Edit: My friend Jill wrote a passionate, well-thought out and well-written counterpoint to my blog post.
Leigh Alexander is probably one of the more controversial video game journalists because she refuses to shelf her gender while writing about video games. It’s what I find most interesting and admirable about her, since she speaks very frankly about her experiences as a female immersed in the male-dominated, sometimes misogynistic gamer culture. Some people hate it, but I find it refreshing when a video game journalist speaks his or her mind, whether it’s about gender or specs.
Recently, she wrote an article titled “What I Discovered From Gaming Like A Girl”. The Persona series is a video game franchise that revolves around Jungian psychology; game mechanics emphasize building relationships and learning to shuffle from one persona to the next depending on the social situation. It’s all very mind bending and deep (and coincidently one of the few video games out there that have strong female protagonists). Usually, the tabula rasa main character is a male, but recently Persona 3 was remade for the Playstation Portable with the option of playing the game as a girl. Leigh Alexander details how her game play subtly changed because she was playing a girl. She struggled between making decisions that would increase her power levels in the game over decisions that would reflect more “lady-like” behavior. Gender, it turns out, matters when you play video games.
Females in games have always been controversial and rocky. I remember when Tomb Raider first came out and my friends gawked at the screen, rotating the camera, enjoying her polygonal, large breasted body. At the same time, there’s the common archetype of G.I.R.L., or “guy in real life”; behind most female avatars in a game like World of Warcraft (or any other mmo) is a male at the computer. I stand guilty as charged, since the character I’m playing right now is a female gnome. My choice to play female characters in World of Warcraft revolves around the fact that male characters to me feel grotesque. Female characters’ proportions (from bust to hip) are exaggerated as well, but the male characters seem too hyper-masculine – and perhaps, even though I’m a male, I’m intimidated by their monstrous physique. There’s various reasons why when you question other people – my friend James plays a catgirl in Final Fantasy XI and his justification is that if he’s going to have to stare at a character’s backside all day it might as well be attractive. My friend Troy also agrees. But I know that for my friends and I, we don’t really play females in WoW to swivel the cameras and drool – we invest a large amount of time into playing a character with a real, developed personality.
But why as a girl? Why do males play as females all the time? Is it purely sex? Do we fantasize about them as we push our buttons and wait for cooldowns to expire? As someone who plays a female, that hasn’t been my experience. But I couldn’t really explain it. I just prefer to play as a female, and it puzzled me for a long time. What is it about playing a female that seemed so attractive? After reading Leigh Alexander’s article, I think I might have a reason why.
I had the opportunity once to run several Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for a group of young adolescents. The results defied my expectations. In Dungeons and Dragons (and most paper and pen role playing games), you create a character that you represent. It’s similar to World of Warcraft, except D&D provides much more power and flexibility in defining who your character is. One of the kids, the youngest of the group, had just entered puberty. It’s a frightening and confusing time as your body and world view shifts radically without much input from you. The first character he played was hyper-masculine — a bloody, violent half-dragon who shot first and asked questions later. He was dumb as rocks and reckless, and he played this character with a gleeful, wild abandon. The second character, however, surprised me. He played a shapeshifter who often took the appearance of a female. She was shifty; she was crafty; she was subtle. She wasn’t out in the front lines like his half-dragon; she played carefully, and whenever it was advantageous, he would flaunt her sex appeal in order to get what he wanted.
Here, I believe, lies the appeal (and the helpfulness) of role playing games, whether done with dice or on the computer. Gender is an incredibly confusing subject; nerds, geeks, and gamers especially struggle with this. Most who fall into this subcategory of society are not what we would consider traditional masculine – they are generally not very assertive, they struggle to fit in with mainstream society, they are often marginalized, they are often not physically dominating, and they do not usually succeed in romantic relationships. Some people may cry foul and say I’m stereotyping, others may say I’m describing problems that everyone experiences. I would argue, however, that the minute you decide you like video games as a hobby, you move into this subset that doesn’t belong in mainstream society, and that this subtle marginalization exacerbates social problems. We don’t fit the social criteria and expectations for masculinity, but we can’t simply just change our gender. We’re stuck in some sort of gender limbo, and I would suspect that it’s more than just male gamers who float in this desolate landscape.
Role playing as females allows a gamer to expand his persona. in literature, women are complex — they can be the virginal maiden or the powerful femme fatale. They can create and heal, but they also can destroy. Females in fantasy genres generally fall into the magical and religious roles, but they can also play as assassins and helpless royalty, as powerful paladins or demure druids. They can do anything. But the male persona in fantasy is generally hyper-masculine, the Campbell hero archetype inflated by a hundred-fold and infused with the dreams and desires of the alpha male in a fraternity. They are generally warriors; they are generally muscular and powerful; they are usually rash and have a destiny to fulfill. There isn’t much depth to the standard fantasy male, however, and this can be stifling.
The young child in my D&D group struggling to understand what it means to be a man and his relationship with women began to act out both parts. He experienced the heady power of sexuality as a woman, but also carefully and safely explored the incredible destructive power the male stereotype in society. He acted these roles out, exaggerating the stereotypes, taking things new and possibly (probably) frightening and making them into the familiar. He ended up enjoying his shapeshifting character because it provided him the most flexibility – at any time he could shapeshift into the more masculine role when fighting broke out, but when it required the work of what he felt was a woman, he could also fill in that role. In short, he was beginning to understand that different social situations required different personas and he used role playing games to explore them. The video game industry is replete with instances of video games where you can play that hyper-competitive, hyper-violent male protagonist who blows crap up and shoots people without an inkling of remorse. But if you look for a good video game with a strong female protagonist, especially a tabula rasa-type that you can then project yourself onto, you might be able to come up with enough for each finger on one hand. If you’re lucky. So the gamer who’s already played his fill of these games naturally gravitate to the option of playing a woman, a character more complex than one who is either the paragon of paladin virtue or a cold-hearted, robotic killer.
And maybe, just maybe, I play a small, diminutive female gnome because despite the fact that she’s a warrior, she’s also an engineer and a master cook – and if I played one of those hulking males I would be afraid people would immediately begin to discount my intellect (something I value greatly) or my engineering or cooking or first aid skills, or would wonder why a hulking draenei is talking about things like motivations and backstory. A male that looks like the males in World of Warcraft just need to hit things and stop doing things like thinking. In the fantasy genre, females are allowed to be complex, but males are still considered very simple. However, I know this isn’t true when it comes to reality – I’m an incredibly complex person, and I know both James and Troy are, too (though they might be loathe to admit it). Could it be that we all play as a females because it allows us to carefully craft complex personas on the MMO medium, giving us the most flexibility to not only experience those power fantasies of killing massive dragons or slaying a mob of goblins with ease, but also the opportunity to express emotions, to level up in things besides “killing” and “more killing,” even to feel physically attractive, and still be socially accepted?
Leigh Alexander herself mentioned the difference in her game play – when she played as the male character she didn’t think twice to be ruthless and harsh, to challenge others for power and sacrifice peoples’ happiness and well-being for the greater good. But as a female, she found herself hesitating because that’s just not what women do. Maybe male gamers play as females because it allows us to be compassionate and empathic while still trying to achieve goals such as gaining more power or ability; it allows us to tap into a side of ourselves that mainstream society tells us we can’t – it allows us to break free of gender roles and explore the facets of ourselves that simply don’t coincide with the persona and expectations of the traditional, emotionally distant and hyper-competitive American male.