Gender Swaps: More Than Fanart?

by Cameron WalkerYes please! :3

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?

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  • Meg

    I’ve heard the argument, that mournful whine, that inclusivity or consideration is contrived political correctness. Or that trying to appeal to – or represent – a greater cross-section of individuals is too difficult.

    Assuming the hero is alway a fully abled, white, heterosexual privilege. Those who don’t understand or realize that other people should and need to be represented are usually the bearers of that privilege.

  • Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker

    I think that the ease of having a gender choice in a game is directly proportional to how important the character’s identity is to the narrative: Commander Shepard can be of either gender, because he or she is a (mostly) blank slate to be shaped by the player.

    Could you have a Jane Marston? A Colette Phelps? A Nikita Bellic? That would take some major overhauling of the respective games, I think. The narrative would have to be altered or it would feel inauthentic. (Rockstar really needs a female protagonist, is what I’m saying. They’re overdue.)

    I would like the opportunity, more often, to play as multiple protagonists within the narrative. I’m thinking Seiken Densetsu 3, or perhaps one of the SaGa games (you know… if they were tolerable). Or, hey! Star Ocean 2 let you play as a guy or a girl right from the start, and each character had a handful of unique story elements… How forward-thinking! More of that, please.

  • Amy Darigol

    I’ve been ranting about this for years! But it has to be done right. It doesn’t count to just put on a female skin and not reanimate anything so that it’s a gal but she moves and acts like a dude. Also, most game companies seem clueless to the fact that if a game offers a choice in gender I am much more interested in playing it, even if it is not a game I would usually be drawn to. The opposite is true as well. I’ve been super excited about a game before, but after finding female customization options are greatly limited compared to male options or non-existent, I lose interest entirely. I do like how the author also brings up the issues of genderless characters and race.

  • J. Shea

    In essence the problem is related to a misguided attempt to maintain “linear” characters – John Marston, Niko Bellic, etc – who are something more defined than a player avatar. Characters like Shepard don’t really exist in their own right, because what they feel and what they do is so heavily defined by the player – and that’s great for a game (not that ME does well with it), but it’s not something that writers seem to like.

    Compare a character like John Marston to a character in Dark Souls. In Dark Souls, you can fully customize your character and internalize their decisions, but they aren’t a character. They’re a construct, an assembled avatar for your game-playing experience. In contrast, John Marston has his own values and his own decisions, because he’s essentially a character from a book or a movie, not a character made for a game.

    Swapping genders, or really allowing ANY sort of choice, detracts from that model. It stops being “the developer’s character” and starts being “your character”, and while that’s great in some senses, it’s not desirable if you’re trying to “write a character”. Yes, you could write an alternate character that’s female whose actions closely mirror their male counterpart, but in some cases if you go too far it just feels like “a woman who’s acting like a man because acting like a man is considered the norm”. This is something I, myself, grappled with, because “make people act sensible” is a pretty logical conclusion but in some cases it seems like it could just be another kind of racism/sexism (“make everyone act like white men”).

    I’m not saying more choice is bad, I’m just explaining the thinking behind why it doesn’t happen.

    • CPW

      I do not think all games should have the choice of gender, that this choice should be integrated into all game design. Some video games are purposefully about that character as a man or a woman or as something completely different. I don’t think that these games should not exist. What I wonder is, do most game protagonists need to be white males, or is this a industry norm that exists because of sociohistorical (patriarchal) reasons instead or artistic reasons.

      It would be wonderful for games to suddenly feature a diverse selection of protagonists, but this is not our near future. I suggest that allowing players the choice of gender as the norm might be a way to create diversity in who is represented as a protagonist, who as gamers we empathize with in our gaming.

      Further, a protagonist who is potentially represented by either a man or a woman interrogates our assumptions about gender, the idea itself that you can act like a man or act like a woman.

      Do we really need to say, oh, a woman wouldn’t act this way in this situation, but a man would? Can’t we imagine a character who might behave a certain way, man or a woman? It seems to me that a character who acts in the exact same way regardless of its gender challenges the notion of gendered behaviour.

      Of course I do not believe that men and women are exactly the same and can be palette swapped in all instances. Indeed the choice of gender in a game could range from unremarkable, to transgressive, to potentially even offensive. But that complexity seems more interesting to me than always playing a white dude.

    • Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker

      I’m not sure the attempt to maintain “linear” characters is “misguided”– I think games are a perfectly legitimate medium to convey linear stories.

      I think gaming as a medium is powerful because of the VARIETY of means by which it can have a dialogue with the player. I don’t think having characters rather than avatars is a wrongheaded choice, any more than I believe the opposite to be true.

      I think games would be poorer without John Marston, in the same way that they’d be poorer without Commander Shepard… in the same way that they’d be poorer without the Vault Dweller, or World of Warcraft avatars. Or Pac-Man.

  • Rowan Idris Carmichael

    I think you are vastly underestimating the importance of gender. Cultural perceptions of men and women are going to be different in most cultures, and while often appropriate for Sci fi to have gender changes be easy to write and easy to just have a new society that accepts men and women without any difference.

    Persona 3 Portable though is an amazingly well thought out gender change though. Playing through as the female main character alters how many of the characters interact with you and give you a unique and interesting perspective of them. And the change in how they act is within their characters and our expectations of how a teenage girl would be treated in that situation without putting down women.

    However, if more games put in the time to make either gender neutral experiences, or alter the experience based on the game world’s cultural expectation of those genders, full steam a head!