On Writing More Gender-Inclusive Games

(This week’s guest post for Pride Month is by a wonderful writer by the name of Rose Jackson. Rose is is a writer, editor, and games consultant living in Brooklyn, NY. She writes for Dystopia Rising’s Northern California game and is an inclusivity consultant for the upcoming campaign boffer game Encore: the Afterlife. In between writing games (both her own and others’) and prose, making LARP gear, and editing a magazine, she spends time with a lovely partner and wishes she could manage more LARP weekends. The Space Between Stories thanks her incredibly for sharing her wisdom with the world. Featured photo by Jana Sabeth Schultz on Unsplash.)

There are games I have played where the documents say, “This is a world without transphobia,” and every single time, I have seen that statement proven false. I never assume it’s malicious—after all, the game runners are trying to do what they see is right, and implementing that to the best of their ability. Most often, the statement fails because of the actions of the players. However, I’ve also often seen holes in design documents, or supplementary materials, or in the casting of NPCs. These things come from the management side, or in how people who help run the game are trained. And before I go any further, I want to state for the record: I am not here to lambast any particular game, or any particular players. I am here to say, “this is what I have seen, and this is how I think games can be better in the future.” Almost all my experience comes from campaign boffer LARPs in America, so that is what I’ll be speaking to primarily, though I will touch on casting characters for one-shots (again, for America, because I’ve never LARPed outside my home country) later on. Also, it should be stated that I am just one person who talked to a few other people about this. This article is by no means a be-all end-all for the discussion, and I am fully aware other trans or gender-non-conforming (GNC) people may disagree with something I say here.

A lot of the issues I’ve seen on the player side—when they aren’t blatant transphobia, like purposeful misgendering or other demeaning comments—are the small or not so small things picked up living in the current society. It’s looking at a fellow player and assuming what pronouns they use from physical appearance. It’s doing a double take in a bathroom because “they don’t look like they belong in here.” It’s not doing the mental work to be able to say, “these are the pronouns you gave me, so it doesn’t matter what I might have assumed at first.” It’s using “guys” as a gender-neutral term, and a trans woman cringes inside because she wonders if she’s being misgendered. In society, these things hurt. In a LARP environment, in a game world where transphobia theoretically doesn’t exist, misgendering is even more jarring to trans or GNC players, because it also pulls us completely out of the world of the game. If a LARP says “this is a world without transphobia,” we are implicitly promised, “these things won’t happen here, people will treat you as your character’s/your gender instead of assuming,” and in a moment of misgendering or other harmful action, that promise gets broken. These are things that can be mitigated through communication with players on how the world of the game works, and what the expectations for play are, which begins with how the world of the game is created.

Instead of just laundry list of “here’s what’s not to do,” the following is what I see as the major points of what a world without transphobia might actually look like:

  • No sexism, gender inequality, or gender-based insults; a major component of transphobia is wrapped up in societal views of what is “proper” or “right” for a certain gender
  • Gendered pronouns are not assumed for anyone; pronoun patches or markers are common, or everyone asks for pronouns (or gives their pronouns as part of an introduction)
  • Children are able to choose their own gender when they wish (perhaps with a specific pronoun for children who haven’t yet chosen), and are not assigned a gender or pronoun based on sex characteristics
  • Gendered clothing is not tied to a specific type of body (eg: if a certain cloth chest wrapping is gendered a certain way, it should not be assumed that only people without breasts will wear it)
  • If medical transition from one body type to another for purposes of easing gender/body dysphoria is available, it is easily available to all on an informed-consent basis
  • Secondary sex characteristics are not gendered (beards on their own are not masculine, though that is not to say that a certain styling of beard cannot be masculine, for example)
  • Non-gendered options for personal styling exist and are easy to access
  • Gendered options for self-identification like “man” and “woman” are simply seen as one option of many, and even if they are incredibly common, they are not a “default” or seen as “normal”
  • It is understood that gender is fluid and may change over time, and changing one’s gender presentation is fairly simple

I am not saying these would necessarily be easy to implement, and I am not asking for every game to do so. There are plenty of useful and good narratives to be drawn out of an unequal society as long as the games are intentionally engaging with the material, instead of it being assumed as part of the “background details” of a setting. Without consistently intentional engagement, it’s all too easy for games to further perpetuate transphobic stereotypes and assumptions that will make many trans/GNC players turn away from the game or experience.

