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Looking For A Few Good Chells: Why Player Character Gender Matters

Essay

When I was about nine years old, my mom handed me a new computer game. She had read about it in a magazine, and since she had a geeky little daughter who loved puzzles, she thought I might like to give it a shot. At this point, I was well versed in taking a covered wagon to Oregon and in tracking down that pesky Carmen Sandiego. A few of my cooler friends had stuck a SNES controller in my hands from time to time. But though I enjoyed games, I tended to view them in the same vein as playing with Legos or my wealth of plastic dinosaurs and Happy Meal toys. I had a little person to play with. I could make them jump around and do things. Sometimes I’d make them follow rules. Sometimes the little person fell down and I had to start over. It was fun, but it wasn’t emotionally gripping.

The new game in question had no little person to move around. It had no rivers to ford or Goombas to smash. I found myself on a mysterious island, with no instructions, no obvious goal, no other people around to give me quests involving kidnapped princesses.

And, most importantly, the character I was playing as me.

The game was Myst, and it radically changed how I thought about gaming from there on out. Games were no longer just platform-jumping puppet shows. They were a way for me to be the explorer I’d always wanted to be.

After that, I became an increasingly voracious gamer, though I found that the grand majority of games gave me a character to play, rather than letting me be myself. I was fine with that. After all, books and movies were much the same way. However, the fact that most of the characters were boys did not escape my attention. This was sometimes frustrating, but not overly so. I was used to it by then. At the age of five, I spent my afternoons with two fellow kindergarteners named Matthew and Stephen, who were huge Ninja Turtle fans. I hated playing Ninja Turtles, as it always left me with an unpleasant choice. I could either stay a girl and be April, who was completely useless, or I could be a boy and play Michelangelo, who could actually do stuff.

As my mom said to me just this afternoon, “For fifty percent of the human population, the opportunity to play as ourselves isn’t that great.”

What I did not realize, as I gamed and grew, was that I was quietly being hardwired with a particular status quo. In first-person games, you play boys. This is because boys are heroes who can do stuff. In third-person games, you will probably play a boy, but you might play a girl. However, even if the girl is a hero who can do stuff, she is first and foremost there to be looked at.

I did not give the status quo much thought, even when I chose the Amazon in Diablo II, despite the fact that I’ve always hated playing archers; even when I stubbornly stuck with the Priestess of the Moon as my Warcraft III hero, though even my kid brother knew that the Keeper of the Grove was a far better choice. I was semi-consciously reaching for characters that I could more easily inhabit.

This was the first point that I discussed with my biologist mother in a phone call this afternoon, as I was wrestling with why I cared so damn much (bless her heart, she still listens to me ramble on about video games). Why should I care about whether or not the protagonist of a game is female? Shouldn’t I just be content with an awesome game, even if I am playing as a dude? Shouldn’t I be all gender-neutral and transcendent and just care about a good story?

“One billion years ago, ish, sexual reproduction evolved,” she said. “Suddenly you have organisms that are male, or female, or both. We still work that way. There is still a part of our brain that says, yes, you are male, or yes, you are female. Though people have different concepts of gender identity, I would say that it is incredibly rare to find someone who feels they have no gender identity whatsoever.”

Alright, okay. Be it Mother Nature or societal conditioning or some combination of the two, I identify as a woman, and therefore it’s easier to imagine myself as another woman. But aren’t I so much more than just my gender? I mean, my enjoyment of games hasn’t typically been hindered when a male protagonist was my only option. I wasn’t any less delightfully freaked out by BioShock while playing as Jack Ryan instead of, say, Jacqueline. I didn’t cackle any less maniacally when my uber-charged Heavy plowed through the sausage fest that is Team Fortress 2. So why, when presented with a choice of gender, have I historically jumped at the chance to play a female character, even if her abilities aren’t the most in sync with my preferred style of gameplay?

To answer that, I had to give my non-gamer mother (though she did go on quite the Pharaoh binge back in the day) a crash course in a few key concepts. After an explanation of the terms “first-person” and “third-person” in relation to gaming, she quickly grasped why first-person gaming is so immersive. “So,” she mused, “if I am playing a first-person game, it’s like I am becoming something.”

Oh my god, yes.

She continued on, addressing my tendency to go right for the female avatar: “It’s not so much about wanting to be female as it is about wanting to be you. And you are female.”

When I play a third-person game, I am controlling someone else. Like Athena stepping in to help out Hercules, I become emotionally invested in that helpless little bundle of pixels. Without me honing my skills, the character would fail. Without me to guide them, their story has no ending. But ultimately, it is still their story. That world belongs to them. But if I am seeing directly through someone else’s eyes, if their hands are my hands, then their story becomes my story. I am sharing their existence. I am, like my mother so eloquently put it, becoming something.

Which brings me, at last, to Chell.

