Gender, Gaming and Choice
Something I didn’t cover in my introduction is my slight obsession with the illusion of choice. I’ll probably mention it with respect to supermarkets after the next major shopping trip, but here’s a piece I wrote a few months ago about choice in computer games. I was planning to take this to a conference about women in the gaming industry, but although the conference itself wasn’t hugely expensive, the cost of getting there and accomodation really put me off.
One day, not too long ago, someone decided “more women will play this game if we let them choose a female character.” Whether this statement is true or not, these days the idea that the player should have the opportunity to choose to play as a male or female has spread widely.
In the early days of games, you got what you were given. Yes, fewer women played games than men, but that wasn’t because they weren’t represented – it was, and still is, because gaming is seen as a masculine pursuit, socially unacceptable for women. There are many pursuits that are seen as gendered, and gaming is just one of them.
When Samus Aran removed her helmet at the end of Metroid, did the male gamers feel cheated? No. They weren’t playing as themselves. They were playing as Samus Aran, intergalactic bounty hunter, the character that Nintendo had provided them with. Similarly, girls playing Super Mario didn’t feel that they weren’t being represented – they were being Mario, plumber and jack of all trades, and their gender didn’t affect that.
The problem with choosing a character rather than being presented with one is that the question is often phrased as asking who you are. Leaving aside the problem of being a non-binary gender and being presented with two choices, how many ways can you choose which represents you? You might identify as female but would never wear that dress; you might identify as male but think that armour’s impractical. How are either of these characters you, when they look nothing like you? Why is your gender specifying all that you are?
Gamers these days are expecting to be able to play as their gender. The first time I started thinking about this was in response to complaints by a male player about having to play as a female character in Brawler Whirled in Three Rings’ Whirled. I’d just played the game myself, as a male character, and wasn’t expecting that there would be a playable female character. Side-scrolling sword-em-ups aren’t a genre that I expected that from. I was rather surprised at his comments, as up to then I hadn’t realised that people chose their character to be like them. Was he this angry playing as Lara Croft in Tombraider?
Online multiplayer generally brings more customisation options, to distinguish players from each other, but that also brings its own issues. My breasts are not that shape. I’m taller than that. I can’t have hair anything like my colour. Who would wear any of this? How you look also affects how others interact with you. You might have chosen female so that you could have long hair, and suddenly it’s “We’re all girls here.” You might have chosen male so you could wear trousers, and now you’re one of the lads.
The first character that I designed for use in Three Rings’ multiplayer game Puzzle Pirates was female. Back then, I didn’t really think I had a choice – society tells me that I am female, so I must tell society that I am female. Though female characters had a greater clothing range, the choices within it that I would actually wear were limited. I never had anyone try to chat me up because I was seen as female, but I know friends in other games that have. Now, we’re all playing as men, because they look more like us and don’t lead to uncomfortable situations as easily.
Character customisation is here to stay, because online multiplayer appears to require it. How can we do it well? My favourite customisation section in a game is in My Sims, by EA games. The character you play has (amongst other customisation) a choice of outfits, a choice of hairstyles, a choice of voice pitches. Some are masculine, some are feminine, and some could go either way. You can have a deep voice, pigtails and wear a suit, and because you can customise your character throughout the game, the next day you can have a high voice, a skirt and a bald head. No-where do you specify your gender – meaning that the options you are allowed to choose from are not reduced by a gender choice – and pronouns are never used for you.
My current usual haunt, Three Rings’ Whirled, has moved towards this model because of the level of customisation innately involved in Whirled. The vast majority of content is user generated, including the avatars. This means that there’s no relationship between the choice of avatars available and the gender box you may or may not have ticked. If you can’t find anything that suits you exactly, you can create your own and upload it to the site – or see if a kindly soul will make you a custom avatar, for a fee, of course. People don’t see me a huge amount, because I’m usually in games, but I tend to go for androgynous avatars if I can. (Some areas contradict this paragraph by having only a select few avatars useable in their area, so this can lead to the usual problems, which are highlighted in contrast to the rest of the site.)
Of course, in some situations pronouns are required, so why not just put that as a choice alongside body shape and wardrobe? A simple choice of he or she will be enough for most people, though you’ll be surprised how many people click the custom button.
Being able to choose a character is not necessarily negative, but if it is implemented in a bad way, with a clichéd view of who gamers are and want to look like, it will drive away more female and genderqueer players than having to play as Mario ever did.