The importance of gender in games

Complaining about the poorly modeled women of Deus Ex: Human Revolution on Twitter recently, I was lead into a discussion of gender representation in games, and one of the participants in this discussion mentioned all games, regardless of genre, should have gender choices for players, citing Mass Effect’s FemShep.

On some levels – and possibly fuelled by recent Freeplay events – I can understand this desire for equality of gender representation in games, however I disagree that it should always be an option, or even that it should frequently be an option.

At the heart of this objection, lie a couple of issues. One is that it’s the right of the developer to control narrative, and the other is the impact this idea has for characterisation in games.

One of the examples I responded with on Twitter was Blizzard’s Diablo. As a younger gamer I found the gender restrictions frustrating. I wanted to play a rogue, but didn’t wish to play a female character. Sorcerer it was then.

Maybe it’s hard to understand why such an arbitrary restriction should be implemented. Would it really have been so hard to provide alternate voicing and character models for each class?

In reference to Blizzard’s Diablo, perhaps some of this was indeed for the sake of brevity. Effectively doubling the character models, also means doubling all visible equippable items, and it’s feasible that the extra work simply wasn’t justifiable when compared to estimated customer satisfaction for this option.

Beyond these sorts of technical limitations, there really seems no reason not to allow both male and female selections for playable characters in Diablo. That is, until one delves into the lore of Sanctuary; suddenly the playable gender is not a restriction at all. Rather, it’s a facet of a rich game universe.

There’s a reason Rogues are female: they’re Sisters of the Sightless Eye. A male’s superior physical strength and his place dictated by tribal custom defines him for the Barbarian or Druid class; women in those societies would surely not be permitted to enter this man’s world. Likewise the Amazon is a strong female warrior – not just in the Diablo universe, but as the image that permeates our cultural understanding of constitutes an Amazonian.

In permanently defining the genders of each character class, Blizzard also strengthened its lore. One could justifiably argue that allowing a selection of playable genders for each of Diablo’s classes could have harmed the illusion of Sanctuary, though this would not necessarily have been the case.

In other forms of media, gender is used to tell a specific story. John Marsden’s Tomorrow series (beginning with Tomorrow When the War Began) is written from the point of view of a young woman living on Australian farmland. Would the story have had the same impact, had it been told from the perspective of a male?

Think to your favourite movies and consider how the gender of the characters effects your emotional response. In one of my favourites, Sarah Connor’s vulnerability against the T-800 is enhanced by her gender and her gender-stereotypical occupation, in The Terminator. I doubt I would have felt as scared for Sam Conner, truck mechanic.

It would be possible to change the gender of the protagonist and have the very same events play out around them. In doing so however, we have to ask: would this in fact be telling the same story?

In some cases, yes it would, but good writers will make this a conscious decision because there are certain traits we associate with each gender, and these can be used not only to to provide depth and subtlety, but also to help tell a story in a specific way; to manipulate the audience into feeling how the author wants them to feel.

It’s no different for games, though being a very visual medium whose audience has traditionally been males, this has resulted in a skewed depiction of game protagonists. We have historically been shown what appeals to men as a demographic: the men they want to be like, and the women they want.

Looking retrospectively at games in general, we may wish that we’d been given the simple option to choose the gender of the characters we played, but what would that have done to gamings iconic heroes and heroines?

With optional genders would we ever have had Duke Nukem? Some might argue we’d be better of without that particular ‘hero’ (which is a discussion for another time), but I don’t think a female protagonist in that universe would have made sense.

What about Lara Croft? Well, the male version of her would probably be Indiana Jones, but it’s unlikely that given the choice to choose between a playable Lara or Larry, that she’d be the instantly recognisable figure she is today. We’d probably be remembering Tomb Raider as that one pretty-decent-puzzle-game-with-its-nod-to-Time-Commando that came out a while ago.

Some games, both in story and mechanics, are conducive to a protagonist of either gender. A lithe female form would certainly have worked for Thief, and augmentations would have made Paul Denton’s sister as capable as his brother.

But would we be left with characters we know as well as Garrett or JC, or would we just remember the games as great games?

I suspect the benefits of this potential abstraction could be debated endlessly, however it behooves us to remember that without a defined gender, our protagonists’ roles can change.

Would No One Lives Forever have been so memorable with a sassy Kyle Archer? Would we feel as deeply for The Longest Journey’s Arthur Ryan? Would a female Agent 47 have been able to exude that perfectly balanced mixture of cold detachment, coiled power, and effortless panache? Would Bulletstorm have had the same effect with Georgie Hunt yelling about shooting things in the dick? Actually I’d play that last one; someone make it please!

There are some good examples of games in which gender is selectable, and has little effect on either the story, or the way the game is played. The example given to me in the Twitter conversation (and mentioned earlier) that set my train of thought rumbling down this track, was Mass Effect with Shep/FemShep.

Dragon Age and Baldur’s Gate are other good examples. The Elder Scrolls series and every MMO I can think of also doesn’t care which gender you play (though MMO narrative is also somewhat lacking, and another discussion for later), so there’s definitely support for the argument that the option can be implemented well.

I just don’t think it needs to be. Or even that it should be. There is a case to be made for games to break gender boundaries in this way, especially as more and more gamers are women, but I’m not convinced adding a token male/female switch benefits the cause.

