Leaping into Cross-Gender Role-Play Hat

Leaping Into Cross-Gender Role-Play

By Sandy Antunes

At its best, role-playing allows one to take a new perspective on life and on other people. In role-playing games people can be fighters and lovers, saints and sinners. On the computer nets, people can join in multi-person interactive worlds (MOOs, MUDs and MUSHes) to play and talk under a variety of personae. Even business training makes use of the possibilities of role-play to engage in crisis-testing and problem solving. In all of these situations the role-player is playing a character. Despite the vast array of occupations and archetypes to choose from, crossing the gender boundary is a possibility that is often poorly handled or ignored entirely. Gaming circles routinely decry geekish attempts by males to play females; magazines write about gender posers lurking on the Internet and business often avoids the issue entirely. However, both scholarly and anecdotal evidence1 suggests there can also be great depth in crossing the gender boundaries.

Like many phenomena, good cross-gender role-play rarely elicits attention or report. The failed attempts and the spectacularly crass displays of erroneous stereotyping are more noticeable. Thus in part the lack of information on cross-gender role-playing is because good role-playing is transparent. A good role-player doesn't bowl you over with a single characteristic but comes across as a real, well-rounded person. There are some broad characteristics of all cross-gender role playing that can be investigated, however. These can be broken down roughly into motive and environment. 'Motive' is both why the individual chooses to play a member of the opposite gender and how they integrate the character's gender into the character concept as a whole. The role-play environment (especially game and computer net settings) then provide feedback to the role-plaver which helps determine the success of the experience, whether the character is viable, and whether it is worth repeating.

A first stumbling point involves whether accurate cross-gender role-play is possible. Do the sexes truly think differently? Gilligan (1982) and others have suggested that girls seek co-operative play while boys prefer competition. Thus girls choose to play with dolls and boys choose machinery. In role-plaving, we could extrapolate this to women choosing co-operative or nurturing roles and men choosing aggressive antagonistic ones. But most role-plaving is among fringe societies, for example gamers, MOOers and MUSHers, and (to pick a socially extreme example) people enacting scenarios at bondage-and-discipline gatherings. As Kaplan and Farrell (1994) put it, role-playing gamers and electronic networkers are often, well, 'shy and nerdy2'. Given their disinclination to follow many other 'common' social trends, analyzing whether the role-player's gender is significant in performing a cross-gender role is a debate which, without further statistics, can onlv lead to argument. Further, there are the fields of involuntary role-choice such as business interviews and training seminars, where the participants may be forced to play a role of the opposite gender. The analysis of motive then breaks down; to be fair, one must assume that a role-player has the potential to resist social conditioning and enact a cross-gender role, otherwise the entire debate is moot.

A character can be defined by its gender or the gender can be just one piece of an overall character concept. Tannen (1990) suggests there are fundamental differences in the style of speech adopted by men and women: females tend to talk in a 'rapport' style, while males prefer 'report' style.3 This suggests that playing a cross-gender role requires, at the very least, the assumption of a completely different style of conversation. To add to the complication of playing such a role, several female gamers on the Strange Aeons mailing list asked 'how does one role-play having a penis?', expressing their doubts about the ability to accurately 'be' the other sex. One might as soon ask 'how does one role-play having eight tentacles?' (for an alien game) or 'how does one role-play having over ten million dollars?' (for an investment tutorial). Rather than being a contentious point, this is the inherent value of role-play, and the answer is 'imagination'. Indeed, one could just as easily ask 'how does one role-play anything other than yourself, in the real worl?' As one's persona gets further removed from oneself, the possibility of errors in interpretation do increase, but the nature of role-play is to speculate and we must presume a good role-player has the potential do a role justice.

Despite the fact that players are offered the infinite possibilities playing any role at all, a surprising number of personae share the same gender as the player. One common motive for changing a character's sex is novelty. This is a strong temptation, especially for males who play female characters. Emma Kolstad, a woman role-player on the Strange Aeons list, suggests that since western society has conditioned us to find women's bodies attractive (hence their use in advertising), but does not glorify men's bodies in the same manner, men experience more of a thrill or mystique when they play women than women do when they play men. This erotic thrill is one possible motivator.

When you role-play for entertainment, you are offered the chance either to play an aspect of yourself that you do not play in the real world, or to play someone you could never be. This raises a larger question: does a player play a role because it is an inner part of them that they wish to express, or because it is an aspect they cannot possess inreal life? Is it the real soul inside of you or the soul you could never be? This is a question about the player's internal state. In the gender debate an important (and less opinion-ladened) area to study is how this motive, invisible as it is, fits in with the character concept as presented to the world.

One possibility is that the gender of the character is a required part of the character's identity. A real-world role-play has a few roles which require gender as part of their identity - a Mother, a Witch, the First Lady of the US. Role-play for entertainment, on the other hand, takes place in unreal worlds which allow fantastic or alien possibilities. One way of checking the importance of a role's gender would be to ask whether that role could be filled by a character of either gender and whether the experience would be different because of it.

Gilligan (1982) states that 'female identity revolves around iterconnectedness and relationship' while male identity hinges on 'separation and independence.' This would suggest that a female character is inherently different from a male character and good role-play would require considering this in the execution of the role.

However, good role-play is dependent on other factors besides gender and the full character concept should include whether the character follows the stereotypical male or female model; whether they are a character of social conventions or an independent who laughs at such constraints. So a complete character can be of any gender and can be defined as either following the dogma of that gender or diverging from the social expectations of it. For any role-play, there is one point worth considering when creating a persona: whether any of the characteristics (including gender, race and religion) exist simply as a short-cut to providing an identity for the character. Is the character their sex, or is their sex part of the character?

