There’s something really delighful about the premise of The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands game, namely that one is trying to manipulate the composition of a party of people in order to be alone with the woman of one’s dreams. But the author’s take on gender makes me fairly uncomfortable. Making Lady Ashley and the other women voiceless, agency-less characters is somehow subversive, because of a highly fragmented backstory written entirely by male characters and authors? No, actually, it isn’t.
I’ve got no problem with the game’s basic premise; I’m quite aware of the rules of propriety (though admittedly I think they’re referencing a slightly earlier period) and I love the notion that these rules constrain the characters’ behavior. It’s true that these rules were far more constraining of women than of men, although both genders subverted the rules at times and they certainly only applied to a certain class of people. So why not just admit that the game replicates a sexist power structure and conception of the world? I’ve got no problem with looking at historical elements and playing with them! Or, if that’s too close to the “YOU ARE A BAD BAD SEXIST” line, why not allow the players to decide at the beginning of the game whether they will play gentlemen courteously pursuing ladies, ladies courteously pursuing gentlemen, gentlemen pursuing gentlemen or ladies pursuing ladies?
I see where the designer is going with this, and I like the extensive fictional world he’s created around the gameplay. I definitely want to play the game, read the booklet and participate in the larger fiction of the game. But I don’t buy his argument that his creation of unreliable narrator-designers somehow undermines the basic structure of gender relations the game puts forward. Maybe every player is going to read the character booklet and think carefully about it – but I’d guess a lot of people are just going to play the game, and his argument about gender doesn’t really account for that.