Forum changes: Editing of posts has been turned off until further notice.

Main Menu

Cross-Gender Play, or Walk a Mile in My Stiletoes

Started by M. J. Young, October 16, 2003, 04:30:39 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

M. J. Young

I'm often saying that role play can be a way of coming to understand other people, how they think, why they do what they do. I've also said that I frequently play cross-gender characters, and apparently do them reasonably convincingly without stereotyping or giving offense.

On what might seem a separate issue, I've said elsewhere that when I get into the mind of one of my characters, I can take psyche profile tests as that character and come out with clearly distinct results.

Thus the referenced and linked program on">The Gender Genie thread intrigued me. Before I role played girls, I wrote internal character sketches from a female perspective. Would they pass the test?

So I pulled out a copy of my novel,">Verse Three, Chapter One. There were a couple features of this that made it ideal for a test.

First, the book is written in what I call minichapters. The first chapter is 1454 words, the second 1219, and the third 1190--each long enough to stand well above the five hundred word minimum for analysis, but none so long that it would overtax the script.

Second, each chapter follows the story of one of the three protagonists. One of those is a young male soldier, one an older housewife and mother, and one a twenty-something male automechanic.

Third, I maintained strict perspective rules in writing the stories. The chapter tells you what the protagonist thinks, feels, sees, and knows. It's not first person narrative, but it is protagonist perspective. Thus although it isn't necessarily an absolute certainty, it seemed probable that each character's text would reflect the personality of that character.

I already knew this to be true, in some way. The third character, the mechanic, always has a light humor to his text that is absent from the other two. Many have said he is their favorite character, for exactly this reason--he's funny, and fun to read, in a way that springs from my efforts to see things from his perspective, which does not appear in the chapters of the other two characters and yet is so consistently found in his story that when I was writing the sequels I noticed that it was still there. So I am writing in character, as it were, when I portray their stories.

So I plugged the three chapters in to the genie, and read the results.

The young soldier, the first chapter, came out strongly male, I think--2198 to 1372, a strong 3 to 2 ratio.

The third sample, that of the automechanic, although shorter overall also came out with a 3 to 2 preference for male construction, 1599 to 1095.

But when I ran the girl, it was not just a lot less male--in an almost dead heat of 1686 to 1650 the computer ruled that the writer was female.

I know it's a very slim lead, and that it's a small sample from a one hundred twenty thousand word book, but I find it intriguing that my writing would shift so prominently when I'm portraying the female character.

I thus wonder whether I also change my language, delivery, and choices when I play female characters.

What I lack is the perspective on this. Oddly, I can get outside myself and observe why I'm doing what I'm doing pretty well; but I don't know that I have the same facility to get outside my characters and observe them from the outside without destroying the continuity of who they are.

So I'm wondering whether others find that when they play cross-gender they are able to think and act differently in significant ways that are this subtle, and whether they've seen others play cross-gender in consistent and convincing ways.

I should footnote this with my own rather middle position on the entire gender issue. I am persuaded, with E. O. Wilson and others, that there are male/female differences that are hardwired. I am also persuaded that ninety-nine per hundred claimed differences are invalid. So I know men and women are different in some rather fundamental ways, but I won't commit to any specific one. (For example, I recall reading a piece in law school in which the author attempted to persuade us that we needed to abandon the masculine ladder model of social order for the feminine web model, and as I examined it I realized that he was just trying to bring socialism back into a good light by cloaking it in the popular garb of feminism, and I said so. As someone said on the Men are from Universalis thread, anyone who thinks women are not aggressive or competitive doesn't know much about women--they're just aggressive and competitive in different ways and about different things.)

--M. J. Young

Tomas HVM


I've never been much of a woman, being a man and everything, but I certainly recognise my feminine side.

Beeing in so much contact with the other sex, from the start of through my mother, and further up the line through aunts, sisters, school theachers, lovers and friends... beeing in contact with these women I've developed a certain view on and insight into the existence of the other sex, and I've certainly developed a few "feminine" sides myself.

I congratulate myself on having several soft spots (heh-heh).

When playing RPGs I often prefer to play women, not always, but as many as one in four characters of mine have been feminine.

