• Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 2 – Care and Justice Mediation

    by  • August 14, 2013 • Essays • 7 Comments

    This is part two of a series. The previous post can be found here: Gender and Game Mechanics Series: Part 1 – Introduction.

    Note: The terms “women”, “girls”, “men” and “boys” in the articles of this series are assumed to be inclusive to transgender people who identify as each unless otherwise specified. While I can’t be sure my assumption is valid as none of the research I’ve read have specifically included trans-folks, I have chosen in writing the series to assume inclusivity: that trans-women and trans-men would exhibit the same gender trending as cis-women and cis-men. It’s an imperfect solution, but If I have to choose, I’d rather make mistakes while assuming sameness rather than difference.

    One of the areas of sociolinguistics that I find particularly fascinating to read centers around observance and documentation of children at play. There’s a lot of research on this front as sociologists and linguists try to pinpoint the chronology of our psychological, behavioural and linguistic development. It’s fascinating to learn just how early in the process of language, identity formation and interaction that our behavioural patterns become entrenched.

    These studies seem especially relevant to me when they are about observing boys and girls playing pretend. Just as our childhood language programming and practice informs our patterns of adult speech, it goes to figure that our childhood pretend play should inform our adult pretend play. As children, we began our patterns around what we think creating shared fiction looks like and how we work with each other to achieve it. As well, we began to form patterns that governed how we work with each other to resolve disagreements while playing our games.

    As I understand it, as early as age two, girls and boys generally begin to exhibit a preference to same-gender play groups, and to exhibit behaviour called “benign hostility” towards children of the opposite sex (“Boys have cooties!“). From this point on, and for quite a span of developmental time, play and interaction styles become increasingly gendered. Playing with each other – especially playing pretend with each other – allows us to try on, play with and make sense of roles we might be called on to play, including gendered ones.  As sociologists and sociolinguists compare and contrast different genders at play with each other, a lot about our differences are revealed. Conflict resolution styles are one of the major areas of focus.

    One of such studies centered around and substantiated a behavioural theory that described two distinct forms of conflict resolution: care oriented mediation and justice oriented mediation1. Both orientations are offered as two equally viable but convergent paths towards conflict management.

    Care mediation is focused on relationships. It has primary concerns which prioritize interdependence, empathy, communion and affiliation. Working from this orientation assumes that those in conflict are connected, and working through conflict is about relationship management. This orientation generally encourages tolerance, compassion, and responsiveness to others. It emphasizes active listening and communicating. It values attention to the needs of everyone involved, including those who may not be central to the conflict. It is agreement seeking, is non-reliant on rules or laws (will also bend rules and laws for the sake of community or agreement) and greets things as particular or contextual and less as global or universal.

    In short, when care oriented individuals come into conflict, they approach it this way: We talk through it with each other, we are responsible to each other to fix it together and internally, our relationship must come out in harmony, and there should be a sense of reciprocity.

    Justice mediation is focused on self. It has primary concerns which value,  autonomy individuality, agency, and self-assertion. Working from this orientation assumes separation, and working through conflict is about rights management. This orientation calls upon a universalized point of view rather than a particular one and centers on one individual’s rights vs. another’s; it aims to ensure those rights be maintained. This orientation calls on an external structure of connection.  It values detachment, logic, rationality and control and attends to rights, respect, and status by appealing to rules, principles or laws.

    In short, when justice oriented individuals come into conflict, they approach it this way: We assert our case to each other or to those present, we appeal to the external principle to fix it, our individual rights and status must come out intact, and there should be a sense of fairness.

    It’s probably not surprising to discover that in terms of gendered play, girl playgroups exhibit a preference for care mediation and boy playgroups exhibit a preference for justice mediation. What makes it all more interesting is the observation that when girls engage in care mediation to resolve conflict, they generally do it through the fiction of the pretend, whereas boys more often step out of the fiction of their pretend space to engage in justice mediation while pointing to things within it2.

    So what does all this mean in terms of roleplaying and mechanics? I can’t of course say for certainty without laying the kind of groundwork in RPG study that sociolinguists do, but there are pointers there that I find very interesting. I think that ideas like this can become useful heuristic tools – we can apply them loosely as frameworks and use them to re-evaluate what we know about games. For example, traditional roleplaying systems have focused heavily on conflict mechanics. In their best known form, two or more individuals come into conflict (the GM and PC(s)) for the purposes of resolving a fictional situation.

