Not that long ago, I was talking about my weekly D&D game on Twitter. I do that sometimes, though I’m at a loss for a way to discuss the content of the game without becoming a terrible bore so I mostly just talk vaguely about how rad tabletop roleplaying is and how everyone really ought to try it out with a good group some time. Anyhow, I brought up an oddity of our game - that our in-game party comprises four ladies and no gentlemen. Out of character we have a male DM and one male player, and one of those in-game ladies is an NPC. Still: four women. No men.
Feminism is another thing I tend to talk about on Twitter, so it should have come as no surprise that one of my followers felt that there was a feminist statement in that choice of ours - that it was very cool that we’d play a game about four ladies who had to fight the forces of patriarchy as much as the forces of evil. I rather felt I was letting him down when I explained that we really don’t play that way. Our game examines privilege sometimes, with regards to gender, race, sexuality and class particularly… but it isn’t a game about social justice any more than it’s a game about hunting dragons and delving in dungeons. These things come up occasionally, but they’re not the focus.
What I said then, more or less, was that I deal with sexism enough in reality - I don’t really need much of it in my game. I hear the echo of that every time I see someone complain that all these games journalists are dealing with social justice bullshit (“social justice bullshit”? really?) instead of doing their jobs and talking about games. Or that they don’t want to have to deal with issues when they sit down to be entertained. That kind of entitlement is gross, frankly, particularly when found in someone who will champion ‘games as art’ in the next breath.
So I’ve thought about it a lot. Ultimately, I don’t think that’s what’s going on here (and I’m pretty sure that isn’t just a self-serving justification, but I’m willing to consider that it might be). Our game has an audience of four. Any messages it has to share are shared among four people, all of whom already grapple with these issues at times. I adore my DM - who also happens to be my husband - but I’m not sure he has a significant amount to say about sexism that couldn’t be better said to someone outside our group who needs that perspective more.
There may not be much benefit to my understanding of gender in the world to play a fantasy roleplaying game set in a largely egalitarian society, but I also don’t see the benefit of diving into all the worst parts of society every Thursday night with my friends. Games that explore the painful limitations individuals face can be incredibly powerful - look at something like Cart Life, for instance - and may have the potential of expanding someone’s perspective. I can step away from Cart Life, though. I can reflect on it, set it aside when I need to set it aside, and carry its lessons with me without its consequences. There is no similar benefit to discovering my character in D&D won’t be taken seriously because she’s a woman, not when the consequences of that limitation must be carried with me and faced each and every week when I sit down to play.
Plus, it’s pretty cool to imagine a semi-medieval fantasy world that has gender equality woven into its fabric. Things like Game of Thrones are ‘realistic’ because the women in it (often) only have power on their backs, never mind the dragons, zombies and blood magic. If we’re throwing realism out of the window anyways, can’t we throw a few of the really awful things out with it? GoT inspires Internet-wide discussion, and that’s great. My D&D game doesn’t. I wouldn’t want to play D&D in a utopian world - how impossibly dull that would be - but must we carry over every single thing that drags life down and makes it less worth living?
The first time I played D&D, my character was raped by a prison guard. I’m glad I didn’t decide that it was also my last time playing D&D, and that I found a much better DM. We can build dark, dangerous, realistic worlds and still leave out the things that will hurt our players. Let other forms of storytelling take those kinds of risks. They should - they must. But in a game where you have to inhabit your character, where you make every choice and live out every consequence… there’s really no harm in leaving out the things that are all too painfully real.