Saturday, April 18, 2009

Gender and magic in rpgs

I have criticized the gender egalitarianism inserted into role playing games to allow for martial female protagonists who inexplicably still retain their femininity.

One way this is done is by confusing flexibility with agility (or dexterity). Women have greater range of motion than men do, primarily because they have smaller muscles. To confirm this in your own mind, think of the people you knew (or know) who could do the splits--they're probably all girls. Flexibility doesn't help much in a fight, though. Agility does, but men are faster than women are. In the virtual world, however, female characters regularly have greater agility than males do*.

Another method of achieving this is by giving women better luck than men. The attribute is fantasy, so it's hard to argue. Since men are better fighters than women are, let's just make up attributes that women excel in to move toward parity.

Similarly, females tend to be made better magic users than males are. Previously, I'd seen this in the same light as luck--a fantastical skill to give to women in greater abundance than men as a means of closing the martial gender gap. But maybe it's better conceived of as confusing real-world religiosity (or spirituality) with fictitious magic. By every measure, women are more religious than men are:

Reading Discovering God by Rodney Stark, it occured to me that magic is essentially an effort to influence supernatural forces (or supernaturally manipulate natural forces) to obtain some desired effect. So with a little suspension of disbelief, it sensible to assume females should be better magic wielders than males are. Have to believe in and be attuned to the supernatural to subject it to your commands, no?

* Relatedly, strength and agility are often contrasting attributes in the virtual world (think the lumbering warrior versus the hasty hunter). In reality, they are positively correlated. Boxers, wrestlers, and mixed martial artists are both strong and fast.


Blode0322 said...

Ordinarily, I would think this sort of thing is all fun and no consequence, but I think the growing impact and ubiquity of fantasy stands to convince girls that since they can "take care of themselves" in certain senses (i.e. compete in the workplace, get prestigious degrees) they can also take care of themselves on the street (i.e. punch out an attacker).

The huge irony is that the one kind of fighting where women can be equals - gunfighting - is the one the hyperegalitarian feminists avoid like the plague, preferring such strategically vital, war-winning combat styles as fencing, musical kickboxing, and Aikido. As far as I know, games like Counterstrike never feature women, although there were women in the Rainbow Six game series.

Jokah Macpherson said...

I seem to recall that in the earlier Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest RPG's intelligence was the stat that determined proficiency in magic. This goes counter to your theory since intelligence correlates negatively with belief in the supernatural but then again if you live in a fictional world where magic is a given, I guess you have to be intelligent to understand it. The use of intelligence may have pre-dated the rise of female characters to significance too.

I recommend reviewing Chrono Cross if you ever get the chance. There are plenty of discussion points in that one, not the least of which is the 45 playable characters who are functionally almost identical. When the 271 lb. wrestler has just as much offense as the 11 lb. fairy, you might as well put the sexiest female characters in your lineup (or turnips and skeletons - whatever floats your boat) since there's no quantitative criteria to use.

feminist said...

This is quite interesting. It always just seemed like guys didn't care about a player being a female or male or non human. I haven't played a game since SuperNES, but I remember Chun Li and street fighter 2. She was one of the best, so guys would play her without seeming to care about her being like a 90 lb asian chick in piggy tails.

AE, you don't comment on my blog :(. Do you visit?

Nick said...

Hmm. Women are stereotypically thought of as being abnormally into hippy-dippy new agey crap, but they're overrepresented in the "Word of God" bracket. This isn't necessarily a contradiction, of course, but it's interesting.

Also, a curious, slightly related point: though I'm not religious myself, I would prefer that a potential girlfriend would be. Merely being a pro-religion agnostic like me is insufficient; being moderately religious would be best.

Is this a common perspective, cause I can't really come up with a good reason why I feel this way. Sure, religiosity suggests conservatism, which is good for me, but I'd prefer a moderate religious female to a non-religious conservative like myself. Besides, to find one of those I'd have to exhume Ayn Rand, and I'm no Randian anyway.

Strikes me as odd. Probably I just want any potential mate to be in awe of my mighty logical manbrain.

agnostic said...

To confirm this in your own mind, think of the people you knew (or know) who could do the splits--they're probably all girls. Or young. Hypermobility is more responsive to changes in age than in sex. Hence why all gymnasts are young, often pre-pubescent. Hypermobility starts to plummet around age 12, iirc.

Anonymous said...

As Steve Sailer has pointed out, the "butt kickin' babe," that 100-lb. beauty able to knock huge men senseless without mussing her blonde hair, is a staple figure in television and movies.


Audacious Epigone said...


That firearm possession for defensive purposes benefits women more than men is a point John Lott makes repeatedly in More Guns, Less Crime. When it's martial, any kind of equalizer is an asset for females.


Good point. That trend seemed to last into the mid-nineties anyway, although now the stat tends to just be "magic" (or sometimes "wisdom").

My gaming is on hold now, but I'm eager to give it a go in the future. The musical score alone is captivating.


Ryu/Ken (usually Ryu, because he's more admirable) virtually always come out on top of Street Fighter character rankings, but Chun Li seems to usually make the top five. How attached are players to characters in fighting games, though? I don't know. Guile was always my man, because I was nationalistic even in elementary school, but he was tough to use because his moves are slow (and thus I was pretty mediocre). Most other kids cared more about winning, I think.

Yes, I've stopped by on multiple occasions. If I am able to think of something of value to add, I promise I will. I'll make a concerted effort from this point forward at doing so (no scoffing if it's not worthy material).


For one, religious women tend to be more trustworthy women. However you've arrived at sensing this, it is probably advantageous from a Darwinian perspective--you're less likely to get cuckolded, and your girl is more likely to bear you multiple children.