When leading RPGs however, I prefer my players not to cross gender, and do not permit it. I got two reasons to do this:
- cross gendering disturbs my interaction with them (my char is not a "he", it's a "she").
- I honestly consider my players to be better off playing and learning more about their own sex, as today people seems to have difficulties coming to terms with it. This is specially true for men, so I don't let them indulge in femininity in my games. I prefer to encourage them to explore different ways of being masculine.

It is often said that roleplaying games let you explore being another person. However: I've never seen any real discussion on how we do this (other than the gender issue). And it raises many questions:

    - What kind of limits exist to the immersive qualities of a player and his role?

    - What kind of limitations may be imposed by the game/gamesmith?

    - What kind of possibilities may be opened by certain ways of doing the games, or by instructing the play of roles?

    - How do we strenghten the experience? And the fun in it?

    - How do we make the player create a role to fascilitate the exploration/expansion of his own personality?

    - How do we make the acting of roles a truly benign, possibly a terapeutic, activity?[/list:u]
    Many of these questions have implications I do not agree in, but I prefer to know the answers, rather than stumbling over some heavy and dangerous principle by chance, in my incessant work as a gamesmith.

Off topic:
On the small anecdotal point Mr Young introduced in the end of his article; on recognicing "socialism", I can only say this much: I live in what is termed a social-democratic state (Norway). Socialism got a pretty sharp light on it here, being the ruling principle since the last world war, and it functions far better than most of the social darwinism America seems to be so proud of. The same is true for Sweden and Denmark. It might be because socialism is based on a sound understanding of what a society is really all about: safety and support. It seems to me that Mr Young fails to make the distinction between communism and socialism. Please make it. It's not the same. Communism and socialism went different ways in the twenties, and never met up again.

In my view the socialist states of Scandinavia is not "socialism with a human face", it is real socialism. What you find in the former communist states may be termed "socialism with a grim human face to it" (oh yes, I consider terror and torture to be exclusive human traits).
Tomas HVM
writer, storyteller, games designer


Or indeed, not any communism at all, regardless of paranoid McCarthyite propaganda.  Communism does not need to be "brought back into a good light" by any any means covert or overt.
Impeach the bomber boys:

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Clinton R. Nixon

Ok, off-topic fairies. M.J.'s post wasn't about socialism, and any part of it that was is off-topic anyway.
Clinton R. Nixon
CRN Games


I have a lot to say on this fantastic topic.  But I only have a very small amount of time right now.

I think that there are definite limits to what an RPG game can expose you to.  It's good at presenting and allowing you to experience certain unfamiliar aspects of Life-with-a-capital-L, and useless for other aspects.

But it's not valueless in this regard.  It can give you insight into the lives of people very different from you when everything hits just right.  But it won't, I don't think, allow you to gain a very complete understanding.  Hints aren't bad, though, and an RPG can provide a sort of safety net in ways that Life-with-a-capital-L doesn't.

As for shifts in personality when getting into character, well.  I dunno how much I do that.  I suspect it has far more to do with the way certain people approach play and approach playing their characters -- it's all down to techniques of play.  Some attempt an actor- or writer-like level of immersion, others don't.  Those that do probably plumb this particular facet of gaming, those that don't, don't.

Or something like that.  =)

(ps.  Stilettos or stilettoes, I think...)
Dana Johnson
Note that I'm heavily medicated and something of a flake.  Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.

Emily Care

Hi M.J., Tomas and all,

Interesting discussion of gender of characters vs. player gender.  There is value in playing cross- and in-type.  My views on gender itself are pretty different from yours MJ, so I respectfully tender my perspective with no disagreement intended. I tend to be fairly centrist (androgyne) in gender characteristics myself-- so I've found it about equally challenging to play strongly masculine or strongly feminine characters, and I generally play about an even mix of male and female characters. I've had no difficulty doing this, and have had no complaints from my fellow players about the veracity of my performance.  The limits to my playing a male, as I see it, are the limits of my being able to play any given character.  I have a deep respect for those who characterize well (ie craft interesting and believeable characters, or who have deep insight into their role).

