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The virtues and pitfalls of playing as a man (if you’re a woman)
04.02.14

The virtues and pitfalls of playing as a man (if you’re a woman)

Artwork by David Calvo

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I have played a lot of dudes. Dudes with glasses, dudes in dusters, dudes with swords, dudes with guns. Once in a while, I am a lady actually playing a lady. I might be some ingénue poking at junk in an adventure game or I suppose I can be Lara Croft.

More and more often, I get to choose whether I’m a boy or a girl. If I’m really spectacularly lucky, I can take my meticulous time arranging my avatar to look like me, and go forth into the game knowing me and my character, we’re as close as close can be.

Only that’s not how it works, is it?

Honestly, I’ve never found anything jarring about being a guy in a video game, except when the camera lingers way too long on a boob or a butt to remind me who I’m supposed to be. On the one hand, it’s annoying, alienating, because I’ll play a dude, but maybe I didn’t agree to be that dude.

It’s useful to see other perspectives, even if they involve bikinis. 

On the other hand, it’s a reminder that I’m playing a game, and games are made from a perspective. It’s useful to see other perspectives, even if they involve bikinis. There’s also technically nothing to stop a developer from doing whatever they want, just like there’s nothing to stop J.K. Rowling from ending Harry Potter with the whole cast mutating into unicorns (spoiler: this is not how Harry Potter ends).

I like to be surprised. I’m not surprised that much where girls and boys are concerned. If there’s a guy on the box, chances are I will be playing a dude. If it’s a computer RPG, chances are, I will be able to switch boobs on and off in character generation. If there’s a girl on the box, I might be playing her or I might end up ogling her.

It’s not all “I’m a girl!” or “I’m a boy!,” though.

Instead of a lone hero or a charismatic leader, you might play a party of equally important people, especially in tactical games like X-Com and Jagged Alliance, or dungeon divers like Might and Magic and Wizardry. These characters don’t have a lot of personality, if arguably no less than the heroic blank slates of Skyrim, but you can play girl-boy-girl-boy in quick succession, if you like.

You do also get characters, usually supporting cast, who exist between an easy definition of one gender or the other. See Naoto of Persona 4 or Kaine of Nier, both written with enough detail to be interesting character studies, if they’re not protagonists or necessarily perfect representations. Fallen London lets you choose a gender option that is more or less “none of your business,” and as a text adventure, it really makes no difference at all.

What changing gender up mid-stream does is pretty simple: it surprises you. 

We’ll probably eventually see more of anything, but what about playing with gender itself? Retro example. You take a wild mage class in Baldur’s Gate 2 and you’ve got a chance of switching your gender as a spell side effect. It’s just a system. You get some pronoun changes until it wears off. What changing gender up mid-stream does is pretty simple: it surprises you. You had boobs and then you didn’t, or vice versa. Because it’s unexpected, maybe you think about it more, and maybe it’s hilarious, but the point is, you weren’t as “set” in your avatar self as you thought you were. You can be weirded out and reload, but you might have a good time with something games don’t usually mess with much.

The Gender Swap Project, by BeAnotherLab, messes with nothing else. It’s right there in the name. You’re a boy? Well, strap this Oculus Rift to your head and see what it’s like to be the girl in front of you. You’re the girl? Well, vice the versa. Take a look here, but only if you’re not at work. This is the kind of gender play that goes for exploratory nudity. To maintain the illusion of swapping bodies, both players have to mirror each other. Says BeAnotherLab, “With our set up, any action not taken by both users breaks the immersion and feeling of embodiment. This means that there is a constant establishing of consent from both participants.”

It’s as far as possible from a portable, anonymous experience, and BeAnotherLab stresses that you’d lose something if it was. “We think there is something truly special about people meeting first in real life because they have decided to share this experience, than just randomly ‘swapping bodies’ on the internet.” They stress that “involving the body” increases empathy and “that virtual avatars do not engender the same feelings of empathy or embodiment as those of real humans.”

Maybe playing a guy in a game doesn’t mean much because the guy’s not real. Still, BeAnotherLab takes it a step further. Maybe gender isn’t just a toggle in real life either:

“The case of gender is interesting because it is a socially constructed thing as much as it is a biological one. We like to think that is equally important to work on the perception others have of gender than oneself has of its own, and want to remind that there is a variety of combinations of gender, biological sex and desire possible.”

Part of the point of gender swapping isn’t just empathizing with someone you’re not, but getting a glimpse of possibilities, since “understanding of ‘the self’ necessarily goes through understanding of ‘the other’.”

Now, Divinity: Original Sin, by Larian Studios, isn’t being made with gender theory in mind. The studio just has a view of fun that encourages the unexpected. In Divinity 2, you could just change your gender at almost any time by talking to an illusionist. In the new game, you play two protagonists, who can be male or female, into each other or not, in either a two-player co-op situation or a one-player situation where you literally play against yourself.

The dialogues track how the two characters interact, through their affinity and their affection ratings. Larian founder Swen says, “Affinity is whenever you discuss about something, maybe philosophical differences,” while affection allows you to “disagree, but still like each other. Or we can disagree and absolutely not like each other,” through a system of compliments and insults. “The game is going to keep track of these two axes and then depending on how you end the game . . . different things are going to happen.” It’s a relationship matrix. These things usually end somewhere between love and hate. What’s unique about it is the level of detail, and how much is left up to you. As Swen says, “We just provide the tools for people to play with.”

There’s nothing stopping you from jumping back and forth between male and female dialogue perspectives in the regular game, to start with. And if I wanted to design an extra-special episode about “Some days, I’m a dude with a duster jacket, and other days, I’m Lara Croft,” I can. It’s part of the personalized use of the game systems that Swen hopes for. It’s all part of the play. I can kick my feet up and say, “This man and this woman? Today, they’re both me.”

These are vastly different approaches, the experimental and the intimate versus the systematic sandbox, but they’re both attempting to get at a more meaningful experience through letting players explore a little. One’s entirely about gender play and the other’s as much about relationships and oil barrels on fire, but they both have that touch of surprise identity. You aren’t just picking up an avatar and slotting into a role. You’re playing with it a little bit. Your perspective has this chance of changing, if just for a little while.

See, I’ve played a lot of dudes, and I’ll yet play more dudes. Turn gender into a mechanic, and the choice becomes a lot more interesting. It starts meaning something. Or, at least, being more fun.