The Damsel and The Courtesan: A History of Gendered Game Design

Abstract:

This paper draws on fanzines from the 1970s to understand how gender was understood by an active Dungeons & Dragons fan community. Although the fanzine, Alarums & Excursions was edited and published by a woman, Lee Gold, and achieved gender parity amongst its participants in some issues, sexist and misogynist tropes were introduced and debated within its pages. This presentation examines two of these tropes, the damsel and the courtesan. By better understanding the historical implementation of these figures, we can better understand the repetition of gender inequality in digital games. Feminist game design must learn from the past to better appreciate and navigate the conflicts of the present.

If we are to understand the history of games, we must begin with the voices that have too long been erased from the narrative. This essay considers how Lee Gold’s work in Alarums & Excursions helps us to reconstruct a history of gaming in 1975 and 1976. In reconstructing this history, we aim to highlight the dynamics of oppression voiced by gamers at the time in order to resuscitate a sense of how stereotypes and discrimination have been encoded into the algorithms governing our games and our computers. In the case of the damsel and the courtesan, we track not only how these tropes have been replicated in digital games, but also what their mechanical attributes are composed of. Not only did these character archetypes necessitate probabilistic tables for sexual encounters, they also included rules intended to help players regulate their sexuality. For instance, one rule intended for damsels explains that if a damsel is to lose their sense of honor through an act of rape they must either commit suicide or become a courtesan. Horrible in their social implications, these rules allow us to understand how pervasive misogyny is within game history.

Our goal in this presentation is not just to trace the historical emergence of misogyny, but also to show how it has been actively debated and resisted by fans. In discussing the damsel and the courtesan, we will also discuss how fans resisted these rather sexist rules and consider how activism around representation in games has been a historically important method for resisting the invisible and misogynist norms of community.

 

Bios:

Aaron Trammell is an Assistant Professor of Interactive Media and Digital Games at UC Irvine. He was a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, and he earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015. Aaron’s research reveals historical connections between games, play, identity, and the United States military-industrial complex. He is interested in how military ideologies become integrated into game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players.

He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Analog Game Studies (analoggamestudies.org) and the Multimedia Editor and Co-Founder of Sounding Out! (soundstudiesblog.com). In 2014, Aaron co-edited a volume of Games and Culture with Anne Gilbert entitled “Extending Play to Critical Media Studies,” and in 2016 Aaron co-edited a volume of Journal of Games Criticism with Zack Lischer-Katz entitled “Considering the Sequel to Game Studies…” He and Zack Lischer-Katz have a special issue of First Monday on media infrastructures forthcoming in early 2017.

Nikki Crenshaw is a fifth-year PhD Candidate in UC Irvine’s Informatics DepaNikki Crenshawrtment at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences. She received her BA in Psychology from UC Santa Cruz, and advanced to PhD candidacy at UC Irvine in December 2014 with her project “What’s in a Name? Naming Practices in Online Video Games”. Nikki’s current research focuses on the relationships between culture, players, and games, and how these variables interact to produce possibilities for social interactions in online games. Other research areas she is interested include player-character relationships, neoliberalism in online gaming, player identity, social experience, and player governance. She is a life-time Druid, a Social Justice Waluigi, and can play a mean game of Mario Kart.