For me, playing characters of different backgrounds, gender, sex etc. falls under the category of exploration like anything else.  I may not know what it's like to live in 12th century Persia, but like anything else, I see the opportunity to play at doing so to be one of the real benefits of roleplaying. I have as much insight on my own on being a male grocery clerk, as I might in being a candidate for the Miss USA pageant.  And what I get out of it is what I put into it--I can approach the characters from a pawn perspective (does this character have the game-effectiveness characteristics I'd like for this campaign), from a world-emulation perspective (how does this character fit in to the background and culture of the setting) or from a personal interest in exploring the themes that inform the character's life (how might it feel to be struggling to rise from poverty, or to have to face down an abusive spouse?).  And, as Dana said, roleplaying often just gives hints of different experience, but better hints than nothing at all. And maybe more conscious thought could help deepen the impact?

So, given gender as a line to cross or not cross in search of experience how can we discuss it in order to help the decisions we make be more fruitful?  Tomas has some suggestions:

Quote from: Tomas HVM
    - What kind of limits exist to the immersive qualities of a player and his role?

    - What kind of limitations may be imposed by the game/gamesmith?

    - What kind of possibilities may be opened by certain ways of doing the games, or by instructing the play of roles?

    - How do we strenghten the experience? And the fun in it?

    - How do we make the player create a role to fascilitate the exploration/expansion of his own personality?

    - How do we make the acting of roles a truly benign, possibly a therapeutic, activity?[/list:u]
What kind of limits exist to the immersive qualities of a player and his role?
It seems like gender is a real stumbling block for many people. It seems to break free-flowing engagement (trying hard _not_ to say "suspension of disbelief" here :) for many people to play or have others play cross-gender characters.  I would find that very limiting, but I see gender as flexible and shifting IRL, so not surprising that it doesn't bother me in imaginative play.   These limits would seem to be very personal.

What kind of limitations may be imposed by the game/gamesmith?
Should I say herstorically?--in games, the wealth of "female" character types has risen dramatically since the early days of roleplaying.  Periodicity can be a block to having a female character that can be effective and interesting to play in-game (ie in a combat oriented game, the real-world historical limitations to female use of arms in many parts of the world would be a real bummer).  This seems to reflect changing mores of our society, and choice of requirements of setting.

What kind of possibilities may be opened by certain ways of doing the games, or by instructing the play of roles? Sex & Sorcery comes to mind. Though, that may be a different issue: working with inter-player gender dynamics, rather than player-character differences. I'm working on one that is solely about this--a two-player game where each of you play someone of the opposite gender and help the other person to better play and understand your position.  It's mainly a sketch, waiting for the right rules.

How do we strengthen the experience? And the fun in it?  Big question. Depends on the type of gaming, and what is being sought after.

How do we make the acting of roles a truly benign, possibly a therapeutic, activity?  Emphasizing the personal or psychological aspects of narrativist or sim. play seems like a very promising path to me.  In some threads spun off of the Improvised Play thread, there has been some discussion of kinds of mechanics to encourage mirroring of character attributes and collaborative play (yin/female), and Eric(Harlequin) just recently wrote about his techniques for a game that move stats away from simply reflecting in-game effectiveness.  There is plenty of momentum for mechanics to do more than adjudicate task-resolution.  Approaching therapeutic play, though, there is a line one doesn't necessarily want to cross. To not lose the game aspect, yet incorporate more elements of self-exploration to capitalize on what the potential of roleplaying.

Many directions to go in. I'm curious to see what others have to say.

Emily Care

edited to note that this was cross-posted with these questions being entered as the start of a new thread: see
Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Ron Edwards


I would gratefully appreciate one of the Forge members providing links to our many past discussions on the topic, both in this forum and in Actual Play. I'm a little strapped for time at the moment.



Here is an assorted mix of past Forge threads that address the topic of immersive play and separation of character and player.  I'm certain someone else would come up with a different collection of threads; this selection is based solely on my own eclectic interest in the topic.  As you will see, gender is not the primary issue in many of these threads.  Except the last two, I think these are in roughly chronological order with the earliest first.  Enjoy!">Playing the opposite gender?">thoughts on why immersion is a tar baby">"In character" - another less-than-useful term?">Be sombody.">Casting in Role-Playing">Exploration of Player
(Okay, much of the posts here are about defining terms, but it does touch on role-playing as self-discovery)">Casanova, homosexuality and underage sex">Player-Character Distinctions">"Playing my character"

To see the extent to which the character/player divide can be discussed ad nauseum, I will point to">The Mechanic of "Religion" in Role-Playing Games

And, if you are still with me, here is an older thread that's a good example of a discussion that dissects player engagement from suspension of disbelief,">Drawing Conclusions in Public


Tomas HVM

I'm sorry to see that my edit of my last post here did not function, so the point of immersion got stuck. I tried to erase it, and post it in a new thread, and succeeded only in making the new thread. Sorry!

