You Do Something with Your Hair?: Gender and Presentation in Stillwater

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!

A fat, tuff-looking lady with "mom" tattooed on her arm squats on a giant purple tank. She owns this town.

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.

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20 Responses to You Do Something with Your Hair?: Gender and Presentation in Stillwater

  1. Lovely read! Shame about the game, but I can’t think of any other character creators that come close to that.

  2. 0thello says:

    This is how a slider should be done, it’s not perfect by any means, for instance there are certain deep shades of brown that just don’t exist (cousin Otis flips volition off for that). This article is a bit belated though, I look forward to seeing what you have to say about the Third.

  3. Trodamus says:

    Continuing the bizarre tradition of what’s-good-for-the-sauce-is-good-for-the-goose, Saints Row The Third will offer a “sex appeal” slider that, for female characters, makes them more bosomy and the like … and for male characters, creates a centerpiece out of le package.

    Good points all, but I would point out that Shaundi’s sluttiness isn’t actually frowned upon or presented as sexist. In fact, the gang lists it as one of their finer assets due to the intel it provides, so in a game with abundant stripper poles and whatnot they do tactfully avoid slutshaming.

    • idvo says:

      I agree about Shaundi’s various sexual partners. It would have been easy for the designers to turn her character into an overly-sexualized stereotype, but she comes across as a cool woman who is completely comfortable with who she is (unlike other women characters who are supposed to be all about “embracing their sexuality,” when really that’s just an excuse for the usually male designers to craft their own fantasies). There’s something very genuine about Shaundi, and I like that.

  4. Patrick says:

    I’m honestly surprised that they haven’t incorporated the option to make men dance on the stripper poles. While I’ve only played Saints Row 2, I found it to take the unfortunate qualities (racism/sexism/etc) of the criminal lifestyle it portrays to such absurd extremes that it becomes easier to disregard it as comic farce than the more ‘serious’ fare of Grand Theft Auto and the like. While it mostly results I’m sure from a desire to reduce the amount of coding necessary to address the full range of possibilities, it should be noted that the main character is treated the same regardless of whether they suddenly change their sex in the middle of the game, gain a bunch of weight, or otherwise become the type of person that most games would never acknowledge, let alone allow. It’s also worth mentioning that while the rival gangs do fall along obvious stereotype/racial lines, the Saints themselves are a bit more mixed (though still mostly white males) and the rivalry is motivated by territory not racial issues. The antagonist gangs also seem more like supervillain minions organized around vague cultural themes (Japanese Samurai, Haitian Voodoo) and I can’t think of a time that ethnicity was portrayed as a strongly negative trait. That said, the Saints Row games could never be mistaken for truly progressive but I found Saints Row 2 to be far more enjoyable to play than Grand Theft Auto 4.

  5. Max Battcher says:

    From what I heard, the character creator is very prescient on Volition’s part. The over-the-top presentation of the game seemed to encourage it, and then they smartly ran with it. I spent a lot of time playing with SR2’s character editor, and I’m looking forward to seeing SR3’s.

    (By the way, I did find one small way the game does binary gender the protag based on preset selection: the “bathroom” mini-game; gender of the vocalizations of the “other party” seems based on (the opposite of) preset choice. But that’s not much of a bother.)

    • Austen says:

      Yeah, this post inspired me to actually look up the game after hearing about it for a long time, and here’s how they pitch the character creator, at least on Steam:

      “Limitless Customization – Play as fully customizable characters that are male, female or something in between.”

      It’s awesome that they give you such control over body image. Although I have to wonder if making your character larger affects the character’s hitbox (in which case, your incentive would be to play the smallest person possible, which could be a lot of fun actually).

      • auntie says:

        as far as i can tell, the game treats characters the same as far as math goes regardless of their actual size, which leads to occasional funny body / wall overlap. which only further convinces me i’m playing the game right.

    • Zaewen says:

      Choosing one of the presets for sex techinically genders your character. It has almost zero impact on the game other than a slim handful of pronouns, that bathroom mini-game, and the underwear your char starts off with (boxer briefs v. panties and bra no matter what body type you have).

