Thursday, July 21, 2011

Heartbreak & Heroines: I'm on Board

[EDIT: I received an email this morning stating that this project has been cancelled.]

Three days ago Caoimhe Ora Snow (also credited as Kynn Bartlett) announced a new Kickstarter roleplaying game project. As many of you know, I have been supportive of a number of gaming related Kickstarter projects in the past. I believe that "sourcefunding" or "patronage" are wonderful ways to build the venture capital needed to fund and self-publish games, films, books, you name it. The explosion of sourcefunded projects in the past year is a boon for gamers, and I am sure for other art forms as well. It is a boon, because it allows for projects that might otherwise be impossible to distribute to have a chance at seeing daylight. Heartbreak & Heroines is one such project.

For years, there has been heated discussion about the inclusiveness of the role playing game hobby toward those women, minorities, or LGBT who are participants in the gaming community. The conversations have been similar to those regarding the SF/F community. Someone examines the field and finds a result and comments on it, this is then followed by knee-jerk backlash and possibly meaningless counter-examples attempting to refute initial comment, the conversation fades unresolved. A typical exchange can be seen over at the Black Gate Magazine website in the conversations here and here.

There is some good discussion of women in the role playing game hobby in particular in Michelle Nephew's dissertation on authorial power "Playing with Power", a chapter of which is included in the book Gaming as Culture. If you can get a copy of the dissertation, do so. It's worth it. If you cannot, the chapter is a very thought provoking read. She discusses how the milieu of games can be very sexist and off putting to women gamers, "From this perspective, including the historical facts of sexual inequality and other discriminatory practices as part of the game setting allows male players to escape into a game world that validates their own sense of worth by making their characters physically and socially superior to others around them, whether those ‘others’ happen to be monsters or women.” (Nephew, Michelle, 187 - 188).

Nephew's dissertation covers many more topics than the appeal of games to women, but it is interesting to note that a hobby that has near limitless possibilities with regard to creating counter-cultural societies -- and which often prides itself on being counter-culture -- rarely creates games that truly go against social norms. It is also rare that a game will come along that is constructed specifically to be inclusive toward overlooked communities of potential players.

The announcement of Kynn's Kickstarter project met with some predictable outcries that mirrored the traditional pattern. "She's saving us from ourselves." "The window of which she speaks has always been open." "It's not like we've got any roleplaying games which include women in anything."

It's true, if one looks hard enough, one can find games like Blue Rose and Faery's Tale (to name only two) that seek to appeal to new audiences. It is also true that games like Vampire initially broke the "kill, loot, and power up" style of game that is directed at male players -- though the splat books soon empowered those gamers significantly. That doesn't matter. Assuming that it does assumes that the conversation is over. It isn't.

We need more games, and we need more points of view. Gaming is a place where we get to construct meaning and tell stories together. It's a place to mirror and to break stereotypes.

I for one, am looking forward to Kynn's offering -- now is when I should admit bias as Kynn has been regularly playing in a D&D Encounters game I run once a week for the past month or so.

My only concerns are that the game will only capture the imagination of one of the two audiences that such a game should appeal to.

Games aimed at inclusiveness should target two audiences. The first audience is the group that is already playing, but who are being overlooked by the majority of game offerings. Heartbreak & Heroines certainly meets this goal. The second audience is the group that isn't playing games because of the social barrier built up by the underlying assumptions of what a role playing game is, and how to "properly" play.

I know the H&H is reaching the first audience -- the Kickstarter is doing very well -- but I hope it can make some ground in the second.

Kynn has provided a basic outline of the game's mechanics on the Kickstarter page, as well as one hint regarding the setting/narrative assumptions of the game, and I look forward to seeing how they pan out in play.