Rugby league is the one that’s like American Football played backwards, not the one with the awesome haka, i.e. not the one that’s actually engaging to watch. Rugby league is also a game that’s been plagued by image problems, and is suffering from onfield and off-field violence, both by players and coaches in the professional and amateur world. There are also significant problems in children’s league, involving bullying parents, high expectations, and the (huge) problem of fielding children of vastly differing sizes against each other.

The consequence of these problems, of course, is that children try the game and hate it, so drop out; and mothers – the prime determinants of what sport children are allowed to play – send their children to the (in my opinion) vastly superior sport of Aussie Rules Football (AFL), which has been growing where league is floundering. AFL has already introduced significant changes in particularly its childrens league, has spent years trying to mellow the off-field antics of its players, and is also targeting girls. Rugby Union, soccer and AFL all understand that the key to a good adult competition is having a large pool of children from which to select talent, even though most of that pool will be second rate and of no value. This isn’t a problem for soccer in, say, the UK or Europe, because (outside of France) there is no challenge to the supremacy of “the beautiful game.” Not so in Australia, where 4 football codes are engaged in a vicious war of attrition for fans.

Rugby League’s traditional response to this has been a resounding “fuck it!” They haven’t wanted to change the way the game is played at junior level because they have been following the worn out traditional idea that you can only damage the game by changing its image, or changing its training and development practices to suit children or (heaven forbid!) women. There has not historically been any recognition that the elite level of rugby is not attractive as a participation sport for 99% of people who play it, and that you can’t get people into this by just slapping them in the face with a rugby ball and saying “smash ’em!” You need to make the game appealing to a wide base of people, and from them draw your intense and elite players.

Recently the role-playing blogging world has had a few kerfuffles about women in the game, with a common idea put forward that changing the game to encourage women’s participation would a) weaken the game and b) not work anyway. I find proposition a) particularly frustrating, because it contains so many misogynist ideas about the effect of women joining in a male activity; and I find b) frustrating because it pre-supposes there is no way girls would want to participate in a hobby that doesn’t involve ponies and pretty clothes. I have previously written about this issue in kickboxing, which (in Australia at least) is booming amongst women through a few simple representational and practical changes, which in the end benefit beginning male players as well as women. I wrote there that I think kickboxing’s approach to attracting women to the hobby presents a good model for how you can change the means of participation in the sport without changing the sport itself; you can draw in a wider range of people willing to try the game, and from amongst them you can channel people into various types of participation. I don’t see why the same can’t happen with regards to women in gaming (and, by extension, actual minorities like e.g. migrants, gays, etc.)

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Phil Gould – who by all accounts is not the most charming of representatives for the game – has a column on reforming Rugby League to encourage participation and prevent drop out. It turns out that the macho old ideas of “just grin and bear it” haven’t been working so well for retaining young players, because enjoying the game as it is played is not a sufficient condition for remaining engaged when, for example, the people you play against are bigger and rougher. He has solicited suggestions from parents and coaches and got huge feedback, and the common feedback has been to find ways to manage the violence inherent in different sizes of children playing against each other. i.e. parents and coaches all want to get rid of the idea that the only way you can play the game is being dropped into the game-as-it-is-played-now and expected to sink or swim. There is explicit recognition amongst participants of this sport that clinging to a single definition of the way of playing the game is destroying its acceptability. But you won’t find any of these people arguing that the game in its elite form should change.

The column is long but the final part, entitled “My Awakening” is particularly interesting because it shows an example of a group of children working this stuff out naturally for themselves. There’s also a real hint of “old school” style in the way the kids house-rule the game of rugby to suit their circumstances. These are the enthusiasts who know the game and want to get it to work; anyone who falls into that group is going to be fine. The problem is that the majority of people aren’t going to fall into rugby through that group, but through the professionally practiced juniors game Gould contrasts them with. This, he sees, is the problem – those kids are suffering for the game and will put it away, because they are being forced to bend to the game, rather than the other way around. I think this is true in our hobby as well, that the majority of people will enter the game through an accepted channel (a gaming shop, or through joining an established group that shares many of the inflexible ideas I saw in the blogs about women’s participation in gaming); or they will just pick up the game books themselves and find nothing that encourages them to join, nothing that appeals to their understanding of how a game should be played or what is necessary for fun to be had. Those people might in turn move on to the “elite” gaming that many of us nerdy bloggers are used to; but we won’t be able to pick up those potential recruits if they get turned off by their first experience of the game, by the nerdy equivalent of being put up against someone bigger and rougher than them who really, in reality, wants to be playing a different game.

There’s also a few comments at the end of the article about how professionalization has ruined the enjoyment of amateur participation. I wonder if anyone at WoTC is reading it? I doubt it…

And a final note: a lot of the people talking about women in RPGs seem to be American or British, and I get the impression that they have very different stereotypes of women than Australians have. When I raise the example of sports adapting to encourage women, they seem to not understand. I think this is because American and British women are much less sporty than Aussies or Japanese women, and thus male gamers from those countries are not familiar with the idea that by changing a few details of the representation of a sport you can get women into it in droves. It seems to  be a secret that only Antipodeans (and Japanese) understand. Maybe this is because the dominant games of those Northern hemisphere cultures are so obssessively macho, yet simultaneously insecure. Or something. But – as is usual in all matters of importance in this world – I think those Northern hemisphere cultures could stand to learn a lot from the Antipodes…