Friday, January 13, 2012

Let’s Talk About 5-E-X

One of the things that seemed to stick out to people in my article regarding sexism, racism and ableism in the future art of Dungeons & Dragons was my mention of the Book of Erotic Fantasy. This was one of my favorite books during the 3.5 boom, because it offered something that no one else was doing with their products: it was offering a sex-positive look at the role of sex and sexuality in role-playing games, specifically in Dungeons & Dragons. It was, admittedly, campy, over-the-top, and deeply, deeply silly, but it was the sort of rare thing that doesn’t happen often enough in our hobby. It was a revolutionary book because it was an activist book.

Now, I’m sure the people who wrote it didn’t write it with activism in mind, but the fact of the matter remains it was a book about sex in a genre of books that never want to talk about sex. And that, to me, is a brilliant example of activism at its best. And it kicked up a hell of a fuss when it came out, enough so that the good folks at Wizards of the Coast had to include a provision against books like it from coming out ever again, effectively banning sexual content from Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. It was this ban that I was speaking to in my article, the fact that there are actually provisions in the GSL wording that preclude the inclusion of sexual content from Dungeons & Dragons books, but no such provision exists for hypersexualized depictions of women in those same books.

There are two solutions to this problem, and I think one of them is more workable than the other. The first solution is to insist that any inclusion of sexualized imagery for one gender must include equally sexualized imagery for all of the other genders. This is, sadly, impossible, on two fronts: there is no way you could make a sexualized image for every gender that exists, and there is no such thing as a hypersexualized male. Argue all you want that Conan the Barbarian is a sexy nearly-naked dude, but he’s not hypersexualized, he’s just a badass. Western culture doesn’t have hypersexualized images of men (with one possible exception, and it’s deeply debatable). They simply don’t exist, not in the same category that hypersexualized images of women do.

The other option is to strike down the rule and allow sex back into Dungeons & Dragons. Now, that may not seem like a solution at first glance, it certainly wouldn’t change the fact that depictions of women in role-playing games are disproportionately sexualized, but that change allows the designers, in-house, freelance and third party, to open the floor for discussion. It would allow designers to discuss the role sex and sexuality have in our games, and it would actually serve to point out some of these issues within the context of the game text itself.

With the rule as it currently stands, there is no way to address the subject of feminine objectification within the text of the game. That is left to people like Tracy Hurley and myself, who speak to a limited subsection of D&D players. My traffic on this blog maxes out at about 300 people a month. Even reaching the few thousand who read my Open Letter, even reaching the tens of thousands that Tracy reaches on a regular basis, barely scratches the surface of the D&D community, as there are literally millions of people who play this game. By being able to openly talk about sex from within the game itself, we have an opportunity to reach, y’know, all of them.

But then, that’s a part of the problem for the guys behind the desks at Hasbro. By talking about sex from the vantage of the game books themselves, we’re actually talking to a huge swath of players about a thing that Wizards of the Coast doesn’t really want to be associated with. Sex is one of the major American cultural taboos, and while that is certainly working to keep the patriarchal oppression of women’s bodies alive and well, it also means that challenging it comes with the potential for damage to your reputation. As the company that makes Monopoly, Hasbro can’t really have one of their imprints running off and talking about anal plugs and nipple clamps when there are kids reading. Moreover, the threat of speaking directly to the subject of sex in role-playing games is so great that Wizards of the Coast felt it necessary to keep other companies from doing it in association with their product. Which is how we got to where we are now.

The question, I guess, is why? Why is it so difficult to talk about sex in D&D? Why is this a discussion we can’t have openly and publically? The short answer is that it might make some people uncomfortable. There are people who just don’t like talking about sex and sexuality, and it’s those people that Wizards of the Coast is catering to by implementing rules that restrict companies from publishing works that include those topics. There are even more people who don’t want to include sex or sexuality in their games, and I understand that and empathize with it. But that’s no reason to keep that product from being published. I’ve never actually used anything in the Book of Erotic Fantasy. I read it, and I think it’s incredibly valuable to the culture of the hobby, but my games don’t tend to have a lot of sex in them, and the games that DO have a lot of sex in them usually Fade to Black before anything graphic happens. But that’s a choice players should be making on their own, as a group and individually.

Someone asked me on Twitter today what ESRB rating I would give Dungeons & Dragons. My response was that the ESRB is deeply flawed for vilifying sex over violence. Which is a rubbish answer, so I also said “PG-13 with options up to NC-17,” which has nothing at all to do with the ESRB, so it’s still a rubbish answer, if slightly more useful to the topic at hand. Dungeons & Dragons is a game chock full of fantasy violence, but there is rarely any graphic content. You never get to see the fountains of blood pouring out of your enemies, or have to hear the sickening crunch of their bones under your weapons, so most of the violence has a distinctly clean PG-13 feel to it. And while the women are generally clad to appeal to men, and are posed ridiculously to ensure that they are showing off their secondary sex characteristics, they’re never naked, the sexism is generally pretty tame, and there is never any talk about sex or sexuality at all.

And that’s what they’re going for. That’s what they want, because it’s the age range in which their game will sell the best. 12-40 year old men are Wizards of the Coast’s key demographic, and they need to keep that younger group in mind when putting their books together.

