Why Gender is a Non-Issue in Video Games

Guest author Jonathan Cooper talks about his views on gender and gaming.

I’ve been a reader of Gamemoir for a while now, every now and again looking at articles that I found interesting or controversial/argumentative. Something that has stricken me as odd is that I have failed to find an article discussing gender or gender roles in video games and their stories, this topic that pops up so much in my studies and yet has not here.

Recently I came across an argument over the difference in a male Commander Shepard vs. a female Shepard, this I found to be extremely different and odd to even be a discussion.

We as gamers are given a variety of ways to enjoy and experience different stories through video games, if you prefer more action less dialogue there are games like Call of duty and Battlefield, if you prefer control over having a linear path to be followed you have Minecraft and Black and White 2.

Meanwhile for those of us that love the lore, the exploration of a wider world or universe and crave both exciting game play and a detailed, interesting story have The Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, and we are not tied down to these titles mentioned above, there are thousands more that all excel in what they do.

But one constant throughout all of these no matter how you play or what you play is that they all have a protagonist, a vehicle to drive the story and the game on. The argument I came across was an argument over the fact that the female Shepard should not be considered ‘the’ Shepard of the Mass Effect series.

How angry this made me was for all intents and purposes incredible not because I agree or disagree but because these people trading barbs across the internet had both missed the point entirely.

When the decision by BioWare was taken to create Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect story I do not believe the thought, “Oh yeah it’s got to be a guy, it can’t be a girl on the front cover” which was further proven by the fat they created a female poster woman for the collector’s edition of the third game in the title.

They had created a great universe, an impressive array of characters both good and bad, here’s looking at you Illusive man, and all these people could argue over was if the main character’s genitals were inside or outside their body in the “official version”.

They had missed the fact that the “official version” is irrelevant, your version is what matters, how you dealt with the choices put in front of you, how you went about saving the universe and part of this decision was made before you even had one shot, one conversation it was the choice to be a man or a woman and both are perfect choices, you are not given any benefit or levied any fine for picking one over the other.

You are allowed to choose your vehicle, your mode of traversing the story which is a beautiful thing.

It is irrelevant if you are a man or woman in your games, the games you play will be the same, the stories to explore and experience will be the same. This is why in my humble opinion that now when we are about to enter the “Next Gen” of gaming we are seeing men and women be given equal representation in games.

Shown by how for the first time ever in a Battlefield game there will be a heavy female presence throughout, a trend that I am sure will bleed out through all types of games, I believe that for all the Master Chiefs and Mario’s we have we also need our Jodie’s and our Ellie’s in the hope that the gaming industry will be awarded the same respect that film and books are given.

To achieve this we have to first afford the respect of equality to the games characters that we should give to each other in real life.

It’s important for us as gamers to remember that regardless of the gender we are in real life it bears no meaning on the gender of the protagonist we are playing, and how if it is a man or a woman they are only our vehicles, our eyes and ears to experience the beautifully crafted stories given to use.

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A website dedicated to video game culture and lifestyle editorials. Gamemoir Staff seek to offer our readers original and thought provoking takes on video games, technology, LGBT and Gender perspectives, and pop culture.

  • I could not agree more. Whenever I hear people argue over about the validity of having a female protagonist, Bioware and Shepard in particular are my favorite go to examples. A hero is a hero regardless of gender. Choosing your character’s gender gives a great flavor to playing the game and lets you explore a different take on the story, but I think Mass Effect proved how in the end, what mattered was the strength of Shepard’s character, not her/his gender.

  • You’re kind of asking for a Tumblr-led shitstorm here. The problem with gender representation in games is that it symbolizes that gaming is for males when that is just not true, so it irks a lot of women who would like more representation of who they are nd who they want to play as. And they are not wrong. I know “men” who literally will not play as a female character. Even if it’s a first person shooter, when they get shot and the character grunts it reminds them that they are a girl. Sounds stupid (’cause it is), but true story.

    I’ve got to assume that some women get tired of always having to play a manly man with other women either being a prize to claim at the end or someone they offhandedly bang or shoot on the way there. Again, they are not wrong. There’s enough diversity among gamers to warrant better representation. But one thing we should all agree on: FemShep is the best Shep.

    • ceekyuucee

      It must be a cold day in hell, that you say something pretty close to what I believe.

      Representation is very important. And more than just diversity amongst gamers, there’s diversity in the real world. When someone’s idea of a fantasy world is one where women and/or POC and/or LGBT people and/or etcetera are either conspicuously absent or serve to be victimized, it says a great deal about their fantasies. That the real world is just too inclusive, and they want to whittle it down to the people they care about.

      • You know what… you should write for Gamemoir!

        • ceekyuucee

          Thanks. I’ve thought about it, but my schedule is currently all over the place. Maybe in time!

      • I’m pretty sure I agree with you more often than you’d like, but I’m a lot less likely to say anything agreeable because disagreeing inevitably leads to more interesting discussions in my view. I’m as likely to blow up one side of an argument as the other at any given moment. It all depends on the angle of the discussion.

      • I think it says more about the economics of video game creation than the genocidal wishes of game developers. It costs time and money to create a protaganist that can be male or female. Not all game companies have the deep pockets of BioWare/EA.

