So far I’ve been lucky and haven’t had a troll come stomping in to tell me to suck it up and play as male characters, but I thought it was worth thinking about why it’s so important to me.
It seems very simple. I’m a woman. I love women. I want to play as a woman. And yet, somehow, this is asking too much.
I look at games like Smash Brothers, or Mario Kart, and there’s a huge roster of characters to pick from, but they’re 90% male, and, as astute commenter Anneliese pointed out here,
The other (male) characters all have something to define and distinguish them from the crowd – a special feature no one else has that gives them a gameplay advantage. The female characters are defined by their femaleness.
And then in games where you don’t have a choice of character, you’re playing a guy. Since I’m very much a Nintendo gamer, in one-player games, I’m a guy…basically always. I’m Link or Mario or sometimes Luigi. Now, Nintendo does a good job of not enforcing hyper-masculinity for their characters (Link is downright pretty, and Mario, uh, collects rainbow-coloured stars and uses flower power to fight enemies) which makes a less off-putting environment for women, but other franchises suffer from the same guy-centrism without the balancing female-acceptance.
Unfortunately, I don’t play first-person shooters (originally because I found the violence boring and pointless, but nowadays it’s because my hands are too small to use an Xbox controller. No, really.) so I can’t comment first-hand on gender issues in non-Nintendo games. But I’ve never seen my brothers play as a girl. Ever.
Until Mass Effect! Because, you see, there is a solution: let the players create their own characters. The story of Mass Effect looked interesting to me, so I settled myself in as guide-person to direct them to the coolest side-quests and watch it like I would a movie. We created a female character with some badass scars, named her Ripley, and had an awesome time with the game.
Allowing character customization also solves the problem of underrepresentation of people of colour, which I can’t speak to personally but which is a serious issue. It’s the perfect way to be inclusive without the risk of tokenism, since, by definition, the character can’t be relegated to the sidelines as eye-candy (or whatever). Boring white guys can still play as boring white guys and won’t have to be “threatened” by anything different, but everyone else will have the unusual opportunity to put themselves into the game world, and isn’t that the point of video games?
It wouldn’t work right away with some franchises– I’m really amused at the idea of a customizable Mario– but aren’t we getting a little sick of seeing the same characters brought back from the dead again and again? It could breathe new life into some old franchises, to allow people to use their Miis as the main characters, for example. And it would force them to be a little more clever with their writing, coming up with a plot that works just as well for either gender.
A lot of original-storyline games are already doing this– of the ones I own, Oblivion, Rock Band, and Mass Effect all had great character-building options– but a lot inexplicably aren’t, like Assassin’s Creed and Halo. Character customization doesn’t guarantee a perfect game– cough, cough, FABLE, which forgot to allow you to be female– but it gets us a lot closer and so I hope to see a lot more of it.