The following is a guest post from Anna Anthropy:
Anna Anthropy is a white transwoman, game designer, critic and sadist, a classic dyke in the “Elizabeth Bathory” mode. Did you know her first book is coming out in March? Now you do, and you’re so excited for it!
Saint’s Row 2 (Volition, 2008, for Windows, the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360) has some exciting ideas about gender and gender presentation. At first glance, you might only notice how obviously derivative of Grand Theft Auto it is – albeit derivative in the same way that a forest fire is derivative of a match. That’s to say, it takes the ideas and values of the Grand Theft Auto games to their greatest possible extremes. As a game about committing crime – stealing cars, selling drugs, casually murdering human beings and cops alike – in a nearly punishment-free environment (the virtual cops are outclassed by your growing arsenal fairly early in the game), it glamourizes a certain lifestyle. That would be the urban gangster lifestyle, as seen through the lens of nerd game designers. Their interpretation of a culture that values the pimping of rides as well as of women is as over-the-top as the car chases and murder sprees the game encourages players to go on.
Needless to say, there’s a lot of casual sexism in the game. There’s a running joke about one of the titular gang’s female lieutenants having had sex with half the town, and the gang itself – the Third Street Saints – are obsessed with incorporating “stripper poles” into every one of their hideouts. The gang boundaries are drawn along racial lines, as is typical of this kind of game. But there’s no value in nitpicking every individual example of racism and sexism in the game. What I find fascinating about the game is its character creation and the unexpectedly, amazingly, most likely accidentally perfect way it allows for gender expression.
The first character creation screen the player sees lists “presets” for SEX, RACE, AGE. All choosing one of these does, though, is tweak the hundred sliders that allow the player to adjust body proportions, how far the protagonist’s eyes are set, skin color, hairstyle, etc. “Male” and “female,” “black” and “caucasian” aren’t separate models, aren’t mutually exclusive from one another, but are instead just a few of an endless number of possible destinations that the character sliders can lead to. There’s a slider for gender – stop and think about a mainstream game where gender isn’t a binary choice but a sliding scale – with the only significant affect being that to the left of the center your character starts the game with a free bra.
Because all of the dialogue in this game is spoken, the player also has to choose a voice for the protagonist, and these are labeled “female 1,” “female 2,” and each suggest both a gender and a race. But you can apply any of these to your character regardless of whether your avatar has boobs or a beard or light skin or brown skin or long, flowing locks. In fact, none of these options are exclusive to any other, including gender, because you never actually assign your character one. Voice, beard, build, hairstyle, you can mix and match these things as much as you like. There are gendered clothes in the game – heels, muscle shirts, miniskirts, one-piece bikinis – but any character can wear any piece of clothing, regardless of how her body is shaped or her voice is heard.
That’s tremendous! There are tons of gendered accessories for the player’s character – she’s surrounded by urban gang culture, or some facsimile thereof – but the game gives the player the choice of how to use those accessories (or not) to present her gender. Play as a burly man in a dress and heels, a woman with a beard, someone totally androgynous – I played through the game as a fat woman, and I can’t remember the last time a game, mainstream or otherwise, gave me that choice. You can present as a wide variety of genders because, for all the game’s scripted scenes and recorded dialogue, no one ever gives you a gender.
All of the dialogue has been written to explicitly avoid giving the protagonist a gender, in fact. Your gang minions address you as “Boss,” and refer to you in third person either as “the Boss” or “the leader of the Saints.” No one ever gives you a pronoun. There’s a scene early in the game where one of the Saints’ lieutenants is planning a raid on a casino by moving bobble heads of the gang members through a scale model of the place: the player’s character is represented by a featureless, genderless chess pawn. The player is given the room to internalize her character how she pleases. At the start of Saint’s Row 2, a fellow Saint who knows the protagonist from the first Saint’s Row says, “You look different. You do something with your hair?” That’s the game’s tacit acceptance of however you’ve decided to present your character. And who’s going to question it? Who would fuck with the boss of the Saints?
What the creators of Saint’s Row 2 have done is very smart, though I question whether they realize just how smart. They haven’t eliminated the artifacts of gender – that would be absurd in the contemporary urban environment of Saint’s Row’s Stillwater – but they’ve left it up to the player to decide the meaning of those artifacts in the way the protagonist presents herself. We’re surrounded by things that society has assigned gender connotations, and we make choices about how we present our bodies and ourselves and what our choices mean to our identity. Probably inadvertently, probably just for the sake of allowing the player to make the silliest-looking characters possible by providing as many character controls as possible, Saint’s Row 2 has provided a fascinating model for handling gender in a videogame.