      I love (LOVE!) the character creater in Saints Row 2, especially that feminine/masculine body slider, and I really hope the next game expands on that framework.

      • wererogue says:

        Yeah, I recall certain cutscenes using gendered insults – but those did change with the perceived gender of the character (for better or worse)

        • Zaewen says:

          Hmm, I don’t remember any gender-specific insults (my husband and I just recently replayed through most of the games simultaneously, him as a male char and me as a female one, and the screenplay and script are mostly identical). I think the dialogue is almost wholly the same, but the gender-based insults, despite being generally the same, definitely cut differently if your experiencing them as a woman than as a man.

          Something else I noticed as a side effect of the screenplay/script being the same regardless of gender choices, is the way Shaundi is pretty routinely sexually objectified but the female Boss is not even if she’s wearing next to nothing. A very interesting depiction of the ways female characters can be objectified or, alternatively, be treated as full characters that may or not be sexually appealing.

  6. PlusSizedGamerWoman says:

    I am VERY happy that this game does this type of customization. Especially with many other games that claim to be customizable, but in the end privilege white thin male hetero models with few customs for the female models that aren’t near to this…

    • Zaewen says:

      Kinda like APB where you could make a very overweight man but you were SOL if you wanted an actually overweight woman. Seriously, maxing out the sliders gave you someone approaching a US size 8/9. It’s a pretty blatant example of the trend that women must fit into a very narrow definition of sexually appealing, but men get to be a wide range of body types and and varying levels of sexy.

  7. Vencha says:

    I think of all the games my girlfriend and I play, Saints Row 2 has been the one where she get’s to be *her* hero. In her words:

    “It’s the game that lets me finally be who I want, which always ends up being an idealised version of myself but nobody forces me into a chainmail bikini or tells me what to wear”

    So for her, she could be a complete badass who runs her gang in pasties, a g-string, high heels, stockings, Aviator sunglasses and a bunch of tattoos but still be the toughest Gangster in Stillwater and no one questions her authority based on her clothes or gender.

    Saints Row 2 did amazingly well on gender and inclusiveness, so I’ll never buy another GTA game again, of the genre, it’s the best.

  8. Corbiu Geisha says:

    I would have picked up this game if I had known about the character customisation earlier. Well, looking forward to Saints Row The Third now.

  9. wererogue says:

    The only thing to disappoint me about Saints Row 2 or 3 so far is the marketing for both – squarely targeted at immature sex-focused males. The game of Saints Row 2 was ace, and the 3rd looks to be just as good.

    From a game design point of view, I’m a little sad that they decided to linearize the story for SR3 – I enjoyed being able to advance the 3 tracks separately in SR2, and how they came together along the way. But seriously, that’s the only major disappointment.

    • Trodamus says:

      The marketing is complete crap; a fairly standard ambiguously brown gansta type holding up guns, facing away from the camera and so on.

      If i were looking for a game to buy, I’d have passed over it. From a recommendation from a friend (by the way, co-op in this game is AWESOME) it was a must-have.

  10. You make this sound and look so amazing!

  11. idvo says:

    I absolutely adore the character creation in SR2. I’m not even sure why I got the game in the first place, but I’m so glad I did. Having the freedom to customize my character the way I want them to look, without being forced to choose options based on how the designers think they “should” look is awesome. I wish more games had this level of customization.

  12. Ultraviolet says:

    There was the rotfl mission where you drive around people – and occasionally are given sub-objectives to crash other cars or run over people – and i remember there were quite a few non-normative ones like ‘my ex-boyfriend’ (for a male char) or (random gangster) ‘there’s the therapist who once held back my transition – run him over’.

    and so much yays for the article author – i fall into above average weight category too and by preference would not play stick-thin hollywood models where characer generation is concerned. The result: :) And another queerk of SR2 – it allows to select from a range of mannerisms and the way character moves – and to my total happiness it adequately reflected butch-ier expression – as in you could pick somewhat masculine or non-heavily-gender-coded ones for a woman character.

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