You’re a woman pilot in World War II, fighting for your country, bonding with your fellow soldiers, facing a population that doesn’t respect you. Four hours later it’s all over and you’re still just sitting in your living room with three of your friends.
Tabletop games are misunderstood even among gamers. There’s a perception that role-playing games, especially those played in-person, are for the nerdy white dudes that want to be seen as heroes battling dragons and plundering treasure from dungeons. This idea has been challenged in recent years by groups like Contessa Rocks, which runs a blog by women about women in tabletop gaming, hosts panels about design and writing, and runs games over Google+ a few times a year. In the Chicks Dig Gaming collection of essays, several authors write about the diversity of tabletop games, how it’s changed their lives (made them braver, taught them math, helped them come to terms with their gender identities), and the joy of role-playing.
Still these games are thought of as high-fantasy escapism, but they can also be safe places to explore sexism, gender roles, mental illness, war, racism, and more. Ann Eriksen describes her game, We Were W.A.S.P., as a “bromance” between four women in the air force. W.A.S.P. was nominated for Best Roles and Best Storytelling at Fastaval 2014, Denmark’s freeform & board game competition and convention. It is also included in the War Birds anthology.
War Birds is a collection of role-playing games that focus on women in war times. It seeks to expand the way players think about the roles of women in history. Not only were they housewives and mothers, but also soldiers, factory workers, spies, enemies, and more. “We have always fought” serves as the slogan for the anthology, which includes games written by women from all over the world. From the Unruly Designs website: “The team behind War Birds decided to do these games as an anthology with an interest in creating a multiplicity of perspectives about women in conflict. The games sometimes overlap, reinforce and contradict each other.” Plus, each game is immediately accessible to the inexperienced gamer. There are no complicated dice scenarios to memorize, or sophisticated numbers systems to learn. Just grab a few friends, read the instructions, and begin, which is what I did with W.A.S.P.
I’m not a tabletop or live-action role-playing gamer. I’m more comfortable when my on-screen character does the acting for me. W.A.S.P. asks for you to act your part for just four hours, and I found that the setup of the game really eases new role-players into the action. The main theme is friendship. Each player is given a pre-created eccentric character. They all come from different backgrounds and would not necessarily be natural friends. But this is wartime. The characters are expected to change over the course of the game. So my nervous energy at the beginning of play made sense. I had just met these women and we were fighting for our country. By the end of the game I was more comfortable playing a role, and so my character was also more comfortable
The playbook gives you not only the scenario, but also the historical background: “The WASP corps was formed in 1943, by Nancy Love Harkness and Jacqueline Cochran, two of the most prominent pilots of the time. The aim of the corps was to train female pilots to fly domestic military missions, thereby freeing up male pilots for active combat duty.” It also describes the sociocultural context of the game: “The characters live in a time with very clear restrictions on how women could act. It was a time with clearly defined gender roles. Women serving in the military was unheard of.”
This was a great game for learning to role-play. There are fairly strict rules (the characters do not rebel, the women become friends) and a lot of information offered to the players. It also left just enough room for interpretation that we stretched the structure to fit our needs.
My character was completely different from my real-life persona. She is a traditionally beautiful woman judged often off of her looks and never her ability. I played her as queer. We discussed what this meant in the historical context. It would have been kept a secret, probably even from the other three women who became her closest friends. After the game was over we talked about what those kinds of complexities brought to the experience. Historically, W.A.S.P.s were middle- to upper-class white women who had the expendable income to take flying lessons. One of my fellow players is a woman of color, and we examined what that would mean for her identity in the game.
Our game was made up of all women, but I imagine that this could a great way to start meaningful conversations with the men in my life about gender, both historically and now. It was a great way to have those conversations with the women in my life.
If you’re looking for a way to get into role-playing games, I suggest checking out Unruly Design’s War Birds anthology, scheduled for release in February of 2016.