In Praise of the Singular They

So, yeah, it's 2016 and we pretty much live in the future. I can access all of the world's knowledge from a little brick in my pocket, drones buzz overhead recording the world in motion, and the US military is finally field testing frickin' lasers. Hell, the Cubs just won the world series, only one year after Robert Zemeckis predicted they would back in 1989. Pretty cool.

I am digressing again. Right. I am a game designer and this blog is about how I write and design games. But since this is my blog and I can talk about whatever I want, and today I am going to talk about gendered pronouns and the magic of the "Singular They".

Some Background
I was born in '79 and remember the '80s pretty well. In gaming terms, this makes me a little too young to be a Grognard, but too old to be a new kid in the industry. I am pushing into early middle age, and that means I can remember the way things used to be, and they SUCKED! Being a geek and nerd sucked and I took constant flack for it. I felt unfairly discriminated against by all the "normal" people out there, and it made me angry, bitter, and vicious. In took me years to realize what an idiot I was. Being a gamer and nerd is a social choice that I made and kept making again and again. I chose to be what I was every day. At any moment I could have abandoned my hobbies and joined the mainstream (whatever that is). I already had a good job and a decent education, if I stopped spending my evenings and weekends obsessing over giant robots and magical warriors, I could have found an acceptable niche to fit in. I'm sure people would always find me a little odd, but I could have made the effort. Instead, I yelled, "FRAK THAT NOISE!" and doubled down on my geekery. It worked out well, I am doing well, and people buy my games from time to time.

The Problem
Well, that took longer than it should have, back to design. Edge and Remnants used gendered pronouns: he, she, his, hers, etc. to describe people. Specifically, the nebulous, anonymous players of the games. I tried to switch it up and give some gender balance, but the result was always kind of clunky, and I favoured the male pronouns, especially in Remnants. Now, I had multiple incentives to fix this:
-Financial. I want my products to appeal to as many customers as possible.
-Efficiency. I hate complex, inelegant solutions to problems (standard model, I'm lookin' at you)
-Ethics. Not sure how, but somewhere along the line I picked up this idea that everyone should get fair and equal treatment regardless of race, gender, orientation, or lifestyle. Weird.

By the time Warbirds rolled around, we changed our style rules. If we knew the gender of the character or player in question, we use he or she as normal, but if we didn't, we used the singular they. Problem solved.

The Solution
For the record, I was not clever enough to solve this problem. That falls to the folks over at Post-Human studios and their game Eclipse Phase. It's a sci-fi/existential horror game set in a post-human future where people change bodies like we change clothes. I won't review the game in full, we're here to talk about pro-nouns. Because Eclipse Phase characters can change bodies so easily, gender becomes something of a moot point. So the writers had to deal with a world where a character can have as much gender fluidity or ambiguity as they wished. The writers solved the problem the same way I just did in the last sentence. I said "a character" which is a form of singular, but then said "they wished" which is plural. Did you notice? Did you care? Did it make sense? Damn right it did! In one fell swoop I pissed off English teachers everywhere, and made a coherent gender-neutral sentence. Behold the magic of the "singular they" and let's thank Posthuman Studios for resurrecting it in RPG writing.

Wait, What?
Oh, you didn't know? The singular they date's back to the 14th century. Wikipedia it. I'll wait. It was only in the 1800's that modern critics started whining that it wasn't correct. Well, you know what? They are dead wrong. We need the singular they for more than just gender neutral RPG writing. It provides a grammatically simple way to solve the problem of referring to anyone of indeterminate gender. I have seen some writers use the term "Xe" for being a gender neutral term (neither he nor she, and pronounced "Zee"), it works ok, but I prefer the singular they. First, I like science and upon reading Xe, I immediately wondered what Xenon gas (chemical symbol Xe) has to do with anything, and second, I prefer simplicity. Using Xe invents new words and lexicon, whereas the singular they does neither. Most people use it anyways, and just never think about (except for English teachers).

Circling Back
So, I started off with my background, so let's return to it. My life is pretty damn good. I have a loving family, a good job, and a kick-ass gaming company. This all came from two things: An enormous bucket of luck, and a few good choices. I thought I had it hard, but I didn't. But there are people out there that do have it hard. We push them to edges of society for being different and non-conforming, or even just looking different, but unlike me, they cannot choose to leave it behind. They are that way down to their very core and they cannot conceal it without lying to themselves and the world. The world is slowly learning how horribly it treats people, and each of us can take small steps to improve that treatment. My little step is the singular they.












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