As developers explore the medium further, they should remember that gender is a powerful story-telling tool, and as such should be treated with respect. If all we see is an addition of female player characters as knee-jerk reaction to feminism – “Here, have a female character in this FPS, now stop bothering us.”  – isn’t this sweeping the issue under the rug? Isn’t this doing more harm than good?

I think sometimes the best way to present the issues surrounding gender representation in games is not through making the choice irrelevant, but by making it all the more important.

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~ by accurateobservation on September 2, 2011.

2 Responses to “The importance of gender in games”

  1. What bothers me most about your argument is that you assume that gender determines character traits and personality. In the current world in which we live (a world where equality does not truly exist) these assumptions are often correct but this is a problem with social engineering not an execution of biology. With that in mind I point to FemShep: what makes female Shepard so interesting to play as (certainly more interesting than male Shepard IMO) is that the dialogue and demeanor of “Shepard” is unchanged regardless of which gender you chose to play as. This means that female Shepard is a strong and powerful woman with “balls” because she is essentially just male Shepard in all but geometry and voice.

    This brings me to Gears of War, which as it stands is one of the most macho and masculine games on the market (to the point of homo-eroticism at points). I would love to see the option at the beginning of that game to be a Michelle Fenix perhaps, rather than a Marcus. That would be amazing and add so much more depth to what is currently little more than a bro-fest (keep in mind that I really loved Gears 1&2, I’m not hating on them). Not only would it make the game more interesting but I believe it would increase sales – female gamers who pass over a Gears of War type game assuming its not for them would now leap at the chance to play the role of a total bad ass hulking female soldier. Why is it that only males should be able to live out a violent and muscle bound fantasy? I can assure you I’ve met many women who would relish the opportunity.

    As for a Diablo style action RPG or any game with classes I still see no reason to disallow the option for the player to choose a gender. Lore can be created for any eventuality. I don’t believe that by creating a justification within the lore for gender restrictions that this suddenly renders any argument moot. Removing these options merely serves to perpetuate a game industry bias toward male gamers that needs to change. Look at a game like Brink, not a female in sight; that is inexcusable. Its just lazy and horribly sexist to assume that these types of games aren’t for women and thus we need not accommodate them. I am confident that female gamers who haven’t played shooters before would leap at the chance were they made to feel welcome.

    Now I’m not saying we remove the option to play as a male character but I see no reason to not simply create an extra character model and record some extra dialogue. In my mind it just means more sales. In a perfect world I would just love to see more interesting and strong female characters in games, protagonists too, not just some damsel in distress – which is a glorified game-play conceit. Given that I don’t see that happening any time soon, the former option is a cheap and effective method of achieving a similar result.

    Its worth pointing out that I don’t necessarily think that EVERY game should have this option, clearly some games don’t warrant it. Other games however seem completely designed for that option already but they simply forgot to add it before release. There is still merit in set genders for protagonists in games but to me those are the exception rather than the rule.

    • I just think that implementing gender choices well, with a purpose, with design, is much more effective than a cursory addition to keep 50% of the population ‘happy, which sounded like your suggested approach. I don’t think doing that does anything for equality, and in fact think that borders on ignoring the issue and hoping it goes away.

      Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and others, work well from either gender because the games were designed for it, but even in those instances, there are differing experiences. Sure, FemShep plays the same as male Shep, but the sum of her total experience is not the same. Even something as small (but significant!) as the relationships with other characters changes.

      I think this supports my point that gender has an impact on character, on personality. Without launching into a whole “nature vs nurture” argument, I don’t think gender defines a person entirely, but that it simply has to change their life experience and the way they grow. So no, I don’t mean to say it “determines” character traits or personality, just that it is a part of the process.

      For the examples of the other specific games mentioned, I don’t know if I fully agree with the logic behind what you’re saying.

      Keep in mind I haven’t played Gears, but I would have thought that women interested in that style of game would have played it regardless of player character gender. Are there women out there who didn’t play it just because they didn’t get a female character? Seriously, I’d love for them to comment, if so, because that seems absurd to me.

      It would be a pretty sexist attitude to take – like if I’d refused to play Tomb Raider, or Syberia because the protagonist was female. True, I’ll almost always create a male character when given the choice in RPGs, but that’s generally because I project something of myself onto the character I’m playing. I’m simply role playing as me in that world, and I’m male.

      I agree that there’s no reason to create lore specifically to support gender restriction – Diablo does this (I suppose) to the extent that some of it mirrors tribal customs we’re familiar with from our own history, but it’s hardly sexist; there are strong female options as well.

      By the same token however, there’s no reason to create lore to support gender diversity. To me, the story is king. If a developer wants to create a game world that lacks a female (or male) player character, I don’t think they should compromise their design vision because they feel they have to pander to a specific demographic.

      In fact the less game developers alter design to suit sales (which seems to be one of your major reasons for doing so), the better off the industry as a whole will be. We’ll be getting games that developers want to make, and play, not games their publishers tell them to make because they sell well.

      (But that is definitely a topic for another time!)

      I think we’re roughly on the same page, really. It would be nice to see full gender representation for players, where it makes sense to do so (though I think perhaps you underestimate the effort involved in providing this option). I would also love to see more strong female leads as well; nearly every game with a female protagonist that I can recall playing has also been a great game.

      However I’d rather see a game that deliberately refuses to offer a gender selection option, than includes it, if doing so helps tell the story developers want us to experience.

      Anyway, thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

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