Right. Girls, primarily.


It's always struck me as silly. How do you suspend your disbelief? Xena wasn't as hot as her sidekick Gabrielle, but at least she looked like she could hold her own (but I suppose it's almost a tautology for that to be the case).

Stopped Clock said...

I wouldnt be surprised if it's just human nature to associate females with magic, especially in societies where most real power is held by males. Think of all the attention given to witches, sorceresses, and so on ... even in languages like Spanish where the terms for all occupations are masculine by default, witch is "la bruja", and there's no "el brujo".

Also, some minor technical details: most RPGs are aimed at heterosexual teenage males, who may prefer to identify themselves with a male protagonist who meets and to some extent controls a female character that assumes a secondary role. And in a game like Secret of Mana, the player wants to be able to control all of the magic spells in the game (which can only be cast by females) while still being in control of the physical movements of his 'player1' character. It turns out that it works best if player1 is the one male character, as promoting either of the magic-using females to player1 makes it harder to cast spells and to control the male lead.

Caveat though: I havent played a video game since 1999, so things might be different now.

pzed said...

i don't have the impression that females are better magic users from playing crpgs and online mmos. gender doesn't affect stats with those games. the only time gender affects the game is with dialogue options with certain characters (love interests, prostitutes etc) or items such as the girdle of gender changing or something.

maybe magic using women are more more common w/ japanese rpgs where the main characters aren't rolled by the player.

Gruntled said...

Not having any experience with role-playing games, I passed your post on to a friend. His response:

"One of the things I like about the Superhero game that my brother and
I play is that appearance and effect are completely divorced. Gender and height have no impact on game play. Costumes are just costumes. You can look like a knight in armor, but the armor does nothing to protect you unless you have a defensive superpower. And if you have a defensive superpower, you can run around half naked and it won't matter. It's very much a comic book based reality.

Most fantasy games try to be more realistic than that, which I think is a mistake. If you want realism, drop the magic. If you are going to have wizards and dragons and so on, then why bother constraining your fun with arbitrary rules about gender? Especially if you're going to undermine the attempt at realism with forced 'fairness'."

Anonymous said...

One thing that is overlooked here is spirituality. Perhaps this is due to the west being very scientifically orientated - if it cannot be quantified it's not relevant.

Nevertheless, this is a good book to check out:

The Fox And The Jewel.

Specifically, I want to quote this section here:

In Japan, shamanism has a long and complex history - including the shamanic Queen Himiko of the third century; the early empress who served as mediums for the oracles of the kami; the arrival of Buddhism in the sixth century, which gave rise to the mountain asceticism later called Shugendo; the medieval teams of female medium (miko) and male ascetic (yamabushi); the government suppression of Shugendo and shamans during the Meiji period; and the reemergence of shamanic forms with post-World War II religious freedom, especially in the context of the new religions.

Among the Inari shamans, possession by a kami - or more likely, communication with a kami - is indicated not by violent seizures or wild dancing but by subtle changes of of pitch in the shaman's voice, her eye movements, or the rhythm of her voice.

So, what you see here are a couple of common threads:
- The female had a special innate quality to 'talk'/'communicate' with the Kami (the spirit gods) - this is why in Final Fantasy 10, only Yuna the summoner/female shaman could summon/talk with the Aeons. In Shintoism, they also refer to 'miko' as mistresses of the Kami. Perhaps there's some sexual undercurrent there.
- Female mediums (miko) were teamed up with male equivalents (yamabushi). The yamabushi are imbued supposedly with supernatural powers, while the females can talk with the 'spirits' (in Final Fantasy 10's case, these are the Aeons).
- Remember all the mountains you had to climb in Final Fantasy 10? Now you know where it came from.

You can easily interpret Auron as the Yamabushi type and Yuna as the miko. Auron is far more powerful than the rest and is not emotionally really involved with the rest of the crew. Yuna's lifestyle, too, is supposed to be characterized by abstinence (this is why she doesn't open up to Tidus until her faith in Yevonism is shattered, and she is for all intents and purposes excommunicated).

Which reminds me, I need to do another article on FFX.

Dave said...

Interesting post. I have to think about it a bit more before commenting in more detail but you've given me a lot of food for thought. Thanks.

Audacious Epigone said...


Well, I don't claim to be an expert, either, but I share the sentiment that the heterosexual teenage guy needs one idealized male character to identify with. If he has that, supporting females and other less virile men like bards are fine.


Your points are well taken. It's not difficult to see how criticizing virtual fantasy games for not being realistic enough is absurd.


So gender is aesthetic in most MMOs? Then the virtual world is going egalitarian everything, too, eh? I'm just a retrograde curmudgeon then, I guess!


Interesting, thanks. I'll add it to my reading list. Now that you point it out, the Final Fantasy series has utilized female summoners since it's inception--Rydia in FF4, Terra in FF6, Garnet and Eiko in FF9, Yuna in FF10. Auron mysteriously returns in FFX-2 to give Yuna guidance in the story's final showdown, providing more evidence for your assessment.

Audacious Epigone said...


No problem. Think about it and then return the favor :)

FeministX said...


Thanks. Also, I referenced your site in my post about innate male preferences in female beauty-

Anonymous said...

Just to throw in my 2 cents-

In the incredibly popular and revered Final Fantasy VI, the main (or at least initial) character is Terra, a female magic user. At the midway point the group is separated and you start over as Celes, another female magic user.

To be fair, all of the characters in the game are all basically equally capable of learning magic, and the characters with the most powerful unique abilities are male.

I point this out only because female primary characters are atypical in my extensive experience with this genre.