Redefining Masculinity in Gaming

It’s another Metatopia-inspired post!

There’s something about the rich offerings at this convention – both in terms of design and discussion – that inspire me to examine gaps of experience and conversation in the overall gaming community. Sometimes, as with last year’s extensive 4part rant, those gaps are noticeable even at Metatopia itself. This year, I noticed once again that there was something missing in the conversation, and it’s missing everywhere.*

(*Almost everywhere. Brie Sheldon’s fantastic ‘zine Behind the Masc is one of the few exceptions I’ve seen, and very much an inspiration for this post.)

The Problem – Monolithic Masculinity

There is a growing discussion about the fact that our cultural view of masculinity is excessively focused on specific and often regressive character traits. There are numerous people working to break the patterns of traditional masculine gender expression, and others who make an effort to point out excellent male role models outside of the common stereotypes.

But in gaming, there’s still a monolithic view of masculinity.

In gaming, much of the recent growth (in the places where there has been growth) has been in representation. This is an area everyone can get behind – making sure those voices that haven’t been heard are given a platform as designers, gamemasters, and players, and that they are shown as all of those things through the art and language we use. This includes underrepresented people across a broad range of sexualities, gender identities, and gender expressions.

But within this push for broader representation (and also among those who would prefer to resist that push), there has been a problematic and usually implicit assumption that masculine-expressing cis-male gamers all want the same things out of their play experience. This supposedly “masculine” play style is usually viewed as a physically violent and sexually aggressive power fantasy, favoring action over conversation and conflict over cooperation. Games and play styles that follow this paradigm are often described in masculine terms, and games that deviate from it are often described in terms of femininity or queerness, even by women and genderqueer players, GMs, and designers.

This has two negative effects on the community:

  1. Men believe they are expected to enjoy the violent power fantasy play style, both by other men and by people who are not men. They are told that breaking from this style is inherently non-masculine.
  2. People other than men who want to explore violence and conflict are given to believe that this is an inherently masculine approach and contradictory to other gender identities or expressions.

The Goal – Towards a Deeper Masculinity

Obviously, even if we stop gendering our language around play styles and character roles, this expectation isn’t going away easily. It’s very ingrained in our gaming culture, because it’s one of those rare patriarchal habits that’s sustained not only by the people who want it around but also by the people trying to react against it.

Rather, we need to start filling our design, our play, and our culture with counterexamples. We need to build games, stories, and play experiences that do not fit the conventional definition of masculinity and say, “Yes, this is also masculine.”

In addition to broadening representation and participation across the gender and sexuality spectra (which should continue to grow), we need to deepen our representation of masculinity. I say deep, not broad, because cis-het men don’t need more examples – we already have more than enough – we need to change the ones we have.

This is, if anything, even harder. That’s because it’s not simply a matter of bringing more people to the table (which is already a challenge). It means that we have to change the attitudes of people who are already there. We have to get them to see themselves (and other people superficially similar to themselves) differently.

Don’t Men Have This Already?

One of the common issues of representation is the habit of showing cis-het white men as all kinds of characters, while underrepresented people often find themselves stuck with one or two stereotypical tropes. So men are shown as the barbarian, the cleric, and the rogue. They can be the face, the hacker, and the hitter. They can be old or young, grizzled or fresh-faced, competent or awkward. But women (for example) are expected to be young and sexy, lithe but not strong, competent but never the leader.

And yes, this is true.

So when I say that men need to see themselves differently, one of the challenges is that there is some argument that they already do. They have all the options! They can play any kind of character there is, and almost every kind of story is open to them!

But here’s the problem – even among men, we do not view every role as equally “masculine.” Clerics and hackers are seen as more effeminate, while barbarians and soldiers are seen as more manly. Even combatants differ – getting up in someone’s face is preferred over stabbing them in the back, which is preferred over shooting them from long range. Our upbringing in this Western patriarchy demands that we constantly rank ourselves against each other on a scale of masculinity, even in the fiction we create.

So while we have opportunities for a wide variety of characters, what we’re lacking is the affirmation that those are all equally valid presentations of masculinity.

Breaking the Mold

Our counterexamples, then, need to do more than provide a variety of character options, because we already have that and it doesn’t fix the problem. Instead, our counterexamples need to change how we think about our interactions with story, with other characters, and with other players. By examining these interactions, we examine our own masculine identity.

Here are three elements we can start incorporating into our design and play that would go a long way towards building a new set of positive masculine counterexamples:

1) Caretaking

Actual fatherhood is something we don’t address often in our gaming experiences, which is a shame. And even “taking care” of friends is something our characters often do only in combat, because we have this perverse conception that people only need to be kept alive to be fine. We need to build more of our play experiences around taking care of the actual day to day needs of our companions, both physically and emotionally.

A great example of this kind of play is Patrick Rothfuss’s character in the recent One Shot Podcast Kids on Bikes series. Also consider the character of Tadashi (and even Baymax himself) from Big Hero 6. Look for game design that encourages a strong mentor or caregiver relationship.

2) Collaboration

So much of our gaming is about “spotlighting” – the idea that each of us just want our moment to shine. In the end, that’s actually kind of a selfish approach. We should spend more time and energy on lifting up others and combining our efforts towards a collective good.

I would humbly suggest that Rockalypse is actually a decent example of this. Look for game design that focuses on helper mechanics and community building. Games that spend a lot of time on social problem solving (like Golden Sky Stories) are also great for encouraging this kind of experience.

3) Giving Space to Non-Masculine People

A big part of conventional masculinity is the self-assured belief in one’s own competence and importance. In both the real world and in gaming, this leads to social dynamics where men will yield the floor to each other but rarely to marginalized voices. (There are actual studies on this to the extent where it is a known cognitive bias, so don’t even try to dispute it with me.) We need to create more play experiences where men (both as players and characters) practice listening and giving space, not because they are less competent but simply because that’s the expectation.

A great example of this is Bow from the recent She-Ra reboot. He is consistently competent and enthusiastic, but he trusts the women around him and is comfortable following them. Look for game design that encourages this kind of interaction, either through setting or mechanics.

The Caveat

In all of these things, it’s vital that we intentionally refer to the characters who do these things and the stories and play experiences they generate in masculine terms. Remind everyone that men and masculine people do these things, not in spite of their masculinity but because of it.

And this is just a start. I would love to see even more ways to break conventional masculinity in gaming experiences. I hope that these thoughts can encourage everyone to think beyond the conventional masculine paradigm.

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