In conversation with women who play table top role playing games I often hear stories of women playing characters who are men. I think there’s several reasons for playing a different gender at the table, and it can be revealing and informative. And fun! Here’s some of my thoughts (derived from personal experience and conversations with gamers) on performing gender at the table.
Why women play men and men play women
Some women I’ve spoken with don’t like to have gendered expectations at the table, and so it’s easier to play male characters in role playing games because they are the default and therefore normal. Playing a female character often has a lot of responsibility to it in a game. To name a few responsibilities, the woman often has to break career boundary norms. “A woman knight? But how can she be strong enough to carry that huge sword of hers?” The woman has to prove that she’s not just there to do womanly things: caretaking (healer, cleric, mother), romance (wife, sexual interest, seduction scenes), social interaction (diplomat, non-physical character). She has to prove that she is a woman, but also one of the guys at the table. These stereotypical woman roles can be difficult to navigate, subvert, and then re-integrate into the gaming experience. For women role players, often the easiest route is not to deal with these issues at all just by playing a man.
I’ve also met women who like to push gender role boundaries. They play men to see what it’s like to have power, to be the norm, to be strong, or just to play around with gender assumptions in general. I’ve met women who’ve played gay men, straight men, men who do very stereotypical tough guy stuff to explore what the tough guy means. Women who like to play more androgynous roles, playing more effeminate men. There’s a ton of possibility there.
I’ve known men who’ve played women for similar reasons. That is, to experience what it is to play a female archetype, or explore the gender stereotypes inherent in those types of roles as well. Men who’ve played women because they wanted the romantic storylines to be more a part of their gaming experience, or to expand upon certain roles like the woman warrior, the nymph. To get to play out the woman’s role in general, just to feel what it’s like to be in another gender’s skin. To escape the pressures or expectations that men have to be men in roleplaying games: protectors, warriors, tough guys, violent. Playing a woman inherently gets away from some of those expectations, like it or not, and it’s an entrance into a whole other set of rules and associations that can be liberating, or interesting and different.
The dynamic with men playing women is a little more complicated, I think. I’m trying to put my finger on why. I think it has to do with privilege, to a certain extent. I think it also has to to with it being a more extreme taboo for men (sexual implications inherent in playing a female role, women are historically known for dressing up as men in order to “be as good as them” whereas with men dressing up is women it’s most often for comedy, theater, or sexual desire). Correct me if I’m wrong on those. I’d love to hear from some men on why they play women, or if those expectations or taboos can be felt, because I don’t have the personal experience to back that up.
A few anecdotes
Unless I’m GMing, I usually play women. I like to play women who push gender role boundaries too. Some go-to roles for me are the warrior woman (yep, the tank, Finaira!), the honorable or disgraced noble, the debaucherous manipulator, the skilled technician. The reason I like these is because they’re all, to my mind, atypical roles for women in the collective western social consciousness. I sometimes think that is a trap too, because I’m simply playing to the contrary of popular stereotypes, which reinforces them to a certain extent. Coupled with the fact that these stereotypes and roles for women are rapidly changing.
I love playing the warrior woman, though. It’s absolutely my favorite role. I’ve always loved competition, battle, epic heroes and violent revenge stories. There are so few stories about really strong, really epic, really amazing women warriors (well, that’s not entirely true, but the stories are not well known or widely told). I love it when warrior and woman don’t collide, but synthesize, and become something new. Major Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica, Ripley from Alien, and the small but amazing number badass women of myth and legend are some of my personal heroes. The woman warrior is riddled with interesting gender issues, which I also find awesome. To me, playing the woman warrior in a role playing game is a woman playing a man’s role… but the more I play it, the less I see it that way, and the more it becomes a woman’s role. I’m curious how many other women love to play this role as well.
Answer me this
If you’re a woman, do you often play a man in games? Have you played an ambiguously gendered or trans person? What is your reasoning behind doing so? If you don’t, is there some other type of gendered expectation dictating your play?
If you’re a man, do you ever play women in games? Have you played an ambiguously gendered or trans person? What is your reasoning behind doing so? Conversely, do you ever feel as though, when you play men, there is a certain gendered expectation dictating your play?
If you identify with another gender or neither gender or both genders (or some other option I haven’t mentioned!), how does this impact your playing of the male or female character? Do you choose to be more ambiguous, or not approach gender at all?
*Edited to say*: Wow! Thanks everyone for being so honest and interesting. I really enjoyed reading all of the responses I got, and even some more from social media. It’s really cool to see different people’s reasons for playing other genders, and how thoughtful and unique each intention is. I also thought it was interesting how sexuality became part of the conversation as well, even though we were just talking about gender at first. Very thought provoking! Most of all, I like how there’s not one answer to this, but many, as each choice is very individual. Very, very cool.