Chestnut Lodge Wargames Group

Exploring female roles in wargames/ megagames/ roleplaying

CLWG Session for the Annual Design Conference 2020

Onside report by Deborah Southwell

White middle-class women have come a long way. We still have a long way to go.

In the last year, I have been at workshops where ‘ordinary’ young married white women have expressed their dislike of their body to the point of wanting surgery.

I have attended megagames where women have been distressed by aspect of the game including female role design and the behaviour of a male player.

I have participated in CWLG sessions where we have informally discussed how to make megagames more appealing and more inclusive for women. Game designers are either working for or against equity. How might game designers move forward in championing equity?

I am a writer so thought it would be useful to look at character development.

For this session, we considered the meta-game design elements of:

1. Designing

a. female characters and roles (that could be played by males or females)

b.  characters and roles for females (that could be a male or female character)

2.  Some challenges and aspects to consider


Positioning myself

I share the following about myself so you can have an idea of what has shaped and influenced me over my lifetime.

I speak as a middle-class, white, CIS gendered, old (65yo) woman. I am a Westerner – a dual citizen British-Australian). As such, I am very privileged.

I cannot speak for women who are Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME), for women of other Western countries (British/American) or other national rankings.

I cannot speak for young or middle-aged women, for LGBTQI women, for women who are working class/upper class/untouchables/Brahman or any other social ranking.

I can share my story but I cannot generalise it to others. Perhaps you will identify with some parts but not with others.

I have two sisters and two brothers, all younger than me. I have one daughter and three sons, three granddaughters and five grandsons.

I have a great grandfather killed in the first world war and an uncle killed in the second world war. I have a brother who was in the Special Air Services (SAS) Regiment in Australia and a nephew deployed to Afghanistan.

I speak as a woman who has experienced domestic and religious abuse.

At primary school the other girls and I played on the bitumen netball courts at school while the boys had the marble patch and the two big grass ovals to play.

My grade 2 teacher had to resign when she got married and we had a replacement teacher. In my first year of high school I witnessed the change to women teachers getting equal pay with men, and being allowed to stay in their job after they married, as well as, in the same year, witnessing indigenous Australian Aborigines, both male and female, being allowed to vote for the first time.

I watched my high school peers hang their bras outside the home economics building as a statement of women’s liberation and then watched the male deputy climb up to remove them from the building. I wasn’t allowed to do technical drawing at high school because the girls did home economics despite the fact I was running the home for my sick mother and making my own clothes.

I returned to work after a 16-year gap with children and rose to senior leadership in higher education in the following six years. I returned to study and completed qualifications up to and including a doctorate in three different disciplines (education human services, business), and now I’m studying a Master of Science. Feminism infuses it all.

I am one perspective.

For other perspectives, listen to other women, read biographies, and watch movies.

Design Principles

I offer some general design principles garnered from others and applied to the context of designing female characters and designing roles for women.

Design Principle 1

Would a man playing this character/role have plenty to keep themselves busy, occupied and engaged?

If not, why would a woman be interested in playing it?

Design Principle 2

What helps you make the switch from thinking about the design of male characters and roles to that of female characters and roles?

If your male characters gather around a military map and move soldiers around, what do your female characters gather around? A political map? A map of the famous salons?

Who are the allies of your female characters? Who are they in conflict with? What is the conflict?

Jung’s work on archetypes may be helpful here. They are a way to explore character and actions and may help you expand the options for you to consider. See, for example,

Read biographies of females you admire, or hate, or think are memorable. What are their personality traits – good and bad? What would they think when faced with the dilemmas that your game character is faced with?

Design Principle 3

History or archetype?

Do you want to be faithful to history or would you choose to take a more archetypal approach that could give you more flexibility with roles and casting?

There isn’t a right or wrong answer. Designers need to be aware of their position so they can communicate this to players. If there is an aspect of exploring sexism (or racism, or other -ism) then be clear about this as a constraint in the game.

Consider how you will brief and de-brief players and your control team to reduce participants leaving distressed because of unaddressed issues that may arise.


The characters I want to play

As part of my preparation for the session, I reflected on the characters and roles I would like to play.

As a child, I loved the actress Maureen O’Hara and the adventurous, swashbuckling movies she starred in. I played make-believe Captain Blood from the 1935 pirate movie of the same name.

I want to play:

  • Princess/Commander Leia Organa or Rey from Star Wars (1977 – 2019).
  • hotshot viper pilot Kara ‘Starbuck’ Thrace from Battlestar Galactica (2004)
  • Marion Loxley; Eleanor of Aquitaine; or Isabella of Angouleme from Robin Hood (2010)
  • Camina Drummer – Belter Head of Security; Bobby Draper – Mars Gunnery sergeant; or Naomi Nagata – – Belter Engineer from Expanse (2015 – 2019)

Not for me the political roles of President Laura Roslin or UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarata.

My first megagame was ‘Relics of the Fall’. Who better to have as my role model than war captain Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max Fury Road (2015)?

Make me a pirate, make me a spy, or make me a warrior.

I then spent some time examining their characters. What were their common characteristics? They were:

  • Strong-willed
  • Fiery
  • Determined
  • Impetuous
  • Defiant
  • eager to bring the battle to the enemy
  • taking on desperate missions
  • used to operating alone
  • Disciplined
  • Moral leaders
  • Smart
  • Tender
  • Humanist
  • Having a sense of responsibility
  • Commitment to the task

There was a lot of positive feminist action.


Discussion points

How do we move from discussion to action?

What can we put into place to further equity?

Some ideas that come from the discussion of the day include:

  • Code of conduct – do we strengthen the current one?
  • Indicate any restraints in terms of female character roles especially in megagames aimed at historical accuracy in our marketing material
  • using more women in the control team
  • mentoring women game designers
  • invite other women to share their perspectives with members

Some references

Jacey, H. (2017). The woman in the story: Writing memorable female characters in trouble, in love and in power (2nd Ed.). Michael Wiese Productions.

Suarez, C. (2018). The power manual: How to master complex power dynamics. New Society Publishers.

Shaw, A. (2014). Gaming at the edge: sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture. University of Minnesota Press.

Thompson, J. (2010). Wargames: Inside the world of 20th century war reenactors. Smithsonian Books.


For further research



Hidden Figures (2016)

The Duchess (2008)

The other Boleyn girl (2008)

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (2007)

Northern Country (2005)

The Stepford Wives (2004)

The Hours (2002)

Frida (2002)

Bend it like Beckham (2002)

Thelma and Louise (1991)



The following sites may give some inspiration for other strong female roles.


  1. Brian Cameron

    Hi Deborah

    Very thought provoking; I’ll set down my own thoughts when I’ve thought through a few things.


  2. Peter Merritt

    Very interesting. Like Brian I will try to compile some more cogent reply, but for now:
    > You cannot get more interesting historical ‘action’ figures than Boudicca, Catherine The Great, Rosa Luxemburg…….The fact that they are female is co-incidental.
    > Don’t forget the three (four?) main very different female leads in “Babylon 5”, some of the best on TV.
    > I loved the old book “The Weaker Vessel” by Antonia Fraser, which outlined how a handful of extremely wealthy women (many widowed by Civil Wars but in no hurry to remarry) helped to shape post-Cromwell politics and national destiny through an astute combination of money, sex, and intellect. Always thought there was a game in this…
    > I think my chances, as a 65yr old male, of being able to get my head around much of the female perspective are only slightly greater than being able to understand the tribulations of a super-hero, deputy Orc squad-leader, or an 18thC general, for that matter. But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t *try*, and it is then another design challenge, which is what we’re about…

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