September 23, 2010

When I'm Not Resentful Playing a Girl: By A Girl Gamer

A while ago this article caught my eye.  It focuses on the popularity of Femshep, the female version of Shepard in the Mass Effect series, despite the fact that she's barely part of the advertising campaign if at all. A good amount of people appreciate Femshep, and a lot of people who are diehard fans make sure to play through the game as both genders.

Edit: New Shepard, again who ever made
this one, your Shep is pretty so thank you!
What makes playing Femshep so popular despite no help from marketing?  In fact, what makes a lot of female characters popular?  Especially in situations where you don't have boobs busting out all over to sell your product (like Femshep or Samus).

You know what I think?  I think some of the best characters in video game storytelling are characters where the gender is, in all honesty, a side note.  The character is not overtly masculine or feminine, but instead a character with a deep background that has little to do with gender if anything at all.  Samus is a great example, since in the first game she appeared, you didn't realize she was a woman until you beat the game.  It was a huge surprise to the gaming world back then.  And after that, all of those fans kept playing regardless.  

Another character that has been popular is Master Chief.  I will admit that Halo is not a series I play a lot, but Master Chief is definitely a popular character for the Halo series, and is another example of how gender as a side note works.  We know he's a guy, but it rarely ever comes up in game.  His talks very little and is merely there to get the job done.  He's a no-nonsense guy, and you can relate to him because just like you, he's there to complete the mission.  He's not some beefcake hero.  

Characters I find hard to relate to, and instead are put on pillars of adoration or sexualization, are characters who's gender and sex roles are brought to the forefront.  Gender referring to social constructs, sex referring to scientific characterization.  Gender is the idea that women wear dresses.  Sex is the idea that women have a uterus.  Makes sense?  Good!
With most video game characters, the gender ideas tend to be the ones that distance them from us.  For example, the main guys for Gears of War are beefy men, with muscles that I'm not sure are humanly possible, carrying huge guns, dressed like space lumberjacks, and their only accessories are headbands and bullets.  Not even soldiers out on the field look ANYTHING like this.  This Rambo ideal is something that is impressed upon men from when they're young, the idea that a real hero is this huge beefy guy that can pull a truck and chews cigars.  But do you actually know a man in your life who fits this example to a T?  99 out of 100 people don't.  Instead, it's an ideal that we chase from when guys are young playing with actions figures.  You're not relating to the Gears of War guy at all when you first look at him.  You're hoping to become him.

Gender for women in video games tends to go the route of sexual objectification.  Let's go back to Heavenly Sword, with Nariko.  Sure, there is something empowering about a female main character with a large sword killing tons of bad guys all on her own.  But she still poses in half of the art and marketing as if she's a pin-up girl.  It can get even worse when it's not even a main character.  Hell, it gets worse even when it is a main character.  Bayoneta, although admittedly a game I would love to try out, has a main character who's sexualization is the entire point of the character, from the way she presents herself in cut scenes to the way she fights with magic and guns in her high-heel shoes.  I'm not going to say there's something wrong with this in the industry.  With the way human minds work, there will always be a market for main characters that are sexy.  But I have to say that these are not characters you can look at and go "I can totally relate to them."  These are characters that embody the ideals society will never meet.  The same ideals that have made it okay photoshopping models who are already paid to look hot, look even hotter.

However, even though these games sell, they never gain the kind of popularity that certain characters have gained over time.  Mario, Samus, Master Chief, Link, Sonic... these are characters that are not initially defined by their gender roles but something else entirely.  Something that makes them relatable enough to play over and over again without you even caring about how they look.  I know, it makes no sense that you should relate to an Italian plumber stereotype that grows bigger with mushrooms and stomps on turtles.  However, could it help that his awkward shortness and slight tummy make it easier for you, as a player, to look at him and go "That's the kind of hero I can be."?  Or to look at characters in full armor like Samus and Master Chief, who have made it their profession to do what they do in the video games, and acquire enough gear to make it believable?  They're not half naked statuesque demi-gods that can take continuous bullets and stab wounds and still look good.  They're just people.

And I think that's why FemShep is popular despite the lack of marketing attention.  She's just a woman with a past and a job to do.  She's LITERALLY saving the entire universe, do you think she even has time to care about her looks?  She barely has time to think about romance.  Although the same is true about MaleShep, it's noted more in FemShep because rarely is a female depicted as just a person with a job to do.  No boobs popping out to remind you she's a girl, no constant reminding about how beautiful she is compared to everyone else, and no saying "Hey, you're just as good as the men around here" to constantly remind us she is an above-average woman.  Gender is not completely devoid of all interaction, but it is devoid of the basis of Shepard's character.  

And that's true for a lot of the other female characters I like to play as well.  I remember when I first picked up Left 4 Dead, I told the Boyfriend that I never wanted to play Zoey because she's  girl.  But to be honest, out of the four characters she was the one I related to the most, and not just because she was a girl.  She is about my age, college girl who is a huge nerd, and that nerdom is helping her survive.  And none of the gameplay, and barely any of the script, revolves around the fact that she's a girl.  She's just doing her best to survive and sticking with the other 3 people who seems to still be alive in this mess of a zombie apocalypse.  Rochelle in L4D2 is in the same position, and once again her gender is no real concern.  Other than a quip about a frying pan and hitting on Francis during The Passing campaign, her gender doesn't matter.  I think, as the kind of girl who plays video games even if there isn't a female character (like a lot of girl gamers out there), this is the kind of female character I'm willing to play.  

Last thing, a lot of fans got as angry as Craig and Destin from Screw Attack did when they finally played Metroid: Other M.  Why?  If you listen to their audio review on SideScrollers, it's essentially because gender got in the way.  Samus is made to be the stereotypical meek female personality for a good amount of the scenes.  They took a character that was badass, and made her a little girl in some parts of the story.  This is not the Samus fans grew up with.  Hell, I never played the games and this is not the Samus I grew up with.  If this is something that the mostly male fan base is noticing, someone in writing/casting/directing of that story screwed up.

We have to look at gender in videogames and realize that it's not necessary to shaping a main character that appeals to gamers.  I think the video game industry would be better served if they realized that.


  1. You are my hero. :)

  2. Found this from lurking the forums... Great article! FemShep is my favourite female protagonist to play as for exactly the reasons you listed.

    I agree with your closing statement especially - we'll never see games that were as timeless as the ones you mentioned if game devs focus on making gender the defining characteristic of a protagonist; these characters are one-dimensional and certainly not memorable. I think BioWare is doing excellent work when it comes to making relatable, multi-faceted protagonists. (Or allowing the player to! ^_^)

  3. Hey!

    Very interesting reflexion. I totally agree with you.

    Why are the society constantly stereotyping the women and men's role??
    As you correctly have said:

    - Woman: references to her boobs or ass > rarely it doesn't appear
    She is usually who have to be rescued by the 'strong' man
    - Man: is the hero. "What happens?? problem".

    OK, maybe it is a little exagerated sometimes, however it continues, camouflated, more fine... but finally it is the same. I really hate when in the videogames, films or closer, in real life, it appears and many times you just accept it. It is sad...

    So when I play Mass Effect as FemShep all this seem to disappear. As you correctly say: there is no time to concern about the gender, Don't matter when a galaxy must be saved.

    I'm a guy, a ME gamer, a member of ME community as you, and after to play Mass Effect,no doubt my heroine is FemShep, my absolute hero.

    Thanks you

    by M3cHr3p71l