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For They Are Weary of Space Marines: Why Some Men Are Playing Women, and Why Game Developers Should Take Note

Essay

Right off the bat, there were a few differences between men and women — but not the ones you might expect. 72.1% of female respondents said they play female characters “most of the time”, if given a choice. 37.7% of male respondents said the exact same thing. On the flip side, only 34% of men said they play male characters most of the time (compared with 2.3% of women). In fact, men didn’t seem to have one over-arching preference when it came to gender choice, and that 37.7% was the largest group among them.

When the respondents started talking about why they made the choices they did, things got really interesting. Women primarily preferred making female characters they could relate to, but only just — they also indicated a strong preference for the following answer: “My choice of character gender depends on the story or the character I am creating” (74.4% and 69.8%, respectively). But for the men, their most popular choice — by far — was the women’s second choice: choosing the gender based on what suited the character best (59.6%). And the men’s second choice didn’t even come close: “I identify as male, so I find male characters to be the most relatable” brought in only 36.5%. And as for the eye candy factor, only 26.9% of men claimed sexual attraction as a consideration in choosing their character’s gender. To make matters more interesting, when asked later about choices of sexual orientation with NPC romances, both men and women showed a preference for following the storyline they found most interesting, not for matching their character’s orientation to their own (by the numbers: 53.5% of women, 62% of men).

That’s awfully different from what the Average Male Gamer is supposed to be like.

At the end of the survey, everyone was given the opportunity to add anything else that was on their mind. Not all took part, but some folks got delightfully chatty. As anyone might expect from the simple exercise of talking to lots of different human beings, the men were anything but a hive mind when it came to how they approach games. Some, like my brother had done with the SWTOR beta, chose female characters for their skill sets.

Often, the different genders have different abilities. For instance, in fighting games females are often the quick, agile characters. This suits my playing style.

Others, like my aforementioned friend, lacked a connection with most games’ concepts of masculinity.

I’d prefer a blank-slate female character to a dude with too much in-game swagger, which for me always breaks the player/character identification.

It’s not that I’m necessarily attracted to my female character, but I think female chars generally look more pleasing and aren’t a GIANT MAN-APE.

I think it’s generally a matter of the character’s story and attitude for me; I generally have a mindset that is considered “feminine”, at least in comparison to roid-raging space marines. Often my female characters’ stories are interlaced with another character of mine that may relate more closely to me. But almost never in a romantic capacity, they tend to be sisters or apprentices or mentors of my other characters.

But the trend that stuck out to me most had nothing to do with combat abilities or aesthetics or relatability. These guys were all about the intrigue of female heroes.

I guess overall I want to see characters that are interesting and compelling. Take Shepherd [author’s note: he’s referring to Commander Shepard from Mass Effect]. Regardless of gender or race Shepherd is pretty compelling… once the story starts and you start seeing an actual personality. But you don’t get that initially, right? You just get visual information. Default male Shep looks bland to me. I’ve seen that guy in every game forever. Looks, buzz cutted military whitebro man! Yay? Switch genders. Okay, well, now we have a cool looking woman. That’s new! What’s it like for her in the space military of the future? Where does she come from? Now we get to customize. I don’t have patience for deep character customization, so often my wife (who loves good character builders) fiddle with the look of the character. My shep looked cool and interesting. Non-white both in skin tone and facial features. Striking, but not pretty. I want to know about this character, now. I want to see what she does, who she is — I haven’t seen her before in a game.

The most important [reason for choosing female] was simply that the epic proportion of the games would make a female lead character much more awesome in my mind, as silly as that might sound, simply because the “male superhero soldier guy rescues the universe and is bad-ass while doing it” is so tired now and while the female version essentially is as cliched as the male one, for some reason it still was much more appealing to me.

There is a big difference to me between playing a game where I can choose a character, or playing a game where the character is part of the game’s inherent narrative. When I am given the choice, I tend to choose male, like myself, but if there are two games on the shelf that are very close but one features a female main protagonist, I find myself intrigued to discover their story. Perhaps that’s because most games have stereotypical male characters and the story is then typical too.

To me, that last observation underscores a fundamental truth about all gamers: we are the most boredom-prone creatures on the planet. We like new gimmicks, new maps, new expansions, and yes, heroes we’ve never seen before. Those quotes also illustrate the feeling of fatigue that any group gets when there’s an over-saturation of how said group is depicted in art or media. Most female gamers are tired of half-clad battle vixens. And some male gamers are clearly tired of “roid-raging space marines.” So if both women (oft quoted at around 45% of the gaming community) and a big chunk of men (shall we be optimistic and say half?) aren’t satisfied with or interested in the characters that are being offered…why are we still seeing these characters at all? The answer, of course, is one of a pre-conceived target audience, but I honestly don’t think that it exists in the numbers that the gaming industry seems to think. It’s exactly like what Susana wrote earlier this week in her post about the Lego Friends line: Are we seeing so many space marines and battle vixens because that’s what folks actually want, or do folks buy those games because that’s all we’re given?

I hope we can get to the point where when we talk about the future of game development, the conversation can be less about what women like in games and what men like in games, but rather what gamers like in games. While discussions of feminist issues in gaming are important — both to the integrity of the artform and the strength of the gaming community as a whole — we also need to discuss the disconnect we’re seeing in gamers throughout the gender spectrum. In looking at the responses I got back from the survey, all respondents, regardless of gender, highly value characters that they’ve never seen before and worlds that they can believe in. I think one of the most telling results was the answers to question six, which asked whether players found it more important to play their preferred gender or their preferred class. 85.1% of all respondents combined picked their class. At the end of the day, gamers just want to game.

But that doesn’t mean that characters don’t matter. For gamers, an immersive world is what separates the pre-order line from the bargain bin. If I took one thing out of this little experiment, it was this: Game designers should stop thinking of gender portrayal in terms of appeasing the womenfolk and instead utilize it to create amazing stories. Not just because it’s the socially responsible thing to do, but because it’s the only way the medium is ever going to evolve.

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

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