Monday, March 03, 2008

Gender Select:

My sense of myself as female is, as you may know, extremely important to me, and, like many women I know who play games, when given the choice between playing as a male character or a female character, all other things being equal, I'll pretty much always go with the female character. Particularly in role-playing games like Oblivion, I just feel a deeper sense of connection to my character that way, and I also really appreciate those rare instances when games with pre-set characters have female characters who are interesting and don't have proportions that would look grotesque on an actual human being. (Alex Roivas in Eternal Darkness is perhaps my favorite female character in a game, but such characters are still all too rare.) However, that's not to say that I feel a particular barrier between myself and my character in those situations when I have to play as a male, which is, let's face it, almost all the time. It's sort of like playing Burnout Paradise, in which you're just a car. I, myself, am not a car, but I still feel every crash in the game pretty intensely. Still, it bugs me when I come away from a game feeling like it would have been pretty easy for the developers to provide the option to play as a female, but they just didn't bother.

I think that, as a very broad generalization that has millions of exceptions, men are a bit more put off by the idea of playing as a woman than women are by the idea of playing as a man, though whether this is because women are inherently more easygoing about this sort of thing, or because of misogyny on the part of those men who have issues playing as a woman, or just because women have been forced to accept that, more often than not, playing a game means playing as a male character, I'm not really sure. And as I said, that's an exceptionally broad generalization. There are plenty of men who regularly play as female characters for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes there's nothing more to it than a sense that if you're going to spend hundreds of hours looking at a character, it might as well be one that you find visually appealing. But there are plenty of more complex reasons behind why some men do this as well. And certainly women will occasionally create male characters, though if I had to guess I'd say this probably happens less frequently than the opposite.

What got me thinking about this was a comment I read from a female gamer in response to this article, an appreciation piece about Gordon Freeman, the protagonist of Valve's exceptional Half-Life games. The piece asserts:

Gordon Freeman’s neutrality of dialogue and lack of overt personality within the game do not make him a non-character, but are in fact his strength. His lack of preconcieved identity provides not a single barrier with which to distance him from the player’s own personality, making him a blank canvas on which they can imprint their own values and outlook. Valve have even made it impossible for the player to ever see Gordon from a third-person perspective, either through cut-scene or reflection, meaning that in no instance does the effect of seeing a character who does not look like themselves pull the player out of the experience of ‘being’ him.

The comment I read about this assertion, which I'm deliberately taking totally out of context because I admit I'm more interested at this point in what it made me think about than what she actually meant, essentially stated that the flaw in this argument was that it was impossible for her to project herself onto Gordon Freeman because Freeman is male. While I would probably have felt a deeper connection to the protagonist of the Half-Life games if that protagonist were female, this argument seemed odd to me, as playing as Gordon Freeman never really impacted my ability to feel engrossed in the story and world of the Half-Life games. But then I realized that it's fully possible that I'm the odd one. People sometimes think that transgendered people have some sort of insightful perspective into gender dynamics, but I usually feel just the opposite, that my own perspective, anyway, is probably pretty limited and distorted, existing, as I do, outside of any gender dynamic I've ever felt at home in.

I guess I just don't feel like gender, while an aspect of our sense of personal identity whose impact cannot be overstated, is the be-all, end-all of our ability to relate to each other as human beings. While I feel deeply that I'm female, there are certainly some men I feel I can relate to pretty well, and plenty of women I can't relate to at all, and my sense is that this is true of most people. And I sometimes think that people give this stuff too much weight, or see barriers between the sexes that don't exist. It's not unusal to hear someone say, of a book written by a man in which the narrator is a woman, that the author didn't convincingly capture the female voice, or to say the opposite about a book written by a woman in which the narrator is a man. (A woman I know recently said she didn't feel that Donna Tartt was entirely convincing in writing from the male perspective in her novel The Secret History, for example.) And sometimes that may be true, but I also think that at times people scrutinize these books more, and latch on to anything that might ring false to them, things that perhaps wouldn't make them bat an eye if the author was actually the same gender as the narrator. Would the narrator of The Secret History have seemed odd to my acquaintance, I wonder, if the book had been written by a man? Or is she right in saying that there's something quintessentially female about the way the book is written, and no man in the history of the world would ever have written a male narrator that way? That's definitely possible.

This higher level of scrutiny is similar, it seems to me, to what many transgendered people experience, when they're held to a different standard of masculinity or femininity than, for lack of a better term, "cissexual" men and women. One might attempt to deny a transsexual woman her femaleness, for instance, by saying, "He's not really female, he likes video games too much," but wouldn't dream of applying this same logic to those cissexual women who love video games.

