Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Gender Pronouns in Writing

Game designers do a lot of writing. So do teachers. And students, for that matter. So, I thought this writing tip that I picked up at Origins would be useful to most of you. (If only I had known this before finishing the writing on my textbook. Well, there's always 2nd Edition...)

Gender pronouns are always tricky. Use a gender-neutral he/his/him all the time and you've unwittingly added male gender bias (this is particularly insidious in game design documents, if you inherently assume the player is always male -- which perhaps explains why there are so many female characters in games wearing chainmail bikinis). Use she/hers/her and it looks like you're using feminine pronouns just for the heck of it. The dual him or her / he or she is unwieldy. The slash-based s/he looks ugly. The fusion hir looks downright alien. What's a writer to do?

Here's a simple solution: make it contextual. Use male pronouns for certain kinds of things, and female pronouns for others, and use them consistently.

The example given at Origins was in the writing of a rulebook for a tabletop RPG. The designer used female pronouns for the GM and male pronouns for the players. This not only caused the writing to be more gender-balanced, but also made the manual easier to read because it was clear who each pronoun was referring to!


Manveer Heir said...

What about when your writing only refers to one player? This happens to me all the time in my Design Lesson 101 series, and go with the male pronoun out of habit. I've felt I'm doing it wrong,,,

Ian Schreiber said...

Good point! In a lot of writing there are at least two people involved (player and designer, player and GM, player and computer opponent, player character and monster, etc.). If there's really only a single entity being written about, then I suppose you're stuck with being consistent in one of the earlier ways mentioned.

But do you really have that many games where there is only one entity, the player, with a gender pronoun? Even orcs and kobolds can be male or female...

Elliot said...

If I'm remembering correctly, in D&D's 4th edition books, the writers switch gender pronouns with every topic section. For example, this block of paragraphs about player stats uses "he"... then this next block of paragraphs about weapons uses "she."

So not is the gender representation balanced, but it's also clearer to the reader that the topic has changed. I think that's a fine solution when you're only writing about one player but multiple topics.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

The object in writing is that the reader doesn't notice how you convey what you mean, but they understand what you mean.

Switching between he and she is terrifically distracting, and the reader notices, so I do not do it. The D&D rules, in particular, drive me up the wall. The standard he / him is not distracting to most people, so that's what I do.

I have modified how I write in one respect, and I notice students do this too. They use plural pronouns even in singular, just as I did above when I said "the reader" and then "they" instead of "he". This used to be "wrong", but it seems to be accepted now.

Maybe someday so many people will be used to he / she switching that it won't be distracting to the typical reader. But that's not true now, unless perhaps you know your readers are all quite young.