the example of play included.

  16. @Zak S

    I don’t know that any of those are representative samples.

    FWIW, though, my local stores have both a lot of female customers and a lot of female staff.

    The one con I go to certainly has more males, but there are a significant number of females too. I learned long ago, though, that con attendees tend to be far from typical.

    But, no, I’m not saying it is balanced. I’m saying that if I were to generalize based on my experience, I’d conclude it was very close to balanced. Instead, I admit that nobody has good demographic numbers. Especially when I know of groups that are completely missed by the methods of counting I’ve seen.

    And if we did have good numbers, I think people might be surprised.


    OK. When talking about demographics, I have a bias towards the demographics of players.

    I generally think cover art is poorly chosen and too often unrepresentative of the game. And that’s without even considering whether in communicates inclusiveness. (I still think that the c. 1990 edition of Rolemaster has the best covers I’ve seen yet. Though even they are far from perfect when it comes to inclusiveness.)

    And since I forgot to say it before, let me say that I very much appreciate you posting your opinion about this. In fact, my son was just asking me last week why the 3.5 PHB always uses “she”. (Yeah, I know it doesn’t, but that was his impression.) I tried to explain, but I didn’t do a good job. So, I’m going to let him read your post.

  17. Herb: As reasonably dressed as a BADASS DRAGONDUDE can be, in my view. :P Any argument I could make her, though, would basically be quibbling about my use of the word "reasonable" to to describe "not arbitrarily sexualized" and that's a can whose contents are entirely too vermiform for my tastes.

    Scott: It's always, always a balancing act, and pronouns aren't even the only way to get the effect I'm talking about, they're just an obvious one. And from you, I kinda expect aesthetics to trump everything else. ;)

    (And yeah... that may be turning into a follow up post... this feature is likely part of why I suddenly and decisively lost interest in MtG a few weeks ago. I literally haven't touched my cards since July 16th.)

    Dr Rotwang: One guy like you, who just doesn't see what the big deal is about women in gaming and just invites them in if he thinks they'd be interested just like everyone else, is worth more on this score than anything you can do with art or pronouns or any of it.

    Stuart: Oh, I *like* her.

    Robert Fisher: Yeah, I can't deny that it's getting closer, and (as Scott pointed out) RPGs are a lot better about this than a lot of our neighbor-hobbies. Which is great, and counts for a lot more than pronouns.

  18. @ Odd: Thanks for this post...it's good info for my future game design/writing projects.
    : )

  19. Thanks, Odd. That...

    ...thank you very much.

  20. For background purposes I've studied literature and information science at the bachelor and master levels.

    English has a gender neutral term: it. If you don't know the gender of the individual involved, you can use it. Going to Telecanter's example, "Somebody just got its car towed" would be acceptable English. I'm prone to avoid the singular they as it can breed confusion (I'm anal retentive, though). That said, English is changing and I'm definitely in the minority for common usage.

    All that said, I prefer the use of the gender specific whenever appropriate, such as the rogue examples in 3.x brought up by Oddysey in the original post. I find it makes the writing more concrete.

  21. I agree with Aaron. It's not an expression of white guilt or pandering, it's just common courtesy.

  22. Mark - for background purposes, I've also studied literature to MA level, although the rest of my graduate work is in creative writing or education.

    People - real people, rather than socio-linguistic functions burdened with a false consciousness of autonomous selfhood - tend to be a bit huffy about being referred to as "it". "It" is for inanimate objects in their minds and they are very much animate.

    "They" is useful because it doesn't tend to intrude on people's sense of individual gender identity by accident - at least, not as often, although trollsmythhas made the point that obfuscation is not inclusion - it's hiding from an issue, not owning and confronting it. I hadn't thought of that before.

  23. In the RPG I wrote, I made a strong attempt at gender equality. I did this in a number of ways.

    First, I try to alternate equally between a female and a male player/character in any examples I use. I also have made an effort to make sure all examples showing failure or success are not relegated to the same gender.

    The sample characters in the back of the book are evenly split among gender lines. While they do tend to fall into predefined gender roles a bit more than they probably should (combat centered characters are predominantly male), they are all equally playable as any gender if the name and sample art is ignored.

    I try to make both genders equally represented in artwork. I also made an effort to not have the scantily clad sexy woman cliche going on. The characters presented in illustration are (hopefully) more believable as dressing like a normal person would within the confines of the setting.

    In the wider setting information, and NPC that is created and does not have a specific gender needed for a specific reason is randomly assigned a gender. This means there is an equal chance of having male or female characters in roles of power, or any other role in the game.

    I chose to use he/him/his as the generic pronoun for the rules text. This was a conscious decision made to make the writing easier for me. I acknowledge the fact that there were other ways to go with this, but I felt the standard of "male" pronouns used as generic was the most simple and elegant solution in this case.

    My goal in all of this was to try to find ways to bypass my innate gender bias for being a male gamer, and hopefully entice more female gamers into the hobby with my game...provided anyone actually sees it that is.

  24. Fucking hell. Make 2 books, 1 for women and 1 for men, let's see which one flies off the shelf and which one does not. Women are 2% and doesn't justify shit. Get over it ladies. Keep using my little ponies and pokemon tears to get your point across. Lets dumb down a game that doesn't need trolls being petted and coddled. ugh!

  25. vivaldi0: Women are 2% of what? WotC says they're just under 40% of people playing D&D. That number matches up pretty well with the attendance of the big cons like GenCon and DragonCon.

    In a (barely) related topic (but since you brought it up), Pokemon is consistently the second best-selling collectible game, right behind M:tG. And the collectible category hovers around 40% of the hobby games market total. If FLGSs had to choose between Pokemon and D&D, D&D would be out the door before you could finish asking the question.