Thanks to Emily for her ponderings on my questions.

Thanks to Julie for her list of threads on this topic. I'll go through them as soon as I get the time.

I think I will answer them in the other thread, not to infringe too much on the topic raised by mr Young, as it deserves a focused discussion.
Tomas HVM
writer, storyteller, games designer


Emily's comments are fantastic.

Julie's thread-fu has some real gems, at least as far as I've read.

In the first thread in her list (I think), Clinton R. Nixon makes some excellent points about the relationship between stereotypes and RPG characters, and how this relates to men playing female characters.  I think that's right on.

I've also been guilty of Ron's identification of 'female player playing male character to avoid behavior of poorly socialized gaming group'-type play.

To try and add to the discussion meaningfully, I think it's important to think about society and culture.  In the west (and probably in most societies) men and women are raised, and live, in different cultures.  There is a male culture, there is a female culture, and they are sort of symbiotic.  In my experience (and this was touched on in one of the threads Julie points to), these cultural differences completely swamp out any actual biological differences between men and women and their thought processes and behavior.

That is, most of the behavioral differences we see and attribute to male or female behavior are rooted in this socially constructed cultural difference between men and women, and not primarily a difference rooted in physical differences between men and women.

This is a personal opinion, obviously, but I think it's the most useful approach when thinking about cross-gender play.  It's an extreme form of cross-cultural play, because while you can play 'cross race' or 'cross species' you still get to play the 'male' version of that race, culture, or species.  The biology is different, but usually the social role is (as was pointed out in one of Julie's threads, too) familiar.  When you play a woman, well, you are playing someone from your own society who has biological differences and cultural differences.  And not just a foreign culture, but a culture you know sort-of from the inside, and have been raised to consider not just foreign, but inaccessably taboo and foreign.

That's one of the reasons it's a hotbutton for some people, I think.

The relative prevalence and success of women playing men vs. men playing women thing is far more basic.  There is far less social stigma (and far more social motivation) for a woman to portray, possess, or exhibit socially male characteristics than for a man to portray, possess, or exhibit socially female characteristics.  We've already been forced to have practice at this, and most guys haven't.  It's something that we struggle with as a group all the time as the role of women in the workplace and home shifts.  Men's roles are changing, too, but not as frequently or as significantly, overall, at least in my own lifetime.

This is all my own experience and opinion, anyway.  I think, to achieve the goals that Thomas was bringing up, treating Women as having a culture distinct from the Men in a society is useful.  As Clinton did in the referenced thread, finding a modern stereotype/archetype role other than virgin or whore is an excellent place to begin.

To answer M. J. Young's questions, yes, I have seen successful cross-gender play.  I don't, generally experience the level of immersion it sounds like you achieve when I am playing, but I certainly have seen it in other people.  I've seen it less often in men playing women than in women playing men.

I would suggest the 'playing a woman badly' phenomenon is actually seen just as often (or perhaps more often) with Humans playing Dwarves, Elves, or Halflings (where instead of a range of Archetypes, one or two is grabbed preferentially and over-focussed on by gaming culture as a group).  The difference is there is less taboo involved here, and there aren't any real Dwerrow, Elves, or Hobbits to form an anti-defamation league, or anything like that.  =)

Finally, it has just occured to me that something like the Life Paths of The Burning Wheel might be an interesting way of mechanically focussing on some of the cultural differences between men and women in a society.

Edit:  Oops.  Almost forgot.  For a very illuminating discussion of this very topic (albeit from a sociological point of view instead of gaming) rush out and get the most recent Discworld book by Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment.  Very insightful.
Dana Johnson
Note that I'm heavily medicated and something of a flake.  Please take anything I say with a grain of salt.


A lot of good cross linking, thanks Julie.

