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The Hey Sweetheart Scenario: Deconstructing How Role-Playing Games Talk to Women

Essay

One of the coolest things in an RPG is when a character within the game comments on something you’ve customized. It might be something about your character’s class, or the way you handled a particular quest. There’s nothing as immersive as having the story react to your decisions as a player. And there’s nothing that breaks that immersion faster than something I have dubbed the Hey Sweetheart Scenario.

The Hey Sweetheart Scenario is one that plays out with female protagonists, and it pops up all over the place. It’s usually very subtle, presenting itself as a bit of throw-away dialogue separate from the main plot. The Hey Sweetheart Scenario has many incarnations, the most common of which are as follows:

1. An NPC warns you that a life as a warrior/soldier/adventurer is even harder if you’re a woman.

2. An NPC expresses surprise that the hero that was sent to help him is a woman.

3. An NPC assumes that you are a stripper/concubine/cheap date, even though you are armed more heavily than an entire SWAT team.

4. An NPC actually calls you “sweetheart.”

Following this bit of dialogue, the Hey Sweetheart Scenario typically gives you the option to contradict the NPC, often by causing verbal or physical harm to the speaker. You will almost definitely have the chance to prove them wrong in some way. The underlying message of the Hey Sweetheart Scenario is that your heroine is such a badass that even those silly boys can’t get in her way.

I hate the Hey Sweetheart Scenario.

Purely from a storytelling standpoint, these interactions don’t make much narrative sense, especially if the game in question has fully embraced gender customization. I’m talking about games that give you a sense of equal opportunity right from the character creation screen, games with mixed-gender militaries, folk heroes of either gender, armor that fits properly, the whole nine yards. If this is the social norm of the world you’re jumping into, why, then, would anyone be surprised to see yet another woman strolling up in soldier’s garb? And if we’re in a world in which this norm is well established, why would any NPCs have contrary assumptions about what roles a woman can or should fill?

The counter argument, of course, is one of lore. Game settings are places of fantasy, and writers have the right to create whatever cultural norms they want. Conflict is what makes a story interesting, and if you’re creating a whole universe, naturally you want as much diversity and nuance as possible. Even gender prejudices, if written well, can be an interesting part of the story — but only if they exist with an actual point. To show you what I mean, let’s look at two conflicting examples from Dragon Age: Origins, as played with a female character. Sten, one of the NPC companions, is a member of the Qunari, a people with a very strict social caste. In Sten’s eyes, women fill roles such as priestesses, farmers, merchants, and artisans. This stratification is so deeply ingrained in him that at first, he can’t even believe that you are a woman. He expresses the same confusion towards any female companion characters you have in your party.

Sten: Why are you here?
Morrigan: Excuse me?
Sten: Obviously you are no priestess. But shouldn’t you be… running a shop, or a farm somewhere, rather then fighting?
Morrigan: You think to tell me my place, Qunari? You are very brave.
Sten: It is not done.
Morrigan: But it is done. Do not be such a blind fool.
Sten: I speak the truth. It is not I who is blind.
Morrigan: Look around you, then. You see women throughout this land, fighters and mages both.
Sten: That has yet to be proven.
Morrigan: Which? That they fight? Or that they are female?
Sten: Either.
Morrigan: So I am not truly a woman to you? Hmm. ‘Tis good to know.

See, that’s interesting. Even though Sten’s views on women don’t jibe with our own, I have now just learned something about the world I’m exploring. The message is not that all women are inferior; it’s that Sten comes from a place with rigid societal roles. That’s good storytelling.

On the flip side, there’s an early scene with Alistair (admittedly one of my favorite characters) that invokes gender differences for no apparent reason. It’s a very benign example of the Hey Sweetheart Scenario, but as a player, it grated at me nonetheless. After you’ve completed all sorts of minor acts of heroism to get recruited into the Grey Wardens, Alistair points out that not many women have joined the order. It’s not an insult, but it does make you feel like the odd one out. In response, the player has the following dialogue options:

- You want more women in the Wardens, do you?
- Probably because we’re too smart for you.
- I can handle myself better than most.
- How about you stop thinking of me as a woman?

In other words, you can:

- Flirt.
- Take the “boys have cooties” route.
- Admit that your gender is a handicap, or that you are unusual.
- Deny your femininity.

Aside from the fact that those options all suck, they also lack one key response:

Alistair, are you high? I’ve seen women fighters in every single environment in this game.

