…that all game characters are created equal…

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all game characters are created equal, that they are endowed by their developer with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Hmm, self-evident. Really?

I was thrilled and amused when the thought ocurred to me that the US Declaration of Independence would be such fruitful material to further my ponderings on equality in games. 😉 Apart from the equality debate itself, the three aforementioned rights are essential to games as well: You (usually) can’t continue if your character dies, you have to have a certain degree of liberty in your game decisions (games that fail in this aspect are often mocked as “interactive screensaver”), and must be able to persue happiness, i.e., enjoy the game. I paused my first playthrough of Dragon Age: Origins for a week because a certain end-game choice made me very unhappy. That was so….. unconstitutional!

But let’s return to equality. As has been discussed before in Call me Lady Gama, I feel at ease with the “girl gamer” label, and I think my playing style is feminine. (What I wanted to add to my last entry was that, as a non-girly example, I don’t mind blood’n’gore in a game, and have always enjoyed things like Fallout’s Bloody Mess Trait/Perk. It’s a caricature, taken to such extremes that it couldn’t ever appall me. So it’s not all black and white, y’know?) I love being able to play a female character, and I want her to “act it”, in an equal, emancipated and confident way (as I try to be, myself). And I do want her to be sexy, just in a more realistic and credible way than what I usually get treated to.

As Jenn Frank pointed out in When “You” is a girl on the great site Infinite Lives, games are usually developed from a male point of view, and then, the option to play as a female is grafted onto it. You can basically put boobs and make-up on your hero and voilà, that’s your heroine! (I only recently read that Dragon Age 2 will introduce a female skeleton version for all characters! About time, fellas!) Nothing in the plot, dialogs or quests changes, apart from the flirts and romances (apart, again, from the homosexual ones, which often have an “explanatory opener”, but then proceed like the heterosexual ones). There are still few “female-avatar-only” PC games (Venetica or the Lara Croft series instantly come to mind), compared to “male-avatar-only” or “you-can-choose-but-not-quite” (see the link below on the difference between “sex” and “gender”).

I don’t generally dislike games that have only one option for the avatar’s gender – but I want it to be meaningful. In other words, it should make sense that this plot, dialog etc. can only happen to a woman or man. Ideally though, I get to pick my avatar and the game reflects that choice in distinct reactions, just like many games do depending on your karma/class/origin/faction. (Think about it again, as I just did for a while: Usually, when a game distinguishes between male and female avatars, we’re talking romance. Not main quest and plot line!) Settings like in Dragon Age or Fallout would give plenty of opportunity for that – but especially Fallout gives you 100% the same game, whether you play a guy or gal. As Jenn Frank put it in aforementioned blog post: “You may choose the sex of your avatar, certainly, but you do not choose your gender, which itself is essentially written into the game dialogue and scenarios.” In Dragon Age’s defense, I just read the post “Gaming as a Woman and Dragon Age Origins” by “Petite Chablis” that the Origin stories differ from male to female – I have tried each Origin and a little ways into the main plot as male or female, but no Origin as both; need to check that out! (My first choice is usually a female elf mage, if applicable. On later playthroughs, I often play as male to check for new twists and turns – more than often enough, all I get to see is a difference in necklines of my equipped armor suit.)

Many male players pick the female avatar for their first playthrough – and many of them agree that it simply means they can watch a pretty rear for dozens of hours 😉 – and it doesn’t really matter gameplay-wise anyway. Makes me wonder about two things – does over-the-shoulder perspective, or would a more “gendered” gameplay influence the percentage of guys playing as gals?

Or more generally speaking: Is it possible to create a game that really and truly treats us as “different but equal”?

13 thoughts on “…that all game characters are created equal…”

  1. It would be wonderful if selecting a different gender meant something other than a different love interest and some characters using she instead of he. For that matter what about ethnicity? What if your character was only born with one hand? What if he/she was blind ala The Book of Eli? The choices in games are limited to what you do, not who you are.

  2. Yes that would be interesting. I mean, the poorer Origins in Dragon Age do give you a sense of what’s possible in regards of ethnicity in a grim setting. You may have to play it more, but you’ll see themes of discrimination, efforts of emancipation and the like.

    It’s even more profound in the game The Witcher (which I described in another post), because that guy is a grim, pale mutant who is quite the womanizer, but infertile due to his mutations.

    The only positive betrayal (in that his surroundings treat him as an equal) I can currently think of is Joker. But I will give it more thought!

  3. I am a bit of a lateral thinker… so bear with me. When I read this article, I imidiately thought of the “shrink it and pink it” method of marketing to women. You know: make it smaller, and pink and somehow women will buy it. Instead of shrink and pink, developers have added boobs and a different voice actor.

    I want my female characters to act like females, but I don’t know what that means. I hated the fact that Jill Valentine in the original Resident Evil started with a bunch of upgrades (pockpick and handgun) while Chris had a knife. It was like playing Jill was the easy way to play… cause you know: a girl, even a girl commando, someohow needed more protection against the big bad zombie horde than her male counterpart.

    Elder Scrolls (Obvlivion, Morrowind) are RPGs where you can choose male vs. female. The difference is in characteristics: males may have a higher strength, females a higher agility score, but they are both equal. As you progress through the game there are a few ways in which your gender does effect outcomes of minor side quests. But again, this doesn’t really feel true to life. I know that my gender does effect much of what I do. It should take a bigger, more nuanced role in gaming.

