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This is mildly malicious insider gossip about the world of tabletop roleplaying games; readers not already soaking in that world are excused to the next post. :)

I see from links via [personal profile] keeva that somewhere along the line, Jonathan Tweet, the creator or co-creator of such wonderful games as Ars Magica, Everway, and Over The Edge, became enamored of evolutionary psychology. To say that this is disappointing is an understatement. Ev psych is pernicious twaddle of the most power-justifying sort providing endless tools for excusing everything imbalanced and unjust in existing society. In Tweet's case, this gets down the level of explaining that boys comprise a large share of the RPG audience because evolution made them better hunters and competitors, and since RPGs are all about killing things and taking their stuff, it's no wonder.

You think I'm making this up? Not hardly:

Let's look at the games that people have played since time immemorial and think about whether, across the globe, they've been more likely to be played by males or by females:
jump rope,
wrestle or play-fight,
foot race,
stone throwing or sling-shotting,
mancala or other piece-moving games,
baby dolls,
dress-up dolls,
army men or action figures,
goal games (team forces "ball" across a goal).

For each one of those, a reader can pretty quickly sort it into one of three piles: typically played by girls, typically boys, or mixed. We wouldn't all agree, but it would be close, and we'd be right more often than not. Humans evolved the ability to play in order to make better use of our super duper brains. We evolved play styles that gave us good exercise and practice for our adult lives. Tag is a very handy game to play if you're living on the savanna and you're probably going to have to run for your life at some point down the road. Tag's a good game to have an instinct for.

Now some games come with a gender bias. Males have evolved to play fight more than females. Males were going to wind up fighting more as adults, so play fighting was more valuable to boys. Males that evolved a tendency to play-fight got more fighting practice and beat out the non-fighters. Girls evolved for imaginative social play because they were going to take care of their relatives' kids and then their own. Humans evolved different play patterns to support their adult gender roles.
Okay then. *stares in horrified fascination*

Time for an alternative hypothesis. Women have better verbal memory, among other sex-related differences. RPGs are a quintessentially verbal sort of activity. There may be supporting props like miniature figures that provide an opening for men's advantage in spatial perception, but the rules themselves and their application in play are matters of applying written texts via dialogue about characters' situations and responses, and adjudication of players' decisions and the applications and mechanics. "It's all just talk", as King Crimson tells us.

I assert, therefore, that roleplaying is a naturally female undertaking. Men are notoriously impulsive and hasty. Roleplaying may have begun with female efforts to instruct them and impose some discipline on chaotic, haphazard efforts at hunting and warfare. With the emergence of patriarchal institutions, it became increasingly important for women to package this disciplining effort in formats that could slip past hostile overlords' scrutiny. Hence, entertainment. The invention in the 1970s of roleplaying games focused on slaughter and pillage is a male effort at coopting the power of roleplaying. It can't be coincidence that this happened in an era of growing awareness about evolutionary influences on current behavior.

Notice, however, that the coopting is far from entirely successful. Every time RPGs make any concession to other activities, from Call of Cthulhu's emphasis on investigation to Vampire: The Masquerade's concern with inter-personal drama and supernatural powers, women show up in force to run and play the games. Beyond the tabletop world, of course, women are thoroughly immersed in roleplaying in MU*s, LiveJournal communities, and the like. Everywhere that game designers don't actively suppress female participation, women shine in roleplaying and men go off to, I dunno, beat each other with sticks or conquer the neighbor's lawn gnomes or something.

We may speculate that, given his fondness for the field, Tweet is well aware of all this and suffering from an advanced case of fearful misogyny, and frantically trying to protect the male cooption that began with Gygax and Arneson. But this is fundamentally unnatural, and therefore can't work. Tweet's efforts to deny the obviously relevant biology mark him as a latter-day Lysenkoist, and will turn out just as well.

No, of course I'm not serious about this. Ev psych is just crap. But it always amuses me to take the conceit and play with it.


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Ceri B.

April 2010

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