Third-party game designers don’t. They’re able to take risks. They’re able to say things that the people at Wizards of the Coast can’t. And while I’m certain WotC got some nasty feedback regarding things like the Book of Erotic Fantasy, I can’t see anyone blaming the company for that product existing, and I can’t think that having books like it is at all a detriment to the game itself. Talking about sex is something we need to be doing as a community, because doing so opens the door to talking about gender role issues at the game table. And that, I think, is a pursuit worth risking some reputation over.

11 comments:

Brendan said...

Western culture doesn’t have hypersexualized images of men (with one possible exception, and it’s deeply debatable). They simply don’t exist, not in the same category that hypersexualized images of women do.

I don't even know where to begin with this. Have you ever seen an Abercrombie & Fitch store? Calvin Klein ads? Search Google for "male objectification" or read this article. Or watch Lady Gaga's Alejandro video (and she is the biggest pop star right now). And that's limiting yourself to mainstream sources. Visit any gay web site (I suggest this one as a representative).

It is true that this material is dwarfed in volume by female objectification, but it certainly exists and has a great impact culturally.

Actually, I totally agree with your critique of the ESRB ratings. As James Raggi (of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess RPG) has said, it's easier to show the insides of a woman on American TV than it is to show the outsides (which is pretty crazy, in my opinion). Can't find a source for that right now.

You might also be interested in checking out this post. It's on topic.

Kris Hansen said...

The sexualization of men is a very different animal than the hypersexualization of women. As counter to your argument, I suggest this: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=6970

Brendan said...

Thanks for the link. I had not heard of that site before.

I agree with the critiques of those images, but that is not the only way to do it! People who are sensitive to this issue often go too far towards the second "realistic armor" ideal when trying to escape the first, when they could instead treat an attractive woman with a bit more respect. (Nothing wrong with realistic armor; actually, as a grognard I quite like it. But I realize that there are many tastes, and sticking to realistic armor precludes lots of other interesting images.)

The issue exists in the other direction too, though. For example, search for "dancing for gender equality" on youtube.

David Given Schwarm said...

Great post. I pray that D&D Next designers keep these issues in mind since my Nine year old daughter Kate got her first set of dice this Christmas.

Ragingwave said...

Honestly, this is full of BS... that's why you guys are viewed as geeks (in a very bad way) by the rest of society..

When I play a game I just want to have fun for a few hours or less and then go back to my daily routine and responsibilities. If may daily life consists of real life stuff, why would I want to bring that crap into my games too?

I just play as the character/settings I feel like playing at that time, without thinking too deep about it, and just have fun.

When you try to bring too much "real life" to your fantasy games, it just shows how much of that "real life" you actually don't have!

Mage-Ou said...

Here's a historical tidbit for your references to Book of Erotic Fantasy. One of the brains behind Book of Erotic Fantasy was the Category Manager of Dungeons & Dragons at Wizards of the Coast while Book of Erotic Fantasy was being written/promoted.

While I effectively wrote in response to An Open Letter that I didn't want R rated content in D&D (or even NC-17), I think the Book of Erotic Fantasy was fine. There is a huge difference between adding sex to the D&D line and allowing fringe publishers to use D&D-compatible rules to write about sex.

Dungeons & Dragons is mainstream and the vast majority of people (myself included) don't want sex/nudity depicted in games for 10 and 13 year old children. Normal publishers use an imprint where the choice to consumers is clearly "if you buy this imprint you will get exposure to more adult materials".

I'd like D&D to be rated PG but those definitions are experiencing "adult creep". Like power creep, movies are pushing the boundary so that what was once NC-17 now gets regularly show in PG-13 and what was once PG-13 is now defined as acceptable in PG. Blood-gushing stumps are completely unnecessary.

Kris Hansen said...

And, really, that's what I'm getting at. Letting third party publishers talk about sex within the text of their work provides a forum for speaking to sex and sexuality within the context of role-playing games that I think would be beneficial to the games industry as a whole.

Anonymous said...

Especially considering that the stated goal of 5E is modularity for individal preferences, I think it's wrong-headed to expect WoTC to apply peripheral opinions about social justice to a FUN FANTASY GAME. We live in a democratic country where you can publish a sex-positive supplement which will probably be very popular in the tiny geek indie sex-positive community... but for mainstream D&D players, I think it would be as much of a hit as a drag queen ecoterrorist at Comic-Con.

Kris Hansen said...

Except that with the current wording of the GSL, you _can't_ publish that supplement.

And personally, I think a drag queen ecoterrorist would be mostly welcomed at Comic Con. Folks at the con don't tend to be narrow minded.

Anonymous said...

We don't know yet if/how the GSL will work, and neither does WoTC, so myself I don't presume about that. Secondly, I wrote a "hit", not "welcomed"... I didn't say that ComicCon fans are narrow-minded but that they're not obsessed with ableism, sex-positive messages and other bits of equal opportunity and social justice in their FUN and GAMES.

Anonymous said...

Actually come to think of it, I'm not sure ComicCon would even welcome an ecoterrorist complaining about the number of trees killed to publish all these books and that everything should be published as PDFs except that the iPads used to read PDFs at a gaming table are assembled in Chinese sweatshops and that mining of rare earth minerals used in iPads is destroying the environment. The ecoterrorist would be undermining the geeks's fun and fantasy... which is kinda like what I think you're doing with misplaced social activism.