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Opinion: Exploring feminist game design in role-playing book #Feminism

Opinion: Exploring feminist game design in role-playing book #Feminism

August 21, 2017 | By Katherine Cross

August 21, 2017 | By Katherine Cross
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design



At GenCon I had a chance to finally pick up #Feminism: A Nano-Game Anthology, in a larger and more colorful form co-published by Pelgrane Press and Stone Skin Press. The anthology is now a glossy landmark, whose beautiful minimalism is the perfect complement to its thirty-four nano-games (short RPG experiences that take less than an hour to complete).

The introduction by the editors, Misha Bushyager, Lizzie Stark, and Anna Westerling, explains their view on why the anthology needed to exist.

“Scenarios about five men doing, well, nearly anything, get labeled as ‘great games,’ while scenarios that focus on women’s experiences are ‘for women’... Feminism belongs in analog game design because women are human too. We produced this collection to highlight feminist voices and to create space for explicitly feminist design.” 

“Feminist design” is a tricky concept, of course, much as academia’s “feminist epistemology” has proven to be--the bridge between an ideology and professional method is a twisting and narrow one built over a canyon. 

Yet history shows there’s merit to it. At its best, feminism as an academic lens has improved research by broadening studies to be more representative, for example. You get more objective data by knowing how to address your blind spots, and how to go beyond tradition in finding research subjects. You learn more by asking new and better questions, to boot. There’s much similarity between this and feminism as a game design method. It’s best understood not as a totalizing affair, but as an update to one’s design OS that corrects certain bugs and improves the functionality of your software.

It makes you better at what you set out to do, in other words.

In the case of #Feminism that may extend to feminism itself; the anthology, drawing as extensively as it does from the work of Nordic LARP’s doyennes, has a number of visceral games that ask you to take a risk. Nordic LARP is known for its intensity, reaching the level of method acting that deliberately summons up discomfort, demanding that players make passion into a game mechanic.

Consider “#Flesh,” a game about objectification by Frederik Berg, Rebecka Eriksson, and Tobias Wrigstad. Players use a non-toxic, water soluble marker to write “the values, identity markers, and characteristics of a person” on their own bodies. Then you see why they were so specific about their choice of marker: “Everyone takes turns licking the words one by one off of one another’s bodies while narrating why that characteristic is not important.”

And this is only rated a 4 out of 5 on the anthology’s Intensity scale, a series of teardrops set discreetly off to the side amid the well-designed list of specs for each game. It’s a welcome alternative to a heavy-handed trigger warning.

Another, by Karin Edman, the self-described “barbarian queen of Swedish LARP feminism,” is entitled “Spin the Goddesses,” a witchy lesbian version of that old adolescent mainstay ‘spin the bottle.’

Edman is upfront: “It will be a lesbian kissing game.” There’s not much avoiding intimacy if one chooses to play this game. You will either kiss another player or use “thumb kissing,” which Edman describes thusly: “reach out and cup their face in your hand placing your thumb lightly over their lips. When you lean in to kiss them, your thumb should be between your lips and theirs.”

The game itself is an enchanting pagan ritual, turning objects in your pocket/purse into foci for Goddess’ who inhabit you and kindle your passions. If, for instance, you’re channeling Aphrodite, you’re meant to do the following upon being kissed: “draw the other woman close to you, entangle her and encourage her with words.”

3 out of 5 Intensity.

"There is no evading a very deep physicality here. Your body is a game token. #Feminism wants to move you out of your comfort zone, for sure."

There is no evading a very deep physicality here. Your body is a game token. #Feminism wants to move you out of your comfort zone, for sure. But what intrigues me is the way this disrupts certain taken-for-granted ideas in North American feminism, which have occasionally become quite reductive about “safety,” forgetting the ways in which productive discomfort has been central to feminist activism for decades. The “How to Play” section of the anthology makes clear that players should always feel empowered to use “cut words” that allow people to eject as necessary when it all gets to be too much. This verbal X-card is quite familiar and necessary.

But it’s nice to see that caution isn’t baked into the rules of many of these nanogames, several of which are quite explicit and adventurous about what should take place if you decide to play. 

In sum: you’re committing to an experience beyond perfect safety. 

This both challenges the family-friendly gear of too many mainstream RPGs, and the occasional misuse of “safe spaces” or fear of the “problematic” within feminism.

Lizzie Stark was an editor on #Feminism

That’s actually part of the reason I rolled my eyes at the blurb on the back of the book. “There are games here for participants new to feminism as well as those experienced in making gender arguments on the internet.” I couldn’t tell if the author was being cheeky but it spoke to an uncomfortable truth; too much modern feminism has been reduced to scoring Twitter owns and having mile long arguments on Facebook (and yes, I’m as guilty as anyone else). But is this the only spectrum we can imagine? From neophyte to grizzled veteran of Twitter flame wars? I must admit with some resignation that it does feel that way sometimes.

It’s interesting how much this is belied by the games themselves, however, which are so thoroughly embodied and committed to action.

So, what, then does 5/5 Intensity look like in #Feminism? ‘Her Last Tweet’ by Rowan Cota has five players play as 20 year old Comp Sci majors--all women--caught in a mass shooting on their campus (of course this offering is from one of the Americans in the anthology). At designated points in the performance they have to dash off tweets or text messages to people they care about. If they die, their final text is read aloud. 

Meanwhile, ‘Girl: A Game for Boys’ by Brazilian psychiatrist Livia von Sucro asks three or more male players to “portray girls or women who have just escaped from a situation of abuse and violence perpetrated by men,” who then tell their stories in group therapy. Von Sucro also writes than audience of women, cis and/or trans, is preferred. It’s designed as a kind of encounter where the audience and actors engage with one another after the stories are told.

There’s a lot in this anthology that arrested me. “Stripped” by Dominika Kovacova, a game about being a stripper who has to navigate the judgments of her peers--like many games in this anthology, pushing back against the virulent anti-sex-worker feminism that prevails in Scandinavia. “Something to Drink with That, Sir?” by Evan Torner, which sees four players play the role of a male airline passenger, a flight attendant, her Feelings, and her Emotional Labor. Or Fiasco’s Jason Morningstar and his “Shoutdown to Launch” about an ill fated moonshot that goes awry because male engineers kept talking over and interrupting their female counterparts.

It’s a rich collection that deserves more attention than it’s gotten, if only for its creative boldness that often distils the most unsettling essences from both tabletop and the LARP scene. In the end, feminist game design seems to be as much about making feminism uncomfortable as it is about liberating women--and perhaps that’s not such a bad thing.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.



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