Friday, March 11, 2011

Let's Talk About - The Great Gender Conundrum

Decisions Decisions

The week's end has arrived, but Perra has yet to report back on her most recent activities.  She is supposedly in the middle of a quest, but with my carrier pigeons unanswered I do not know for certain.  I think Shale may have destroyed the poor birds before Perra managed to retrieve my letters.  Either way, there is nothing that can be done about it until late Sunday night so check back then for an update on her adventures.*

In the absence of news to share, I figured that this would be a perfect time to discuss a question that always must go answered when starting a new RPG.  What gender will your new character be?  Some games like CDProjektRED's The Witcher (2007) or Black Isle Studio's famed Planescape:Torment (1999) make this easy.*  You play as a visually predesigned male character.  Other games like Troika Games' Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura (2001) naturally lend themselves to the use of a male avatar unless you want to be burdened by what is considered to be socially acceptable conduct for a lady.  (Granted one can suspect that assuming a Alexia Tarabotti-esque identity might clear part of the whole demure lady issue up for you.  Apparently being soulless and beating people up with your parasol tends to have that effect.)  Most cRPGs released within the past five years, however, give you a choice between playing a man or a woman.  It is here that the dilemma starts.  I usually utilize the following three questions when making my decision.  I also consider other things like goals, motivations, class, past, etc during character creation but those do not usually affect whether my new character is male or female.

