In Part 1 (Twitch) and Part 2 (RPGs) of our Women in Gaming series we shared some of our personal thoughts and experiences with the communities we’re involved in. While this form of experiential data is not only valuable but essential in fully understanding systemic biases in our culture groups, we wanted to complement these discrete observations with a more birds’-eye-view approach.
Women in Gaming Books
While there are clearly still gender boundaries to overcome when people actually sit down to role-play, we wanted to see if there were any such boundaries that preceded game-night. What things might be contributing to the disproportionate gender representation in folks who play tabletops? To that end, we took a closer look at how gender factored into the process of creating a character in a tabletop rpg. Particularly, we wanted to know how some of the hobby’s most popular Players’ Handbooks and Core Rulebooks depicted the heroes in their artwork. After all, a player’s ability to enjoy and share in the experience of visualizing their hero through the professionally commissioned artwork will always be delineated by the genders represented (or not represented) during that creative process.
What we Found
Our first initial reaction to these results was that they were generally what we expected: male heroes are depicted noticeably more often than female ones. That affirmed pessimism aside, these results were also not quite as bad as we were prepared to see. We were really happy to see as many female heroes as we did, and we were also happily surprised to find no discernible pattern among the sorts of heroes depicted between genders. There was a sufficient variety of hero “types” between both male and female heroes (robe-wearing magic users, gritty weapon-wielders, etc.) to make any sort of general statement difficult. Similarly, the variety of body types among both male and hero figures was somewhat encouraging, though we acknowledge that the racial diversity attendant most fantasy genres of rpgs has this sort of built in.
The Importance of “Neutrals”
The most noticeable finding from our sample was the low number of “Neutral” figures (with the exception of Numenera). After seeing these results we went back to look through all of these images again to see if we could figure out why this was the case. The reason we so rarely paused to consider if a figure could be fairly identified as both male or female is that the heroes in rpg books are often highly stylized, and that applies equally to their anatomy. It’s telling when heroes that are heavily clad in armour, weighed down with a pack, and have half their faces obscured by a helmet/scarf/hood are still almost always immediately identifiable by the presence of absence of a female bust, hips, or long hair. If that doesn’t strike you as odd, just ask Éowyn about the Battle of Pelennor Fields.
This isn’t to say that hyperbolic comic-book style bodies can’t be awesome, but their tendency to overtly sexualize both genders has its limits. Neutral figures are important not simply for the accessible identification they afford to players who would rather identify as neither fixed gender. Since they aren’t as overtly sexualized, they equally serve as identifiable heroes for both men and women. Non-determinate figures in rpg books are less about another distinct gender category for players to identify with, but moreso function as a malleable middle-ground between male and female.
Honourable Mention: Numenera (Monte Cook Games)
These kinds of infographics tend to speak for themselves, but we felt we should give voiced recognition to the folks at Monte Cook Games for their work in Numenera. This is said with the full disclosure that neither our survey of rpg titles nor our selection of titles was in any way sponsored, endorsed, or even known about by any of these publishers. We chose to conduct this study to complement our Women in Gaming series, and we selected the games based on those we’ve seen most frequently active in the tabletop directory on Twitch. All that aside, well done to the folks at MCG.
To ensure that their Numenera release wasn’t anomalous in its art’s gender depiction, we did a quick follow up and tallied all of the characters found in MCG’s new Cypher System Rulebook. Turns out, more of the same goodness: 70 male (39%), 70 female (39%), and 41 neutral (22%). Not only is MCG actively inverting the male-female imbalance in tabletop rpgs, but they’re inserting, for the first time in a meaningful way, the importance of depicting not overly gendered characters in their games. The result is rpgs whose artwork mirrors the accessibility and openness extolled by the games’ rules and creators. From us small folks over here in Twitch-land, hats off.