Dragon Age makes it clear from the get-go that the Kingdom of Ferelden is one in which male and female soldiers co-exist on a regular basis. There is nothing in the lore to suggest otherwise, and throughout the game, you’ll see female military commanders, arena fighters, and highway bandits. This bit of dialogue from Alistair doesn’t do anything to illustrate cultural norms within a fictional world, but has everything to do with the cultural norms of the writer. I haven’t learned anything about the game here. I’ve just been told that girls are weird, for no apparent reason. And no, not everybody in a role-playing game should be nice to you. One of the marks of a good game story is the opportunity to clash with some of the characters. But there’s a very big difference between being made to feel weird because your character is, say, a dwarf who has journeyed to human lands, and being made to feel weird because you’re a woman living the life of a warrior. What does the latter prove? What does it add to the story to point out that my heroine has it tougher than her male compatriots? If you, as a game writer, are tasked with creating a story in which the player feels like a bonafide hero, then what purpose does it serve to point out that my heroine is going to have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously, purely because of her gender? That’s a feeling I already have in the real world, and it’s not one that I want to experience within a game. If you’ve actually got something to say about gender norms within the narrative of a game, then say it. Tacking it on just because it’s what you’re used to takes away from the integrity of the story and kicks female players right back to an uncomfortable reality.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that the Hey Sweetheart Scenario is sometimes intentional. If so, that means it’s meant for a particular audience. But who? I can think up a few different possibilities, none of which stand up very well on their own. Let’s break them down.

  • The Hey Sweetheart Scenario is meant for women. By giving the player a chance to strike back towards sexist remarks, she will ultimately feel empowered.

Admirable, but misguided. It’s true that I find games to be very empowering, especially if I can play as a female character. I love getting the chance to be a hero that I might see in the mirror. I love barreling into battle with imposing armor and giant weapons, off to conquer evil and save the day. What I don’t love, on the other hand, is being made to feel that I had to overcome my gender to get there. Yes, I’ve had to deal with plenty of degrading remarks and unwanted come-ons in the real world, but that doesn’t mean that I fantasize about skewering those guys with a broadsword. Some women may get a sort of catharsis out of these scenes, but for me, they tap into that an “us versus them” approach that runs counter to a true search for equality. If you really want to make female players feel empowered, give us a world in which sexist conversations don’t exist at all.

  • The Hey Sweetheart Scenario is meant for male players who love immersive storytelling. They may enjoy the realism of having to experience the challenges of sexism from the other side of the equation.

Objectively, I can appreciate this. As a gamer whose drug of choice is immersive storytelling, I totally understand the drive to use character customization as a means of stepping into somebody else’s shoes. It’s a very intriguing sort of mental exercise. The trouble here is that using such an approach to cater to the needs of male storytelling junkies completely ignores the female players that are feeling slighted alongside them. This brings us right back to the “hey, girls play, too!” drawing board.

  • The Hey Sweetheart Scenario is meant for male players who are likely to express Hey Sweetheart sentiments in real life. By showing that the female character is angry about comments such as these, the game is slipping these characters a cleverly disguised morality lesson.

Hey, fair enough, Hypothetical Game Writer, as unlikely as you are! But wouldn’t a better lesson be to just show those guys a heroine whose gender never invokes any sort of prejudice whatsoever? Go play Portal or the original Metroid and you’ll know what I mean.

  • The Hey Sweetheart Scenario is meant to show what a badass the heroine is. Sexism makes her angry, and anger makes her strong!

Ugh. Raise your hand if you’ve ever played a game/seen a movie/read a book wherein the heroine’s desire to fight stems from her anger towards men, particularly where a male abuser is concerned. It’s a trope as old as the hills, and it drips with lazy, one-dimensional storytelling. A real heroine doesn’t need to be goaded into action by ill-mannered men. Just let her save the day. That’s more than enough evidence that she’s a badass.

Whatever the reason for the Hey Sweetheart Scenario, it’s time to put it out to pasture. The gaming industry is slowly but surely taking steps to make its female audience feel included. We’re seeing more games with gender customization, armor is getting more and more reasonable by the year, and female characters are no longer exclusively sidekicks or support classes. That’s awesome. Now let’s have the dialogue follow suit.

Thanks to the Dragon Age Wiki for the assist with the dialogue quotes.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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