A lot of role-playing games (RPGs) new and old let you pick the sex of your character (male or female) before you start. Which is awesome. I’ve played Mass Effect with both Maleshep and Femshep characters and got two games’ worth of quality voice acting for the price of one.
(We could have a similar discussion about choice of race or species in RPGs, but that’s an article for another day.) But aside from just letting you have more options for what kind of character you want to create and role-play, how does allowing both male and female protagonists affect story, gameplay…and meaning? You might be surprised at how far—and how subtly—the effects go beyond simply choice of romantic partners.
Choosing the sex of your character goes back at least to 1996’s Resident Evil, which gave you the choice not to create a character from scratch but to play as either Chris (male) or Jill (female). Chris is stronger and faster and has better aim, but can’t carry as much gear and has to find keys to get around. Jill’s disadvantages in strength, speed, and accuracy are offset by greater carrying capacity, useful lockpicking abilities, and (in my opinion), better advanced firepower (grenade launcher that can also shoot flame rounds vs. flamethrower) and a better support character (Barry vs. Rebecca). Both characters are fun to play.
A year later, in the original Fallout (1997), your character’s sex has lesser effects on gameplay and story. Male characters have an extra weakness in combat: if hit in the groin, they’re easier to crit hit or knock down. Which, you know, fair enough. Also, some NPCs treat men and women differently, with a few being actively misogynistic toward female player characters. So interestingly, men have a physical disadvantage in the game, but women have a social disadvantage based on NPC prejudices.
In both these classic 90s games, gender subtly affects the game experience but leaves the story largely untouched (though there are some minor Chris/Jill variations, the overall plot of is identical). The point here is both that *gasp* boys and girls can do a lot of the same things and that they might have slight variations on their strengths and weaknesses. Not necessarily worth making every game about, but perfect as a side message of lots of games that are about other things entirely (and it’s nice that female players can play as female characters more often!).
Newer games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim have followed in these older games’ footsteps. Much like Fallout, in Skyrim your character’s gender is mildly relevant, primarily through occasional interactions with NPCs who treat men and women differently (but also through skill perks that give you slight bonuses to bartering with or damaging NPCs of the opposite sex). Here, too, is a world where gender affects skills slightly and social situation slightly (though unlike in most RPGs, it affects romance Not At All, as any player character can marry NPCs of either gender).
BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect do something different. The worlds of these games are conceived of as places where sexism does not exist. Because they’re created in our real world, where it does exist, they don’t always succeed at avoiding gender stereotypes and the like. Those issues have been well covered in the links above, and as they stress, they don’t simply make Mass Effect a “sexist” series—it’s a series with interesting and often successful feminist ambitions alongside unfortunate sexist blunders. My interest here is in the implications of creating a game world where the societies presented are intended to be free of sexism. On the one hand, you lose out on the opportunity to explore sexism and how it works. Games that do this are valuable and there should be more of them. But there should also be more games like Dragon Age that allow us to imagine worlds without sexism (while still addressing issues that relate to sexism). What would it be like if there weren’t misogynists around bluntly or subtly treating women as less competent and less valuable than men? It’s kind of nice. Games, books, and movies can encourage us to strive to create a better world than the one we live in. Addressing real-world problems is part of that encouragement, but so is imagining worlds in which those dysfunctions are absent. Where women’s armor looks like, say, armor, instead of metal lingerie, because it’s meant not to arouse men but to protect them from stabbing while they go about their own business of stabbing.
The (intended) hidden message of a BioWare game’s choice of player-character sex is that a world where your sex doesn’t make it easier or harder for you to take care of business is a pretty cool place to be. It’s nice to have a break from that real-world problem sometimes. We don’t want to ignore them or pretend they’re not there, but it’s good to occasionally step back and imagine how much better a place the world will be if we can make progress on problems like sexism.
P.S. If you’re interested in a different take on how games that aren’t about sex or sexuality can still have pretty cool things to say about those issues, see my related article!