Alpha Protocol is sort of an underappreciated game. I mean, the gamey part, where you run around and shoot things, isn’t particularly good. I played on easy with the “stand in a room and just pour bullets into torsos” strategy in order to get through it. Aside from the gunplay though, the game has a different take on interactive conversation system and presents you with choices that actually seem to matter.
I’ve recommended it to my significant other on several occasions. She’s waffled about it–we usually aren’t bereft enough of entertainment to make the game’s consumption inevitable–and ultimately we’ve come down to it: the fact that you have to play as a man puts her off just enough that she’d just rather play another game. Not revulsion or rejection, just disinterest.
Which made me think: Alpha Protocol isn’t a game about a man. You could easily swap in a woman as the player character and nothing would change. There would be a notable amount of gay relationships, but who’s to say that lady spies aren’t predominantly lesbians in this make-believe world?
As a white man, I can only really imagine this position of disassociation. There are few games which force you to play as a woman. They do exist, but they certainly aren’t the norm. And how many of these games have a focus on narrative, or even role playing? Since these games are so rare, how I approach a game that forces me to play a woman is much different than how a woman might approach a game that forces her to play a man.
So I wonder, why can’t choice of gender be the norm in video games?
At first this might seem like a major shift in game design, but I think otherwise. Most obviously, there would be the RPG way to approach the choice, where you can thoroughly customize your character’s appearance at the game’s outset. But, as character customization limits the refinement of a character model for developers, another option would be to simply have both man and woman character models.
In terms of development, the choice of gender might require two things, additional voice acting and narrative adaptivity. Since not all games have extensive voice acting for their protagonists, this additional consideration would not be industry wide. Also, it seems that if gender choice was the actual norm in video games, having to record two voice tracks for each gender would simply be part of the cost of doing business, just like recording one set of dialogue is now. Hell, didn’t Saints Row 3 have like 7 sets of voice actors for the player to choose from?
Narrative changes aren’t as clear of a burden on production and design. Conceivably, changes might need to be implemented into a narrative to adapt to either a male or female protagonist, but to what degree? Do any of the Mass Effect games change that much when you play as either male or female Shepard? And can’t we imagine a game that doesn’t need modification based on gender at all? I did. It was called Alpha Protocol.
I’m not even talking about making everything gender neutral or non-gendered. Games can be written with an understanding that the player character is either a male or female. The protagonist’s romantic or sexual relationships do not necessarily need to be slated into either hetero or homosexual categories. Indeed, I fail to see how a game that represents all relationships without consideration or mention of sexual norms would be a bad thing.
Maybe some players might be put off by gay or possibly gay protagonists, but this seems more like a problem of prejudice than game design. I don’t feel the need for games to accommodate homophobia.
That all said and proposed, I can also imagine games where gender neutrality is more difficult to implement in design, or a game that is thematically concerned with manhood or womanhood. Catherine or Red Dead Redemption are good examples of games for which gender is important.
Still, it seems to me that even these games, where gender plays an important role, could perhaps still allow for some gender inclusion. I thought about Catherine in these terms for a bit, and I’m not sure that it couldn’t handle a basic conversion. Women also deal with fears of commitment and struggle to move into different phases of their lives, phases which require them to sacrifice aspects of their independence. Plot details might need to be adjusted somewhat, but I don’t think Catherine needs to be about men.
Red Dead Redemption, however, might not be a game capable of handling both genders because of both genre and historical constraints. This is a chin rubber, and suggests that gender choice might not always be feasible.
To reign back a bit, I don’t feel the need to restrict game developers from assigning gender to player characters purposefully. Gender has meaning in the world, and so some stories and games might need to be gendered to achieve certain thematic goals. Maleness, however, should not be prescribed as the industry default.
Now, my two caveats: this proposal leads to two additional issues of disassociation. First is the existence of people who do not identify with either male or female gender. My proposal does not offer a solution for the lack of association these people might feel when playing games.
To say one step at a time seems dismissive, so rather, I would say that this problem is not something that we should accept and should be something that we continue to consider. Adopting narrative construction that doesn’t presume gender might be a step in the right direction already and while it may not solve the problem that does not negate the benefits we might gain from gender choice in games as a whole.
Secondly, if we consider gender association, might we also consider race? This too is a complicated problem. Without character customization, race is hard to include for default models, especially if you want to be inclusive. How many default models do you make? The iterations are many. Worse, imagine the scenario of character designers set with the task of making characters that look representative of specific races. That is a minefield. Again, this shouldn’t be dismissed; I just don’t have a working solution.
Really, all of these considerations would become less critical and prickly if video games featured a greater variety of protagonists. It’s not like white males don’t already have the majority of face time everywhere else. If games were more representative of the multiplicity of peoples, then maybe character customization wouldn’t be so necessary. A simple choice of gender, though, is one way to begin to work on the problem.
Plus, who is against the idea of a chubby plumber lady dumping about in a tanuki suit?