The Male Role

Originale version
vendredi 4 octobre 2013
par  Benoît
popularité : 91%

This article was originally write for the Chroniques d’Altaride #17 about Men. It was translate in french for the occasion. This is the originale version, by Kira Scott

I think it’s really interesting to examine gender roles in role playing games. As a queer feminist I’m often looking at gender through the female lens, both personally and politically. Gender is political, and the gender I identify with is political and controversial, particularly in gaming. So representation is important in the games we play. When we talk about fantasy or sci-fi heroes what do they look like ? What gender are they primarily represented as ? What body types do they have ? Are they beautiful, sexy, powerful, violent ? Popular US culture will currently tell you that this character is a white middle aged male, pleasantly sculpted muscles, shaved head. There’s actually a study done on male heroes in video games and movies in the past ten years and they overwhelmingly fit this model. The table top gaming image of the hero isn’t far behind this cultural standard. Torn from the pages of Tolkien and Howard, persisting still from the ages of war gaming, men in roleplaying games are the reigning gender option with popular trends toward violence and heroism. While variation occurs, it’s rare, and often taboo.

What does this image mean for men though ? Feminism and sexuality can examine all genders, and male gender roles are just as constricting as female gender roles. Sure men still have cultural privileges women don’t, but the burden of male gender roles paradoxically exists alongside that privilege. Just like in the real world, male characters in roleplaying games have certain expectations to fulfill and ideals to meet.

One great example is that because there are often specific roles for women in roleplaying games to fill. Then in strict binary fashion, men aren’t allowed to also fulfill these roles because they’re too feminine. There often aren’t caretakers who are male heroes in fantasy, or romantic interests who are men, or fathers. The mother, the healer, and the damsel in distress are fairly common though ! This is incredibly limiting for men and the roles they can portray. The hero is strong, his weakness is his female romantic interest. So this dichotomy sets up a double standard where men can’t fulfill the romantic interest role without becoming feminized. If you remove both of these traditional roles, and make it possible for it to be more nuanced, then men and women can both fulfill roles without having any negativity placed on either. I’d love to see more fathers, more romance, more healers as male heroes in roleplaying games.
It’s rare to see the male concubine or a sexualized male main character. Men are sexualized in different ways. Strength, endurance, size, power. These things can be sexy for men. Vulnerability and sensitivity ? Not as much. These of course aren’t universal truths, there’s nothing in male biology that says men can’t be romantic, sensitive, slim. However, culture rewards the huge muscles of Conan and the raw animalistic violence of Wolverine, it’s these traits that simultaneously make them masculine and sexy. These filter into the genre standards of roleplaying games as well. When you see artwork, sexy women are passive, sexy men are aggressive. These are tired stereotypes, and harmful, they constrict the ways that male characters are allowed to be. I’d love to see more sexy male artwork that isn’t aggressive, that shows the male form as beautiful regardless of strength or potential for violence. This begins to level the playing field, and allow men to express varieties of sexuality instead of needing to conform to one surrounding the typical machismo.

These roles really limit the possibilities of what types of characters men can play in roleplaying games. Men should be strong, not skinny and sexy. Men should be heroic, not a caretaker or a father. Breaking these stereotypes down and making more complex and nuanced gender roles will ultimately make better and more relatable characters. This is turn allows us to tell better stories about men, and storytelling is at the heart of tabletop roleplaying.

Where it gets really interesting to me is the complexity inherent in the act of roleplaying a character. There’s layers of interaction that players have with the fiction of a roleplaying game. The first layer is the game art and fiction and what stories they convey to the reader. Then there’s the mechanics and character types that literally tell you what roles and traits you can have. There’s what happens when you actually play the game which may or may not be entirely the same as the game describes. The culture at your particular gaming table of about five players will definitely influence how you play. There’s your local play culture perhaps at conventions or gaming stores. There’s regional cultural differences depending on where you live and what your communities are like. All of these things will affect how these characters get played.

Some games do a great job at representing complex gender roles. Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker in particular represents all genders : male, female, gender fluid, trans, and everywhere in between. I’d say that’s an exception to the rule though, it’s rare that gaming texts deal with gender so inclusively. This puts all genders in a bind, including those possibilities open for men. Another thing that Apocalypse World does excellently is address sexuality. It’s possible, for example, for men to be gay/queer/bi/trans in the game. Men’s sexuality rarely gets addressed in roleplaying games. Often characters are only gay if players decide to make them so, and male sexuality isn’t talked about but rather assumed. This tells us the male hero must also be straight in addition to strong and violent.

So how do we move beyond these traditional roles ? The strategy is the same with men as it is with any gender. Strive to break down cultural stereotypes and move toward something with more of a nuanced and realistic representation.

For game designers, it’d be great to see varieties of male roles written into the text. Show me what gender can mean, and don’t stick to the usual just because it’s a cultural standard ! Show men in varied roles that don’t just rely on violence or strength. Depict men of various body types and personalities in your artwork. Sexualize the men as often as you do the women ! Provide a variety of careers and classes that men can fill that include caretaking and sexuality. Include traits that are varied. Encourage expression of vulnerability and show examples in your game fiction.

For players, be your own activist ! If those roles aren’t in the game or the fiction try adding them in. Play a gay character or a sexy character to represent variety. I find that in roleplaying games, trying on a different skin can be like experimenting with a role. A game is a place where you can act a certain way without as many consequences as the real world. So this can actually effect how you identify with being male, female, queer, sexy or vulnerable in the real world. Trying on these temporary identities can also be a way of reaching greater understanding with these roles.

For artists and art directors, question the common poses and body types typically portrayed in scifi and fantasy. Does this man need to be that muscular ? Could he perhaps have a different pose, or be on equal footing with a woman ? Could he be shown in a tender moment, or a vulnerable moment ? Art in a roleplaying game helps players identify with the setting, and the more nuanced your gender portrayals are, the more they might be able to identify with the characters they can play and the setting they’ll be in.

It’s been said recently that the next wave of feminism will focus on male and transgendered roles. The roles that culture ascribes to us ultimately affects all genders. Being aware of these roles and pushing to surpass them and create more complex characters helps us all tell a better collective story about what being a man can mean. Strive for diversity, complexity, and vulnerability in roleplaying games and you may find yourself telling those stories out in the world as well.


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