Anyway, to address M.J.'s question, and in line with Clint/Anya's idea that gender is primarliy cultural.  Yes, i've successfully played female characters despite being male.  Perhaps not to the same level of immersion that you have, but to some degree.  However, i think that it is worth noting that almost all my characters (male or female) are some sort of "loner."  This results in culturally deviant characters from the get-go which brings into question whether i'm playing a female character within the female culture, or just a character who is physically female who is outside any established (or prominent if you prefer) culture.

Current projects: Caper, Trust and Betrayal, The Suburban Crucible

Emily Care

Quote from: Emily CareI have as much insight on my own on being a male grocery clerk, as I might in being a candidate for the Miss USA pageant.

Actually, I mispoke. I think I have waaaay more insight into a male grocery clerk's life, than into a pageant contestant.

And, Julie, your thread-fu is the mightiest. Thank you!

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games


When I play a female character I change stances as a player.  

Role-playing a male character I am that character.  

Role-playing a female character I feel as though I am helping them to succeed in their adventure (which I think is a combo of author and director stance).  This is because I simply cannot know what it is to be female and so I won't have my character 'do girl stuff' as a way of shallow mimickry of the entire opposite sex.

So it's definitely a stance issue (with me anyway).

M. J. Young

Quote from: In the">Playing the Opposite Gender link cited by Julie above, IThere is a tremendous amount of cross-gender and gender preference play happening in MUDs; it has been suggested that teenagers use this context of anonymous role play to explore their own sexual identities. I use role play to help me understand what it's like to be someone else. Cross-gender characters are included in that.
I know that several of my sons play female characters in such online games, and that guys whose characters date and marry theirs are often disappointed to find out that they're actually guys.

But something struck me a while back.

Someone, probably a MUDder, did up some goofy quiz somewhere to identify the "ideal girlfriend". Thing was, a lot of guys took the quiz and came out as the perfect girlfriend--the questions really focused on what a MUDder guy would want in his girlfriend, and it seems he wanted someone who was particularly interested in the guy things in which he was interested.

So I wonder to what degree we are able to recognize successful cross-gender play. If we're thinking that we did well because people of the opposite gender to that we're portraying find it convincing, does that have probative value?

Perhaps this is a telling thought: for those of you who have observed cross-gender play, do you find more convincing portrayals by those playing your gender or by those playing opposite your gender?

Oddly, although I've been running games for approaching a quarter century, I'm not certain whether I have enough data at this point to make such a determination. I'm going to have to think about my own question for a bit before I answer.

--M. J. Young

Mike Holmes

I think that a lot of fear of homosexuality and other factors are part of what makes "getting into" portraying the opposite sex. I know I feel vaguely icky when I play a girl coming onto a guy. "Not that there's anything wrong with that," as Sinefeld would say.

But what I think people are overlooking is that cross-gender play can be interesting for it's inaccuracy. I mean, Milton Berle in a dress doesn't turn me on, but it makes me laugh. I think everyone's stuck on the fact that this is likely to produce "inaccurate" portrayals. You know what, it will. And I don't care.

One of my favorite Con events, waaay back, was a game of Jorune I played at GenCon. There are multiple geneticly different human races, and one is pretty standard human while another is very large. Anyhow, this husband and wife were playing, and the guy played a "normal" human woman, and she played a hulking large barbarian of a guy from the large sub-species.

Well, I tellya. I laughed my ass off. Basically, they played caricatures of stereotypical male and female behavior. The wife would have the barbarian tell the woman to do things like clean the kitchen, and the guy played the girl like a tease.

All very well done, however. Without malice, it was just a fun experiment, that communicated a lot to me about how men and women see each other. I wouldn't have had them trade for anything.

Now, is the above example suitable for all play? Probably not. But I think that the potential for exploration that's available can go all sorts of places. And I think people should do them, when they feel the need to do that sort of responsible exploration. Sure there are times when people do exploration for very wrong reasons (but I can't even pass judgement on the Sailor Moon guy, so YMMV), but I think that, done right, even inaccurate portrayals are fine.

In fact, in my estimation, all play is way off, even when you're playing yourself. RPGs don't tend to play out very "realistically" to me in any case. I don't see how the difference between playing another gender is very different from playing an Elf. Yeah, I'm going to do a terrible job - so what? I'm going to have fun.

Member of Indie Netgaming
-Get your indie game fix online.