Sexual identity includes sexual inclination and a worthwhile digression is the use of homosexual and bisexual characters. In the gaming community, many people state that they have never known someone to play a homosexual character. However many games do not involve sexual issues and, unlike gender, sexual inclination can be invisible unless a romantic or sexual situation arises. Thus sexual inclination, as a subset of gender study, is complicated by not only the player motives and character concepts, but by the actual role-playing situation involved. Likewise, in business role-playing, a scenario of Bank Manager during an interview will not raise the issue of homosexuality unless it is parl of the test. So the present debate of cross-gender role-playing can include the topic of sexual inclination, with the added caveat that in many cases, one's inclination may be moot and not manifest within the role-play. When it manifests, as with any character trait, it should be examined both for accuracy in presentation and use within the scenario.

This returns us to the main theme and leads to an optimal explanation. The approach of cross-gender role-playing should require an internally consistent character concept in order to avoid inaccurate presentation and stereotyping from the onset. It then requires good role-playing skills to present this internal view (the character concept) to the other participants of the role-plav, who only have the role-player's verbal, written and/or visual cues to read from. Role-play exelmplifies communication theories such as those mentioned by Porter and Samovar 1985), that:

Objects, events, experiences and feelings have a particular label or name solely because a community of people have arbitrarily decided to so name them. Language serves both as a mechanism for communication and as a guide to social reality.
So the role is not only rooted in the character concept and how it is enacted, but also in the societal setting within which the role-play occurs. In short, the environment also determines the accuracy and success of the role.

Environment includes the person (if any) refereeing the scenario and the other participants. Through this group interaction, the conventional elements of setting, plot and conflict are created. Clearly a first stumbling block when dealing with gender issues in a group is the maturity of the individuals. This helps determine how willing they are to look at character concepts rather than dwelling on superficial details (such as gender) and also how free the setting is for exploration of issues that may be only tangentially related to the scenario. Also, strong bias by the other participants will result in negative feedback for any role so unlucky as to go against their views. These factors determine the hostility (or threat rating) of the setting and are generally present from the onset of the scenario. A good example was related by two female role-lay gamers on the Strange Aeons list, Eve and Deb, who wrote

The DM [referee] had never played with women before. He expected that we would run from combat, avoid conflict and pick up all the male characters... there was definitely pressure regarding expectations versus reality.
Thus even without malice, a gender-biased referee (or co-players) can transmit that bias to the setting and make gender roles (and gender exploration) unsatisfying.

To a lesser degree, the actual role-playing system also has an effect on the success of the endeavour: this again raises the issue of the relevance of the persona's gender to the overall concept of the persona and, we add, to the scenario and group as a whole. The worst excess would be an individual interested in exploring the nature of gender identity amid a group gathered for an entirely different purpose (for example practising interviews, or solving a mystery). In this case, the dominating player is in a hostile environment, not for gender reasons, but for egotistical reasons. We can safely ignore this aspect, by assuming that anyone reading this article has a good sense of judgement on the time and place to develop character4. For a scenario focused on a single time-constrained goal, for example, explorations into character may not be welcomed by the group. Such 'goal-playing' situations arise within otherwise open group scenarios, being moments when the individual must submerge their own goals to better work with the team.

Beyond the initial threat rating of the scenario, irrevocable biases by the other participants and inappropriate timing in exploring these details, one last, subtle factor is the possibility of no feedback at all. Even in a friendly setting with good character concepts, positive and negative feedback might not appear due either to lack of perception by the other role-players, or irrelevancy of gender to the group's interacions. An example of such a situation would be in LambdaMOO, where the interaction takes place in a variety of self-created environments and gender is an arbitrary label that can be set for the character, considered more a part of the scenery than a defining characteristic. Ultimately, feedback is necessary in the role-play process and for gender issues determines the success of any gender identity exploration.

It is such explorations that are one of the fundamental reasons for engaging in role-play. Cross-gender role-playing is a study which involves communications theory, social preconceptions, gender biases and group dynamics. For all these complicated issues, however, it is still 'play'. Thus it offers a dynamic forum for exploring identity issues where mistakes are not terminal and new ideas can always be tried. It encourages serious study into the issues as well as allowing casual exploration. The potential for crossing (and resolving) gender roles within role-play exceeds that in the real world and opens new vistas for personal interactions of all sorts.

Sandy Artunes is an astronomer by day (ironically enough) and a freelance writer by night. Sandy's most recent work is "Miskatonic University" for Chaosium. Net denizens are free to send email to 'sandy@clark.net' or visit 'http://ftp.clark.net/pub/sandy/'


1For this article, the anecdotal evidence was largely collected from a role-playing mailing list on the Internet, named 'Strange Aeons', a mixed-gender list discussing role-playing games, refereeing, gender issues and Call of Cthulhu.
2To be precise, they talk of 'the related subcultures of role-playing games and electronic boarding' and discuss the 'GeekFests' held by their survey sample of young adolescents.
3Yet rapport is required for good role-play, which could lead to a debate on whether good role-playing is inherently a 'feminine' process!
4This is appropriated from Miss Manners, to wit, that it is always better to assume the reader is knowledgeable, and then remind them of the details anyway.


Gilligan, C., In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, 1982, Harvard Univ. Press.
Kaplan, N. and Farrell, E., Weavers of Webs: A Portrait of Young Women on the Net, 1994, V2, 3.
Porter, R.E. and Samovar, L. A., 'Approaching Intercultural Communication', 1985, in Intercultural Communication: A Reader, Wadsworth.
Tannen, D., You Just Don't Understand: Women and men in conversation, 1990, William Morrow.

Richard A. Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk)
21st January 1999: ifan195.htm