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Cross Gender Role-play

Posted by jeffpk on May 3, 2004 at 5:48 PM PDT

Cross Gender Roleplay.

I've been playing pen and paper role play games fairly consistently for almost 30 years and online RPGs on and off since Ultima Online. As someone who plays both male and female characters today I often find myself called on to answer the question. "why would a guy want to play a girl?"

Well there are probably as many reasons as there are cross gender players. Although I have immense sympathy and respect for those with gender identity issues I don't feel qualified to talk about that particular subject so I am going to leave that reason alone. Instead I'm going to focus on those of us that sometimes play characters that differ from our own gender identities.

The reasons even there can vary substantially. A friend of mine who used to play females did so, according to him, "because you spend most of your time at the terminal staring at your own character and its more fun for me to look at a girl then a guy." Certainly a valid, if maybe a touch shallow, reason.

I've known other male players to admit that they play females for purely mercenary reasons. That the male characters fawn all over them and offer them all kinds of help, generally making the game easier to play. I'm not so sure this is a great reason, but to some degree the other players facilitate it by being so desperate to interact with the virtual females in their world. This doesn't say a lot for the emotional or social development of those other players but then again the net itself has long been a refuge for those that have trouble making social connections in the physical world.

Cross gender role-play isn't restricted to men. Woman sometimes play male characters on-line. I'm not as familiar with all the reasons there but a few young women have told me they do it to eliminate the creep-factor and so they aren't being hit on all the time by the guys. Playing females I've certainly seen some of what they are talking about but that is getting ahead of the story.

Then there are my reasons. In order to understand them I have to go back to my opening comments. I've been pen and paper role-playing fairly continuously for about 30 years. After college I went to Italy for a year. One of my characters in a very long standing Dungeons and Dragons game was important enough to the game that the Dungeon Master asked permission to use him as a character he controlled. (What we call an NPC or non-player character.) I said sure and went off to work in Europe.

Returning home a year later I went back to the weekly game, and was introduced to a number of new players. When the DM got to one particularly large and impressive looking fellow he said, "And this is Roger, he's playing Della, your girlfriend." (Roger is not his real name but since he doesn't know I'm writing this, thats what we'll call him.)

I think I made a response something like "Oh", but being a long standing role-player and having a very clear understanding that role-play is acting-- that it is about pretending to be other people, not being who we are, I sort of shrugged and went with it.

Roger and his wife eventually became good friends of mine and, in fact, I met my wife through them. To be honest Roger is such sweet and nice guy that I often think playing the caring and nurturing side of Della came easier to him then playing the Warrior she also was, but thats just my impression. Nonetheless, it opened my eyes a bit to the fact that a guy could ,with work, play a convincing girl. The frustrated actor in me was intrigued by the challenge.

Jump ahead about 5 years. I was searching for a new D&D character to play. Thumbing through the second edition AD&D bard's handbook I happened upon a sub-class (they're called "kits" in 2E AD&D) of bard called the "Gallant." While written in gender neutral terms the writer had obviously envisioned a male character with statements like "The Gallant cannot leave battle until after all members of the opposite sex have done so." Chuckling to myself I started imagining what would happen if the gallant were a woman and all the social issues that her trying to protect the guys would create and thought "what the hell."

In method acting, when you don't initially have the experiences to draw on, an accepted way to develop the character is to look for external role models and through a combination of mimicry and empathy try to draw into your own experience base the ways they deal with the world. Being married at that point, I had a great model in my wife, and thus was born Lady Cassandra (Sandra) Tesper of Waterdeep -- a Gallant-kit bard. She is still one of my favorite characters .

In playing Sandra I learned a lot of things, both internal and external. My wife, like many women, is naturally a more intuitive thinker then I am. Playing Sandra I like to think helped develop that intuitive side more. I also learned a *lot* about what a strong woman faces in our society, both good and bad. I have to say that, in my experiences playing females I really *have* seen the fact that in or society a guy almost cannot be too assertive while a woman really has to temper it lest she end up with the "bitch" label. Its not fair, its not right, it is however very real.

And that gets me to my conclusion. For myself, I play female characters as much or a bit more then males these days for a few reasons. First off, after so many years and so many male characters I think I've about covered every male personality type I am at all interested in exploring. (I've never played a complete jerk. In general I don't like insensitive self-centered bastards and I have no urge to experience their world. Maybe thats a failing. Similarly I haven't played deranged psycho-killers or other seriously mentally ill characters. Everything else I think I've played.) Women's personalities are interesting and new to me, providing new social experiences to explore.

More importantly though, I've learned a lot about the world women have to live in and, guys, its different then ours with different rules and different expectations. My wife says my female characters have made me a more sensitive and thoughtful man and husband. And thats something all us guys can use a dose of.

In general, entertainment can reach the level of art when it teaches us about the world and/or ourselves, I believe that role play games played with serious role-play can teach us to be more sensitive to others issues and needs by allowing us to experience perspectives and issues different from our own.

I'll end this with an apropos quote from the great Scottish poet. Robert Burns. In "To a louse", he concludes:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as inthers see us!
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