Mar 05


Help us Decide How to Switch Gender in Choice of Broadsides

Posted by: Adam Strong-Morse | Comments (50)

As I mentioned in my last post, we’re working on finishing up our next game, Choice of Broadsides, a game set in a fictionalized version of the Napoleonic Wars.   Of course, the real-world Royal Navy was an (essentially) all-male institution at the time.  We wanted to avoid embracing the sexism of both history and of the source materials we draw on, but at the same time, we concluded that having a mixed-sexed Royal Navy would be both too complicated to implement and would also make the Jane Austen inspired bits of the game very strange.  So instead, we let the player choose the sex of the protagonist, and then that choice defines whether the gameworld is patriarchal or has all gender roles reversed in a matriarchal society.

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how it works.  It’s not too difficult to code, it lets us include the assumptions of the day while still letting people play female characters, and some of the jarring mismatches between expectation and practice may be thought-provoking, especially when playing the female version.  But it has created some difficulties with terminology.  Historical gendered terms have a lot of baggage– “Mrs.” does not have the same connotation as “Mr.”, but “Ms” feels anachronistic even in a gender-bent world.

We first encountered this issue with the word “Mr.”  In the Napoleonic Wars Royal Navy, officers were addressed as Mr. So-and-so, ordinary sailors as So-and-so (no Mr.), and midshipmen as Mr. Midshipman So-and-so– marking them both as sort of officers but also distinguishing them from real officers.  This was of course tightly tied to the class system of the day.  The question this presented was, what should the form of address be for female officers?  We toyed with Mrs. So-and-so (regardless of marital status– marital status matters for a sex that derives its status from the opposite sex parent or spouse), but my co-writers didn’t like that, especially finding Mrs. Midshipwoman So-and-so to be a bizarre form of address for a 13-year old.  We settled on Madam So-and-so and Madam Midshipwoman So-and-so.

Likewise, it was fairly easy to agree to make “Master” the equivalent of “Miss”– in the real world, “Master” is traditionally used for male children, and so by extension we used it for adult but unmarried men in the female-dominant version of our fictional world, just like the polite term for female children was also traditionally used for unmarried adult women in the real world.

But we’ve hit a couple of weird cases that we’ve had trouble coming up with terminology for.  In real-world British usage, if John Smith is married to Jane Smith and receives a knighthood, he becomes Sir John and she becomes Lady Smith (instead of Mr. Smith and Mrs. Smith, respectively).  There is no comparable shift for when a woman becomes a Dame (again, because of the patriarchal assumptions of the British class system)–Mrs. Smith would become Dame Jane, but Mr. Smith remains Mr. Smith.  The difficulty is how to apply that to our gender-bent world.  The husband of Madam Jane Smith is presumably Mr. Smith– that’s straightforward.  But what should the honorific be for the husband of Dame Jane?  We initially used “Lord,” but that doesn’t work well– “Lord” feels like a higher title than Dame, not a lower/equal one.  We’ve come up with several possibilities, but they’re all strange.  “Mr. Smith” undercuts the importance of the knighthood and makes the game less parallel.  “Sir Smith” is a weird looking construction, and again not parallel.  “Gentleman Smith” or “Esquire Smith” or some other non-real-world construction could work, but the husband of a gentlewoman is presumably already a gentleman– the point of “Lady Smith” is that it marks her social class as higher than the wife of a gentleman or an esquire, not equal, so the male equivalent should do the same.

We also hit a problem with the “Lords of the Admiralty,” which is the body roughly equivalent to the Secretary of the Navy in U.S. practice.  “Ladies of the Admiralty” feels weird–because the term “Ladies” does not have the same implication of power as the word “Lords,” it reads very oddly.  But all of the other terms we tried also seem weird:  “Dames of the Admiralty”?  “Baronesses of the Admiralty”?  “Lady Dames of the Admiralty”?  “Grand Dames of the Admiralty”?  “Peers of the Admiralty”?

Partly this just underscores the degree to which English incorporates patriarchal assumptions, particularly with regard to British class distinctions.  But we still need to come up with the terms we will use.

So, what are your thoughts?

Sir John and Lady Smith, but Dame Jane and ___ Smith?

The Lords of the Admiralty, but the ____ of the Admiralty?

Feel free to express a preference for one of the possibilities we discussed above, or suggest your own possibilities.

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