Be Vulnerable: Emotional Play and Toxic Masculinity

Awhile ago I asked on my Facebook page (because despite help I still suck at Google Plus) why some cismen or male performing folks choose to play as women. The dominant answer I got was:

It lets me be emotional without repercussions.

What the what in the what? Men are playing women characters to explore emotional play because the little box of masculinity we gave them didn't give them access to emotions? I was more surprised than I should have been. A lot of the wonderful people who commented are people I admire and consider friends. They were brave and posted about this subject, or messaged me privately about their feelings.

I spend a lot of time talking about emotionality, emotional labour, feminism, creating space, and holding space but rarely do I point that towards the gamers in my life who struggle with being emotional in the gaming space. By no means is this a commentary on all men gamers or whatever, but there are striking commonalities behind the toxic masculinity we see in daily life and the ability of men to play vulnerably or emotionally in game. Is there a space for that? And if so, is it the space we give women, and so, it's the space they play in?

Admittedly, none of my whopping two dude PCs were overtly emotional. Oz was the opposite, he was somewhat directionless but okay with that. There was an easy confidence there. And Donahue? He's passionate but not really emotional. He cares, sure, but he's not the type to open up and be vulnerable. Neither of them were. This wasn't an intentional commentary on the space we give men, but on reflection it seems terribly accurate.

We spend a lot of time talking about what barriers there are in gaming for women and minorities. We, or at least I, don't spend a lot of time talking about the barriers in gaming for menfolk. Why? Because yes, they are the ones gaming was (up until recently) mostly geared towards. But why don't we look at how men play and wonder why they play that way? What is limited to them? And why?

Personally I've always been really into emotional play and how that functions in gaming. So when I started to poke the sleeping bears that are the wonderful cismen I know in my gaming life, I began to see some really fascinating patterns. What did I observe? Well, when asked about what feelings men want to get from an rpg, they often skirted describing the feelings themselves and talked about what scenarios they wanted or how they wanted to be perceived.

What I mean by this, is when asked, a man would say they wanted to be a big damn hero, and I had to ask what that would feel like because they couldn't break it down further. Or they wanted to see their presence make an impact in the world, not that they wanted to be impactful or important.

The next thing I noticed is when pushed, the most commonly spoken about emotions men wanted to feel were: satisfaction, achievement, mattering, validated, appreciated, victorious, powerful, anger, pride. How's that for a loaded list? A couple people added fear and loving and vulnerable to their list, but it wasn't a common thread between all the men.

The third thing I noticed was the sudden "huh" moment a few people seemed to have. Most hadn't thought of playing a game for the emotion you would get out of it. They played for setting or theme or what the game did, but never considered what the game would make them feel. They also didn't consider coming at game design from an angle of what they could invoke emotionally in others. One man even spoke about how much he hated contrived emotion and so avoided games that tried to make him feel specific things.

In private, some men admitted to me they play female characters in games because they had moments in their life they felt feminine or female and RPGs gave them a chance to explore that without ridicule or hatred. That's powerful. And awesome. RPGs can totally help people find their power, even if they only experience in game.

I carefully choose my words here because there is absolutely a difference in saying that we can empower people and we can help people find their power or even just bear witness to that moment and hold space. I used to say quite often that I could empower people to make good choices and safe decisions and be badass in a moment that was, fundamentally, all about them becoming something more than themselves.

Oddly, I'm not talking about holding space in the gaming industry, I'm talking about holding space at a birth. That's right, I help people pop tiny people out of themselves and it's one of the most fulfilling, magical, empowering moments a person can experience. I say this having never had a child, but having witnessed people give birth multiple times. I, as a doula (labour support person), I have never empowered someone. That's not my job. That birthing person is going to find their own power in their birth, they're going to learn so much about themselves and all I'm doing is supporting them on that journey. I'm not leading them to some divine truth and handing them a little box of power.  Nope. I'm walking beside or behind, saying they got this, and watching as they find their own little box of power.

Now if occupying the female space for cismale players allows them to express themselves emotionally, the real problem comes down to culture's expectations on masculinity and vulnerability. If you're not aware why men can't be vulnerable and emotional, it's because of this thing called toxic masculinity. In short, culture tells men that being 'manly' means only feeling a small amount of emotions, all of them mostly to do with being powerful and angry, and if they feel anything else, they're not being manly. They better not show those emotions, either.

Let's be real for a moment and understand that I'm a woman and I look womanly and I present woman and perform woman. I will never know how it feels to be told not to have emotions. I mean, I've been told I'm being emotional or illogical or hysterical because woman, but I've never been told that I need to man up. I have never been told boys don't cry. I have always been given space to feel emotions in games and in life. So I can't speak to what I need. I can speak to what I've read and learned through being a game master and speaking to men about their experiences.

We need to understand that men are only allowed to feel certain emotions. To feel anything else invites a struggle and some level of self-hatred potentially. So a man feeling vulnerable or anything beyond anger, pride, or lust can cause a conflict within them. There is nothing wrong with this. I repeat, there is nothing wrong with someone feeling conflicted over emotions. Do not tell people they're feeling stuff wrong. Do not shut down someone exploring vulnerability how they know how to because you have different experiences.

What I am going to talk about here is holding space to make it safe for men to feel and play around with vulnerable and emotional play. Because they deserve that. I love playing games that make me feel, and yes, it's a big part of my designs and my intentions, so it's on my mind a lot. I can't imagine not being allowed to do that in a game. So when I see men playing games, I try to think now how I can support how they play and make the space as welcoming for them as I want it to be for me.

