There is a rather fine documentary that has just been made called The Bells of Newtown, which does a fine job of showcasing the hobby in what is a first for me; a way that doesn’t look really stupid and ridiculous, and isn’t ripe for mockery. It’s on a very short list of media related to LRP (or larp if you will) that manages to capture the spirit as well as the reality of the hobby.

However, as I watched it, I realised that LRP has a problem, which this documentary sadly helps to sustain. It is a self-perpetuating image problem that some quarters of the community are working very hard to tackle, and other parts of the community get extremely annoyed at any attempt to address the issue.

That problem is gender attitudes.

Okay, it’s not the only problem, but it’s the one we will talk about today.

Watching the documentary, it’s very obvious that a lot more women were playing the game than are featured. Now, I’m not in any way suggesting that this was a conscious choice on the part of the film makers, but it is part of an underlying problem in the hobby. I know for a fact that there were a lot of very proactive, competitive and interesting characters at that event who were played by women. Women who we sometimes catch a glimpse of in the background, or in a fleeting glimpse, but who the narrative of the documentary never does more than touch upon.

We seem happy with showing women as costumers, playing healers, the incidental characters, and sometimes even playing leaders. However, we seem to shy away from showing women as warriors (unless they are of the homeopathic armour variety) or power-brokers. We don’t show them making the great weapons, the uplifting speeches that rally the troops, and the Regents, Governors or sitting on the Thrones of Empires.

We see them, we forget about them. We treat them as though they are the anomaly, and when we do that we take a little step closer to making it true. We even have jokes about “healer girlfriends”.

We are playing games of make-believe, in fantastical worlds of infinite possibilities, and yet we are still so tied to our outmoded and outdated concepts of gender roles where we exert social pressure on the women who play, to conform to certain roles. Nobody is forced but the expectation remains, and that rubs me the wrong way just as it should do for you.

It’s one thing if your game is exploring a theme where these are part of that exploration, but more often than not it is simply a case of straight white men having no concept of what it might feel like to be marginalised, or even understanding that this experience which is so alien to them that when they experience even a small shift in the privileges afforded them they perceive it as the greatest tragedy to befall them.

We play a hobby where we imagine what it is like to be someone else in a strange and sometimes alien social and/or physical environment. Surely we can use that same skill to imagine ways of improving the gender stereotypes that we so often lump ourselves with? How about we use our imaginations to imagine ourselves not suggesting that the women aren’t just there because their boyfriends are playing, and perhaps even try imagining ourselves treating women as an equally important and valued part of the community? Can we imagine seeing a version of The Bells of Newtown where the women in the setting don’t seem to be largely passive incidental characters?

Because if I never hear about “healer girlfriends” again, it will be too soon.

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