    One place where I don’t really mind if the genders play very similar is in games like Mass Effect. You play as Commander Shepard, either male or female, and this choice really doesn’t effect much other than side romance quests. I liket hat though: the female commander Shepard has had the same military training as her male counterpart. It makes sense that she would handle herself in similar ways compared to the Male Shepard. And really, most of the time, people are interacting with Shepard as Space Marine, not Shepard as Person. They notice the gun, and the uniform: not the person. And that’s okay. It makes sense.

    Either way: excellent article! loved it!

    1. Thank you, both for the praise and your interesting comments! I love that expression “shrink it and pink it”, even if I hate the concept.

      You pointed out something interesting there with Shepard!!! Basically, there are two options for the portrayal of genders in games. I think. 😉

      1. The game universe is a place where both genders are equal. Our hero or heroine get treated the same because in that world, both genders are equal. That could be our Shepard in Mass Effect. (Apart from the sexy female-only dancers in various bars, I think the ME universe is a pretty equal place.) As you pointed out, they see Shepard as an icon, not a real person – it wouldn’t have surprised me if I got a dialog along the lines of “Ahh. I always wondered whether Humanity’s greatest hero was a man or woman”. It makes sense with that background, and in that setting.

      2. Let’s take the setting of Dragon Age. Bad, rough place. We see so much hatred, fear and discrimination of elves, mages, etc. I have a really hard time believing that Ferelden is a good place to be a woman. Then there are few women in power by their own right (not their husbands), and atop that they are sissies like Isolde or snakes like Anora. But that’s all backdrop, it doesn’t affect your female Grey Warden. It would make sense in that setting, that both genders play quite differently. (You could argue that instead, they created the Origins which, IMO, do a good job of allowing you to identify with your avatar. I first played a female elf mage, and I got really defiant about being disciminated doubly. Realistically, my poor Izka would’ve been a triple target.)

  4. When I read this I thought of the “shrink it and Pink it” phenomenon of marketing to women. You know: make it cute, make it pink and YES! Somehow that makes your product *perfect* for every female alive.

    In this case we have the “boobs and makeup” phenomenon. Add boobs, and make up and voila! a female character. (oh… minus some clothes too… you know we could have a blast creating an equation to create the standard female avatar…)

    i need to think on this more: but I do want different but equal in my male vs. female avatars. I HATED the fact that Jill Valentine, fro the original Resident Evil got special perks over Chris. It was like she couldn’t be expected to survive the zombie horde without a ton of extras, even though she has had the same training as her male counterparts. Big boo…

    But what do I want in my women? I am not sure… The thing is as women, we are not a monolith. We are all different. Do I act this way because I am me, or because I am a woman? I don’t know.

    But yes, it is very interesting that developers can’t seem to get women right. I just don’t know exactly where they are going wrong.

    1. I agree! Not sure either if it’s *me* or *because I’m a woman*!

      Haven’t played RE, but I would’ve hated that too!

      I think they got some female NPCs right lately, as you pointed out with Dr. Chakwas. I personally adored Wynne from DA:O, even though she’s a female healer. 😉 She’s caring, but also very witty and determinated to do what she believes in. She’s the first female elderly NPC, at least I can’t think of any now. Male NPCs were often older, like Keldorn in BG2, but with Wynne, we see “age issues” given more room in a game, and in a positive, humorous way.

  5. I agree with Jeffrey, in that they go off of what you do not who you are. Can you really blame them for not distinguishing the two sexes? The work it would take to create a game with seperate story lines leading to the same conclusion(for the sake of both sides) would be timely and expensive. It is easy to say its not fair since we arent creating the game, but they can only do so much.

    I believe it has come a long way in accepting that half of there buyers are actually female. Even though I still cant stand that every fighting game seems to reveal more skin and bigger boobs as graphics get better. Would a woman really be doing Martial Arts in pasties?….not likely(but very good distraction tactic I guess) =P

    I know I like to play COD..and would love a female skin for whoopin ass to say ” Yes I am FEMALE..now eat a bullet!!” But I also know that this is unrealistic..since IF I am correct woman cant even engage in direct combat in an actual war. The idea is nice but I love that it has a sense of realism too. When it comes to zombies….what sensable woman would go running at one anyhow? lol Women have a whole set of needs and thoughts that differ from men….they wouldnt ever be able to get it right, cause the realism would never fit in a fantasy game.

    1. Hmmm…. that’s a good point, thanks for your comment! Realism is a tricky issue in games. Not all men like to go to war either. Not all men could, even if they tried really hard, achieve the skills we simply assign to them. We usually see normal people who are forced by something to pick up a sword/gun/whatever, they’re not doing it by choice. (Of course there are exceptions!) Even games without magic are hardly “really realistic”.

      I don’t think that the entire game has to be different, it’s little bits here and there. My real life will never be 100% different from a man’s, because we’re all human beings who are largely doing similar things. As in “different but equal”, the solution lies somewhere in the middle. And I believe that more women in the gaming industry would serve the purpose to make those subtle things work. 🙂

      On the other hand, if we agree on this being a matter of time and cost, then I would at least to expect half the games to feature a female point of view, and the other half a male point of view. But usually, we get treated to a male perspective, even if they pretend you have a choice. As Jenn Frank wrote in her post, we get to pick the sex, but the gender is usually male anyway.

  6. Interesting to find a woman yearning for the “equal but different” side while still insisting that jobs have to be filled with 50 percent women, no matter if they want to fill those positions or if they would prefer to pursue different jobs…
    Equal opportunities for all, but if certain choices aren’t made, this doesn’t necessary mean that people are hindered to take those choices…

    1. I never said 50% or regardless of whether they want these careers or positions. You keep twisting my words until I fit your desired “enemy image” whose arguments are easily knocked-down by yours. At least you stopped comparing me to your ex-wife. My heartfelt thanks for that.

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