    Fiction is often suspended while procedure is discussed (who is involved in the conflict, who is taking what agency, what action, in what order, and how we should proceed). Individuals call on rights and privileges (what they are legitimately allowed to bring to the conflict based on the rules of the game and the stats on their character sheet). The participants defer their conflict to an external system of resolution that is separate from all participants and aims to ensure fairness in resolution (a dice roll). The participants return to the fiction and incorporate the judgement into play.

    This sequence exhibits obvious justice orientation, and that’s not surprising given that the origins of the hobby were predominately male and strongly informed by other predominantly based male hobbies (e.g. war gaming). People generally and understandably build the systems they are best equipped to build, and which serve their needs to the best extent.

    However, today, woman are (in many RPG communities) a pervasive part of the hobby. What can this mean to her relationship to the system, the game, the experience, the people she plays with and the hobby at large? And while women seem to exhibit preference for care mediation, there are male care-mediators too. What does this mean for them?

    I’ll posit some potential impacts in the next up: How we fare in Care and Justice.

    1. Gilligan, Carol (1988) Two moral orientations: Gender differences and similarities, p. 223-237.
    2. Sheldon, Amy (1993) “Pickle Fights: Gendered Talk in Preschool Disputes”, Gender and Conversational Interaction, p. 98.


    By trade a systems analyst and by academics a cultural studies and theatre geek, Mo spends an inordinate amount of time in life, work and play figuring out how things work. She likes to break them down, tinker with their guts and then mogyver them back together with a rusty screwdriver and some duct tape.

    7 Responses to Gender and Game Mechanics: Part 2 – Care and Justice Mediation

    1. avatar
      August 15, 2013 at 21:39

      Have you looked at Best Friends? It uses probably the closest thing to a care-mediation resolution system I’ve seen. You don’t have to break the fiction to resolve the conflict, and it’s based on reciprocal support. You give tokens to the person you want to win the conflict, playing it out as a support action. There’s a limited number of tokens in play, so if the person who receives tokens wants to receive more later, they first have to give away what they have.

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    3. avatar
      August 19, 2013 at 16:21

      Not yet… I own it, but haven’t gotten around to reading it.

      I’ll check it out, thanks for the recommend!

    4. avatar
      August 19, 2013 at 16:59

      This might be outside the scope you intend for this series, but it makes me want to ask a lot of questions. I don’t expect you to answer these, but recommendations for further reading would be appreciated if you have time. I’ll track down the articles you cited.
      Does the “benign hostility” for children differ from society to society?
      How do conflict resolution strategies differ from society to society? What other factors play into a persons tendency towards one strategy or the other? Is there a difference between intra-group and inter-group conflict resolution strategies?

      Looking forward to more of this series.

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    6. avatar
      August 22, 2013 at 10:18


      (Introduction/Disclaimer: No, I’m not female, but most of the roleplaying groups I’m in have a majority or significant minority of female players, it’s been that way for years and I rather prefer it that way, things seem to be more interesting.)

      I’ve noticed the phenomenon you describe in quite a few places, but never more clearly than among roleplayers in MMORPGs; the majority-female guild I’m in is somewhat flabberghasted by the sheer amount of immersion-shattering rules and rolls favoured by the majority-male player base on our server, who seem to bring that urgent need for fairness, justice, balance and arbitrariness with them from somewhere.

      I’d assumed it was from other tabletop games, but I’ve been reminded that experience with those is no longer the given that it might have been for players of my generation; your article has had me bobbing my head in accord, as it seems to align with most (if not all) of the experiences I’ve had. Certainly, I’ve known a female player who’s very interested in mechanics and justice, and doesn’t mind moving outside the pretend; she’s a counterbalance for Mr. Put-Those-Dice-Down-You’re-Killing-My-Immersion here, who never met a roll system he didn’t mildly dislike.

      Anyway, I’ve done my best to bear this in mind as I try to map my MMORPG-roleplaying experiences back onto the tabletop; while what I’ve produced is still a justice-based system (sigh, I’m such a boy), it’s so light it’s barely there at all; “do this to resolve conflicts that you can’t resolve within the pretend” was the mantra being muttered during the writeup.

      Here it is, anyway, and I’d be interested in your thoughts, if you have any to spare.

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