Breaking Down Tropes: The Alpha Male

There was an article recently published on the toxic belief that wolves have a hierarchy that is controlled by an alpha male. In human society, specifically American culture, the alpha male has come to represent something between the man men want to be and the man nerds hate with a passion. Most of can conjure some sort of image of the alpha male, and just how often he appears in pop culture, specifically nerd pop culture. And yet, he doesn't seem to be welcome at the game table, either as a character or as a player.

When I began to do some research into alpha males, it wasn't because they were a problem for me, or ever have been a problem for me. It was because of that stupid wolf article. I'm a huge fan of werewolves. They're my favourite supernatural being. But I hate how it's always very male centric feeling (yes yes, Gingersnaps), because it's always this person who has a hard time containing the animal, and they get aggressive and pretty toxic and they could hurt you if you're not careful, which really sings the abusive dude vibe to me a lot. Also, they need to dominate, be in control, and for the most part, are often men in media.

Except, we know that wolf packs don't function that way. We know there's a mom and a dad and baby wolves and that's their family unit. Years of bad dog training came from this misconception, and years of bad werewolf fiction about aggressive, dominant assholes who're gonna show you what's what. And if you stand up to them, well, buddy, you better be ready to be put in your place.

As I began to do my research and engage the gaming community on their feels around alpha males, one thing became clear: there was no solid understanding of what was an alpha male. Long debates started about pop culture characters who would fall under the alpha male category and who wouldn't. One thing was clear though, people didn't like alpha males. There were lots of stories of encountering this mythic man at the table as a player, and even sometimes as a PC.

What is an alpha male? Urban dictionary describes an alpha male as: "The alpha male is an act that is performed by males usually in their teens and twenties who act tough, are loud, and have to be the center of attention or they feel insecure. When a man is successful and in his thirties he no longer acts this way because he has grown up and realized that the entire alpha male act is phony. When was the last time you saw a rich, successful man try to pick a fight??? Never. The only guys that do this are the losers that go to bars to take their anger out because they are angry inside for going nowhere in life."

The key features seem to be confidence, arrogance, entitlement, aggression, and dominance. This guy doesn't want, need, or like your advice and he isn't going to let anyone tell him he's not in charge. He'll maintain that control any way he can, with dominance, bullying, and abuse. He's the man's man, exuding manliness (toxically) at every turn. He's Wolverine. He's Kirk. He's Shane and Merle from the Walking Dead. He's in your face and there's nothing you can do about it if you don't want it to end in violence.

Because we're nerds, there seems to be a particular hate for this trope. This guy is usually the bad guy. He's not usually a player character, he's usually an NPC designed to be stopped. The few people who said they had encountered PCs like this openly said it made them uncomfortable and it often broke the game. What is it about this trope that makes it impossible to be more than a bad guy, or at best, a problem player/character?

Inherently, he is a man who wants to maintain control at all costs. If we think of Shane from the Walking Dead, we can note how he became violent whenever control over a situation was slipping, and he valued his wants and needs or what he thought others needed (regardless of their autonomy or agency) over anything else. This need to keep control and be the head of the pack alienates those around him and makes them feel threatened if they were to disagree with him. There's an implied violence to the alpha male that is threatening.

This need for control can lead to inter-party conflicts that aren't fun and often bring people back to school days when bullies roamed the school yard. It can make players feel like they aren't valuable and that they're bound to get into a fight with the alpha male. This toxic level of conflict, of course, tends to make these characters unplayable. No one wants to play the bully they experienced in school. No one wants to be that guy.

And yet, the alpha male can be dynamic, interesting, and compelling, if we let them be. That isn't to say the trope itself isn't toxic. The ultimate expression of what is considered "manliness" is of course, toxic, because it sets up really bad gender performance expectations. But since it is a stereotype some men aspire to, and some have personally experienced, how can we safely and compellingly engage with this during game? Is there anything here worth salvaging and why?

My initial reaction to alpha male characters, especially in werewolf fiction, was to burn it to the ground. Yet after some long discussions, I found myself defending alpha male characters because they can be complex, vulnerable, and compelling. Some folks and I spent awhile dissecting what made a good alpha male, if such a creature exists, and if an alpha male shows vulnerability, are they still, in fact, an alpha male?

