by Vivienne Chan
I distinctly remember that, over a decade ago, I got my hands on a copy of Might and Magic VII: For Blood and Honor. While I can’t articulate precisely when, how or why I came to own this game, I do recall – with shocking clarity – the party creation process. This type of RPG wasn’t new to me: at that point I had thoroughly enjoyed Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. But this was the first time I could create my own party from scratch, right down to how they all looked.
First off, to my teenage, adolescent mind, I remember thinking that there was an awful lot of boobage going on on all the lady characters. Whether it was an elf in a lace-up bodice (that was 90% lace) or a human female with a keyhole cleavage display (and an exposed midriff to boot), I know that I thought that they were AWESOME. Not only were they going to appear in this game, but they were super pretty and had super gorgeous bodies.
It was like playing with Barbie dolls who murder the shit out of monsters and bad guys.
And so I built a party of four ludicrously beautiful and scantily clad women: two brunettes, a redhead, and a blonde. Two elves and two humans. The party was largely successful, though I think I just up and stopped playing the game about 75% of the way through.
This was the first memory I have of creating a custom set of characters that would feature as the main protagonists in a video game. I’m sure I must have played other ones (I know I played Mixed Up Mother Goose back in the day and I THINK you got to pick your gender then, but I can’t be certain), but this is the one that sticks out in my mind as being particularly iconic, because from that point on, wherever there was an opportunity to choose the gender of my character(s), I’d always go with a female.
Some years ago, I know I wondered if I might have been a lesbian (or at least bisexual) due to my preoccupation with gorgeous women. I’d look at them way more than I’d look at guys, and I played only absolutely drop-dead gorgeous women in videogames. Hearing my male friends talk about their choices, many of them (though not all of them) preferred to play ladies because they got to look at a hot chick while playing the game. I wondered – for much longer than I care to admit – whether or not I did the same for similar reasons.
But then I realized that no, I was definitely not into girls that way, and my preoccupation with beautiful ladies – whether those I saw in the world or those I played in games – was driven almost entirely by envy. This likely stems from a childhood where I was repeatedly told I was too fat, too large, too big, too tall, etc etc etc. Being 5’8” with broad shoulders in countries like Singapore and Hong Kong can make an otherwise unspectacular, average-looking lady feel like Jabba the Hutt. So whenever I got to play beautiful girls in games, I leapt on the opportunity. A vicarious hotness, if you will.
I’m not just talking about memorable, leading femmes like Lara Croft or Samus (zero suit, heh). In UT2004 I always played the pretty human female option, in Marvel Ultimate Alliance I ran with all-female teams where I could, and in Guild Wars and my brief stint in WoW, all my characters were female, too. Even in the Soul Calibur, MvC, and other fighting games, I would gravitate toward the ladies, no matter how offensive their boobage. And, of course, all of my Shepards (except one, because I wanted to see why everyone wanted to sex Tali in ME2) has been a Femshep. And all of them have been drop-dead gorgeous.
As opposed to Kaitlin Tremblay, who wrote an excellent article about choosing monsters over ladies because she felt she couldn’t identify with ladies, I think I took my own dissociation with femininity fast and hard in the other direction. Kaitlin’s experience as a tomboy is a familiar story to me, having grown up being sporty, geeky, completely disinterested in makeup or fashion, and enjoying a variety of male-dominated interests. But where, to her credit, she acknowledged her discomfort and sought better representations for herself in games, I think my own personality and context pushed me to instead embrace those scantily clad, impossibly proportioned ladies because I didn’t look or feel or act like any of them… and I wanted to.
I’ve always been acutely aware that I do not fit traditional gender roles, but rather than being okay with that, I think I expressed my own sense of femininity with these female characters. I wanted to be them, to finally know what it was like to be a girl (a pretty one, even), and back in those days, my adolescent self didn’t mind that these were females written by men, because I also wanted to be desirable to men. If men wrote them, that meant that they desired them, so if I “was” them, that meant I’d be desirable too, right?
Ah, adolescence. I’ve outgrown most of that thinking now (thank the powers that be!), but for all I know, that line of thinking was one of the primary causes of my current body image issues. After all, I STILL play female characters whenever there is an option to do so.
My connection to female game characters is deeply complex. I’ve explored a tiny bit of that complexity in this article: I grew up a tomboy, I want to be beautiful. So I choose to play beautiful women in games. That I also love it when ladies kick ass and take names is probably another facet of that complexity. But by and large, my motivations are driven by envy and vicariousness. They are also deeply individual, defined by my context; your mileage may vary. And thus I invite you to turn my reflection inward: why do you play the characters you do? What do those reasons tell you about yourself? Does that change your perspective on the characters that represent you in games? Why or why not?
Further Reading: “My Ideal Female Lead” (Medium Difficulty)