Reflections on Autonomy and embodied experiences of patriarchy [LONG]

This post is fragmented, and maybe bit disjointed, because my thoughts are similarly fragmented and disjointed; my apologies if it’s a bit hard to follow. I’ll also note that the people named in this post are all friends who were very influential over the initial game and my thoughts in the aftermath. So many thanks to Mikael, Aaron, Drew, and Amelia for agreeing to let me write about them.

Several months ago, I came up with a game concept that started out as an elaborate misandry joke. I’m honestly not sure what inspired it, beyond the fact that something happened to remind me of the debacle that was the House panel on contraception and religious liberty that actually featured an all-male lineup of witnesses, after the one female witness – Sandra Fluke – wasn’t allowed to testify. And suddenly it occurred to me that taking that entire scenario and simply swapping the genders would make for a gloriously misandrist LARP. I could teach men to behave like women, women to behave like men, and then we could sit around and torture a bunch of men for an hour of so of hilariously misandrist entertainment.

It was an idea that I wound up sitting on for several months, mostly because I thought it was a joke idea for a joke game and the games I’ve been working on lately have all been quite a bit more serious. That is, until there was a flap about game design and gender in a gaming community that I am a part of that made me think, “hey wait – maybe this isn’t a joke game I’m thinking about. Maybe this is a thing that needs to exist”. So I started tentatively talking about it to a few people in my gaming circles, and was surprised when it was men who were the most vehement about this needing to be a thing. It was over dinner at GenCon, after talking about my idea for the game and how I didn’t know if I should write it, that Mikael told me very earnestly that I should write the game because men needed to be uncomfortable.

Ultimately, we made a deal that led to me writing the first draft of the game. He agreed to run a different game I’d played at GenCon (and really wanted to play back in Canada) if I would finish Autonomy and run it at an upcoming mini-con we were both attending at the end of August. And it’s a good thing that he got me to make that deal, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have bothered finishing it.

Anyone who has read my blog for any amount of time knows that I love misandry jokes – and with good reason. Men are shitty to me online (no, of course not all men, but enough), and to other women that I care deeply about. There’s only so many times you can be called a fat, ugly, jealous, man-hating feminazi before you start needing to find ways to distance yourself from the abuse that people are hurling at you. And misandry jokes are a way to do that, at least for me. KILL ALL MEN, amirite?

The problem is that at the heart of the joke, there’s a kernel of truth. The people who have hurt me the worst, that I am most afraid of, that I have to be most careful around are all men. There’s a reason why I used to describe myself as a misanthrope and now mostly describe myself as a misandrist. Because I realized that I don’t actually hate humanity, I just hate patriarchy.

I knew that in order for Autonomy to be successful, I would need to force players to have an embodied experience of gender opposite to their own daily lived experience[1]. And for that I knew I was going to need help, because while I was sure that I could teach men to assume typically feminine posture and body language, I knew that I needed help in knowing how to do the reverse.

Which is how I wound up having coffee with Aaron, as the two of us chatted about typically masculine body language and how to describe it. He wound up surfing PUA blogs (so I didn’t have to) to mine them for material, and the two of us were laughing and groaning and generally having a good time as we talked about “OH MY GOD that is a thing that men do isn’t this hilarious”.

At some point, Aaron observed that a lot of typically masculine body language is simply being willing to take up space – to say this space is mine, and that space in front of you is also mine. And then he abruptly leaned forward, keeping his spine very straight and looking straight at me as he planted his elbows so that he was occupying two thirds of the small table we were sitting at. And it was incredibly threatening.

As soon as I said so, he backed off immediately, but that feeling of threat was itself a revelation. Aaron is someone who describes himself as “approximately mannish”. Despite being tall he tends to slouch, and generally does a lot to not seem terribly masculine. As such, he is one of the least threatening men that I know. So the idea that he could intentionally perform masculinity at me and make me feel threatened was a bit unnerving.

After talking for a minute, Aaron said that he’d like to try it again, but a slightly different way. When I said it was all right, he repeated the gesture, but that time he made it slow, deliberate. Lean, plant one elbow, plant the other – keep eye contact the whole time. And despite knowing that it was going to happen, knowing that he was going to try to make me uncomfortable, it still worked. The slow, deliberate display of masculine body language was actually more menacing than the first time.

Running the game at the mini-con was quite an experience.

Despite being completely terrified (I had never written or facilitated a LARP before), I made a point of taking charge and not showing my discomfort. I took up space. I performed physical dominance and verbally dominated men, using the social power that the LARP’s scenario gave me to shut them down and humiliate them for the simple “crime” of playing real people with real emotions. The essence of the idea for Autonomy was creating a situation and social dynamic that would make men feel the way that I have felt, and I ran with that. I pushed the men to their limits, and beyond in a few cases – something I regret intensely.