I'm going to say they do exist. But they are, inherently, problematic. They are bullies. They are toxic. They have a hard time leaving space for others, which often puts them into the role of antagonist. But I do think there's a gem of something interesting here that allows players to play with toxic masculinity and dominance in an interesting and compelling way. And yet, if we pick up this character to play, it presents us with a unique chance to break down some toxic alpha male behaviours and unpack just how toxic masculinity is presenting in the alpha male.

What makes them compelling? Vulnerability. Men aren't really allowed to be vulnerable. Alpha males are extra not allowed to be vulnerable, because this looks like weakness in men. And yet, the best written alpha males are full of foibles and vulnerabilities. The Punisher is a great alpha male, who's heavily flawed and fragile in the Daredevil Netflix show. Colonel Saul Tigh from Battlestar Galactica is one of the most vulnerable characters on that show, and yet displays and acts as the ultimate toxic male.

These vulnerabilities are the layer that can be added to make our alpha male suddenly human and not just a toxic asshat. Whether it's dealing with latent emotions, addiction, insecurity, or even love, the compelling alpha male has something that is a weakness and it's something that the player engages with instead of shutting it down. We get to see the facet of the character this way, and we end up almost rooting for him. An ultimately toxic alpha male would just take control of the vulnerability, often with violence. See Shane trying to rape Lori in the Walking Dead. Whereas the Punisher talks about what happened to him and opens up to Karen. This is the key difference.

Now when he shows his vulnerability, does the alpha male have to turn over his man card and become a more 'beta' character? This became a long discussion when I started asking about alpha males, and while some say yes, I heartily disagree. I think he can exist as the alpha male who's dealing with vulnerabilities, but still occupies the space of aggressor and controller. Tigh was still insisting he knew better and demonstrating as much to other officers in BSG, but couldn't control his wife or their relationship, and struggled with this in a really compelling way.

One thing that needs to be noted is the space that alpha women occupy. They are more than allowed (and expected) to be flawed and vulnerable and to explore those. But when they do, they still don't need to turn over the alpha card. This is because they're women. They're allowed to be in an emotional space because women are allowed to be emotional. The alpha male, however, has his alpha status questioned when he shows emotion. Because of this rather toxic double standard, I think it's important to create alpha male characters who can explore vulnerability and still maintain their alpha card. At least for awhile.

It's true that in a usual alpha male story, the alpha eventually learns he can't be in control all the time and learns how to be a team player. That growth and story, and how he figures that out, can be a fascinating thing to watch. But it's not necessary. We're all still going to watch Wolverine be Wolverine, toxic masculinity and alpha male amped to 11, even though he doesn't really show weakness or vulnerability. In a group setting, though, Wolverine can be too intense and too much. Or he can be well diluted by other characters who call him on his shit and show contrast to his need to fight and be aggressive.

Those relationships can become layered, complex ones and can lead to some really amazing moments between characters. Now, that being said, not everyone is going to be comfortable with a bully-like character at the table. If you're going to pick up this pretty toxic trope to play around with, I do recommend talking about it before hand and saying what you want to try out. Talk about what vulnerability you want to explore, and how you want that to manifest. Make sure you have some connections to other players that aren't just roles you dominate in. Have a rival, for sure, but have someone you genuinely care about and someone whose agency you try to respect. Make it complicated and hard, not just for them, but for you too.

Much like other hard topics, I think the alpha male presents an opportunity to unpack toxic masculinity, male gender performance, and break down some really horrible ideals around manliness. When you decide to play him, I think you should think about that. Why are men supposed to get into fights when emotions and betrayal are on the table? Why fighting? Why bullying and harassment? Why, even, rape? Why own and possess? Why do we tell men these things and how can you playing the alpha male help break those down and explore those topics? Don't choose them all. Just a couple things. It's a great opportunity to break down something we don't talk about often, which is how conforming men have to be to live up to the manly ideal.

The alpha male is packed full of problems. All of them harmful to others and himself. His expectations are too much and his fallout is potentially deadly. If we take this trope and break it down, it becomes a golden opportunity. Always play safe, always check in with others, and always remember you can tap out if you need to. I'd love to see some games and characters that tackle this trope with thought and empathy.

As always, I urge everyone to challenge themselves in a safe way and to play around with stuff we normally write off as boring, done, or too broken to do anything with. This is our chance to examine some serious gender culture and break it down while telling a compelling story of growth. Be vulnerable as fuck when you play the alpha male. And as always, stay fierce.