Gender Identity, Play, and the Tabletop RPG

Let’s talk about gender identity and play in a tabletop RPG setting. Now, I’m sure some of you are cringing at the thought. Some of you may be certain that I’m going to bash “white men” or the hobby store as a “boys club”. Neither of those is my goal for this post. I’m going to talk about what happens at table when a player wants to play a character whose gender presentation and/or identity does not match that which the player is perceived to have. Don’t run away. Put down the torches. Please consider what I have to say.

First, let’s get a few things out of the way. If you haven’t read my bio already, I am a transgender woman. I was assigned male at birth, and it took decades of grappling with questions, feelings, thoughts, and fears to begin to accept who I was and move toward becoming happy and toward living an authentic life. Second, this post is inspired by recent Twitter discussions on inclusivity and gatekeeping in the Tabletop RPG gaming community (see The Aspiring Halfling’s wonderful post) as well as some YouTube videos by famous Dungeon Masters and is informed by my own experiences as well as many readings from graduate school (but I won’t bore you with a traditional academic paper).

Honestly, I’ve sat on this post for a while, thinking about the best way to bring this discussion to the table, and that’s what I hope this starts – a discussion. The gaming community is big enough for all of us to sit at the collective table, play together, and learn from each other. That said, I do recognize that there are some topics that can be difficult to handle at table. In no way do I want to minimize or dismiss honest discomfort. Instead, I want to transform that discomfort into an opportunity for generative learning and growth.

Still here? Okay, let’s talk honestly about a few things. I first started thinking about writing this after watching a Q&A video on YouTube by DawnforgedCast, a DM whom I respect greatly and with whom I often agree. In this one video, someone asks about a “boy player” playing a “girl character”, and DawnforgedCast has a moment of recoil before declaring that he absolutely doesn’t allow this. He qualifies this response by saying he has nothing against transgender people, and I believe that, but he does not believe that most male players are mature enough to play such a character properly. Allow me to explain why that got me thinking.

Back when I still identified as male, during my early teenage years (the early 1990s), I started playing Dungeons & Dragons as well as RoleMaster. I had reached the point where I was really starting to notice that I felt jealous of the clothes that my younger sister got to wear, the makeup that my female friends were wearing, discomfort with my own body and how it looked, as well as frustration being placed in the “girlfriend zone” by female friends (“You’re not like a boy, you’re more like a girlfriend”). It wasn’t just puberty. I was starting to seriously wonder what it would be like to “be a girl”.

So, for one campaign, I came to the table with a character I wanted to play – a female High Elf ranger named Teluriel. I gave her an awesome backstory (that you’ll probably learn in a few weeks), and I was super excited to play this character. I got shot down by our DM. Why? “Boys can’t play Girl characters. It’s against the rules.” No, it wasn’t, but it clearly made him uncomfortable. I argued then that none of us are Elves, Dwarves, or even Wizards, so why can’t I play this? He went on how it just “wasn’t allowed at his table”. And then the rest of the players started mocking me for being a “fag”. And, after scouring the internet, it’s clear that this attitude still persists among many gaming tables.

Caveat. I understand that these decisions by players can make a DM feel uncomfortable, and I don’t want to dismiss that as unimportant. I also understand that some people are not mature enough to handle such things as players, and so that is a legitimate concern.

That said, I want to talk about play and identity. Anthropologists, cultural theorists, and scholars from numerous disciplines have long held that through play individuals can try on various forms of cultural practice, learning through situations that (usually) have lower consequences for mistakes how to act in various situations (consider “playing house”, “playing doctor”, “playing teacher”, etc. and other “childish” role-play situations). Play socializes us to the roles we may (possibly) perform as adults. Even sports play teaches teamwork, perseverance, dedication, etc. Play is not meaningless; in contrast, it is meaningfull, helping humans learn how to interact in social settings and what traits are valued when performing certain roles.

For me, this character was a chance to play as the gender with which I truly identify – female. I didn’t fully realize this at the time, but, looking back, this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to interact with the world as an individual who identifies as female, first, in a setting where there existed significantly reduced consequences. Sure, Teluriel could die, but I would be okay (Consider the higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, and murder that transgender women – particularly those of color – face compared to the general population as well as the high rate of suicide amongst transgender teenagers). This is something that I have been more able to do in MMORPG settings, where I could play female characters, and craft my persona online before presenting as female in the “real world” (and there exists a growing body of research showing that many trans people also come out online, learning how to interact as themselves, before coming out IRL).

So What are We Supposed to Do Then? There isn’t a blanket solution. Those tend to be overly simplistic and reductionist. But consider this: Tabletop RPGs focus on communication among players and the DM. Why not talk the issues through with the individual? Instead of issuing a blanket statement of “you can’t do this” (again, this isn’t the same thing as “House Rule: We don’t roll stats. We use the Standard Array.”), consider discussing why the player may want to do this, why you may be uncomfortable with this, and how this can be resolved so that both parties can get the most satisfaction from the discussion.

This isn’t a “Session Zero” discussion. This should be private between the DM and the player in question. Why private? Consider how uncomfortable the idea of a “boy playing a girl” makes you feel, if it does. I can honestly tell you that it’s just as – if not infinitely more – uncomfortable for that player to admit to you – who may be a peer or a parent or an adult with some form of authority over them – that they may be questioning their gender identity. Then, make the decision on a case-by-case basis.

Providing a safe space for someone to explore their gender identity or any aspect of their own identity, is a good thing.  For some, especially teenagers playing the game, this may be the first – or only – safe place they have to explore who they are. Will doing this mean that some of us have to do some research and learn about these issues, sure. But learning makes us better people. Will providing this type of a safe environment fix the problems of “the world” – no. But it will move toward fixing a problem in an individual’s world.

That, is an act of heroism, no matter how small the scale may seem. And isn’t that why we play these games? To be heroes? To save someone in distress? Even at table, we can do that – in-character and out-of-character.

Featured Image: “Dressing Room Blues” by Amanda Webb.