Here are some questions that can be asked when building a world (or in some cases, individual modules) for a LARP which can help the game design and world design be more inclusive. Some of these will be easier to answer for a game set in our world, but can be good to consider regardless:

  • Do the playable characters follow our world’s binary sexual characteristics (eg: where people who are estrogen-dominant grow breasts, or people with more testosterone grow facial hair)? Why or why not? If there are multiple species of playable character, how do those species differ?
  • Does the dominant culture have a binary understanding of sex (where there are two distinct sex categories), or are all body types (like those we would consider “Intersex”) considered as part of a wide range of possible characteristics? Does the dominant culture’s understanding of sex influence its understanding of gender?
  • What subcultures or non-dominant cultural groups exist that operate differently with regard to gender from the dominant group?
  • What methods of physical expression (clothes, hairstyle, tattoos, scarification, personal styling, etc) are tied to gender, and how do those concepts relate to gender expression or how someone’s gender is interpreted by others?
  • What are existing stereotypes about gender, and how do those stereotypes affect or reinforce power dynamics in the culture, particularly when it comes to people who break stereotypes or make choices that fight against those power dynamics? I am thinking here of how trans women, by existing, often buck the existing stereotypes of both men (because many stereotypes consider trans women as men) being manly and as femininity or womanhood to be inherently lesser or undesirable as a personality trait.

I will not go so far as to say that any potential answers to any of these questions are wrong. I am not asking anyone to build LARPs only one way. I just wish creators were more aware of the impact of their gender-based choices in their game design (and it is always a choice: using one’s own dominant society’s rules about gender is a design choice that can be changed, even if it was originally made automatically or unconsciously). In addition, particularly for historical games, intentionally creating engagement opportunities for non-binary players is particularly important. While a historical setting often would reinforce the gender binary and not allow many opportunities for non-binary or transgender representation, it is important to remember that these identities and ideas about gender have always existed in society. We just have a dearth of information about those identites in our modern age. Also, you can always deviate from history as much as you wish for the sake of comfort of your players: nobody knows exactly what some specific California Gold Rush prospectors (to take a random historical time and place) would think about a trans woman out in the quarries, so why not make your little fictional microcosm welcoming to those sorts of people? The historical impact of transphobia and its ilk should never be completely erased, but the space your game takes place in can be a respite from discrimination. A good example of this sort of respite space in a historical setting is the weird west game Dead Legends: all orientations and genders are welcome in Lazarus Gap, even if the wider world doesn’t think that way.

Games set in futuristic or alternate-world settings can easily incorporate modern ideas of gender neutrality into play in ways that bolster the setting. One game I attended, Imagine Nation Collective’s Utopia Descending, had a default where everyone used the pronouns sie (pronounced “see”) and hir (pronounced “here”) for someone whose pronouns they didn’t know. For example, if there was a character across the room who my character didn’t know, my character could turn to someone next to them and ask, “Do you know who sie is?” Then, if the character I was conversing with knew that across-the-room character, the response could be, “Yes, she is Lyle.” In this way, my character could become informed about not only the other character’s name, but also the pronouns that character used. It was a system that took a few moments of getting used to, but it worked wonderfully and was overall very smooth once I got the hang of it. In that case as well, “sie/hir” pronouns worked well because some people fervently dislike being referred to by “they/them” pronouns. According to game director John Marquis, the neutral pronoun choice was “part of the cultural nuances of the world”, while players naturally began introducing complementary neutral titles or forms of address such as “Ser” (instead of “sir” or “ma’am”) and “Mx.” (instead of Mr. or Ms., a title included in the Merriam-Webster dictionary since September 2017). Another game, Event Horizon, uses a similar neutral-pronoun-until-told-otherwise rule. It also includes further details on the variety of gender, sexual, and romantic orientations and identities in the game world, and how those map (or don’t) to modern ideas of gender and gender expression*.

