Mar 21, 2013

Cross-Gender in Games

One of the attractions to gaming is that it allows the player to explore worlds and personalities that they would otherwise never experience. Fantasy wish-fulfillment is a major part of the hobby. We play aliens, robots, mutants, demigods, superheroes, elves, wizards, detectives, sentient gas clouds, and everything that falls in between.

Yet there aren't many gamers I've met who'll regularly play the opposite gender to their own, at least in a tabletop game. I suppose the reasons are different for everyone. Some guys find it uncomfortable to act like a woman in front of their friends, especially if a romantic sub-plot comes up and they're expected to flirt with a male character. Some people, like myself, just find it easier to get into the mindset of their own gender. Others just haven't really thought about it much and choose their own gender because it's what first comes to mind when creating a character.

Now, I'm not saying I find it difficult to portray women. I have lots of women in my books and frequently use female POV characters. But that's different. That's work, and I work very hard to make sure I'm not screwing things up when I write women. My crit partners will tell you, one of my biggest sources of insecurity as a writer is the fear that someone will read by books and think "there's no way a real woman would think that!"

Gaming is fun. It's my downtime. I want to play characters I find comfortable and easy to slip into. So when coming up with character ideas, my mind tends to tick off the "male" box. It's a habit. But it's one I wouldn't mind breaking, in the right circumstances, where I don't feel quite as much pressure to "get it right."

For example, I'm playing through Mass Effect again, this time with a female character. I'm flirting with Kaidan, and fully intend to romance Thane in Mass Effect 2. I'm enjoying the experience, in no small part because Jennifer Hale is an amazing voice actress. Also because I find I'm looking for more strong female protagonists these days.

Someone once said to me that the female Commander Shepard is so much more impressive than the male. Where the male Shepard is a badass, female Shepard, Femshep, is like a force of nature. I found this interesting, since Femshep has the same dialogue and physical actions as a male Shepard. So, setting aside the comparative quality of the two voice actors, what we have is people crediting the female Shepard with being more impressive than the male, despite the fact the two do exactly the same things. The only difference is gender. Are certain actions more impressive, more heroic, just because it's a woman doing them?

In contrast, are gentler, softer actions, like showing compassion or caring for someone with an injury, considered more kind if the character is male?

Society holds men and woman to different standards. It's unfair and I believe it's most often damaging, particularly when a woman is shamed for behaving like a man with regard to her sex life, or when a man is mocked for showing a feminine side. But can this inequality give rise to positive responses? Is it right that we applaud an action more when a person is acting outside of typical gender stereotypes? Perhaps. Perhaps things have been so unfair for so long we need a little extra positive reinforcement to fix it.

One thing I love about gaming is the chance it offers to explore these concepts. We can create our own stories, where men and women can show their weaknesses, their softer sides, and find the strength to overcome their challenges.

Hmm, this topic became more of a ramble than I'd intended. Still, it's given me some things to think about. What about you guys? Anything to add?


  1. My tendency towards playing the female characters/avatars in most RPG and MMO's is a long standing thing. Oddly, given how well I manage it, I've always found it remarkably difficult to do so in a tabletop setting. I think for me, voice is a factor. I can type text, and have it come out in the right voice when it reads through my head, but somehow if I speak the words out loud, as one must in a TT game, they just don't gel properly with the image I have constructed. Also, I think the lack of a face to go with the voice (even though I know exactly what many of the people I rp with in games look like, the lack of an immediate visual means there's no dissonance.


    1. That's a fair point. I suppose, GMing as much as I have, I'm used to dealing with that level of dissonance, since I've always had to play both male and female NPCs.

  2. I've tended to play female characters in tabletop games (With the exception of Alex Knight in that IRC-based Mutants and Masterminds campaign you ran.)

    When it comes to gaming, in World of Warcraft I found my female characters tended to be the more physical classes (Warrior, Hunter, Shaman, Paladin), compared to my male characters (Priest, Mage, Warlock, with Rogue being an exception.)

    With City of Heroes, there was a good mix of genders, I think I was about even at one point. I chose their gender not based on archetype, but on what felt right for the character. A nebulous selection type, but it worked for me.

    What may be interesting with the female Shephard case is that for all it's RPG roots, it's an action shooter. An action shooter with the choice of a female protagonist. We all know default, advert-featured MaleShep is your generic muscled, short-haired Caucasian soldier boy, a character type that is found in pretty much every single action shooter out there.

    FemShep isn't. And it took until Mass Effect 3 for her to get some slight presence in the advertising for the game.

    - Ellen J Miller.

    1. I've found that, as FemShep, I'm more willing to be a bit of a badass. Granted I took the Sole Survivor background instead of War Hero, so I'm playing her with a bit of PTSD and a serious grudge against Cerberus and anyone who would put people through hell like that, but there are some small things here and there that I just find easier to accept coming from her. Like punching the reporter. If male Shepard does that, he's a soldier hitting a woman. But Femshep? It doesn't trigger as much of a problem with me if she does it.