What I Learned from OWbN Girls

Permission to use granted by OWbN Girls and Meredith Gerber

No, it’s not a game. It’s an organization. But I still learned a lot about game design from OWbN Girls.

Over the past few days, I’ve been getting a trickle of drama in my various social networks around the group. For those not in the know, OWbN Girls is an advocacy group within the organization One World by Night that strives “to play fair in the gaming community, educate those that believe in the stereotype [of unempowered female gamers], and engage non-gamers in joining the community.” I admit that I’m not entirely sure what the drama is,1 but it brought me back to a particular thing I keep picking at: sexism (and really, many different “isms”) in gaming.

The conflict for me is that the extremes are disagreeable. It seems like whenever things like sexism comes up, the two options float to “suck it up and deal with it” or “turn into a politically correct wasteland.” I don’t agree with either option, so I keep picking at it because it’s important to me as an artist and a game designer. It’s a more complex problem than it appears on the surface, which is true of any important problem, and there isn’t a simple, tweet-sized answer. In talking on Twitter to the OWbN Girls account and admitting that it’s a bigger problem, I came up with some ideas on how to extract some of these threads.

Controversial content is okay. I may personally hate the ideas that games like F.A.T.A.L.2 espouse, but the alternative of someone deciding whether I can consume it or not is a million times worse. Further, controversial content often gets conversations going about important topics. This is something that entertainment and art does, and interactive entertainment does on an even more important level. We need games that challenge us, make us think, and put us in uncomfortable situation. If someone doesn’t like the content, they can (and should) exercise their rights to refuse to buy or consume it.

So let’s assume that’s a given: controversy is not inherently bad.

Forcing me to act in uncomfortable ways may not be okay. But there’s a flip side. It’s one thing to have a game where, say, you can choose to have random sex with women to get something. It’s another to force me to do that to proceed. It’s okay to have characters that are terrible to each other, but it’s not okay to require players to be terrible to each other (and especially if they have no idea that they need to be terrible to each other to succeed). And this is a tricky line, and probably more than a little subjective, but for me I think the choice needs to be there.

Let me pick differently controversial example. In the game Geneforge,3 you play a character that can choose between three factions (or, indeed, can ignore them all). For brevity, all of the factions are composed of magically-created slaves, and you are one of the magicians that can create such creatures. One faction wants to work together with the magicians (called “Shapers”), while another faction wants to be led and treated like cattle. And yet, the faction that wants to be led has more resources which you can really use to help you. The third faction that wants to murder all the Shapers is even more powerful.

In this example, there’s a choice. I can go with the morally safe route and accept the increase in difficulty in progression, or I can choose a less moral road and get a benefit. I can be a good person or a terrible person (or, more likely, something in the middle), but the game doesn’t force me to enslave a race or commit genocide. I can feel bad all on my own, because of what I decided to do. And better, the thoughts and ideas this game generates are more powerful to me because I am the one who choose a particular path, instead of having it force-fed to me.

What does this have to do with LARP? Let me loop back around a bit with another example. In 2005, I made a character for the Camarilla Vampire: The Requiem game that was sexist. He was a sneaky bastard that frequently used women to get what he wanted.4 I went to a number of female players I knew and said I wanted to create a collection of background ties with their characters to represent this. I also made a commitment to myself that I would never even hint at this kind of sexually-exploitative roleplay until I cleared it with the player outside the game first, even if a female player started it. Really, the whole idea could have gone horribly, horribly wrong, and I was prepared to scrap it all on a moment’s notice.

Every single female player I approached was okay with it. I even refused some people who came to me about it, because a couple of times it got a little weird for me. And I played the character for years before he was murdered.

I’ve often gone back and tried to reconstruct why that worked so well. Quite a lot of it was likely due to the women I approached (who were all people I’d gamed with before and built up a measure of trust with), but perhaps the biggest, I think, is that the roleplay was never forced. The fact that the character was perceived to be sexually exploitative was enough — I didn’t have to say or do anything to prove that. Many times I would say “And they go off and have a good time” and leave it there, or I would drop out of character and mention that my PC would then proceed to make lewd suggestions instead of actually saying them. Granted, a lot of that was because I am a married man and was frankly uncomfortable with the details much of the time, but I think that had the benefit of making it clear that I wasn’t doing this for my own personal titillation. The whole point was to portray a character for the other players to enjoy (or, more accurately, hate enough to plot to murder him).

I do not recommend this path for most players. I’m not even sure I would try to do something that ambitious again — as I said, it could have been really bad. But it does show that it can be done.

Conclusion: “Isms” are important in interactive art, but only at a remove. I think it’s okay if content is controversial, but I don’t think design should be. If I as a player know that I have control, I’m willing to give up a little bit of it to see where things are going. I’m willing to risk making myself uncomfortable if it means I can walk away at any time. For a movie or a book, this is binary — you’re consuming the content or you’re not. In a game, however, there are shades of interacting with the content. That switch, that ability to walk away from what’s uncomfortable needs to be part of the game somehow, so that someone can walk away with only a little consequence and continue with the game.

This is a big topic. I’m under no delusion that this blog post is anywhere close to answering the problems that come with controversial games. But I absolutely believe that it’s important that organizations like OWbN Girls continue to ask the question.

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  1. Nor do I want to dig into it — I’ve had too many years of LARP drama in my past to actively look for it, thanks.
  2. No, I’m not linking to it. I refuse to give that game any traffic. I will, however, link to a hilarious review of it.
  3. There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the Geneforge series, and by this company. Expect more posts in the future on these games.
  4. Granted, it was all really a cover for his attempt to become a god and to deal with his misplaced mommy issues, but that’s irrelevant to the example.