Greg over at the Synapse Design Blog is, er, well, designing an RPG called Synapse. This started out as a reply to his latest post, and then, as happens too often with my replies, grew huge and unwieldy. And since I don’t have time to write a short reply, everyone gets a big, ugly post. Enjoy!
Greg, if you can, I’d take the time to go straight to the source, which in this case appears to be Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice. This is one of the grand old works of feminist psychology (and as such, isn’t without its controversy). The basic premise stems from older work which declared women to be inherently deficient in terms of moral development.
Now, I know that’s going to confuse some of my readers because the widespread assumption today is that women are just inherently morally superior to men in pretty much every way. The methodology for arriving at the opposite conclusion is the focus of Gilligan’s book.
Basically, it works like this: if you go up and ask most boys and adult males whether or not it is morally right to steal medicine to save a dying person, they will consider the question and then, based on their own internalized paradigms of right and wrong, give you a yes or no answer. (Unless they are my readers, who, being gamers and fans of Captain Kirk’s solution to the Kobayashi Maru test, will naturally try to game the system. ;) ) If you ask the same question of girls and adult women, they are more likely to start asking question about why stealing is the only option; doesn’t the thief know their neighborhood pharmacist, who might be willing to work out a payment plan? What about borrowing the money needed from friends or family?
In ye olden days, psychologists (who were, of course, largely male) found the frustrating female answers (or, in their eyes, lack of an answer) as a sign that women were incapable of, or at least very resistant to, creating a set of universal precepts upon which to base a system of morality. Since the development of these precepts and their use in moral decision-making were important steps in going from boyhood to manhood, it was quite clear to the psychologists that women were locked in a perpetual state of moral adolescence.
(And, of course, that’s horribly simplifying the science. I’m about to get worse as I discuss Gilligan’s work. Seriously, read the book yourself; it’s only 174 pages long. If you can read the 4e PHB in a weekend, In a Different Voice will only take a slow Sunday afternoon.)
Gilligan, however, recognized that girls develop into women along a different, though parallel, path to boys. The girls and women did not see morality as a set of dry, universal precepts, floating in the vacuum of the Great Beyond, but rather as an imperative to maintain and manage the (very) human web of social interactions that make up life and society. Where the psychologists were presenting their subjects with what they saw as a logic puzzle, the girls and women saw a tattered and damaged network, and set about to rolling up their sleeves and finding ways to repair it (by adopting, interestingly enough, a very RPG-like mode of interaction).
This brings us to the crux of our discussion: Gilligan’s playground examples. When boys are playing a game and a rule dispute ensues, the boys pile on to the argument. It’s an exercise in logic for them; the rules have failed and must be fixed to meet this unexpected challenge. It’s a giant logic puzzle, and they toss different ideas and plans into the ring until, by some form of magic, one solution is chosen as most perfect by popular acclaim. Armed with their new rule, they resume the game.
Girls, however, do not see such conflicts in the same impersonal terms. A failure of the rules is a threat to the delicate social network. Suggesting a tweak means taking a personal stand, and is completely wrapped up in your relationships with the other people in the game. To champion one suggestion over another means standing with one person and against another. In the end, it’s often easier to just let the whole thing drop and go play something else.
killing, violence and all of that than boys. Gilligan hardly even brings that up in her book.) The more complex your rules, the more likely they are to instigate a dispute (as is quite common with the third edition versions of D&D) and once that starts many girls are going to tune out.
On the other hand, it means that girls are more likely to embrace a game based on “rulings, not rules.” Tackling the rules as a sort of debate-driven logic puzzle is less the issue in rules-light games than the networks of trust and cooperation between everyone at the table. Where a girl is more likely inclined to tune out (or even be actively turned off by) battling paradigms for how social combat should be adjudicated, she’s more likely to be actively engaged in organizing the next session in a West Marches style game or how to deal with captured prisoners or dividing up the loot from the latest dungeon delve.
Or, at least, those are the lessons derived from Gilligan’s work. YMMV, of course, especially when you’re talking about people who already stand outside the norm by being involved in our delightfully odd little hobby.