Cross-gender role-playing can be a controversial topic at the gaming table. Opinions are as varied as one could imagine and while some gaming groups are very open to cross-gender characters, other groups are flat out against it. So why is something that has been around since role-playing began such a big deal?
Women are partially to blame. The number of female tabletop gamers has been growing for many years and co-ed games can make people uncomfortable with portraying the opposite sex. After I posed the question on Twitter, one man likened it to faking a British accent with a British person at the table. The pressure to “do it right” can take a lot of the fun out of role-playing, even if the other players at the table aren’t judging you. I was very worried about portraying a man “right” the first time I cross-gender role-played, and it showed. It was our third or fourth session before I really hit my stride and stopped second guessing myself before speaking. I’ve seen the same thing happen with men playing female characters. Social pressure can paralyze a person’s creativity and role-playing ability.
Everyone worries about being judged by others, and good communication is the key to insuring that everyone enjoys your game. If you are worried about insulting a person in your game by portraying the opposite sex, warn them ahead of time. Please notice, I didn’t say to ask permission, because only the GM should have the power to veto a character concept. Just give the other player a heads up, and if it’s your first time playing a cross-gender character, maybe ask for some tips. In my experience, it doesn’t matter if you screw up from time to time. If it’s obvious you are really trying to create a cool character most people will be very supportive.
Sadly, there are those people who seem to play cross-gender characters just to make other players uncomfortable. I have seen this happen with players of both genders, but I think it’s more common for women to be upset in this way. Usually, this happens when you are in a gaming group of people that you don’t know well. Now, really insulting a normal, reasonable gamer is harder than you’d think. Playing an unintelligent woman who loves shoes isn’t necessarily insulting to women (or original), but playing an unintelligent woman who trades sexual favors for shoes every time the party stops in town is something else. The difference is that the player is taking a specific action to demean the character in a way that relates to their gender. As a woman, I can forgive someone for playing a little bit of a stereotype. I cannot ignore someone treating a female character as a sausage wallet to satisfy their own sexual or misogynistic fantasies.
If you are uncomfortable in a game talk about it. Ninety-seven percent of gamers are great people who are not setting out to insult you. Usually if you can have a calm conversation they will try to fix things in future games. If you are not comfortable speaking directly to the other player or if the other player doesn’t agree with you, speak with your GM. You are as important as any other player at the table and if someone’s role-playing is making you uncomfortable, it’s important that the situation is fixed. Be logical, non-judgmental, calm, and have the first conversation in private. Nobody likes to have their mistakes pointed out in front of their friends, so having the approaching them in private increases your chances of really being heard. Also, take action immediately when something unacceptable happens at the table. Get in touch with the player or GM after the session or when your group takes a dinner break. If you say nothing, you are setting the precedent that things of that nature are acceptable. It’s sad that some boundaries need to be pointed out, but to be perfectly honest, some gamers need help with social cues and understanding that some actions aren’t ok, even if they fit with their idea of a character. (Sheesh, there I go stereotyping…)
What is the most important thing to remember about playing with cross-gender players? Relax. Don’t try to psychoanalyze them. It doesn’t mean that they are homosexual, have penis/vagina envy, mommy issues, need to get laid, or anything else. Most players just try it as a change of pace or for a new challenge. If you aren’t interested in playing a cross-gender character, fine, but be open minded with those who want to try it. The purpose of gaming is to enjoy ourselves. Some of us do that by playing characters very similar to our real selves, some of us love to try out completely different personalities for a few hours. Whatever your preference, the purpose is for everyone to have fun! It is a game after all.
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