Why I want to play as female characters.

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.

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17 Responses to Why I want to play as female characters.

  1. Esra says:

    I used to write game reviews and articles for a site popular enough to garner me feedback and talked a lot about ladies and games.

    I kept getting emails asking what women wanted in games and my reply was pretty much always: the same thing men want in games. We want to see elements of ourselves in the character, we want compelling gameplay and storylines, we want to see some new ideas.

    It was like, mind blowing to the guys emailing me who seemed to think all we really wanted was more godforsaken Barbie games or something.

    I remember a fellow reviewer complaining because he reviewed Harvest Moon for Girl and “couldn’t connect with the character. Why would I want to play a girl?”

    I was like, “Yes, how very terrible for you that must have been.”

  2. eloriane says:

    Oh man, I have NO sympathy for that reviewer, because I could never GET Harvest Moon For Girl and always had to buy the male one.

    I actually don’t mind playing as a guy, especially in games where relationships matter (like HM), because I’m gay, and it’s less awkward to be a guy in a relationship with a girl than to be a girl in a relationship with a guy. The guys in HM are particularly awful because they’re clearly designed during the creation of the “normal” HM game and just converted to love interests for the girl’s version. Which means the guy gets to pick between several attractive but varying women, and the girl gets to pick between fewer ridiculous but homogeneous monstrosities.

    But to the substance of your comment– you’re exactly right, and that’s a surprisingly patient and concise explanation to give (I’d probably say something like, “We want DECENT GAMES, idiot!”).

    I’ve been a little frustrated with Nintendo recently because it seems like someone told them the DS was popular with women, and instead of thinking “They like the games we’re making! Let’s make more of them!” they thought “What? Women? But we’re not making any Women Games!” and started, for example, the saddening “mama” series. I want to tell them, “No! Stop making games you think WOMEN will like! Just make games PEOPLE will like, and don’t insult women while you’re about it!”

    Because honestly, that’s all it takes, for me– a halfway decent game, and the absence of a sign saying “No Gurlz Allowed.” There are plenty of the first, but too many of them have the second, and that’s where I think the real problem is– not that games aren’t inviting enough to women (so we have to make everything pinker), but that too many games (and gamers) explicitly tell women to “keep out.”

  3. Jamie B. says:

    Heh, I recently had an interesting mini-conversation about this.

    I have been playing Oblivion lately. One of my friends came over. He is not hostile to my feminism but always seems to have a smirk lurking under the surface when it comes up (unlike the former friend who came right out and said he didn’t believe women should be president. ROAR).

    Anyway, I, like you, like playing a female character. And for most of the reasons you listed in your post.

    So I made a female Argonian (who is kickass red & black btw ^_^). My friend asked if I chose to play a girl. I said yes, I did. His response was…just a small exhalation through his nose. Barely noticeable, but I was on edge, so I heard it. And to me, what that faint snort said was, “Of course Jamie would play a female character, she’s a feminist.”

    And I wish he’d said something out loud so I could be sure. Because no one thinks, when a guy chooses a male character, “Snort, of course he’d choose to play MALE.” And when I play male, no one thinks twice, but if a dude plays female, it has to be rationalized as so that he can look at her ass (a la WoW).

    I am sorry for rambling about my own personal life, but this has really been getting on my nerves lately.

    Especially in this case. I was playing an ARGONIAN. I am pretty sure the LIZARD’S GENITALIA are of minimal importance. I mean, there isn’t even a hawtness factor. Except the female Argonians definitely still have boobs.

    RAWR.

    Also… to that Harvest Moon reviewer. Maybe this is just my personal opinion of the game but… You were worried about “connecting with the character”? In HARVEST F*CKING MOON?

    >.<

  4. eloriane says:

    Probably “worried about connecting with the character” was code for “worried about catching teh ghey because I have to date and marry a man.”

    But as to the bulk of your comment– that would infuriate me. My brothers, who are secret-feminists-in-training (secret from them; I try to teach them without using the scary F-word) have always understood my desire to play a woman, and will complain right with me when that option isn’t there.

    Because you’re right, no one would question a guy choosing to play a male character, so no one should question a woman playing a female character.

    And playing characters of the opposite gender is even more interesting in people’s reactions– it’s considered appropriate (perhaps even more appropriate) for a woman to play a man, but guys freak out if they have to play female unless they have extreme objectification to fall back on.

    I think it all comes back to the idea that men are the default and women are some exotic subspecies. Women can identify with men in games, books, movies, whatever, because “man” supposedly means “human” (hence “mankind” used as a universal). But men can’t identify with women because they’re The Other. It drives me crazy!

  5. eloriane says:

    Oh– and why the hell does a lizard-woman have boobs? She’s not a mammal!

    (Sadly, I know the answer: so that she’ll be HAWT.)

    Unfortunately for your lizard-woman, by the way, all female characters are weaker than male characters in Oblivion by a decent amount (with a slight agility bonus to make up for it, but who needs agility?)