Other in-game pieces of lore or information can help your transgender or GNC players feel seen by the world design and more reflected in your game world. This can empower them to feel secure in creating characters of any gender if they wish, without worrying as much that a body they don’t feel matches their self-image would be a detriment to playing that character. Assuming one is using our modern human biology as a template, in-world open access to hormone changes, body shape modifications such as binders, or the availability of surgeries some trans people choose to undergo can help transgender/GNC people feel more comfortable engaging with your world. A note in your world document doesn’t even need to be drawn out or complicated. A simple, “by use of magic, those who aren’t comfortable with their body as it exists have easy access to a path to changing themself” would work, for example. Including explicitly trans/GNC characters in positions of power or influence also helps tell those players, “people like you have a place here, and can be a powerful force for change in this world.”

In the liminal space between in-game and out-of-game assistance lie things like the pronoun patches used by a variety of games and conventions. These things, when normalized, can be used in addition with pronoun practices like the ones above to help ensure trans/GNC players are gendered correctly while at your event. These patches or pronoun markers can be something like an actual patch that is either considered in-game or out-of-game that states the pronouns one wants.

Use of the patches by all participants of all gender identities should be normalized. That way, a player is not de-facto outing themself as transgender or gender-non-conforming by wearing a patch. These patches can also be an in-game thing in the form of a cultural marker worn by all people of your world, perhaps a small badge, pin, or scarf with a certain color and/or symbol on it worn in a standardized place. Sadia Bies, co-owner of Event Horizon, describes their game’s process for pronoun check-ins and tags as, “Nametags include your pronouns on one side and your characters on the other. It’s the social norm to include pronouns in an introduction.” In this way, the game reinforces checking someone’s pronouns and, therefore, using the correct ones.

There are also some out-of-game, logistical points that ensure your trans/GNC participants have a comfortable time at your event. As I’ve said, most of the problems I’ve seen are from players, not from the people that run the game. You can do all the worldbuilding to be inclusive as you want, but if your worldbuilding and expectations for play aren’t communicated to your players properly, thoroughly, and repeatedly (and enforced when necessary), it won’t make a difference. Some players will still misgender or treat trans/GNC players badly, intentionally or not, and it will end with those players not enjoying their time at your game. Some design or play decisions that directly affect your players can help cut down on incidents of transphobia at your game, help you deal with players who show transphobic behavior, or empower your trans/GNC players to advocate for themselves and their emotional safety at your game.

Before even getting into documentation, game staff must be mentioned. The single best thing you can do for trans/GNC inclusion at your game is have a trans or GNC person in an important staff role. Let me repeat that. The single best thing you can do for trans/GNC inclusion at your game is have a trans or GNC person in an important staff role. This is corroborated by every trans or GNC person I’ve talked to about this—Event Horizon staff Quinn and Sadia said almost exactly what I just did, and friends and other game writers have said similar things. Trans and GNC participants will feel vastly more comfortable coming with harassment or discrimination issues to a staff member who shares their experience/identity. The times I have experienced discrimination issues at a game, I have sought out other trans people to talk to, because I know they will take my complaint seriously. I do not mean that I assume an individual game runner who is not trans/GNC will automatically dismiss my concerns. I just mean that, given the ambient transphobia in the world at large, I do not feel like I can safely assume that a non-trans/GNC game runner I haven’t talked to about trans issues will be sensitive to those issues and therefore be able to respond to my emotional pain at those issues in an appropriate and helpful way. This is a common thought process among trans/GNC people, at least from what I have seen.

In addition, having a trans or GNC person on your staff may mean that person can, if they are willing, read through your story documents and make sure that some unconscious biases don’t make their way into your game. Much like a sensitivity reader for novels or other artistic work, a staff member or consultant can help your game be designed in a more inclusive way, either at the beginning of its life, or going forward through the game’s life. It is important that, should you take on someone in this capacity, that you listen to them. I am not saying that person’s word should necessarily be taken as gospel, or that because you have one person helping you that you are immune to error—one person cannot speak for the entirety of many different peoples’ experiences—but it may mean that some assumptions or choices can be corrected to be made more inclusive to a wider variety of players.