        • ceekyuucee

          So then just make them female. Except it’s been found that female protags sell far, far less because dudes can’t see themselves playing women, and yet women are expected to play as dudes. Economics is a cop out for an actual explanation of why it is that way: Dudes don’t like seeing empowered women. Sure, they like “kick ass women” but women are dynamic and varied human beings, and dynamism and variety aren’t what dudes want, and they vote with their wallets. Women gamers have no choice but to play male-protag games, and effectively reinforce the system. *** THAT DOES NOT MEAN *** that women are equally guilty because they aren’t. They’re forced into a system where in order to game they have to pay into a shitty system. Onus is on the shitty folks to change, not the people getting fucked over by the shitty system.

          • But the shitty folks are shitty so they won’t change, and even if they would, I doubt they could create a truly interesting game from a female perspective so it’d just be more hot chicks with guns and swords.

            There are two ways of changing the system that I see. Either we stop buying the games that don’t have female protagonists and buy the ones that do to vote with our wallets and coerce the companies into pandering (and I think we agree that that one sucks) or we get more people like the ladies who write for this site to take over the industry and provide what’s needed in time. There’s already change afoot, I think.

          • ceekyuucee

            The change will be slow and painful (if at all) because, like toddlers, dude gamers throw temper tantrums when women are involved. See: Anita Sarkeesian, Jennifer Hepler. And of course, these are easy enough to rebuke because they just “went too far.” The mindset’s still there. And I don’t expect it to go away.

  • I agree with the sentiment but disagree on the point that gender choice doesn’t matter in order to experience a game. The vehicle in role playing games is incredibly important to me. To my mind, I am inserting myself in the game, it is my avatar, a representation of my digital self. That self-image will always be male. Using Mass Effect as the example (but it could be any of the games I’ve played in the last 30 years) I designed Shepard to look as much like me as possible, I made choices and decisions as if I was him and the Normandy was my ship. I want the NPCs to interact with ‘me’, not with the guy or girl Bioware designed. Femshep (why should there be a specific name for the female avatar anyway? To add a distinction only highlights a perceived difference) didn’t get a look in because I don’t identify/recognise myself in a female avatar. If I was a woman, I suspect I would have a difficult time playing as a male protagonist. It works both ways; my wife, a non-gamer, would only play GTA Online if she could create a female character. It was a non-negotiable point.

    • Interesting. I’ve never felt I was inserting myself into a game. I’ve always felt like I was controlling the actions of another person. This other person is better looking, stronger, and braver than me. And if given a choice almost always female. If I made decisions based on what I would do, Shepard wouldn’t leave his cabin and definitely wouldn’t be a Spectre candidate much less a marine.

      • Nolan North put it best when he said that every character he voices is effectively the voice of Nolan North if he was an adventurer, or Nolan North as a cockney Bat-Villain, it’s him but him with a certain backstory etc. I’m the same with role playing. My Shepard left the cabin because he was me – but as a Spectre.

  • I wouldn’t say I’m a gamer – I dabble from time to time. My earliest gaming experience where I properly bought into a game was on an Amiga – owned by my family (I am the youngest of four siblings, the two nearest ones being boys), and there were very few games that I actually played. I just couldn’t get into it. The game that I first lost myself in was Interphase. I played it until I knackered the diskette. And then I bought another copy and played it until the Amiga broke and we got something else. I loved it because there was a girl as the main character that you were guiding via a blueprint round a game level. Her name was Kaf-e if I remember correctly. I identified with her for some reason, so I played.

    I got a demo disk of the Great ?Giana sisters for the Amiga (rip off of Mario but with female leads) me and my best mate played it to death as well.

    I played Doom quite a lot – as aside from the health indicator face, the only thing you saw of the avatar was 2 gloved hands (and if you were me with all of the cheating codes, usually a BFG9000 or a rocket launcher). Then there was SSX Tricky – I took Elise to Uberboard level (and due to lying in the same position playing it for 6 hours in a row I actually wrecked both my shoulders to the point of needing physio). I dabbled with Marisol, but essentially, Elise was a closer reflection of my own persona in real life. Certainly physical appearance.

    Then I fell into World of Warcraft. I busted my boyfriend pressing alt+tab as I walked into the study. He was slightly ashamed of what he was doing. I made him explain to me what he was doing, and by the time he had explained the basics, I’d registered myself an account, and had a Paladin. If memory serves, I got to level 40 before he did.

    Are you spotting a theme here?

    Even playing Mario Party with the kids, I’m Peach, or at a push Yoshi. I’d rather be represented in a game by an animal than be a man. I just don’t identify, I don’t connect, I lose interest, I’m not bothered. I trade the disc in, and let the husband have a turn instead. So gender is, to me, an issue.

    I can’t wait for when gender is no longer an issue in terms of there being an equally appealing lead female character in every game. I think my husband might, though. He’ll have to fight me for control of the Playstation.

  • JohnCooper

    Thanks for the response people. It was just an Idea I had and its nice to see people with either similar or different ideas discussing it. Glad I could write something people actually wanted to read.