Ways to help break down barriers to gaming always start with conversation and talking about it. We're not going to sledgehammer toxic masculinity today, but we can start breaking those barriers down that men feel during play. We can open up conversations about emotional play, reward emotional play, make deliberate efforts to check in with people and encourage what they want to explore without imposing what we think they should be exploring, and by being vulnerable and open ourselves.

When people are playing emotionally, regardless of their character's gender, we have to give them time to explore that. We don't invalidate how they're doing it or how they're feeling. We can question them, gently, but also give them time and space to work through those answers. As a GM, when someone is struggling with an emotion or how to respond, I simply ask "Do you want a minute?" and I move on to another scene with someone else. If there's interparty conflict (my favourite) and people are sitting quietly, I'll keep an eye on the space. After a lingering silence I'll carefully check in "Is everyone okay? Do you want to move on from this scene?" Wait for answers.

So much about helping people find their power comes from holding space and making it about them and not you. If men want to explore the space of being emotional, and feel like the only way they can do that is through playing a woman, then let's make that experience for them the best they can have. Ask them what emotions they want to experiment with, see what they want to feel, and find ways to give it to them.

Unlike games focused on action, games where you're negotiating emotion are a bit slower. So don't rush people. You can't rush someone into feeling something. You can't rush someone in emotional play. Create moments, let them experience it, let them tap out if they need to with no repercussion, and wait for them to have their moment. You can gently check in during that time, or wait until after game to see how they're feeling about what you're running and how they're experimenting with emotion.

It's so easy to sit back and tell people "go be emotional" but it's better when you go with them. If we expect men to be able to engage with emotional play, we need to engage with it too. Putting ourselves out there to engage with what they want to do emotionally is key. If they want to feel important, put something out there for them to change. If they want to feel anger, put something in the game to piss them off. If they want to feel love, put something in the game for them to love and be loved by. Put yourself out there to be loved, hated, lusted after, annoyed, feared or anything else that person may find interesting to engage.

Remember that it's okay if the player pulls away from what you're offering. Let it go and move on. You should never make someone engage with something they're not ready or willing to. Give them an out at any time. For me, that's an X-card. For you, that can be whatever you want. Something to tap. An item to flip over. A word. A look. A conversation. Whatever it is, let them know it's safe to tap out and take a break.

They'll find what they're looking for when you help guide them there and provide space for them to find it on their own. Once you start engaging in material that you find challenging but you want to engage with, you may find that you feel safer and safer doing it as you are rewarded (find your power) and are told you're doing great and validated. When someone is stepping into a role to explore something emotional, tell them they're doing awesome. Validate the fuck out of them. Hell. Validate the fuck out of everyone.

I think it's absolutely vital we make space for everyone at the table. And that means breaking down all the barriers there are, slowly and surely, to ensure people feel welcomed and able to explore what they want to. Don't shit on men who want to play women. Don't tell them they're feeling it wrong. Don't tell them how to do it or what to feel. Walk beside them, offer your own experience, tell them they're doing great, encourage them, give them space to find it on their own. It's so much more powerful when we find that power in ourselves than when we give them something we think is powerful and tell them it's power, when in fact, it might just be something useless to them.

If all else fails and you're not sure how to provide a space to someone who wants to be emotional but feels like they can't for whatever reason, ask them how you can help. Follow their guidelines, listen, and engage. Don't make it about how you would feel more comfortable, because it's not about you. It's about them. Don't make things about you and your needs if you're attempting to help someone with theirs. There's a great space at the table for you too, but right now, we're talking about someone else.

From talking with men about being emotional at the table, I've learned a lot. I've seen a lot of growth, from folks who only really engaged in the emotional payback of allowable male emotions (anger, pride, lust) to those who now totally want to try being afraid, vulnerable, and hurt. Things we tell men not to be. And that's awesome. It's a way of finding empowerment in things that suck, or things that are great, like love of all kinds, be it romantic of familial or friendship. Exploring emotional content lets our own emotional maturity and understanding deepen. That's right. Being openly emotional for men is finding power in their feelings and who they are.

Also, as an aside, if you want to allow space for men to be emotional, play emotional men and have emotional male NPCs. Show them that it's a safe space through demonstration. It's a way to break down stereotypes and invite conversation or thought about that space. If it's established that there are emotional men at the table or in the game already, it's saying "Hey, this is cool and you can do this too." And that's awesome.

Overall I think the way we address toxic masculinity in gaming culture is an extremely important way of breaking down the overall power structure of gaming. Absolutely we can all be angry, important, lustful people, and we should expect to see rewards for all of the emotional spectrum. Until we're all on the same playing field though, shifts in the industry will be slow. Opening up spaces for men to explore things that society says they otherwise shouldn't is a way to be mindful that gross things like sexism impacts everyone.

Everyone deserves to find their power. Everyone deserves to be validated. Everyone deserves safe gaming spaces. We can make that happen for everyone. If you've ever felt the satisfaction and enjoyment of deeply emotional play, you know, as much as I do, that men deserve that too. Just like women deserve to be badass heroes who aren't sexual objects, men deserve to be able to play emotional characters and get the same feedback that women do for it without fear of ridicule or being told they're doing it wrong.

Break down barriers. Be vulnerable. Stay fierce.