As far as documentation and out-of-game assistance goes, the first major document is your Code of Conduct. Clear and specific statements about how you expect your players to act while at your game is a first major way to lessen problems around transphobia. As with many community concerns, it at least gives a document to refer back to when policies need to be enforced. The CoC is also one of the first places I go when looking at a new game. I check whether or not transphobia is explicitly mentioned. If I see a CoC that says “we don’t allow transphobia,” I am more likely to engage with that game, hoping the game runners will be on my side if an issue occurs. In addition, make yourself aware of what transphobic microaggressions and discrimination look like so you can better care for your trans and GNC participants’ health and safety at your game and in other interactions that involve your game space.

Game records are important, obviously, but for trans and GNC people they can be fraught with worry. Many trans/GNC people have legal names they have disavowed, and when used for them, bring active pain or discomfort. You will have to, of course, require your participants to sign their legal names to their waivers. This does not mean that their legal name has to be directly connected to their character or profile in your database (even if that database is just a spreadsheet on your computer). Allowing your players a section on their waiver for “preferred name” as well as “legal name” (if you can legally do so) or keeping their legal name in an esoteric part of the database allows you to use their actual (“preferred”) name everywhere else. Putting “preferred name” in your initial check in or registration forms is a good way to signal that participants can use whichever name they are most comfortable with. While there are arguments to be made that just listing “name” is sufficient, as trans/GNC people’s “preferred” names are just their names and there is nothing “preferred” about them, there are a number of times I have been confused on whether or not my legal name is required, and if I would be forced to disclose and interact with that information. That is, however, just my suggestion, and your mileage may vary.

The last major OOG logistical issue to discuss here is character or NPC casting. This one is pretty easy: cast gender-neutrally. Let people decide their character’s gender, whatever that may be. For Event Horizon, the runners didn’t want to recreate a sci-fi setting with “cisgender” and “heterosexual” as defaults. Instead, they only ask for player pronouns, and ensure all characters do not have a listed gender. Going the route of full self-determination of gender is a good one if you are striving for a true world without transphobia, as can be created particularly easily in alternate-world or science fiction settings. If you are playing in a setting with strict gender roles, such as medieval Europe, gender-based casting can be, but historical examples such as the Chevalier D’eon shows the historical stereotypes and delineations of gender and gender roles were perhaps not so clear cut. Regardless, allow people to self-determine the gender of their character in their casting form and let them declare that character’s pronouns if they wish, and modify the character that best suits them as necessary. Importantly, never attempt to decipher a participant’s assigned gender and use that assumption to influence your casting choice—it’s another way of misgendering them and otherwise being rude, because you are using information about an assumed aspect of their life experience, instead of taking the information they give you about the gender they wish to play at face value.

This is by no means a fully exhaustive list of all the ways to make your games trans- and GNC-inclusive. While it does hit many major points, there are some things that were left out, and more information about specific scenarios or world types that could not easily be covered in the scope of an article, even a long one. The best thing you can do for trans/GNC-inclusivity at your game is to educate yourself on what microaggressions or more subtle forms of discrimination look like, so you know what to address if something comes up. There are things you will miss, and mistakes you will make. Having trans/GNC people on your staff will help ensure you make fewer of those mistakes, but your game’s community will still come to you with issues, and you will still find missteps or blind spots. Be gracious about them. Listen to your community, and engage with them honestly. Trans and GNC people just want to have fun at their game like everybody else, and if you engage the topic of inclusivity with good faith, an open mind, and knowledge that you cannot and will never know everything, you will find many people willing to come to your game space and do the same. Happy worldbuilding, happy game running, and may we see each other out there one day.

*http://eventhorizonlarp.tumblr.com/post/156057074449/gender-sexuality-and-relationship-structures-in

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