Gender, Sex, and Meaningful Avatars

Samus Aran from Metroid Prime 3 Corruption, in full armour

Samus Aran from Metroid Prime 3 Corruption. She's fully armoured and appears to be in mid-jump.

At Infinite Lives there’s an intriguing post from Jenn that discusses the notion that self-created player-characters/avatars such as your character in Fallout 3 may be more difficult to identify with than pre-determined, blank slate, player-characters such as Faith from Mirror’s Edge, Samus from Metroid, and Chell from Portal. The main thing that the latter three protagonists and games have in common is not only that the heroines have very little personality as expressed in their respective games’ plots. Also these three games have very little dialogue compared to Fallout 3 and games of that ilk, as well as having comparatively little interaction between the avatar and NPCs inhabiting the game world.

So what does this mean for the player experience and identification with one’s character? According to Jenn, one of the differences is due to the fact that, while one may create a character that is female or male sexed, the experience you have in Fallout 3 is the same in terms of your character’s gender.

And then, I complained on the patio about how, maybe twenty minutes further into Fallout 3, some teenaged bully is following me around, shouting, threatening—and trying, I think, to punch me in the teeth—and I just cannot shake the feeling that he thinks he is shouting at a guy. It’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.

With this said, maybe Fallout 3 is perfectly antisexist because the game is written so that it is absolutely the same for all gamers. You may choose the sex of your avatar, certainly, but you do not choose your gender, which itself is essentially written into the game dialogue and scenarios.

But, and so, because my chosen sex did not align with my apparent in-game gender, I felt extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s worse than that: I felt alienated. And so my experience of being “You!” in Fallout 3, at least in its earliest chapter, was utterly antonymous to this editor’s experience of being “You!” My experience was paradoxically different from this guy’s experience, exactly because our experiences were crafted to be identical, except that I bring my own jumble of contexts and expectations as a kind of baggage into every situation, and into every game

In other words, Fallout 3 is written as if the gender of your character is male, regardless of your character’s sex. For many gamers, who may be male-gendered, this is fine. However, for gamers who are not male-gendered, this experience can be jarring. Jenn created a female character, but her character was not treated as if she were a  woman, and so she found herself distracted and removed from the experience:

So the editor was able to seamlessly fall into the game and accept its scenarios as his own as if they really were written for him; I, in the meantime, was much too hung up on artifice. I just could not shut that part of my brain off, and I kind of rejected “You!” as my own “You!” because the dialogue just seemed too inauthentic. My disbelief ran unchecked.

In contrast, characters like Faith and Chell could be easier to identify with because, neither gender nor sex appear may not have an impact on the player. This provides the player far more freedom to insert their own context and experiences into the game.  “Faith is meaningful because she’s so totally meaningless.” She goes on to discuss this concept with reference to Chell from Portal.

See Infinite Lives for the full discussion.

About Brinstar

Brinstar is an Editor (on hiatus) at The Border House blog. She is a cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, Asian, culturally-mixed woman from the United States. She is a longtime gamer and works in the videogame industry as a community manager. You can find her blogging about games at Acid for Blood and on Twitter at @Brinstar.
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19 Responses to Gender, Sex, and Meaningful Avatars

  1. It’s also worth noting that different games place a different emphasis on story & world. I don’t know anybody who played Mirror’s Edge for the story or for the world it described: Most of its fans talked about the game mechanics and the novel art direction and sound design. It’s cool that Faith is a woman but it doesn’t change or amplify the game’s strengths.

    But as for Portal, I actually think of it as fairly gender-specific, in a good way. The conflict with GladOS always seemed to me to have a dark undertone of motherhood gone bad, which would’ve been very different if you were playing a young man instead of a young woman.

    • Brinstar says:

      Well… I think that just because you don’t personally know anyone who played Mirror’s Edge for the story or setting, doesn’t mean that there aren’t people were not drawn in by that. I’m someone who was actually attracted to the game not because of mechanics, but because of the world and setting that DICE presented through the art and the teaser info in the marketing materials.

      Secondly, it seems a little essentialist to characterise the conflict with GladOS in terms of motherhood. What if GladOS had a male voice, and you played a male protagonist? Would we then characterise the conflict as “fatherhood gone bad”? To always leap to the supposedly “obvious” connection between motherhood and women belies more complexity. I’m not saying that there may not be one. I haven’t finished Portal. I’m just saying, why do we quickly leap to assumptions that motherhood has anything to do with a game’s underlying themes just because women are involved, when we would not do the same in terms of fatherhood when men are involved?

      • oliemoon says:

        Yeah, I personally would have never described the conflict with GladOS in terms of motherhood. The thought never even occurred to me. Even if GladOS is supposed to represent a twisted mother, I don’t see why Chell’s gender would make a difference since mothers can have daughters and sons.

        why do we quickly leap to assumptions that motherhood has anything to do with a game’s underlying themes just because women are involved

        He he, reminds me of LB Jeffries “Zomg babies + O’s in Super Metroid = Femininity/Motherhood!11!” thing. :-P

  2. Hirvox says:

    Personally, I didn’t think that the helmet/suit-removal at the end of Metroid games is that significant in comparison to the unexpected, but fitting, flashes of Samus’ personality within the game, ranging from repaying the favor to the Zebesian monkey trio and the ostrich to taking the time to close the eyes of a fallen GFMC trooper.

