Disclaimer: I want to highlight right out of the gate that I am a white, straight, cisgender man. I believe strongly in the content of this post, but I am also open to learning more from folks who know better than me on the topics of gender and inclusivity. If I’ve gotten something wrong here, please reach out and let me know. I believe it’s important to engage meaningfully and in good faith on these topics.
Having read hundreds of rulebooks over the course of my time enjoying tabletop games, and eventually working in the industry, I’m surprised — and a little frustrated — by something that still shows up a bit too often: gendered language.
Historically, rulebook writers (and really, all writers) would often default to the male-gendered pronouns “he”, “his”, and “him” when describing a person generally:
“Once the player has rolled his dice, he must move his pawn the number of spaces shown on the dice.”
More recently, in apparent acknowledgement of the fact that girls and women also play tabletop games, some rulebooks have started using both male and female pronouns (“he or she”), or some kind of mutant hybrid thereof (like “he/she” or “s/he”).
Sometimes, a rulebook might flip the usual script and use only female pronouns, which I’ve noticed and appreciated.
Others again might go the oft-disputed route of using “they” and “them”, even when describing the actions of one person:
“Once the player has rolled their dice, they must move their pawn the number of spaces shown on the dice.”
While Merriam-Webster has noted that the indefinite gender but singular “they” has been used for centuries, and the non-binary “they” was added to their dictionary in September 2019, there are still some who staunchly refuse to use “they”, “them”, or “their” in this way because they believe strongly that it is grammatically improper, if not incorrect.
This is not to say that those people are being purposefully sexist, misogynist, or transphobic. You will often see well-meaning (but ultimately unhelpful) notes explaining how a rulebook uses male-gendered pronouns like “he” and “him” for simplicity and readability (read: not because they are anti-feminist jerks).
For them, it’s a simple matter of clear, precise grammar, nothing more.
I don’t want to wade into the prescriptive vs. descriptive debate here (though I do fall into the latter camp), because I think it’s actually a bit of a red herring. The argument isn’t just that we should be using “they” because language is evolving or that it’s now technically correct.
The problem is that by using male pronouns, or even one of the dreaded male-female hybrids, we are leaving people out of the game.
People who are transgender, or are gender non-conforming or non-binary, may or may not use the pronouns “he” or “him”, or “she” or “her”, to refer to themselves. For them, it is not a simple matter of one or the other.
The word “they” can apply to anyone, regardless of gender.
Going further, there are ways to construct sentences that avoid referencing gender at all!
“Once the player has rolled the dice, that player’s pawn moves the number of spaces shown on the dice.”
If I was the one writing the rulebook, I’d likely be using the second person “you”, not only to avoid gendered language, but also because it makes the rules feel less abstract and more personal, helping the player connect more directly with the rules.
“Once you’ve rolled your dice, move your pawn the number of spaces shown on the dice.”
This isn’t really about grammar or being “politically correct”. I’ve seen so many disingenuous arguments, involving phrases like “the PC police” and “identity politics” and similar nonsense that just doesn’t apply.
It’s simple, really: when it comes to games, nobody should be left out.
Players and designers are quick to condemn game mechanics where you can lose your turn, because it’s not fun to be forced not to play for a round. Similarly, we are often critical of games with player elimination, because it’s not fun to get kicked out of a game.
This same logic can be applied to gendered language in rulebooks, as it has the effect of making some folks feel unwanted, like the game isn’t meant for them. If missing a turn or being eliminated from a game feels bad, imagine feeling left out entirely!
I consider myself lucky that I have never felt excluded from games. I’ve never really felt like I couldn’t play a game because of an aspect of who I am that I did not choose. Despite this, I’ve taken the time to read and learn about others’ experiences of feeling left out, and it’s helped me to understand their struggles with exclusion, and adjust myself accordingly.
Empathy is an incredibly important attribute for anyone working in games. Attempting to understand the feelings and perspectives of others will not only help you craft game experiences that allow your players to feel good and enjoy themselves, but it will also help you ensure those experiences won’t have the opposite effect, in ways you may never have considered or intended.
Apply some empathy to your rulebooks. Think about what others might feel when reading your rules. Use more inclusive language, whether it’s the singular “they” or otherwise. Yes, even if you believe it’s grammatically incorrect. If you’re not sure how to do this, ask for help!
Holding fast to dated rules of language, as though they are the immutable laws chiseled into the bedrock of humanity, seems a little foolish if you have dragon wizards, zombie pirates, or raccoon businessmen in your games.
If you’re literally making up the rules, why not use it as an opportunity to make everyone feel welcome at the table?