Last week, I posted an open question about gender in video games. I then proceeded to hide behind the sofa; I've been led to believe that the internet becomes a dark and scary place when it comes to this particular topic. When I finally raised my head above my cushion parapet, I began to realise that things are a little calmer than expected…
Some people agreed with the notion that more games should include gender choice, providing examples of games which do it well. The majority of people disagreed with the notion, but did so in the best possible way.
Whilst I am an advocate of gender choice in video games, these comments highlighted the difficulties when trying to implement this feature. Before you read this post, I implore to follow the links below to the previous post:
Rather than dive into the comments as they unfolded, I wanted to wait and see what was discussed. I had originally intended to push this discussion further, by looking at previous games which could have included gender choice. Instead, this 'Part 2' will focus on some of the great ideas and counter-arguments that were raised after 'Part 1', starting with the very nature of the question itself….
The phrasing of the above question split opinion. On the one hand, many people argued that games should add gender choice if they can (If it can be added, without detriment to the game, then why not?). Others however, pointed out that saying a game "should" include gender selection is inherently wrong. Game designers must not feel obligated to create a second model for their protagonist is they don't want to. We shouldn't feel the need to tell game creators that gender choice "should" be in the games they put together. If they want to add it, well that's great; lots of readers expressed their love and respect for games that do include the option.
There were other comments that argued that gender choice can feel 'shoe-horned' into games; the female version of the protagonist added to pander to a target audience. That's not difficult point to prove, there are lots of games where gender choice has very little impact, and seems to serve no purpose. It is however difficult to pinpoint which games added a female character because they truly wanted it there, and which games added the option simply as a way to appeal to more players. A game I played recently makes for a good example: Guacemelee!
This is a game where the protagonist is a muscled, manly man. If you're playing with a friend, they jump into the fray as a female luchador. The game does (sort-of) allow you to play single player as the female character, but it's convoluted. As far as I am aware, you only have the choice on the PS3, and even then you are required you to jump through hoops like you are inputting a cheat code. This gender choice definitely feels shoe-horned in.
This is something to consider when criticising games in general for the lack of female characters. Whilst we know that women are under-represented in games, and voice those concerns, we should not expect (or want) game developers to immediately start churning out female protagonists because of growing pressure, or out of a need to pander to audiences. Game developers should ultimately make what they want.
If I had asked, "Could more games let you choose your gender?", then this would be an easier discussion. Many comments confirmed that when gender choice is implemented, it's appreciated, and there are other games which could do the same. However, as has quite rightly been pointed out, gender choice should not be included for the sake of it, especially if it impairs the games design, premise or story…
A lot of responses that disagreed with more gender choice did so on the grounds that the gender of the player character is not just important, but integral to the game. Specific character gender is often seen as vital when story is a main part of the game. It's a very hard argument to counter. I enjoy imagining whether 'that character could me a man/woman', but there will always be something in the game that changes as the character's gender is swapped.
One game heavily criticised for its lack of female characters was GTA V. These criticisms of course referred to the lack of both playable and non playable woman. Nevertheless it's hard to argue that the sex of these three protagonists is unimportant. And not because women 'don't fit' the GTA landscape, or can't match their villainous male counterparts. (there have been real and dangerous female gangsters since the 1920s.) The GTA V protagonists arguably male at their core.
It requires a distinctly high level of testosterone to even begin to explain Trevor's behaviour; Michaels' character is highly influenced by his role as father figure within his disreputable, 'nuclear family'. Franklin, in my opinion, is the character whose gender could be most easily swapped. This is a character defined less by emotions and relationships and more so by their objectives – a young street gangster trying to make more of themselves and impress the veteran criminals. However, the way in which the Female-Franklin would be seen and treated by the other characters would differ greatly. Whilst I personally believe that 'Frankie' would have made a very interesting contribution to the story within GTA V, I cannot see how his/her gender could be swapped without altering minor aspects of the game, and I cannot fault the decision to make the other two characters male.
