Red Sisters, Black Skies: Women at the Gaming Table and Designing for Gender

Last weekend, at Phenomenon 2017, I facilitated two sessions of an 18-player freeform/live-action role-playing game I’ve designed over the last year (with a great deal of help and encouragement). It was called Red Sisters, Black Skies.

Red Sisters was originally inspired by the incredible Night Witches, by Jason Morningstar, about an all-woman regiment of Soviet bomber pilots during the Great Patriotic War. After reading that game, I was desperate to run a LARP that explored the lives of the Night Witches. The final product shared little resemblance to the source material, but I’m eternally thankful for the seed that Night Witches planted, that grew into Red Sisters. I strongly recommend checking it out.

From the blurb for Red Sisters:

It is April 1945 and Berlin will soon fall to the Red Army. The fight against the fascist wolves is bloody, desperate and uncertain. But the airwomen of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment have other things to think about.

They’re making sure their planes keep running, that their friends (or lovers) are safe from both German flak and the perils of life on an airbase. Most of all, they’re trying to find something to keep them going.

It’s not easy to fly every night over enemy lines. There’s too many farewells and regrets. Too many dead friends and not enough good news. To fight despair with hope and make it through each day, they need to repair relationships and planes, confront the ghosts of the past, and find a place in their fragile sisterhood.

For these women, war is more than the constant bombing runs. It’s about their relationships with the other women on base, making hard decisions, and coming home safely. It’s also about a birthday, and being a part of a community.

Both sessions went perfectly, better than I could ever have imagined they would. I’m still a little overwhelmed by the stories the players created, and the lovely things I’ve been told since. (I won the Best New Designer Award! I’m still in shock, to be honest).

From concept to execution, the process was exciting and harrowing in equal measure, and I can’t help but look back and try to learn something from it all. There are a lot of things I could say about the process and how it was executed, and there is a lot of analysis still to come, but I want to start with the lesson that was closest to my heart.

Stories About Women

Gosh. Stories that are about women — not just featuring them — are beautiful. They’re also terrifying and dangerous, as they should be, but they’re just incredible. I can’t quite articulate why, just yet, but I’m going to try and explain why this was one of the most important parts of the game.

In designing Red Sisters, I made a conscious decision to centre gender. I defined this as my first objective: to portray women and their relationships with one another.

This is a game about women and their humanity. The characters should reflect a wide range of different experiences, focusing on those that are less often acknowledged. In the same vein, relationships between women are as diverse, exciting, and dramatic as they are themselves. A primary emphasis in the game is on different ways of relating to other women, and the importance of those relationships. This will necessarily include a number of queer relationships, but it will also foreground the fellowship, solidarity, intimacy and love that come from relationships not usually described as romantic or sexual.

This is always going to be a difficult task. It’s hard to speak women’s stories aloud. These are stories of trauma and loss, often, and they’re not usually welcome. Sara Ahmed outlines this sense of alienation perfectly in her essay, In Defence of Feminist Killjoys, although she’s talking about one particular way in which this can manifest:

What is my story? Like you, I have many. One way of telling my feminist story would be to begin with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. A childhood memory, yes. But it is also memory of an everyday experience in that quite literal sense of an experience that happened every day. An intense everyday: my father asking questions, my sisters and me answering them, my mother mostly silent. When does intensity become tension?

We begin with a table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. How hard to tell the difference between what is you and what is it! You respond, carefully, perhaps. You say why you think what they have said is problematic. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,” recognising with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. In speaking up or speaking out, you upset the situation. That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.

To be the object of shared disapproval, those glances that can cut you up, cut you out. An experience of alienation can shatter a world. The family gathers around the table; these are supposed to be happy occasions. How hard we work to keep the occasion happy, to keep the surface of the table polished so that it can reflect back a good image of the family. So much you are not supposed to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that image. If you say, or do, or be anything that does not reflect the image of the happy family back to itself, the world becomes distorted. You become the cause of a distortion. You are the distortion you cause. Another dinner, ruined. To become alienated from a picture can allow you to see what that picture does not and will not reflect.

