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On Language with Amanda Valentine, Part 2

Photo credit: Ed Healy

Amanda Valentine is an award winning game editor and book reviewer. The host of the 2013 ENnie Awards, Amanda is always busy and in high demand. As the number of women both creating and playing tabletop games continues to increase, thoughtful approaches to gender in games texts will also continue to be part of the ongoing conversation of making gaming a more inclusive hobby. This is Part 2 of this conversation.

Have you had to do much work with game writers to address how they use gender in their writing? How do you work with authors that need to work on how they (consciously or unconsciously) use gender in their writing?

Since most of the projects I work on are consciously trying to avoid gender biases, the writers and project managers are very open to my concerns. Most companies have guidelines built into the style guide, such as assuming that the GM will always be female and saying that there must be at least one female player/character in the recurring example group.

This can be challenging when working with a license, because you're limited by the characters you have available. For Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, we consciously sought out as much variety as we could in the characters we included. It's nowhere near equal, but I think we did a pretty good job at offering a whole lot more than just one or two token characters who aren't white straight males.

Sometimes I'm explicitly brought onto a project to look for unintentional gender biases. That doesn't always work out, though—on The Paranet Papers, it was one of the guys who noticed that all of our POV characters were male! That's been fixed—and it was a lesson in how you often don't even necessarily need to change very much to add some diversity.

One thing I've noticed in particular is that randomly assigning gender to characters in examples can lead to unintended apparent biases. Even if you're alternating, you can end up accidentally playing into some negative stereotypes. Simply making sure you have an equal number of hes and shes isn't enough. It's important to be conscious of the decisions that you're making.

Another pretty major issue is keeping an eye out for triggers. I worry that I'm not as sensitive to that as perhaps I should be, but it's a big concern for a lot of the writers I work with—for example, my husband Clark dealt with this in the Russian Revolution chapter in The Paranet Papers. One of the characters is attacked with a psychological whammy that causes her to get involved in a relationship she otherwise wouldn't have. While I thought it was handled well, it's one of those things that, at his request, I'll be taking another close look at before the book goes to press.


What are your feelings on the use of plural as a way to make text gender-neutral?

The eternal conundrum. In speech, I have no problem with the plural standing in as gender-neutral. Context almost always makes the meaning clear, and if it doesn't, you can ask the speaker for clarification.

In writing, though, I don't like it. I think it can lead to clarity issues, especially when you have one person acting against a group. I also hate "he or she" and its equivalents because it's unwieldy. I got into a major discussion with someone who thought that it was an editor's duty to use words like "ze" so they become more mainstream, but I think that as an editor it's my job to make sure the text itself doesn't pull you out of what you're reading. Right now, those kinds of alternatives really work against that goal—once they're common in speech, maybe I'll be more comfortable including them in writing.

My favorite approach is to just avoid it. In The Dresden Files RPG, we used specific examples throughout, which brought gender with them. I do feel very strongly that, for clarity's sake, it's important to match the gender of the PC with the gender of the player—vary your characters, and you automatically vary your pronouns. In Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, we used first and second person pronouns as much as possible, which are inherently gender neutral, so the writer typically directly addresses the reader as though they're playing the game together. It makes it more conversational, which I think is good anyway, and it dodges that whole pronoun problem.

Previously: On Language with Amanda Valentine, Part 1

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