Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Gender, Rules, and RPGs

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!

In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's DevelopmentGreg, 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.

Which, unfortunately for Greg in this case, means that, yes, girls don’t like rules. (Trust me, girls generally have no more issue with 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.


Anonymous said...

Girls are weird...

Greg Christopher said...

Good post. I think the problem is the parsing of the word "rules" by all the parties involved, some assumptions being made by all the parties involved about certain issues, etc. etc. I actually think there would be little disagreement if we were sitting at a table talking it out.

that being said, I will prepare a reply of my own tonight. I regretfully did not see this post until AFTER my lunch which I spent working on improving the layout and flow of my personality chapter (ironically, precisely the "rules" I am referencing in my game).

So tonight I will actually put up a post that explains precisely what my "rules" are in this particular respect (a first time presentation of these rules outside of my playtesters) and you can see what I mean more clearly.

For example, when I said what I said about violence; my contention is that females are not interested in 200 pages of combat rules. Determining whether or not attacks of opportunity are triggered is not their cup of tea (nor really mine, despite my maleness). I believe I have a social rule basis that is not really that much more complex than OSR skill rolls, but the way it interacts with the wider world is much more interesting to the female mind because it is based on complex social structures, motivations, personalities, etc.

Even my attempt at this short diversion is spiralling into a longer post, so I will stop here are address this tonight.

trollsmyth said...

Greg: Awesome. :) I'll be looking forward to reading it. I suspect you and Oddysey are circling the same tree, but from different directions maybe. Or at least similar trees in the same grove.

Greg Christopher said...

We appear to have the same objective, just different approaches. It will be interesting to compare them when she is done.

Based on that post, looks at face value to be a social system that functions in parallel to a D&D combat core, rather than a unified architecture. I dont use a unified mechanic like D20, but my different mechanics are based on the same character architecture.

Wow, this post is jargony... rofl

Amanda said...

Wow, I can't tell you how often I run into the rule interpretation roadblock with my DM (also the husband), wherein I make an impassioned plea for my case and am told to shhhh and stop arguing. ^_^

I suspect one of the reasons the West Marches rules lite stuff really appeals to me now is that it's more of a conversation on the part of everyone in terms of the flow of the game rather than constant flipping through books to make judgments on HOW THE GAME SHALL BE PLAYED! from on high. I'd much rather players have the freedom to do crazy stuff than run into obstacles that a lot of rules often presents.

Timeshadows said...


My girlfriends have generally preferred a very clear, yet concise, binary rule methodology, rather than open-ended, value-judgement methodologies in games.
--They've wanted to know precisely what a rule means and how to operate within it.
---I tend to be more lateral and oblique in my strategies and tactics (not just in combat) in games, looking for alternate methods to achieve goals, and often through synergistic application of party abilities.

My current gf is intrigued by the rules-light OS stuff, but seems to think that male players will be dismissive as the rules do not offer the complex combinations of the NS stuff.

I, too, am working on the Duty, Glory, and Honour rules for my RPG, and I am attempting to walk a middle-path between full-on 'Indie' thematic mechanisms, and OS Social Combat.

I'll agree that my oblique view-angle is often ... under appreciated ;) by my male peers, and almost invariably stems from a lack of interest in my adhering to RaW or BtB mentalities.

I'll have to purchase a copy of the afore mentioned book.

Amanda said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Amanda said...

I think it's worth mentioning that women fall into a continuum of behavior or tendencies just like men. Anyway...

I spent a lot of years getting into the minutiae of game systems. I mean I have shelves and shelves full of game books. I'm not sure why I now want less instead of more but after 20 years of pnp gaming that's where I've finally arrived after the last couple years and newer systems.

trollsmyth said...

I think it's worth mentioning that women fall into a continuum of behavior or tendencies just like men.

And I should have pointed out that Gilligan concludes by saying that a truly mature morality would wed the precepts of a universal code with the day-to-day realities of life within a social network. She was talking about tendencies recognized in each sex, rather than absolutes.

Amanda said...

I haven't read the book but I'm a member of a fairly large SCA community of female fighters and we're pretty much all over the map when it comes to a lot of the traditional argument of 'girls feel like this, they react this way'. Armored combat is traditionally a male sport so how women fit into that community is a lot like women playing rpgs I think.

Zak Sabbath said...

All I can say is, I've observed more than one of my players getting very frustrated if they feel like the game puts them in a situation where they risk damaging the social web in order to do what they want or what their character would do.

The concept that anything that could happen during the game could really affect the social web at all was alien to me.

redbeard said...

I am not a psychologist, only having taken a few courses.

As I recall, our professor explained the story of Carol Gilligan's reaction to Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Kohlberg tested a large number of men, primarily at universities, and had a smaller sample size of women. In the original study, the data did show differences. Gilligan rightly criticized Kohlberg's assumptions.

