Gender options for video game protagonist

First, a bit of background for those who don't know it: There's a popular series of science fiction video games called Mass Effect, in which you (the player) play a military officer named Commander Shepard. At the beginning of the game, you get to choose whether Shepard is male or female. (You can also play Shepard as straight or gay; also, unrelatedly, your moral choices of actions have an effect on how others react to the character. Or so I gather; I still haven't played the game, but am really looking forward to it.)

One of the writers of the games, my friend Pat, posted a fascinating question on LJ yesterday, which I might paraphrase as: Should the male and female versions of Shepard be treated differently? For example, do you as a player want there to be more acknowledgment than there currently is of Shepard's gender?

There's a whole lot going on in those questions. For example, I initially read the post in the context of long-ongoing discussions of gender-neutral characters in prose fiction; I tend to be of the opinion in modern-day-setting fiction that it's not usually a great idea to not specify a protagonist's gender, because we live in a world in which male and female people are often treated differently. And if the author doesn't specify a character's gender, it's easy for readers to assume the character is male. (Or to assume the character is the same gender as the author.)

But this isn't really the same thing. It's a far-future setting, so the “men and women are treated differently in real life” argument doesn't necessarily apply (though some commenters suggest that the human culture portrayed doesn't entirely treat men and women the same). And the protagonist is a military officer, and I gather has to be involved in a fair bit of violence, so you don't have complete leeway to make the character whoever you want them to be (for example, I'm guessing you can't play Shepard as super-femme)—though there's a lot more leeway than I ever would have expected in a video game. Also, the character does have a definite gender; there's a difference between a character whose gender the reader doesn't know, and a character whose gender the player gets to choose.

And as Pat notes, there's a big question about to what degree, and in what ways, other characters react to Shepard's gender.

Anyway, I think it's a great set of questions (sparked by a request from a player for more acknowledgment of Shepard's gender), and I think the comments are great. There are 120 comments; I've only skimmed them so far, but all the ones I've looked at have been worth reading. It seems to me that the first page or so of comments largely agree with each other that there should be more use of “he” and “she” and “sir” and “ma'am,” but that no other changes are needed (I'm oversimplifying to summarize), but in the second page of comments there are a bunch of further nuances and a fair bit of disagreement over the best course to take.

I think BioWare is awesome for providing these kinds of options in a game, and Pat is awesome for asking these kinds of questions, and the commenters are awesome for having smart and interesting things to say.

And WisCon weekend seems like a great time to have this conversation. (It reminds me of a panel I was on some years ago about sf worlds in which men and women are treated equally, and some subsequent conversations about, for example, gender-equality on Star Trek (TNG and later), not to mention the question of what it means to be gendered in an sfnal world in which there is full gender equality.)

And I'm now even more looking forward to playing the game than I already was.

3 Responses to “Gender options for video game protagonist”

  1. owlmoose

    I haven’t played Mass Effect, but I’m currently immersed in Dragon Age: Origins, a fantasy-setting BioWare game, which treats the player character similarly. You can choose to play as male or female, and except for some of the romance options and dialogue changes here and there (mostly in terms of addressing the character as he/she or lord/lady), for the most part characters seem to react to you exactly the same. People are far more likely to comment on your race if you are an elf or a dwarf than they are on your gender if you are female. But I like the dialogue changes, and I like that they are subtle — it makes it feel as though the choice is integrated into the game, rather than tacked on as an option, like what color armor you want to wear, but it also doesn’t enforce all kinds of icky gender norms. It enhances the game without getting in the way.

    Since I’m traveling right now, I haven’t had time to dive much into the post and the comments, but I look forward to doing so! Thanks for the pointer.


    Minor correction: Mass Effect doesn’t really allow you to play Shepard as gay. There is a female-seeming alien that you can have a romantic relationship with, whether you play Shepard as male or female, but all the other romantic options available to you are heterosexual. (I believe Dragon Age allows for more options.)

  3. Jed

    Owlmoose: Glad to hear the gender stuff in Dragon Age works for you. Will be interested in hearing your further thoughts, if any, on the ME discussion when you’re settled back in at home.

    Ted: Interesting; I hadn’t realized that. Thanks for the correction! Looks like ME3 will have more gay options, though; I must have been conflating that with what I’d heard about ME 1 and 2.


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