Who We Play

After having played (and re-played) both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series, it occurs to me that a discussion of the portrayal of gender in the games themselves ought rightfully to include the gender of the player-character.

Most of the time, I play as a male avatar. But not in Mass Effect. Now, I have played through at least one game in both series (once each) with the opposite gender from my “primary” choice (ME3 as a male, DAI as a female), and while I liked my male-Shepard, he wasn’t quite “right.” Ditto with my female-Warden. Which makes me wonder – since I’m the same player – why female-Shepard works for me where a female-Warden or female-Hawke does not.

I think it’s all about setting, actually. In a quasi-medieval setting (like that of Dragon Age), the gendered stereotypes of women which accompany that “mindset,” I think, continue to pervade even in the fictionalized (and largely gender-neutral) world of the game. I find this to be the case in medievalesque fantasy worlds in general (in novels, films, and games), even when the creator(s) make a point of gender egalitarianism or even matriarchy. Women still “feel” socially inferior.

The Mass Effect universe, however, is sci fi futurism, and presumably in a time and space where gender is much lower on the list of things people worry about. Racism – which perhaps should more appropriately be called speciesism in ME – is the primary concern, as, I think, it would be in confrontations between alien cultures. We’re working toward that social place in our contemporary world, so it would make sense that a future one would have gotten things more or less sorted out.

But I think character also has a lot to do with it. The Warden in DA is silent (literally), which just “feels” more male (from a Western social perspective). Shepard is not. Of course, what Shepard has to say is almost entirely removed from gendered ideas, as the male and female versions have almost identical dialogue (almost). And, really, what Shepard says seems just as appropriate either way, but Shepard just feels like a “she.”

And female-Shepard is my most favorite female protagonist player-character precisely because she was designed as a male. Now that might seem completely counter-intuitive. Why does a male-designed Shepard make a good female character?

Because a good female character isn’t created as a female character (and especially not by a design team is almost totally male), she’s created as a character who just happens to be female. My guess is that a male-Shepard is a good female-Shepard because when a male-dominant design team makes a male character, they aren’t thinking about gender. They’re just thinking about what makes a good character. And it just so happens that the things that make a good character also make for a good female character.

But the Warden shouldn’t be any different, logically speaking. Yet, to me, he is. For some reason, the Warden feels better as a male. Perhaps it is the assumptions I bring with me about medieval worlds. Perhaps its because of the “silent and stoic” image of the male hero. Perhaps its because my general preference for fantasy protagonists is for males instead of females (and I tend to read more sci fi with female protagonists than I do fantasy with female protagonists).

But really, I think one of the reasons I like Bioware’s character designs so much is that their player-characters make for good characters in both directions. Sure, I have a preference, but I think that ultimately they work because they aren’t designed to “be” or to “be for” a specific gender (see my earlier post about gendered games). And I think that, in general, my preference for male avatars springs from my desire to play a character, not a “girl.”

So does this make me a videogame misogynist? Maybe, but I doubt it. I think that what’s happening is that I’m feeling the general discomfort that mostly-male design teams have in creating a female protagonist. After all, I loved Chell, who is a woman designed by a woman… and many players didn’t notice she was female until well into the game. And that’s what I think a player-character really should be. A character whose gender doesn’t ultimately matter (whether because, as in Bioware games, you can choose either gender or because you don’t “feel” like the gender is being imposed) – they’re just a good character.