Because contrary to my initial conceptions of “oh hey, wouldn’t it be fun to turn this around and be the one with all the power for a little while”, it wasn’t fun. While having coffee with Aaron, the two of us had giggled gleefully about his suggestions for sadistic things that could be done to the male players. (Make them apologize for introducing their characters! Have them introduce their characters while the female players listen with silent expressions of disgust!) But actually playing the game was agonizing. Because here I was, replicating an experience that has literally made me sick in the past, and I was doing it on purpose.

The instant the game was over and we sat down for the debrief, the very first thing I did was to cross my arms and ankles as I all but folded in on myself, going from masculine to feminine body language in an instant, and the very first words out of my mouth were a plaintive “I’m sorry”.

Because I should have known! I should have known that being “men” wouldn’t be “better”, because hurting someone the way that you’ve been hurt just because you can is a terrible feeling. And teaching other people to do the same is even worse. And being the person who had conceived of what seemed like this horrible idea? That felt the worst of all.

Autonomy consists of three distinct phases. There is a workshop on gendered body language, a workshop on gendered speech, and then there is the actual roleplaying portion where the hearing itself is played out. And the game did exactly what I thought it would do, which was equal parts surprising and not. (Imposter Syndrome Me was worried about running an alpha draft of a game, while Game Design Me was fairly certain it would do what it said on the tin.) What I wasn’t prepared for was how hard it would be to facilitate as the person who designed it.

I spotted cracks in facades almost right away. Amelia played the lone Democrat. She had the unenviable position of trying to play a clueless privileged person who still got crapped on by the less progressive people in power, and I knew that she wasn’t doing okay. I tried to keep an eye on her, but it was hard; it was raining and we all had our hoods up and she’s pretty good at keeping up a stone-face when she wants to. Then there was Aaron, who almost inverted himself over the course of play, taking the instruction to not occupy space as literally as possible. Near the end of the LARP, he actually called brake, which I’ve never seen him do. And Drew…

I’d actually talked over the design with Drew, and once play began he started out by giving me little smirks to acknowledge well-delivered twists of the knife. But as things kept going, the looks he gave me got less amused and more angry, and I could watch the wall he had set up to distance himself from the experience crumbling until I had to stop looking at him all together because it was just too hard to keep punishing him for his gender when I could see how it was making him feel.

When play ended, Amelia went and hugged Aaron and sobbed. Once she’d calmed down some, Aaron bowed out of the debrief – when he came back he said that he’d almost puked. Drew couldn’t even speak when it was his turn – he asked to be last and we skipped over him until he was able to talk about it. And yet all three of them, indeed everyone there, thanked me for running the game and told me that it was important, and I hated hearing them say it.

“I should have known,” he said. He was crying, and before that day I’d never seem him so much as tear up outside of a game. “It was only 35 minutes and I never want to feel that way again, and I have that option and you don’t.”

We were crammed in the backseat of a too-small-for-that-many-people car on our way home from the mini-con where we’d played Autonomy. As with any trip home from a convention, we were tired, slap happy, and in that sleep-deprived state where everything feels simultaneously too real and not real at all. The driver hadn’t played Autonomy, but was curious to hear about it since the rest of us had. And though this friend had been guarded in his responses during the debrief, now he was crying.

The same friend for whom arm punching and trolling were signs of affection, with whom I had joked about emotions being something that you bury behind humor and try not to acknowledge. And here he was crying about his sorrow about what his female friends experienced, and his shame that he hadn’t known, hadn’t understood, despite seeing it every day.

Part of the gendered speech workshop involves getting men to state an objective fact as personal opinion while women state a personal opinion as objective fact. In play, this devolved a bit into men saying things that were true and women telling them they were wrong – which was simultaneously hilarious and sad.

The day after the game, Drew turned to me and jokingly said “I think, I might, you know, be sort of hungry?”. He was smirking at his use of hedging statements, another part of the gendered speech workshop.

“No.” I said firmly. “You’re wrong. That’s not how hunger works”. And then I lost my shit as the two of us laughed uproariously.

Two weeks later, I found myself having dinner with some friends – a man and a woman. The woman asked what I’d been up to, so I started updating her on what was going on in my life and some of the convoluted bullshit I’m dealing with right now. Or at least that’s what I was trying to do, except the man kept interrupting me to explain “the context”. Of my life. That he hadn’t lived. And it kept getting more and more flagrant until I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom, where I texted Drew about how angry I was about how I can’t even be trusted as an expert about my own fucking life. And suddenly my joke about “that’s not how hunger works” was a lot less funny.

[1] It’s worth noting that elements of the design of Autonomy are problematic with regard to issues of trans and nonbinary gender identity, in that there are only two choices of character gender: male and female. Autonomy also encourages the use of gender essentialist language and the equating of biology with gender. These are all intentional design choices; it is definitely a design goal that the flipping of this problematic language should highlight issues of cissexism as much as “vanilla” sexism, and that is something I am definitely focusing on playtesting.