If you’re the kind of person that thinks, “I don’t want to play as a [Male/Female] character” or “There are too many [Female/Male] characters in gaming” or “[Men/Women] are underrepresented in video games”, then you [Madam/Sir], are in the right place.
The discussion of ‘Gender in Video Games’ is a tricky subject. Perspectives can often be so polar, opinions so aggressive and mindsets so entrenched that even parties that might agree with each other take verbal jabs and casts hurtful comments at random. The point I’m making here is that I approach this subject tentatively. To raise the issue of ‘gender in video games’ on the internet seems akin to walking into the lion enclosure… ringing a dinner bell… dressed as a lamb chop… singing ‘Be Our Guest’ from Beauty and the Beast…
Why do it then? Why write this post? Well, because I believe I have something positive to say. No criticism, persecution or prejudice. I simply wish to talk about a (possible) solution to a Big Problem in gaming. Oh, and it’s not my idea. It’s not even a new idea. There are quite a few games out there that have already employed this solution.
The Big Problem in this case centres on these points:
- There is a vast disparity in the number of Male and Female playable characters.
- A lot of people don’t want to play as women.
- Developers worry that Female protagonists won’t be well-received.
- There is a perception that Women don’t play certain games so there really isn’t an issue.
- Many people just enjoy playing games for what they are.
- Some people want more female characters; some people don’t.
This is not a Problem that can be solved overnight. However, there are already several games that present an answer to the question of representation in games: the choice of gender. Allowing players to pick the character they want is instantly inclusive, and also highlights the fact that not every game has to decide the sex of the protagonist for you. Furthermore, you don’t have to play as a woman if you don’t want to. A long term hope in this scenario would be that game developers become more confident in creating games with female protagonists.
Should there be more of this? If the gender of the main character is not integral to the game, should the player get to pick male or female?Let’s start with one very obvious, very successful example:
Mass Effect did it.
Despite a slightly ropey finale that left some fans somewhat embittered, the Mass Effect series was good gaming. Player choice was a big part of each game. Your character could be kindly or cruel, fierce or heroic. You could pepper you opponents with bullets or psychically torment them. Whatever your choices, Shepard became a galactic legend by the end of ME3, and at no point did gender have an impact on that legacy. Some minor differences occurred during each game – it affected which characters wanted to see you naked – but Fem-Shep was not held back by her femininity, in any way. Furthermore, if a player didn’t want to be awesome as a female character, they could be an awesome dude instead. The aforementioned Big Problem fades significantly.
As I’ve said, this is by no means the only game that employs gender selection. In medieval style RPG games with gender choice, I tend to play a man. This is because my History Teacher side reminds me the chivalric code and the realities of the feudal system. In my head, a male knight makes more sense, even if the game is also a fantasy. So in Dark Souls and Oblivion, I choose to play as a man. However, when I started playing Dragon’s Dogma I played as a female character. Why? Because I had just been watching Game of Thrones and I wanted to play as Brienne of Tarth. Why? Because she’s awesome, that’s why.
The fact is, as an individual I have enjoyed games that let me choose. I’m sure there are many of you who feel the same. The fact is that letting players choose their gender might just be the way to start bringing more female protagonists into gaming without angering people who only want to play as men. It won’t completely solve the issue, but it’s a way to head in the right direction.
Boy or Girl?
There are other games that go even simpler. No character creation or character modelling, just a simple question at the beginning of the game: Male or Female?
I still remember the first time I switched on my Game Boy to play Pokemon Blue. The game soon asked me to name my character and my rival. The names were fairly boring because my younger brother would have told on me if I had gone with my first choices. I then got to pick my first Pokemon, which was Bulbasaur (the right answer, by the way). That was it – decisions made. It made no difference to me that “are you a boy or a girl?” was not a question introduced until Pokemon Crystal.
You might argue that it doesn’t matter if that little set of pixels you control is a boy or a girl. And you’d be right: it doesn’t matter to the game…and that’s the point. Gender selection in Pokemon wasn’t necessary, but it was added nonetheless. The game creators took the time to make the smallest change to their games, and now all the children (and adults of course) that play Pokemon get that choice. A small gesture, that allows gamers to feel just a little bit more included and respected.
Another series which has implemented gender choice is Halo. Whilst the early multiplayer warriors were all men, Halo: Reach and Halo 4 have allowed players to fully customise male or female Spartan armour. Again, the impact that this has on players who want to ‘be men’ is negligible. For players who want to ‘be women’, it’s at the very least a sign that game developers know they exist. That they have a place in gaming. I found some of the customisations look better on the female Spartans (don’t look at me like that, you know what I mean).
On a slightly tangential note: I’ve often thought that if the original Halo had been made after Mass Effect, then the developers may have been inspired to make Master Chief’s gender changeable. There’s very little in Chief’s character that suggests that he could not be Fem-Chief if the player so wished it.
Which games could let you choose?
It’s an idea… could it work? I personally don’t think it would work with every game; it is often possible to argue that a character’s gender is important. However, I believe there is more room for gender selection – a simple message at the start of the game that asks “would you like to be a boy or a girl?”. To demonstrate this, I intend to write a ‘Part Two’, in which I will talk about the biggest games of the last few years and discuss how they would have coped with the addition of gender selection (including games where the protagonist was female) and whether the ability to choose genders has any impact on the games themselves.
I could continue writing here, but I wish to pause, even for just a few days. This is because I want any following discussion to go in the right direction. Firstly, I want to hear your views on just the concept of more gender choice in games, before picking out particular examples. Secondly, if I’ve made an error in judgement or said something you disagree with at this stage, then it’s best to deal with that first. Thirdly, you get your chance to share your own experiences with games that have let you pick the character’s gender, or suggest games I should talk about in Part 2.
- Do you think there should be more games that let you pick your gender?
- What other examples of games with gender choice have you enjoyed?
- What games would you add gender selection to, if you could?
- Or do you disagree with the idea of promoting gender choice in video games?