1. What is the game's time period and/or setting?
As mentioned before with Arcanum, the time period of a game can be very important to what gender you want to play.  Arcanum for example is a steampunk game and therefore takes place sometime during the late Victorian Era.  Most games, however, are rarely so specific. For example, most sword & sorcery games into a very vague, faux Medieval/Rennaisancian period.  The time period dictates the social rule within which the characters will live, and the way that the character reacts to those rules defines how others will react.  One should keep in mind here that often the reaction of NPCs must be dictated by the gamer themselves (i.e. it's all in your head) since most developers have a long and glorious tradition of transforming their NPCs into cookie cutter, feelingless beings.  Bethesda, I'm looking at you.  If you plan on playing a female character who breaks the rules of society (say a rambunctious, war hammer wielding upper class woman who runs about the countryside in a fur bikini when she, by all rights, should be at home in a high-necked dress caring for her spoiled rich babies) and are bothered by the fact that the NPCs do not display horror at your actions, then you should probably reconsider the choice of character's gender and/or mode of conduct.  I generally find that if you do not wish to deal with social strictures at all, then you're best bet is to chose a male character.
With most western RPGs, I find it generally acceptable to assume that the society is largely patriarchal in nature.  Even games like Dragon Age: Origins, whose Renaissance-esqe Fereldian noble class takes no issue with warrior women, still operates under the tradition of men being the head of the house.  When I played as a female human noble, her father had no issue with her chopping up baddies with her sword.  When he was about to leave for war, however, he wanted to leave my character and her mother to hold down the fort.  This is neither a good thing or a bad thing, but it means that if that was going to bother me as a player to no end, then I should have played either another origin story or changed my character's gender.  (For the record I tried playing a male human noble, but was completely put off by the fact that his father called him "pup."  That character didn't even make it out of the origin tale.)
I started the second paragraph off with the qualifier "most", because this rule of course does not always apply.  With space games I still tend to apply the patriarchal filter since my characters probably originate from some vaguely Western European country like England.  With games like Morrowind, however, you find yourself plopped down in a foreign society with completely different social values. (I am aware of the fact that this blog continually mentions Morrowind, but is quite possibly the best RPG ever so I find no shame in doing so.)  In Morrowind your character is already at the bottom of the Vvardenfellian social ladder since you play an Outlander.  As the player you can either choose to abide by Vvardenfell's social norms off the bat (though I can't imagine why you would do so) or utilize the norms of your home country.  The glory of games which place you in a completely foreign land is the fact that one generally finds themselves temporarily freed from social norms altogether.  Your character has a new chance to separate themselves from their (in your head) past, and fashion a new one for themselves.  In Morrowind your character arrives in Vvardenfell as a convict (or in Oblivion begins the game in a prison cell), so the odds that you character has already tried breaking with the norm before are probably pretty high.  The gender which you play at this point is left more to your own whims.  Since you exist, to a great deal, outside of society, you have the freedom of fashioning your own rules.  No matter what you choose, there will be House or faction to suit your new lifestyle.  You can also exist outside of organized society altogether should the fancy strike you.
2. What are my character's values?  What is their approach to life? 
A character's values does not necessarily dictate what their gender will be by itself.  After all, both men and women can be traditionalist, highly religious, conservative, or law abiding.  They can also be manipulative, freewheeling, generally apathetic, etc etc etc.  I find though, that the values of one's character become important to the great gender debate when one combines them with the game's time and place.  This is a bit redundant since we just touched on time and place, but I can't stress enough how important it is for me to consider the setting within which my character will live.  For example, it is fantastic if you wish to break the mold a bit and play a demure, pacifist male character or a gun-toting, mealy mouthed female.  If you can't deal with the fact that those roles are not accepted in the land where your character will reside though, then you should probably consider changing your avatar's gender.  Doing so will generally allow you to keep the back story/personality that you've constructed intact while simply swapping out your character's genetic make-up.  Thankfully, situations like this seem to be less and less of an issue with the advent of grey morality games, since they provide a wide range of dialogue options that suit just about every personality or value set out there.  Well you know ... within reason of course.
3. Are there any significant (read negative) stat differences that will make playing a female character more effort than it is worth?
This is not always an issue with me, because difference do not always exist.  Some games, like those in the KOTOR series (2003 & 2005), do not seem to differentiate between the two genders.  Others actually work in the female character's favor since women may receive a boost in dexterity, constitution, or whatever constitutes as a pain threshold.  This of course is usually accompanied by a decrease in strength, but that is okay with me.  I appreciate the token (very token) efforts that the developers make to add a tiny dash of realism to character creation. Sometimes female characters receive skill boosts in areas that men do not, but then that must of course be true the other way around as well with men benefiting in areas that women do not.  Most games do a fairly decent job of compensating for a reduction in one attribute by boosting another.  As a result, I cannot think of a game that I've played to date that possesses broken female stats.  This does not mean, however, that one should not double check the beginning stats to make sure that the female character will be playable.
At one point in time I played predominantly male characters since that is what I had grown up with.  Things have changed though as the choice to play as a woman has become more and more common in cRPGs.  I still do not mind playing men at all, but if given the choice I will generally run through the above thought process, and then pick a female avatar.  This is largely due to the fact that it is easier for me to get into a woman's head space.  (A discussion with a number of my male friends sometime back was a bit of a shocker since told me that they generally preferred playing with female avatars as well.  I had just assumed that they would role-play male characters more often.  That will teach me to make assumptions.)  I will admit here  that there is one exception to my preference for female characters.  That exception is (take a guess) the Elder Scrolls series.  I generally play with a male avatar about 80% of the time in both Morrowind and Oblivion combined.  I do not know why this is, but it might have something to do with my comfort level in their environments.  That's probably over analyzing it a bit though.

*This delay is of course in no way related to, or the direct result of, my recent discovery of Zero Punctuation's back catalogue.

*Fable: The Lost Chapters (2005) also requires you to play as a guy, but I no longer find that game to be enjoyable since the PC controls are so extremely broken and counter intuitive.  Just don't get me started on that.


  1. Invariably, I will also roll out a guy (although, I am a guy) as my main character. This is because as my "main" I want to be able to fully relate to him as a character and I want him to be the little "me" in the game.

    However, most of my secondary characters are actually female. I suppose this is because when I am sick of playing on my main and want a change, what more of a change could there be than playing as a woman?

  2. It is not unknown for me to role-play male characters (see last paragraph), but as of late I've found that playing the opposite sex can be very challenging when you are unfamiliar with a game's lore, value system, history, world etc. I suspect that, as you said, this likely results from the fact that we are invariably able to relate better to an avatar with the same gender, and that can make exploring a foreign world easier to do.