This is the inaugural post in a series exploring how specific game design decisions affect inclusiveness and gender equality at the gaming table. In this series, we will point out problems, but we will also discuss examples of mechanics which promote equality and inclusion. The discussion will be framed in the context of actual play experiences. If you have suggestions for future posts in this series, please contact me privately.
Many games have mechanics which distribute rewards on the basis of subjective player feedback. For example, in many traditional roleplaying games, the GM1 assigns experience points subjectively, to some degree or another. Often the goal of these kinds of mechanical rewards is to encourage “good roleplaying.”
I’m not particularly experienced with most traditional RPGs, and I’m going to discuss this kind of mechanic from the perspective of games I am more familiar with. However, I would love to hear about the experiences of women who play other types of games.
I began thinking about this when I was reminded recently of some frustrating play experiences with Paranoia XP. For the uninitiated, Paranoia is an over-the-top dystopian future parody RPG. The non-GM players all play mutant troubleshooters living out their days serving Friend Computer (and secretly serving their secret societies). Unfortunately, it is treason to be a mutant, or to be in a secret society, and treason is punishable by death (fortunately, you get six clones!). It is also treason to even read the Paranoia rulebook! Silliness is the name of the game. (At least, that’s how I’ve played it. I have heard rumors of people playing it straight, but, well, I don’t know about those people.) And the GM rewards silliness with Perversity Points, which are tokens you can spend to improve rolls. (Any roll. Even the GM’s. For screwing over other player hijinks.)
First, a disclaimer. I absolutely adore Paranoia. It is an incredible amount of fun. This is also not intended as a criticism of anyone who has GM’d Paranoia for me. There have been several, and they were all great GMs, and are amazing people. At least one even identifies fairly strongly as a feminist.
However, we are all socialized very strongly to view women in certain ways. We expect women to be responsible, do the boring administrative work, and in general shut down the fun. We emphatically do not expect women to be silly. So women are less likely to be silly, and everyone is less likely to notice when they are. The Paranoia GM (despite being quite the stand-up guy) is less likely to notice and reward it.
At least, that has been my experience. And honestly, the mechanical bonus from Perversity in Paranoia is almost incidental. It’s the peer approval, the “Yeah, that was awesome!” from the other players when the GM throws you a poker chip, that’s where it’s at. That’s what really encourages the player to top herself next time, and do something even more outlandish (and, you know, for sure get a clone killed this time).
So, that sucks.
The other thing that happens, in my experience, is that after awhile, the GM realizes “Man, I haven’t given Darla any Perversity in awhile!” and finds some excuse to do it. Usually it’s not a terribly good excuse.
And you know what feels even worse than no peer approval? Charity peer approval.
When I played Paranoia, I often just gave up eventually, and worked on my (much more “serious”) secret society mission instead. These are really secondary goals, but if you feel that you’ve got no shot at the primary goal, you may as well get the consolation prize.
I’ve experienced charity approval in other games as well, such as Primetime Adventures (where players can reward cool stuff with “fan mail”). Now, I know of course, this happens some to everyone! People aren’t perfect! Sometimes we pick wrong and miss things and then try to make up for it. But trust me you guys, sexism is playing a role here.2
Are there any examples where this kind of mechanic could promote inclusiveness or equality? I can’t think of any. However, as I play more Apocalypse World, I’ll be curious to see how Hx goes, since it is different in several significant ways.
Please share your thoughts and experiences! I’m especially interested to hear from game designers, and about women’s experiences with mechanics like this.