A few months ago, before the release of Portal 2, a friend of mine commented that the revelation of Chell’s gender in the first game had been groundbreaking. At first, I didn’t understand what he was getting at. Chell doesn’t talk. Chell isn’t addressed by GLaDOS in any sort of gender-specific way. Chell isn’t even on any of the game packaging. The only way you can see Chell at all is if you stare at yourself through a well-placed portal. Why in the world would it matter in the slightest if a silent, first-person protagonist is female or not?

But then I thought back to my initial playthrough of Portal. I was geeking out on intricate puzzles and computerized insults, when suddenly something strange happened. I saw a woman there in the testing chamber with me. It took me a second to realize that I was looking at myself. And yes, I had been surprised. The status quo had been challenged. I thought something to the effect of, “Oh! I’m a girl! Cool!” But I did not get overly excited about this. I went right back to launching myself over platforms and shuffling around weighted storage cubes. But if I think back really hard, there was an added level of quiet – almost subconscious – contentment, as if the little five-year-old in me was glad that she didn’t have to pretend to be a boy anymore. She could be April and do stuff.

Though it has taken me this many years to realize it, yeah, Chell’s gender was kind of earth-shattering. But in a really lovely, sublime kind of way. The message was clear, but so gently executed that I barely gave it a second thought at the time. Chell is a hero. Not because she’s a girl. Not in spite of the fact that she’s a girl. Not because she’s more like a boy. She can just do stuff.

All this has made me wonder: why aren’t there more Chells? If the gender of the protagonist has no impact on the story, why not make them female? I can rattle off a mess of first-person dudes faster than I can name state capitals, but when asked to think of women in similar gameplay roles, the only name that comes to mind is Chell. There has to be another one, right?

…right?

After much brain-racking, the only other first-person ladies I can think of are from another Valve franchise, Left 4 Dead. Both incarnations of the first-person zombie shooter have a playable female character – Zoey and Rochelle, respectively. But the obvious difference here is that Zoey and Rochelle are viewed in third-person by the other three teammates, who are all notably playing male characters. It didn’t take long for a few fan-made naked Zoey mods to be released (the one I saw footage of featured gravity-defying ripped panties and a partial Brazilian). I am sure similar mods exist for L4D2, though I was too busy avoiding Witches in the Sugar Mill to care.

Okay, okay, there’s Lilith in Borderlands, too, but the same third-person viewing rule still applies. And considering that most promo images and cinematics feature her blowing kisses when the camera isn’t fixed squarely on her ass, we know pretty much why she’s there.

Let us shift gears for a moment and explore the opposite end of the inclusion-of-women spectrum. In worrying about the portrayal of female characters, some folks in the gaming community have swung over to another extreme (I have been guilty of this myself, as well). Rather than focusing first on the accomplishments of a female character, the character design itself is put under a high-powered lens in search of the cardinal sin of objectification. You don’t have to go far to find examples of this. When the new concept art for the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot came out, an overwhelming amount of buzz – both positive and negative – was about her, ah, décolletage.

My mother pointed out that, on some level, this was actually understandable. Lara Croft is possibly the most iconic female character in all of Gamingdom, and they had changed her look.

“Imagine,” Mom said, “if Gandalf was still Gandalf, but they had shaved him.”

Which is why there is now a Post-It note on my desk scrawled with the esoteric phrase “Gandalf’s beard = Lara’s boobs.”

But I digress.

While some discussion of Lara’s change in look is to be expected, I felt that all of the discussion of her altered cup size was overshadowing what is actually important about the game: raiding some freakin’ tombs. So, even in efforts to take her down off of the eye candy pedestal, in a way, fans were still objectifying her.

This kind of hand-wringing over female appearance can be easily found in real life as well. This past April, mechanical engineer Limor Fried was featured on the cover of Wired. But instead of singing the glories of the Minty Boost and her bold call-to-arms for a Kinect hack, the internet largely focused on whether or not Ms. Fried had been ‘shopped, or – heaven help us – was wearing makeup.

Because even if the girl is a hero and can do stuff, she is first and foremost there to be looked at.

We seem incapable of ceasing to focus on a woman’s appearance, even when we have the best of intentions at heart. So maybe, just maybe, part of the solution (as far as gaming goes) is to stop looking at female protagonists. Instead, we should start becoming them.

While we swing back and forth in search of the happy balance that will lead us to the Holy Grail of Strong Female Characters, perhaps a simpler path is to just look through their eyes and help them save the day. The more I think about it, the more I think it is somewhat vital that we give gamers – both male and female – more opportunities to be a formidable heroine in first-person. Create a new status quo, one in which heroes are people who do stuff and worry about gender later (and hopefully, eventually, not at all).

And if marketing departments are biting their nails over offering too many female-only FPSs to what is still, admittedly, a predominantly male market, then I see no reason why developers can’t give the Commander Shepard treatment to more than just RPGs. If the gender of the character doesn’t affect the story, let the player choose their hero. Let the player choose who they want to be.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She keeps a blog over at http://otherscribbles.com.

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