In games, as is the case at any table, there are certain experiences, perspectives, modes of relating and interacting that are permitted and encouraged. Conversely, some are punished or ignored. The experiences that are excluded are often those associated with femininity and other marginalised subjectivities. Even for those suffering as a result of them, these processes can go unseen for a long, long time. The consequence of this is not just a narrative one — a narrowing of acceptable stories — but an active devaluing of certain people. Thus, we might ask why, if we are tolerated only reluctantly at the game table, should we bother sitting there at all?

One of the many things gender can be is a lens that reveals these hidden tensions. In Fictional International Relations: Gender, Pain and Truth, Sungju Park-Kang writes that this means being ‘sensitive about social-power relations between and among manness, womanness and any non-binary/heteronormative categories’. By using the lens of gender as designers and participants in games, we see the world in a different light. We see details and nuance that are normally hidden or conflated, textures that are totally new or unexpected. The purpose of this might be to critique power relations or, as in the case of Red Sisters, it might be to centre invisible, excluded experiences.

By framing a game as a story about women, explicitly and through design, the players are given permission to break the usual rules of the table. Emotions that would be unwelcome can be embraced, relationships that are invisible can be described, secret stories of the past and hopes for the future can be shared. More than that, it gives the players permission to speak and participate in these stories. This is one way that a gender lens can be incorporated into design.

What does design with a gender lens actually look like? For me, it meant:

  • Having a clear idea of my objectives. Designing for gender didn’t mean just tossing in a couple of comments about gender identity. It meant creating a toolkit for looking at the world in a particular way. I needed to commit.
  • Being conscious of the audience I wanted to engage and writing for them. For me, this was primarily women and non-binary people. I asked myself many times if Red Sisters was about speaking to someone or about someone. I was especially aware that there’s plenty of harsh, messy stories that can be told about gender experiences that people from some backgrounds wouldn’t want to play because they’re too real and too close to home. I made calls about whether I was alright with some people not participating. When I decided that I wasn’t okay with that, I considered what needed to change in order to welcome them.
  • Priming — reminding participants what the game is about, and the role of gender within it, at every opportunity. I set expectations and got them thinking about it from the get-go (or tried to, anyway). As much as it was hard to do this, at the end of the day I had to trust participants to give it a damn good shot and focused on giving them the tools (information, permission, meta-techniques) they needed to do it.
  • Giving characters (and participants) humanity as well as womanhood. This didn’t mean reducing everything that took place in my game to some amorphous universal human experience. But it did mean allowing every character and participant to be human: to be messy, complex, dynamic people. People talk a lot about how to write women as characters, but the secret is just to give them some human dignity. Permit them to be assholes and angels, sometimes at the same time, and don’t make a big deal out of it.
  • Being explicit about my expectations. No male characters, but players of any gender welcome. Embrace your character and see the world from their eyes, as messy and uncomfortable as that might be. This wasn’t a game about critiquing power structures and misogyny — it was about experiencing and speaking the (often contradictory) loves and fears and hopes of a group of women in a long-gone time.
  • Asking hard questions of myself. Was I going to reduce agency by taking away decision-making from participants at any point? Was my game going to include on-screen depictions of gendered violence and marginalisation? Why or why not? It was important to consider how these things might be experienced from a gendered perspective by the people playing the game and how they might be read by observers. Who would these choices make the game hostile to? Were those the people I wanted it to be hostile to?

I certainly cannot take all the credit for how well the game achieved at telling a story about women, but somehow… it came together and it worked.

Red Sisters, Black Skies was about a group of women going through hell, many of whom had every reason not to like each other or themselves. They fought at times, and some grudges were never resolved. There are always tensions, and always people who become objects of disapproval, to borrow Ahmed’s words. There is no universal experience of womanhood, and countless people have been excluded from that particular table.

But despite it all they came through for each other. In the midst of fear and cannon-fire, the members of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment found something special and became sisters.

For a few moments, myself and the other participants became part of that sisterhood too.

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