In this article, I present feedback on my experience playing and writing on suffragettes in larps set in early 20th century Europe. I present the diverse angles through which the theme and characters were approached in these larps and contrast their differences. These games are set up at a time period with clearly separated gender roles, developing narratives around female archetypes and roles in society. As such, any mention of gender in this article will be set along the line of a strict binary division of male-female gender, which was used within the historical context of those games, and obviously does not represent the full extent of gender spectrum, identity, and expression. I examine which themes were mostly presented through these games and the challenges they created.
I have chosen to focus on these three games because they all focus on first-wave feminism by having all or most characters being actively suffragettes, which allows for interesting parallels and comparisons. While many games handle feminism or gender:
1. Winson Green Prison is a game written by Siri Sandquist and Rosalind Göthberg in 2016, for up to 20 players and 4 hours of play. It sets up a group of women locked in the titular prison after being arrested during a protest march, as well as the men who have the legal authority over their lives (husbands, fathers, brothers) waiting for them to be released. The game starts by having the participants workshopping the characters as pairs, and then separates them for the entirety of the game except for their reunion during a brief epilogue scene. The game allows both groups to play in parallel, but at times only one of the groups play, letting the other group observe the opposite gender’s dynamics.
2. Sorority is part of the Belle Epoque trilogy, a series of games I wrote in 2017 questioning gender and class inequalities in early 20th century France. It plays for 8 to 12 players over 4 hours. The characters in Sorority are all women, and the game features them in three different time periods: in 1913 when patriarchal control is in full swing; in 1916 when the context of World War I has unexpectedly given women more opportunity to work and act independently; and in 1919 when, after the war, women are being pressured to return to traditional roles while the demand for suffrage gets stronger. The larp allows for the characters to evolve and change their opinions since it is played over a long period in game.
3. Suffragette! is a game created in 2014 by Susanne Vejdemo, Siri Sandquist, Daniel Armyr, and Cecilia Billskog. It originated in Sweden and was rerun in the summer of 2018 for an international audience, adding four groups of foreign visitors to the original Swedish cast. It played for 70 players over a 12-hour period. The characters are all women meeting in Stockholm for the International Women’s Union conference and preparing for the protest march, which is supposed to take place in the morning.
The Hopes of Sorority
The three games all focus on female characters grouping together at the time when women didn’t have voting rights and were usually under the authority of their fathers or husbands. They all question the social dynamics of a non-mixed female group. They all support implicitly or explicitly the ideas that solidarity and union between women can really be a positive force for change, and that women should be more supportive of each other in the face of pressure from patriarchal structures.
In this regard, Winson Green Prison was especially powerful, since being imprisoned together in the same space instantly sets the stakes for the female characters very high. Trying to support each other and not break down in panic, within the context of being imprisoned, immediately felt important. For some characters, having been arrested meant the possibility of punishments at the hands of the men, when others had participated in the march against their express orders. In that context, those fears played as very real.
Sorority starts with a group of diverse women coming together over the years. They are clearly divided at first, especially along class lines, but solidarity between the women eventually manages to gain traction, when they are all able to take part together in a protest march. As such, the game is meant to be a metaphor of the collapse of old social structures after WWI, and to illustrate how solidarity can appear among women.
Suffragette presents a variety of women coming from diverse organizations or foreign countries. Being part of an organization or a specific group was definitely the frame wherein support was the strongest: the solidarity between the French group was a strong part of my personal experience. Solidarity was also quite apparent in the socialist and anarchist groups of the game, who were an active minority that seemed very supportive of their members. With a bigger player base, the sense of companionship worked more within small groups, or during specific activities such as the suffragitstu — a model of self-defense lessons developed specifically for women. On a larger scale, the game presented more the fracture lines around some controversial subjects such as prostitution, the status of natural children, and access to contraception.
The Pitfalls of Division
This part of the experience will obviously differ according to each individual player’s personal narrative. However, I do feel that all games show the limits of female solidarity. They could sometimes have a bittersweet ending in the sense that there were limitations to what women could really accomplish and change, in the world as well as in themselves. Sometimes, the trappings of society and social conditioning just got the better of the characters.
In Winson Green Prison, the context of the women being arrested is the main conflict: for some of the prisoners, being in prison carries serious consequences, punishment, or social exclusion. In Sorority, the division comes from the class conflicts. In the beginning of the game, there is a strong class divide between the rich ladies and the working-class women. After the Great War, the richer characters get ruined and the class divisions start changing, though they do not disappear completely. As a consequence, some characters decided to leave the group before the final march, feeling that they didn’t belong and were not sufficiently integrated with the others.
The divisions become even more pronounced in Suffragette, possibly because the game was longer and had a larger number of participants who represented conflicting ideologies. Suffragette is a highly political game, with a significant part of the running time devoted to committees where the participants discuss various subjects such as voting rights, contraception, sex work, and the marching order of the morning march. The end of Suffragette brings together the whole audience to listen to two closing speeches. While to some extent uplifting and unifying, the speeches also emphasized the fact that in reality not much was accomplished, as the divisions remained significant.
As such, all three games question the difficulties of bringing different feminist views together, and show how solidarity can sometimes be difficult to achieve. It resonates with contemporary issues: there are a variety of feminist approaches and divisions and conflicted views and political takes do exist.
The Debate: Men Playing Female Narratives
Interestingly, Suffragette also raised issues regarding the participation of male players in what are clearly female and feminist narratives. This section will focus mostly on this issue regarding mostly cis-gendered males in light of social expectation and gender roles, which will be the group I will subsequently refer as “men” for this writing.
All games allowed for any participant to sign up, regardless of player gender. In my opinion, the integration of male participants (as female characters) was made easier in Winson Green Prison and Sorority, as the context of playing in larp conventions involves more abstraction and no costume and setting. Therefore, suspension of disbelief felt easier to achieve. In Suffragette, male players wore women’s costumes, but there were no specific workshops or demands regarding accuracy.
While the number of male participants playing female characters remained limited, the choice to allow male participants was motivated by expanding interest in sharing female narratives, and promoting the idea that female narratives can and should be of interest to people regardless of their gender. The educational value of playing a different gender as oneself can also be a motivation. As one of the male players of Sorority wrote to me afterwards,
“Seeing all the issues and learning more about the situation in France was eye-opening. It would be another 25 years before women secured the right to vote in France — and I’m glad I played it and was made to feel welcome by the other players.”
However, concerns were expressed regarding the fact that male players could end up taking the space in female narratives, especially if playing high-profile characters such as Emmeline Pankhurst, a role that was played by a man in Suffragette. Some argued that casting men in leading female roles would restrain opportunities for women to play powerful female narratives. Others argued that if female narratives are to be opened and embraced by all regardless of gender, then all roles should be also accessible to all regardless of gender. This is a legitimate issue and, while I support and hope to see more men play female narrative, the conditions to make them more accessible remain to be discussed. This debate is, therefore, still ongoing.
These games provide an interesting insight into different approaches to exploring the same theme. They demonstrate the tension in feminist narratives between promotion of sorority ideals and the reality of the conflicts and divisions inherent to any political movement. They also question the place of male players in female and feminist narratives, which, while an unresolved debate, is an interesting aspect of design to take into consideration for any who write and promote female narratives.
Cover photo: Winson Green Prison by Vicki Pipe for the Smoke Festival 2017.
Editing by Elina Gouliou.