Gaming & Game Art Disconnect

So, my girlfriend isn’t really a fan of tabletop RPGs. She’d only specifically pointed out her hatred of all things Dungeons and Dragons, so I hoped it had simply been a branding issue. I’d asked and mentioned I’d found a new free RPG system that looked promising, and she said she’d at least look at it. My mistake was that RPG system was Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Now, the ironic part of this is that I’d first heard of LoFP from one of those gaming-as-a-woman blogs, and that blogger was even trying to get her own module for it published. I’d gone to LoFP’s page and was happy to find that the core rule system was free for download. I read it through and I found a great, simple to play straight-forward engine that was impressively put together and looked really fun. Who cares if the free version didn’t have any pictures in it? This was what I was looking for in a game sytem.

This is what got me in trouble. For one thing, for full disclaimer, I’d somehow put in the back of my mind that this was the same people who’d published Carcossa; after reading the manual, there was nothing really questionable at all about it, but that should’ve sent up a red flag. Still this wasn’t FATAL, there weren’t stats for maximum anal dialation before tearing or other grotesque non-sense built into the system. The only thing remotely questionable in the text was on a % table for monster description, ‘genitals’ was one of the nouns that an adjective from another % table could be describing.

Anyway, my girlfriend asks “Is it anything like Flame Princess from Adventure Time?” “No, but that’d be cool.” “Well, I’ll look at it.” “Okay.”

A little bit later: “Why would you think I would want to play this with you?” “Huh?” My girlfriend has looked it up on her phone, and the first thing she found was something from Something Awful. Apparently it was a thread where someone had posted a handful of pictures from LotFP source materials, all of them women being dismembered in fairly gruesome ways. “I thought you said you looked into this?” “I did! I read the entire core rule book. The free version didn’t have any pictures, though. I had no idea.” I really didn’t. And it occurred to me the vast disconnect between a gaming system/game and its artwork. The game itself wasn’t sexist at all; just a fairly well put together system of numbers and tables. But when the artwork depicts all manner of unspeakable things happening to women, the core mechanics of gameplay aren’t going to convince the average person that it’s okay, no matter how well put together the system is.

So, yeah, this is going to be about the problematic nature of art in RPGs. Now pretend this paragraph is the one that goes on at great length about Frank Frazetta that every other RPG blogger has already done. Finished? Good, let’s continue.

Tabletop RPGs are often hard to explain to people who don’t play them, especially because they are not necessarily ‘visual’ affairs in the same way that most board games or video games are. But when people “see” RPGs, they see them through the art on boxes and the art in core books. They don’t see the different types of stories that can be told in the different kinds of settings. Because of the wide array of RPG players, worlds can range from an ultra-grimdark Berserk to fun-loving Adventure Time or Myth Adventures settings. The set of core rules used is only to provide a frame-work for the people who are playing; most people don’t imagine that their characters, foes and adventures look like things that are taken straight from the books. Unfortunately, the books and their pictures are what non-gamers see first. And it’s going to be hard to convince people (especially women) that there’s nothing wrong with your hobby when they can point to all of the hapless chainmail bikini clad women being torn apart by lizard men (or heck, even if they’re not being torn apart by lizard men!) littering the pages of manuals, and no easy to use “saving-throw-to-level” table will persuade them otherwise.

There are lots of cool, exciting fantasy settings and worlds that are non-sexualized that are in the mainstream, so why is it hard to convince people that RPGs can’t be too? Certainly there are lots of well adjusted tabletop players in cool, fun fantasy settings of their own design. It’s just the creepy creepers do a better job of sticking out like a sore thumb. First let me say, I’m fairly certain that there was nothing overtly creepy or wrong in the old d6 Star Wars system. I saw several groups playing it at different times at an old gaming store I went to (even played it once myself, didn’t particularly care for it), but the only one I remember was the group that seemed to be having a romp of hacking whores at a brothel to bits with light-sabers, BECAUSE IT WAS CREEPY! Thus, it’s easy to write it all off as being creepy, because that’s what you remember most. I doubt that anyone in the world but it’s creator has actually played FATAL (a game that is both aesthetically and functionally disgusting), but its very existance can be used by outsiders to point at and say “Look how gross gaming is!”

I’m a huge fan of Order of the Stick. A (very small) part of why I like it is the art-style allows for readers to project onto the characters their own ideas of what they look like within the framework of information provided. Sure, you know Haley Starshine is a red-headed thief or that Roy Greenhilt is black swordsman with a shaved head, but all the rest of the physical details are up to the reader. In a way, this is a microcosm of gaming: the games serve as the barebones framework for the players to create the story and fill in the details. The more details given, the less freedom players have in game. And depending on what those details are, gamers may have less freedom as a community. “I don’t want to play if I have to be some half-naked woman” is not something that should be an issue, but unfortunately it is.

So, yeah, in a sense, the problem my girlfriend has IS a branding issue. The gaming industry has branded itself in such a way that it has her convinced it’s all severe rudeness and wizard tits. I’ve never been in any games like that, but it’s easy to see where she could get that idea. Admittedly, this isn’t something that will be solved. Ever. As long as there are games of make believe, people who want to make-believe offensive things are going to. And there will also always be people who are so upset that genital characteristics are not fixed stats that they will make their own games and post them on the internet. And even if no one ever plays those games and even if those gamers are few and far between, they’ll exist, and they’ll be pointed to as “what’s wrong with gaming”. It CAN get better, though. Flagship games that are the faces of the community may not see anything wrong with what they’re doing, but with women making up a growing portion of the gaming audience, they’re missing out on a huge opportunity. Leave the gross sexism to the imaginations of the gross sexists who want to play in those settings. Let the systems shine for a change!