One of the many characters I've imagined with swappable gender in Nathan Drake. What would happen to the character, story and gameplay if Nathan Drake could be Natasha Drake? There's nothing overtly masculine about Nathan and his personality traits, his confidence, quick wit and carefree attitude could all be transferred. Whilst I believe Tomb Raider and Uncharted are very different games, Lara Croft shows us that women are more than capable of the kind of stealth, combat and exploration that Drake goes through. In my mind, the only real issue with Drake's possible gender swap are his love interests. To allow for a changeable gender means that, like in Mass Effect, the sexual preferences of the players love interest have to be flexible too, if not abandoned entirely. I think Elena Fisher might object…
There were some comments that pointed out that a small number of games with gender choice do make minor changes to the central story depending on which choice you have made. Whilst I've not played these games myself, it's interesting to see that game creators are aware that gender differences can affect a story and use this as part of the game's design. This leads on to a practical issue with gender choice that several people raised…
This isn't really something I can comment on personally, but this is something definitely worth discussing. Many comments pointed out that adding gender choice takes a significant toll on the budget and timescale of a project. I'm not a game creator, but I am curious to know how true this is. I can see that, in some cases, another voice may be needed for the script, and a different character model is needed, but how much impact does this have? Furthermore, could you therefore argue that game companies with bigger budgets should be more inclined to offer choice of gender?
So you've decided to add gender choice to your game. Now you need to decide how to show that difference. Whilst in 'Part 1' I argued that Mass Effect's Fem-Shep was equally as awesome her masculine alternative, this was countered with the argument that there isn't anything inherently 'female' about Fem-Shep. Her voice, mannerisms and parlance with other characters matches Male-Shep throughout the game. I have to agree, and also state that Male-Shep never really presents himself as overly masculine either. This isn't a particularly bad aspect of the series – the characters are meant to be largely neutral avatars – but it does highlight an issue with gender choice. There's a risk that the two characters you create are male/female in a cosmetic sense only.
If you decide to make two characters that are different because of gender, you also have to decide how you are going to present that difference. You could go with long standing clichés such as 'men=blue; women=pink' or 'boy=cap; girl=bow'. Not everyone is going to agree that the way you represent the genders is correct. Why can't my female character have short hair? Why can't my male character's armour have a 'boob-window'? The act of trying to allow greater choice in your game could ultimately reinforce old stereotypes.
Different types of games seem better suited to gender choice. The RPG scene has an over-abundant collection of games which allow you to choose the sex of the character you play as. It was interesting to see people declaring the First Person Shooter as another genre ready for greater gender choice. This makes sense to me: if you're looking through the eyes a character, which in most cases is entirely silent, why not allow the player to choose the eyes they are looking out of? Of course, this may not have any visual bearing until you go into cooperative/multiplayer mode, but as I said in 'Part 1', having the choice on any level should be a positive thing.
Many shooters feature a protagonist that is a soldier. In these cases, it seems all the easier to employ gender choice, simply because it is not uncommon for first names to be ignored in a military environment. Soldiers are often referred to by their rank and last name only. Why not let the player choose the first name, and the gender that goes with it? If nothing else, why does the FPS need to tell us whether the character is male or female? If it's a solo-campaign game, then let the player decide for themselves.
Should more games let you choose your gender? Well, no game should have to, but it seems more game creators could ask themselves whether the gender choice could be fit into their design. They shouldn't do this because they feel pressured, or because it's seen as the 'right thing to do', but they should instead add gender choice because it adds something positive to the game. It might improve immersion for certain players, add a new perspective to the game, or even add a new reason for a second play-through.
Is this a solution to the disparity between male and female protagonists? In a small way, I still like to think it is. There are clearly lots of issues and pitfalls for game creators to consider when including gender selection, but I see the simple act of discussing gender in games as a positive thing (as responses to 'Part 1' proved). If more games creators explore or debate the options of gender choice, the underlying discussion – "could this character be female?" – might be addressed with greater conviction.
There's no way I've covered everything that was mentioned in the comments. If you feel that something that was raised in 'Part 1' should be discussed here, let me know. If you feel you have something new to add, please comment below or on the previous post.