  3. Jayle Enn says:

    In the original Metroid, Samus’s sex and presumed gender isn’t revealed until the very end of the game, which is an interesting bit of trivia given the topic at hand. Most gamers I knew from that era assumed that she was a Han Solo figure in armor until she took her helmet off… then became more interested in getting the rest of her clothes off.

    Jenn’s concerns about Fallout 3 remind me of a problem I’ve had since the early days of game voice acting: the limits of budget, time and technology often leads to Othering in the game’s context and outside it as well. Because speech synthesis is imperfect, NPCs can’t refer to the player’s character as ‘$name’, which damages their sense of authorship– you’re not playing Steve the Avatar, with a heart full of hope and wonder, but rather stepping into the shoes of an amnesiac with unforgiven duties and expectations.

  4. wererogue says:

    I haven’t played the game, but I’d like to hear more about how the NPC reactions in Fallout 3 are gender-specific.

    How would a gender-conscious bully act differently? Gender-specific curses and derogatory remarks? Would that be better?

    I have *always* had trouble identifying myself with the silent protagonist, because people react differently to her/him than they would to me – I’d always talk to a person, and the SP never does.

    This effect is ameliorated, as you say, with a blank slate character, not because the male ones are the same gender as me, but because my avatar is *specifically* not me, and I know I’m not supposed to believe that they’re me. I identify better with Jade’s story because I know who Jade is, and it clearly informs her relationships with other characters.

  5. Thefremen says:

    When I did my second play through as a female in FO3 I thought it was extremely weird the way the dialogue was. I was fairly certain at the time, and I still am that the quality control was just “called in” as they say, with that title. I could only play the game in 30 minute sessions due to memory leaks and some of the NPCs would walk off cliffs to their death making some quests impossible to finish. Later on they would patch the game so it would run on my machine (and many other people’s) but they never did fix the dialogue as far as I know.

    Bioware on the other hand, actually seemed to take a look at Dragon Age’s dialogue and did testing to make sure humans didn’t get elf dialogue etc.

    • Jayle Enn says:

      Bethesda has always had great, sweeping plans for their games… and truly, amazingly wretched follow-through and QA.

  6. Alex H says:

    Fable 2 I thought did a neutrality well. Sparrow is the default name and refers more to the characters age than sex or gender.

    @Francis – I played mirror’s edge for the story, because I wanted to see if any of the existential themes of parkour were weaved into Faith’s life. Also, I thought compared to Chell or Samus Faith was a deep character, and I’m going through the game again to see if what else I can pick up. We know she has a sister who is a police officer, we know her parents were activists and killed while fighting the government. We know enough to say she isn’t meaningless, I think that might be gamers letting game genre dictate their experience.

  7. oliemoon says:

    Yeah, from what I have read, the designers behind Fallout 3 made it pretty clear that the main character was designed to be male and the addition of gender choice was nothing more than a poorly implemented afterthought via the sloppy dialogue in the DLC. I remember Twyst talking about how NPCs frequently referred to her female player character with masculine pronouns.

    I think BioWare did a fairly decent job with Dragon Age: Origins. I know the endgame has lots of bugs and Aeazel reported that the ending misgendered his character, but they seem to have gone to great lengths to make sure that the in-game dialogue trees account for your gender in more than just the pronouns used, which is no small thing considering how much dialogue the game has.

    • Maverynthia says:

      I actually hate games that change the dialogue to account for the sex of my character. The last bits I saw were just telling my character she “looked beautiful” and I really didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to see my avatar objectified in such a way since I was killing monster and stuff. I like games that don’t take my character’s sex into question. I can play the game without being reminded how the “real world” works.

      • koipond says:

        I don’t think that’s what the discussion is really about. I feel, reading this post, is that the dialogue feels as if it’s written towards a guy and then doesn’t change at all when the character is a woman despite the fact that culturally their experience with that kind of example (bullying in this case) is much different than the way the game portrays it.

        However, you’re quite right to say that just putting in “Wow you’re beautiful” in a game isn’t any better. It’s almost like the exact opposite end of the spectrum. “Quick, let’s implement some crappy stereotypical things that might cover up the fact that this is an after thought.

        I understand that budget is always a concern. I friend of mine who once worked at Microsoft said that they use up 90% of their budget in the first 15 minutes of the game, on the graphics, but I still think that it’s quite possible to design this stuff better.

        • Thefremen says:

          I’m really really glad Bethesda isn’t making AvP because all the NPC reactions would be biased towards Human Space Marines.

          Bioware did a MUCH better job of making the game different for different characters.

      • oliemoon says:

        Fair enough, though I echo what koipond says about the problem of games being designed from a male perspective and then just tacking on feminine pronouns. What seemed cool about Dragon Age to me was that it appeared to be designed from the ground up for both genders, which I think is more inclusive from a design point of view than what Fallout 3 did (though as you point out, it doesn’t guarantee that there won’t be problems). I will say though that I haven’t actually played Dragon Age, just watched my significant other play a lot of it.

  8. Lake Desire says:

    I took the Black Widow perk in Fallout 3 to open unique dialogue options based on gender and I’ve only been able to use it once and I’m near endgame.

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