  6. eloriane says:

    Oh man, I’m spamming my own post and I know it, but I just remembered something–

    Re: ” if a dude plays female, it has to be rationalized as so that he can look at her ass (a la WoW).”

    — the OTHER reason a guy will choose to play a woman in WoW (and similar games) is if it “feels right” for the character.

    Which usually means they’re making a mage/healer type character or someone who sticks to long-range attacks. In other words, characters who avoid the toughest fighting, and in a nurturing/support role. Because those aren’t MAN things to do! Clearly, this character must be a woman!

    Sorry to go on and on, but I did a lot of reading about cross-gender play in MMORPGs and ended up concluding that it’s making gender roles more entrenched, no less, because the reasons people choose to change gender are all tied into sexist sterotypes. Alas.

  7. Jamie B. says:

    WORD, to everything you said. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Although in defense of Bethesda, I imagine that the Argonian female has boobs because they use one character model and just paste the skin and extra onto the body. So, it was not so much that they wanted to give the Argonian female breasts as that the didn’t want to code an alternative body model. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Still.

    Yeah, and as for the weaker-ness that the female characters get – I know. IT BLOWS. Which is why I made my “strength/endurance” character a dude (also Argonian. I just can’t get enough of that water breathing and immunity to poison ^_^).

    Sigh.

  8. eloriane says:

    Could’ve adapted the male body model… but I don’t know how much flexibility they had with the body models and probably it never occurred to them that lizards don’t have breasts. (Since we don’t have any actual lizard-people to compare them to, after all.)

    I made my strong smash-em-all character female anyway, just to give the finger to the game’s stupid expectations about who is strong. I still kicked a lot of ass, until I was no longer willing to hold my nose and kill random innocent creatures any time I went anywhere.

    I’ll go along with plot-important murder when I have to but I don’t like killing wolves, bears, random passerby, and their dogs. I get that most people don’t object to killing “monsters” (though I tend to prefer sticking to “monsters” who are attacking my castle, rather than “monsters” whose homes I have invaded) but I can’t possibly be the only one who objects to killing people’s dogs, even when those dogs are attacking me. The yelp when they die is just too heartbreaking to bear.

  9. Greg F says:

    I’ve seen a few games with a protagonist that happened to be female not just to be hawt or Barbie. Chell from Portal is the modern hip example, and if you’ve been following Mirror’s Edge that seems to have a female protagonist in the same vein. (Heck, even Samus probably qualifies, and there’s a portion of Phoenix Wright where you play Mia…) Though from what I know of those cases, the gender of the protagonist didn’t seem to have much bearing on the game or plot itself. So if it doesn’t really matter, why not make the choice either way some of the time?

    And regarding anthropomorphic reptiles and breasts, one of the main character races in the new (tabletop) version of D&D is dragon-descended. And there were huge debate threads in the hundreds of posts on the forums about whether or not they should have breasts. A little Googling should find some rather exasperated blog posts.

  10. fremenalex says:

    It’s very interesting how gender in videogames affect gameplay. Somehow, I think I’m immune to that, and it feels kinda wierd.
    My favorite horror game is Silent Hill, and the protagonist is a female. That game sucked me right in, to the point that I was having nightmares. It was fabulous!
    Resident Evil was the same way, but not as much as Silent Hill. To me, gender wasn’t an issue, but instead it was the gameplay.

    When it comes to humanizing animals in order to create another race, unfortunately, dragon-ladies and bird-women and lizard-girls will always have human female characteristics. But is that a bad thing? I think a dragon-lady with a rockin body (not over the top, like Lara Croft) is a good thing! So what if snakes don’t feed their young, they can still have breasts. We have apendixes, and we don’t need those, do we? I would rather have a lizard-girl with human-like female characteristics, even though I’m into dudes. Anthropomorphically accurate green women make me think of the She-Hulk, yuck.

  11. eloriane says:

    Greg– I think you’re right on. And Portal is one of my favourite games ever. Did you notice that there weren’t any men? I didn’t notice, until afterward. I was too busy thinking about how much fun I was having. More games should be like that, including female characters without making a big deal about it.

    Fremenalex– I think I’m going to have to disagree with you on the lizard thing. First off, we actually do need our appendixes. Well, probably not you and I personally, since we’re living in the developed world, but for those who suffer from dysentery or cholera, the appendix does have a use– rebooting the gut.

    Which is to say, people don’t walk around with body parts that they never had a use for.

    Also, the reference to the She-Hulk is really inappropriate. For one thing, she has the socially-mandated female body that lizard women are given (i.e., boobs). For another, women don’t exist solely, or even primarily, to be looked at. Even fictional women, when they’re fighters, ought to have their fighting ability and personal stories take precedence over their appearance. The She-Hulk should be nothing but a mass of muscles, just like the “regular” Hulk, because that’s what her abilities and story dictate. The same goes for lizard-people — they should have primarily reptilian characteristics, because that’s what their origin story dictates.

    (I’d also like to point out that almost all representations of female bodies in the media are “over the top like Lara Croft” these days. The She-Hulk definitely is, and most drawn or rendered women, and even the photoshopped photographs on our magazines. It’s part of why I get annoyed by the addition of lizard-women to my list of “women whose breasts are unrealistically large.”)