However, the interesting twist is that if you replicate Kohlberg's study and correct for differences in education level, the difference between men and women that Kohlberg found disappears.

Men and women aren't so very different, but society (in this case, sexism that kept women out of universities) treats us differently.

For a totally different kind of example of how men and women aren't so very different, I suggest you compare the antics of "I hit it with an Axe" and with any other group of young, uninhibited first time players - without the video. The (ahem) level of play is not all that different. (Apologies to Zak.) Burning down taverns was exactly the kind of thing that I got up to in my first D&D game.

Greg Christopher said...

I decided to shrug off work this afternoon and just blast out a long post so that you hopefully have time to reply before I get home tonight, Trollie. :)


Fran Terminiello said...

I can only speak for myself but I found myself nodding at a lot of the points raised.

I consider myself pretty lazy as a player, I don't get any enjoyment out of the rules for their own sake, I see them as a necessary tool to play the game and only learn the bits necessary for my PC.

I'm especially averse to the idea of thrashing them out if there's a dispute, I just switch off and hope it's over quickly. The game wouldn't exist without them but if there is a problem with them I feel like my car has broken down but I have no way of repairing it. The people around me talking about it might do and so I leave it to them to decide.

This 'social network' thing never really occurred to me before but after reading this post I've realised that when playing, to me it really is important that the group remains intact and unhindered.

trollsmyth said...

Red: I have noticed differences in how women and men play RPGs. However, like Gilligan, I haven't gone into whether or not we're looking at cultural influences or biological ones. (I simply don't have the skills or the time to delve that deep into the question.)

netherwerks said...

Interesting discussion. I tend to eschew gender-based judgements in general as they tend to wind up foisting cultural, social and group dynamics at you far more than anything actually gender-derived. You tend to get results that are more along the line sof what people think they ought to say or what society dictates is an appropriate response. And people lie on these surveys, tests, tools, implements etc. far more than the Psych-folks would ever want you to know. I ued to administer Myers-Briggs, and other such tools for a company that screened various sorts of applicants for big business, govt., etc. In the end it all boils down to interpretation.

If you perceive some sort of a gap in the psychologies of men/women, young/old, whatever division you prefer, then you will find it, one way or another.

But that doesn't necessarily make it so.

Just some food for thought.

Natalie said...

Some of women's different behavior in RPGs, I think, comes from the fact that they tend to be outsiders, not just to RPGs but to the cultural trappings that surround it. Not always, obviously. But they women I've brought into gaming tend to be less into hardcore geekery already, and because of that, they bring different sets of assumptions to the table.

I definitely suspect that women would be more interested in old school "rules not rulings" types of games, just because of the outside hobbies that the women I've brought into gaming do tend to have. The guys tend to play a lot more computer games, but women tend to dominate the freeform communities, which in some ways are at right angles or directly opposed to how old school gaming handles things, but in a lot of others are much closer to that style than to 3e or 4e D&D.

Anonymous said...

I'm inclined to distrust anything that comes out of psychology, and particularly anything about women. I'm also inclined to distrust explanations based on apparently inherent differences between men and women, because I always have a preference for looking at the social and cultural structures which make people behave a certain way, and leaving everything else nebulous.

I suspect the reason that women are dubious about gaming is that it is such a male-dominated and obviously male hobby, whether or not it is implicitly better-suited to men; and their suspicion of getting involved in rules disputes is more to do with feeling uncomfortable about taking a strong position amongst a group of men.

By contrast, girls' schoolyard games are very rules bound, and they are very quick to point out to you how you're breaking them. For an example of women preferring rules to rulings, consider the simple difference between basketball (invented for men) and netball (invented for women). Netball is the most pernickety, rules-fiddly game on earth.

Tim Jensen said...

When you use the word "rules" are you just referring to the written procedures laid out in a game text, or the entire range of social negotiation between the players at the table that actually determines what happens, including any commonly-accepted written procedures?

Moving beyond traditional D&D for a moment, in my involvement with Mind's Eye Theater LARPs, thematic story games and jeepform/structured freeform I've seen a wide continuum of player preferences and habits that evades any generalization of "women like this kind of rules while men like this kind."

The cultural baggage of a certain style of roleplaying game has perpetuated it as a male-dominated activity, but when you look at other games that aren't as tied to a social identity, the gender-exclusiveness largely disappears. And that's just in tabletop roleplaying games.

Faustusnotes has it right. Women certainly aren't dubious about playing card games, Facebook games, or even most video games. It's not the rules or the activity itself; it's the cultural baggage of wargame-inspired D&D...similar to traditionally female-dominated hobbies like scrapbooking, baking or sewing circles.