Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Gender Button

There’s a complaint among video game players that female characters are nothing but sex objects or the reward for the male hero to receive after he rescues her from Bowser. Valid points, but I’ve noticed a relatively new trend popping up in games that seems to not only address the problem but catapult it to the other side of the spectrum.
Let me explain: I recently bought Diablo 3 for X Box 360. Now having grown up with the Diablo series, I was always perturbed that in order to be a sorcerer or an assassin I had to either be a scantily clad Storm knock off or a sassy Catwoman knock off respectively. Diablo 3 addressed this issue by making every character either male or female based off an option in character creation. The only thing this changes in gameplay is how the character looks and sounds.
This isn’t the first game I’ve seen this in. I first saw it in Knights of the Old Republic, but I’ve seen it in the Mass Effect series, the Elder Scrolls series and Saints Row. These games keep the stories the same, even though the gender of the character is changed.
I’m not sure if this is really a good thing or not. It seems to me that this makes the statement that gender is a purely cosmetic differentiation and has no sociological differentiations or differences in how different genders react to situations.
Before you start screaming that I’m some sort of misogynist, I’m not saying that female characters should run around in hysterics just because they’re facing a dragon. Take Korra from the Legend of Korra series. Korra’s gender has never come into play in the series, except with her interaction with the Fire Ferrets. Korra’s not out to prove that she’s tough for a girl, or a good female Avatar, she’s out to prove that she’s tough, and that she’s a good Avatar. Yet if her character were to be replaced with a male character, aside from the romantic aspect, would anyone be able to tell? And is that a bad thing?
I guess that’s really the interesting question here: While female characters shouldn’t be dressed up as Playboy bunnies, can these societies really exist? If we didn’t have years of gender oppression or gender stereotyping, would men and women react exactly the same if they were put into the exact same situation?
Of course, this could all just be that it’s easier to make a different skin and voice for a character rather than write and animate two completely different stories based on gender, all to please insufferable fans who prefer playing male characters when it really doesn’t matter to the story, but it’s an interesting thought none the less.
What do you think?



  1. Interesting question that brings up a lot of interesting points for me. Some games do a good job of portraying female characters. In the legend of Zelda (at least Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time) Zelda was fighting alongside Link. Midna from Twilight Princess played a very large role in the game as well. I could also bring up the protagonist from Remember Me, who is female. She was a very human character, and strong and tough to boot. One of my favorite female characters from a video game is Bayonetta. She enjoyed playing to her feminine charms while also not being a pushover. She was the master of playing 'hard to get'. I'm sure there are many other examples.

    Also, I'd like to point out that the female models in Diablo 3 looked like actual women and not Playboy bunnies in armor. I think it's ridiculous how little armor some female characters end up wearing in some video games.

  2. You're right Andrew. The female versions in Diablo 3 actually get MORE clothes as the game goes on that actually covers them! That's progressive!

  3. I think it's equally important that a strong woman and female lead can be strong in a non physical way. This would probably wouldn't work in shoot-em-up beat-em-up video games but is done really well in the movie Brave.

    You have Princess Merida's mother who is not much like her daughter in the way of interests. Merida is brash, likes to play outside, and is inappropriate. The queen is organized, likes to be clean, and has manners. Both are very headstrong. The queen is not a warrior woman like how Merida could be but she shows her strength in her dedication, optimism, and getting a mom-of-the-year award for not shaming her daughter when turned into a bear. You'd think that would give the queen every right but she continues to be patient with her rebellious teenage daughter. Strong female character and fights her battles but not in the way of the sword.

  4. Honestly, I'm not even sure what you're trying to say in this article. Are you trying to argue for stronger, less stereotyped female characters? Or are you trying to open up a discussion on if it's possible to have a society where gender really doesn't matter and wouldn't it be nice if it still did matter? And what spectrum are you talking about? Your main point isn't exactly clear.

    I love the games where you can fully customize your character without impacting the story! Isn't that how society should be? That gender should not have any affect on how you are treated? And I'm not talking about instances of courtesy. Opening doors and pulling out chairs are signs of respect and should be done for anyone, regardless of gender. I am talking about how 'society' would react to gender in things like opportunities given/earned in your career, respect of personal choices and boundaries, equal pay, equal vote and voice in the public as well as private sphere, etc. Women want to be treated equally, and that extends to in video games. Even if a few new games are more sensitive or appealing to both genders with their approach to the representation of women, that doesn't mean that it has ceased to be an issue. Nothing proves that more to me than the entire Grand Theft Auto series! If you're wondering why women are concerned about how they are portrayed in a video game, it's because the female characters perpetuate false notions of what makes a woman strong or feminine or attractive or powerful or worthy of respect and trust.

    Andrew, Bayonetta is not a great example, even if she is the main, playable character of the game. Bayonetta using her feminine charms and "playing hard to get" is exactly the kind of female stereotyping that is not okay. I haven't played the games, but I looked up the character to double check. If she's trying to use her sexual appeal as a means to an end, then she's the highlight of a male fantasy. Sounds like she fits right in with all the other femme fatales. To me, what may seem as a cookie cutter female Shepherd from Mass Effect would be a stronger character than Bayonetta, unless other options open up in game where the gamer is given the option to open up alternative avenues for her personality and approach.

    Lara Croft from the most recent Tomb Raider is one of my favorite examples of a strong female lead in a video game. She's tough, dedicated to saving her friends, but she is young and vulnerable. Through much of the game, she does rely on help from her male mentor. While some people view that as a crutch, I think it's more to do with her youth and inexperience in a hostile situation than her gender. Throughout the game, she grows! She becomes wiser and stronger.

    I like what Stephen had to say about Brave, even if it isn't quite applicable if we're talking video games and not movies. Both Merida and her mother are very strong female characters while being very different. It is possible for a woman to be strong and enjoy weaving! Or for her to dress in a more traditionally feminine way. Strong woman does not always mean physically aggressive or having the ability to destroy an opponent with her pinky.

    On the issue of the player character having an easily exchangeable gender, I don't think that should be a problem. The personality of the main character should have the greater affect on a story. It is not only more practical for the game designers, but I think it sends a better message as well to all of the consumers of that game.

    1. Perhaps a few sentences describing a character fails to do her justice. Although it is interesting you chose to pick out what you deemed the one 'not okay' example out of all of my post.

      As one person stated, female characters from video games tended to be either 'ice queens' ('I'm totally uncaring about other people') or basically nothing more than adult little girls. It's always refreshing when something breaks those stereotypes and there are plenty examples of that. Lara, Merida, and dare I say, Bayonetta.

      She shows just as much character development as another person. Selfish and self serving at first, she eventually grows to care for the people around her. Femme fatale is a highly inaccurate description of her. From that video game, it would have been homme fatale. The male "romantic interest" was the one that needed all the rescuing.

      Also, I enjoy characters with personality. Cookie cutter design is boring.

  5. Ashley the reason I brought this topic up is to spark discussion like this, so your answer is perfect. :)
    I think you're right that gender shouldn't matter, and that a strong female character isn't one that has to remind the audience that she is a woman. Like I said, I like having the option to choose my gender in video games, I was just curious to see what other's thought about it from a gender equality perspective. :)