    We only override their stories and give them “rockin’ bodies” because despite protests to the contrary, in our media appearance is more important than anything, including basic common sense. And so female characters’ appearances have to conform to nonsensical beauty standards to keep men from being uncomfortable. This is only “always” the case for as long as men feel threatened by the idea of women who don’t exist for their viewing pleasure.

    Which, you know, sometimes feels like it will always be true, but part of being a feminist is maintaining the faint hope that someday things will be different, and people will wonder why we gave our lizard-aliens over-the-top-like-Lara-Croft breasts.

  12. fremenalex says:

    I gotcha on the She-Hulk thing. In order to do the things she does she does need to be pretty much all muscle! Little by little I’m gettin this.

    So just like women are pretty much encapsulated in this “imaginary” form of over the top chests and teeny tiny waists, male superheroes are also stereotyped as muscle-full bodies only possible with every steroid known to man? So pretty much like in nature the factors that distinguish a male from a female snake might not be obvious, the snake-people characters should be equally indistinguishable?

  13. eloriane says:

    fremenalex– this is why I like having you around ๐Ÿ™‚ You’re totally getting this. And while Girls Read Comics probably has something to say about how the stereotyping of body types isn’t as equal as it seems, you are completely correct about the fundamental point, which is that we shouldn’t saddle characters with appearances that make no sense for who they really are just because we like looking at pretty people. If something is important to your fundamental being (like, say, the fact that you’re a lizard) your appearance should reflect that, and our silly beauty standards shouldn’t trump that.

    In other words, what you said.

  14. eloriane says:

    OMG I AM MADE OF FAIL

    Hi, Greg F! Um, it was great seeing you last week. Sorry I completely failed to acknowledge your existence! Somehow, even though I knew you were reading my blog, I didn’t connect you to the commenter who suddenly showed up with your name. And you even gave me the last initial as a hint…

    Like I said, FAIL. My apologies!

  15. fremenalex says:

    OMG Eloraine, I love love that Girls Read Comics Bingo. Just my luck I got the one right smack in the center.
    To tell ya the truth, that link answered a lot of my questions, especially why female heroes can do martial arts while in silletto heels. I know that’s unrealistic, but wanted to know why still most female heroes wore heels when kickin baddie guys’ butts. Then I remembered something Ginger Rogers said about her famous dance partner Fred Astaire (kind of a strech here, but I’ll get to my point asap).
    Someone asked her if it was difficult keeping up with a skilled dancer like Astaire, and she simply put it “You bet! You think what he did was impressive, now try doin it in 4 inch heels and backwards.”
    I know that women really shouldn’t do karate in heels, its very unrealistic and unfair. Still, there’s some things that men can’t do.

    P.S. Yeah, I might be going one step forwards and two steps back on this topic, but I just wanted to say my 2 pesos, and thank you for the awesome bingo link. I will totally add it to my blog (with your permission, of course)

  16. eloriane says:

    You don’t need my permission to link to it! My all means, spread it around. I’m glad it was helpful to you– I don’t mind retreading these basic points, since part of my goal here is to educate, but it’s always nice when people go out of their way to learn things themselves.

    As for the heels…heels are such a weird idea to begin with. I’m actually really embarrassed that I buy into them at all, since they’re so blatant about the fact that they’re designed by men to hobble women (I mean, skirts do the same thing, but they’re more subtle. People actually talk about “killer” heels, as in, “they will kill you if you try to do anything in them,” but it’s a good thing.) At least mostly I stick to small, solid heels that I can walk in, but I do in fact own a pair of “killer” heels, and oh, do I love looking at them! (I don’t wear them often because, uh, “killer.”)

    But, for better for for worse, heels are “sexy.” And heaven knows, the most important thing about a woman is how sexy she is. So a super woman must be super sexy, even if that means she’s doing completely implausible things in her heels. Like running.

    It’s actually very similar to the idea of muscles on She-Hulk. It’s okay to make your character big-boobed and sexy (since there are in fact people who look that way) but not when it conflicts with their basic character. So, She-Hulk should be a muscled monstrosity. And a superhero who is going to be running or doing martial arts should be wearing practical shoes.

    I’d be totally open to a superhero wearing killer heels if her superpowers allowed it– like, someone who flies everywhere wouldn’t care what was on her feet; she could just hover above the ground. But then she shouldn’t wear a skirt.

    It’s all about paying attention to the character’s stories, instead of just their sex appeal.

  17. eloriane says:

    Oh, and that’s a fantastic quote from Ginger Rogers! It reminds me of an anecdote I heard about a female pianist, who wasn’t being taken seriously in the music world. She started playing all her music from memory, since up til then it was standard practice to have the sheet music available. Women routinely have to be twice as good as men to get half the credit– doing the same thing backwards and in heels, in other words.

    I don’t really have anything brilliant to connect it to superheroes, but it’s such a true-to-life observation that I thought it deserved attention. Women really have to work so much harder just for basic respect.

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