Last Gen Con I ran a hack of the game Kagematsu called KaGaymatsu, by Manuela Soriani. Manuela is part of the Italian gaming community which made it extra fun for me to be running at a US con. Visibility for women across the world! I wanted to run and represent games that were designed by women or queer folk, or focused on gender, queerness, or sexiness in some way. Visibility for these types of games is really important to me, as a queer woman gamer who enjoys sexy games, not only for my own personal taste, but to make this type of representation possible in the gaming community at large. So running these types of games at conventions raises awareness, and is it’s own sort of activism. The biggest benefit for me though is that it gives people permission to be sexy, queer, and to play a woman in games. It creates an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusiveness, and radical permission and acceptance is a powerful tool.
I learned about KaGaymatsu through google plus communities. The original game, written by Danielle Lewon, was hacked by another woman last year, Manuela Soriani, living across the world. Our global gaming community is so cyberpunk sometimes. The premise of the game is fairly familiar to many since it’s creation in 2009, but just in case: a group of male players play women in a village who need saving, and a female player plays the Ronin/GM whose affections they need to win, both in and out of character to a certain extent. Once the female villagers win the affections of the Ronin, they can extract a promise from him to defeat the evil in the village and save everyone. But it never quite goes that smoothly. I love this game because it plays with gender roles, and because it contains some of the most fun and suspenseful etiquette and social challenges I’ve ever experienced in a table top RPG. It also plays somewhat like an Akira Kurosawa film, and I love that guy.
There really isn’t much representation for gay men in table top RPGs. That’s where Manuela’s hack, KaGaymatsu, comes in. The premise of the game is entirely the same as the original Kagematsu, except now instead of playing women who need saved, you play men who need saved, and the Ronin is still male. The interesting bit here is that you, as a male villager, might not be gay, and additionally, you’re religious, and you need to keep your affections towards men secret because it’s still a taboo! This creates a really interesting exploration not just of the gender roles in the scenario, but the possible fluidity of your character’s sexual identity and affections as well. It also deals with shame and male sexuality and coming to terms with being gay, big important themes in gay stories in general.
With two women and two men players in the game I ran (myself included), it was interesting to see how we went about representing gay men in this setting and with our various backgrounds as players. The mechanics of the game helped us quickly move beyond stereotypes. I played our Kagetmatsu as a young, gangly, attempting to be heroic but kind of pathetically failing because of his ego type of character. We also had a devout monk, a down to earth fisherman, and a friendly blacksmith. The ways they pursued the Kagematsu and tried to win his affections were really interesting and varied. I remember the monk teaching him how to pray, and spiritually intimate moments at the temple. The fisherman would be in nature, sharing with the Ronin the beauty of the village and it’s creatures. The blacksmith was powerful and emotional, and his seductions often consisted of descriptions of his physical form and strength.
I’ve rarely experienced in RPGs such an appreciation for male sexuality and the male form. It’s an interesting juxtaposition when you consider that this game was made to put men in the shoes of women, and the roles women are “supposed to play”. Now consider the roles that men are supposed to play in RPGs, warriors, magicians, thieves, monsters. Rarely lovers, sexual creatures, intimate and tender. The way that Manuela has made a story of flirtation and allowed it to be exclusively about men allows for the expansion of male gender roles in the game. It also still performs the function of the original game in that it’s putting both men and women in the roles of gay men, so still playing with ideas of power and oppression and sexuality and gender in the real world.
Does that mean you have to play a gay man in order to show male sexuality and tenderness? I suppose that this is where some questions of the representation of gay men in the game might be a little problematic. It feels a little exploitative, in that only men showing affection for other men can be tender or romantic or sexual. Also that it’s not really queer, or exploring identity or being truly radical in it’s shifting around of gender roles. It’s really just playing gay men. Which, I’ll admit, in and of itself is somewhat radical in the RPG sphere. But to really get at gay or queer mechanics, it needs to really go beyond representation and move into themes of identity, sexuality, and normalization of these stories instead of a romantic Orientalism and otherness that Kagematsu seems to be dancing around.
An interesting addition to KaGaymatsu would be a list of historical references and stories of male Samurai love in Japanese history. From Wikipedia, for a primer:
From religious circles, same-sex love spread to the warrior (samurai) class, where it was customary for a boy in the wakashū age category to undergo training in the martial arts by apprenticing to a more experienced adult man. The man was permitted, if the boy agreed, to take the boy as his lover until he came of age; this relationship, often formalized in a “brotherhood contract”, was expected to be exclusive, with both partners swearing to take no other (male) lovers. This practice, along with clerical pederasty, developed into the codified system of age-structured homosexuality known as shudō, abbreviated from wakashūdo, the “way (do) of wakashū“. The older partner, in the role of nenja, would teach the wakashū martial skills, warrior etiquette, and the samurai code of honor, while his desire to be a good role model for his wakashū would lead him to behave more honorably himself; thus a shudō relationship was considered to have a “mutually ennobling effect”. In addition, both parties were expected to be loyal unto death, and to assist the other both in feudal duties and in honor-driven obligations such as duels and vendettas. Although sex between the couple was expected to end when the boy came of age, the relationship would, ideally, develop into a lifelong bond of friendship. At the same time, sexual activity with women was not barred (for either party), and once the boy came of age, both were free to seek other wakashū lovers.
It would be super interesting to explore historical forms of homosexuality as we understand it in Samurai culture. It would allow for an education about the history of male love in Japan. It can also begin a discussion in the narrative of the story about the difference between essentialism and constructivism when applied to an identifier like “gay”. In other words, just because men are in a loving relationship, or having sex, doesn’t mean they’re gay by contemporary definition. This historical context lends even further context to contemporary definitions of sexuality and what they mean. I think KaGaymatsu is actually right on the verge of doing this, in not forcing any of the men in the game to identify as gay, but rather have interactions in a way we would consider to be gay today. With more historical context this could be powerful.
The game is incredibly accessible though, and one thing it does succeed at is spotlighting gay men in a positive way. It allows people of all genders to step into that position for a moment and play a man seducing another man. While I agree with Joe Mcdaldno and Joli St Patrick that we need to move beyond representation in games, representation of any kind at all is a positive first step toward more inclusiveness, and most importantly, more interesting stories.