The Problem of the Hot Brunette

On my talk with other RPG publishers last Tuesday, the concept of the gender dynamic of players came up. The panel was asked if they felt that female gamers are as prevalent as male games (or something to that extent). I was the only one to say “no.”1

I hasten to clarify that I am pretty much surrounded by female gamers. My wife Michelle is an avid gamer, and not only runs one of the D&D games I’m in, but is also the Master Storyteller for the Camarilla fan club. In my ICONS game “Needs Must,” three out of the five players are women, and I can’t remember the last time I was in a regular game where there wasn’t a woman at the table. But while I do agree that women have really increased in numbers as explicit gamers in more “hardcore” areas like tabletop RPGs and console video games, I still feel that many games have a strong masculine voice to them – women may be playing more, but the percentage of women writing games is still disproportionally low.

This was in the back of my head when I went to ARGfest. The first presentation was Andrea Phillips doing her talk “ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette.” We heard the abbreviated version (the link is to her longer talk at SXSW), but it covered a lot of the same ground I started to touch on in my own discussion, through the lens of an overused ARG trope: the sexy, smart, perhaps sassy brunette that needs your help. It was interesting to see a fairly different media and community running into the same problem. During the talk, Russell wrote the words “intercom girlfriend” in his own notebook, and I knew we were on the same page.

Even though I just spent three paragraphs talking about this, though, I don’t think the problem is sexism. I mean, yeah, sexism is a problem, but it’s really just one “ism” of many (racism, ageism, classism, etc.) which is indicative of a larger problem: using stereotypes as a shortcut for lazy writing. To me, that is what is most interesting about Andrea’s talk2, and what makes her presentation worth listening to, even if you’re not interested in sexism in transmedia.

Stereotypes do have a use in writing. They work very well for small characters, or characters in a confined space. Watching something like “Valemont” where the episodes are 2-3 minutes long, you can see stereotypes used to good effect. They paint a picture very quickly, which is necessary as the story rushes past you at breakneck speed. Characters that aren’t involved for very long also work well as stereotypes for the same reason – you’re trying to express something in a very short time. But these are exceptions, and a tenuous one at that. Even if you think you don’t have the time for anything but a stereotype, you should try to do so anyway.

This is especially true in interactive fiction (transmedia or no). When you don’t have a strong plot to fall back on, your characters have to carry the show.3 Having boring, stock characters means that your audience will look to the plot to engage them, which by design is the weakest part of interactive fiction. I think it’s telling that many people take an entire session just to make characters for role-playing games, and how many single-player video games are developing strong characters for players to portray rather than nameless automatons.4

The hot brunette in distress is a problem, yes. But so is the alcoholic private detective, the magical negro, and the sassy gay friend.

What good examples of engaging, non-stereotypical characters have you found in interactive fiction?

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  1. Interestingly, Gareth pointed out that White Wolf has done its share of getting women into gaming through Vampire, which made my comment just a bit ironic. But I had been hassling him about using buzzwords, so fair is fair.
  2. And also the conversation we had later. She was gracious enough to have lunch with Russell and I and listened to us babble on about these tropes through the lens of MMOs and RPGs, which was one of the high points of my convention.
  3. As a negative example, I think this is a place where I failed in “Whitechapel” – on paper it makes sense to have the main character be a blank slate onto which the audience can paint their own impressions, but in retrospect I think I should have made the protagonist more interesting right out of the gate. At the very least, having a strong character with distinct motivations would have made things easier for me when the plot took a sudden left turn.
  4. Although nameless characters can still be engaging – reference the Prince in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.