Anyway, I don't have any pat conclusion with which to tie a bow on this ramble. These are just some thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head lately, and if you have any thoughts on playing games as a character of your gender vs. playing as a character of the opposite gender, or about anything else I've touched on here, do share.


In other news, the job hunt continues! I had an interview today that I think went well, at a place just off Market St. in the hustle and bustle of Downtown San Francisco. If I get this position, I think I'll enjoy having a reason to head into SF every day.

And just to further demonstrate how screwy my perspective on things is, here's the funniest thing I've seen recently: Garfield Minus Garfield. It is exactly what the title says it is, and the header on the main page is spot-on:

Who would have guessed that when you remove Garfield from the Garfield comic strips, the result is an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolor disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life? Friends, meet Jon Arbuckle. Let’s laugh and learn with him on a journey deep into the tortured mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against lonliness in a quiet American suburb.
Well, spot-on aside from the fact that they spelled loneliness wrong. Anyway, I think the strip is brilliant, and it made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. And, yes, I even find it oddly poignant. What's wrong with me?


Aaron said...

Back when I played more RPGs and I cared more about roleplaying I'd occasionally play female characters. Now that I have less time and energy to devote to RPGs I really only play male characters. I guess because it requires less work.

So the characters Alex Roivas and Gordon Freeman are an abstract mathematician and a theoretical physicist, respectively. I know a number of people of this persuasion and their gender is pretty much irrelevant.

Oh, and Garfield Without Garfield, I think I wet my pants.

Adam said...

Roberta Williams, creator of King's Quest, once said that studies showed that men didn't care about the gender of the character they played but women preferred to play as female characters.

That was before video game characters became excessively sexual, though. I would like to see if things have changed as a result.

For me, all things being equal, I don't care about the gender of the character in a video game. If given a choice, I tend to play as a male, but if that isn't an option I don't complain about playing as a female.

What does bother me is when I have to play as someone who dresses provocatively for no reason or has unrealistic proportions, regardless of gender.

It's fine in a game like God of War because it isn't meant to be taken seriously, but the Rachel portions of Ninja Gaiden Sigma, for example, make me embarrased that I own a copy of that game.

Anonymous said...

I generally agree with everything you said, and that got me thinking about something I often feel pressured to do by people in my community.

It seems that gay people have this sort of assumption that you'll want to hang out with other gays all of the time. I can think of only two friends I have that are gay. My closest, greatest friend is heterosexual. This seems to bother people I know. They're curious and want to know why I don't hang out with more lesbians and do "lesbian" things? It seems sort of short-sighted to project these behavioral demands at someone (that person being me). I don't have to communicate with gays in order to have better life experiences. Its sort of like what you suggested about playing Gordon Freeman. The ability to connect or relate to others does in larger part have to do with who we are as people and what we have in common, but that doesn't make us blind to who other people are and keep us from making connections with them. It doesn't make our ability to relate to others null and void.

Now, I'm ranting. :o)

Emiroo said...

I don't know why, but whenever I play a new fighting game. I almost always choose to learn using the female character. I learned how to play Street Fighter II using Chun Li. I learned how to play Mortal Kombat II with Kitana. I started playing Tekken 2. using Jun Kazama. For some reason, I'm drawn to the female character. Later, I'll move on to the other (male) characters but it has to have some significance right?
(And for the record, Chun-Li & Jun are still the best fighters in their respective series IMO.)

And I LOVE RPGs with a broader spectrum of female personalities. Final Fantasy 8 comes to mind. I'm not going to lie, "eye candy" does have a welcome place in games, but it's just a shame that that the candy is almost never balanced out with more meat and potatos.

31160618 said...

I agree with you that people are much too complex to be lopped into their corresponding pool of gender when it comes to personal tastes (... or mental disorders :P ), but I've always thought of gender politics as something more to be enjoyed than to assuage a person. With respect to videogames, I generally agree with what adam has to say about videogame characters tending to be oversexualized (although, it more gives me chuckles more than anything else). I guess I'm just pretty easy going with whatever group dynamics I'm placed in, so I just never really gave damn about gender politics... unless I'm dating someone.

In any case, good luck with your job hunting. Although I've never been to San Francisco, I've seen all the pictures and found it to be one of the most beautiful places to work in. I hope you get that job! :)