Playing with History #3:
Anachronisms, Part I: Gender Games
by Michael Karlin
March 5, 2003
"Like their personal lives, women's history is fragmented, interrupted; a shadow history of human beings whose existence has been shaped by the efforts and the demands of others." Elizabeth Janeway, author.
This is not an article about how men are pigs.
Many men were pigs in the past, and many men are pigs in the present, but broad generalizations are inappropriate. What must be noted, however, is that women have been trampled on for most of history. The cards have been stacked against them, and as a result they were unable to obtain the same rights and freedoms as men. This does not apply strictly to European cultures either. In fact, women are placed at a lower caste across many cultures from all areas of the world. It is historically correct to conclude that women were treated as inferiors. This does not give a game creator license to build these facts into their historical fiction game. I'd like to think that most of us male-types have advanced to the point where we see women as our superi... equals. Therefore, the status and role of women in a historical fiction will kick off my mini-series dealing with historical anachronisms, or "The representation of someone as existing or something as happening in other than chronological, proper, or historical order." (Dictionary.com)
Women in History
I can't possibly analyze the history of women in every culture on Earth within the contents of this article. That would be ludicrous. What I will say is this: the manifestation of women's treatment differs greatly depending on the time and place that you choose for your game setting. Chivalry of medieval Britain, "benevolent" patriarchy of Renaissance France and doting hierarchy of feudal Japan are three examples of the differences between the treatment of women. Of course, in all three examples, the women in question are subjected to a lower social ranking as men, but with different restrictions. Once you have chosen your gaming environment, take some time and research how women were considered there, then modernize and adapt without losing the flavour of the historical period. It's easier said than done, but always err on the side of gender equality than the alternative.
Of course, there are cultures built very specifically on gender roles. While there is some minimal evidence of the existence of "Amazon-women" cultures that were matriarchal to an extreme, these cultures do exist in the vibrant mythology of the Greeks, among others. Here there is an exception, not because it is the women on top, but because the theme of gender plays a more significant role. In these examples, one gender is subordinate to another purposefully. While you are welcome to build a game environment in a setting such as this, I don't believe that it will sell very well for the simple reason that players in the subordinate gender won't appreciate their status for very long.
In the present day, we are beginning to become much more enlightened than they were so many years ago. However, gender biases still tend to sneak in whether we like it or not. It is important to be sensitive without being anal. After all, it is just one of many issues that you have to consider when designing your game. It actually isn't that difficult to achieve equality in an RPG environment. Castle Marrach did it by making the political system a matriarchy, led by a strong and feminine ruler. Glory of the Nile will do it by making the female goddesses, fewer in number than the male, comparatively more powerful than most of their male counterparts. The Pharaoh might be male, but most of the royal family is female. Balance like this is easy, and a good practice.
My team and I were lucky regarding ancient Egypt, as the society was much more equal than many other civilizations to follow. You'll see examples of how we tinkered with the gender issue in the next section.
Equal Opportunity vs. Equal Opportunities
Try to ensure that men and women have equal character development opportunities in your game. Of course, these opportunities do not have to be the same opportunities. You are welcome to restrict women from certain activities, but keep this limited and ensure that there are activities that men are restricted from pursuing as well. Furthermore, ensure that you have an adequate reason why a man or woman should be excluded from that particular activity. For instance, in Glory of the Nile, only women may become sorceresses. As they are more connected with their primal essences, as evident in the ability to procreate, only they are capable of honing the great powers. On the other hand, because men are distanced from primal essences, and they are unable to procreate, then naturally only they may assume the duties of funerary rites and the rituals of death. So male characters and female characters both have equal opportunity, albeit different opportunities.
When trying to determine which activities will be assumed by only one gender, you can inadvertently reassert the biases you are trying to minimize. For example, restricting military service to men only and cooking and knitting to women only is counter-productive. These activities should inevitably be interesting, but never integral. The most fundamental and integral character development opportunities should be available to both genders equally. If your game will include visual art, try breaking the fantasy mold and make your women realistic for the times, not scantily-clad, sword-wielding fantasy vixens who exist nowhere beyond the imaginations of their artists.
So creating a massive anachronism that allows women to be equal in your game environment at the sacrifice of historical authenticity is perfectly acceptable. Your female players will thank you.
Next week: Authoritarian game, liberal democratic players.