Gender in videogames is becoming a hot topic, but usually focuses on the many things the game industry does wrong concerning the female gamer perspective. The “Lara Croft” conundrum consists of a bevy of scantily clad pieces of eye candy as the main representation of women characters in video games and how that’s not really doing it for us. In the past I always kind of wrote all that off as a necessary evil of video games and did my best to enjoy what was there. During a discussion on gender in a Video Game Theory class I recently took at NYU, I found myself adamantly defending my experience playing as Female Shepard in the Mass Effect series. Being able to play as a female hero who was equal to her male counterpart (and fully clothed!) affected me much more than I had realized. I have always been a big fan of JRPGs and the experience of playing through a long, story-driven commitment that binds you to the characters in a special way no matter who you are, but being able to create this (albeit somewhat limited) representation of myself and play through this journey where your personal choices shape the game was, for me, a fascinating, fun and empowering experience.
After finishing the third game and doing a lot of thinking and research, I wanted to take some more time to describe why I think her existence in the world of games is a huge step in the right direction as far as making a more desirable heroine for female players. Over the past few months, “FemShep” has become a bit of a sensation, that even lead Bioware to release special versions of game trailers and even include a reversible piece of cover artwork for the game so us FemShepians can show our love on our bookshelves at home. The fact that the existence of female game fans for big shooter-console games are being recognized and catered to by such a big conglomerate is amazing to me, and it is exactly the sort of thing that is going to help make other game companies think twice before they put all their female characters in bikinis.
Many different art forms have come a long way in changing gender biases as they developed, but when thinking about playing Mass Effect as a gendered experience, one of the most interesting things I looked back had to do with practical game design conventions. The fact that most characters respond to Male/Female Shepard in exactly the same way, in my mind, unknowingly achieves an interesting effect regarding gender bias. For the most part, in life, people are going to respond differently to a woman they would a man, the difference may be subtle, but as a woman I find myself always conscious of my gender when entering any situation. Even though it is a simple practical gamic convention, a subtle gender bias is somewhat eliminated because these are two parallel characters in almost everyway (except for their gender). I never once during any of the games felt like someone wasn’t taking me seriously or looking at me differently because I was a woman, and that is due to the systematic nature of the game. I found the experience freeing and empowering. Moving easily through this world knowingthat my gender didn’t hinder my abilities in any way is, in retrospect, one of the biggest achievements of the game, and it was done, most likely, because it was the easiest way to program both characters to have as much overlap as possible. Sure, there are moments of dialogue that are tweaked for male/female differences but I found them in no way offensive, in fact, I usually enjoyed those moments and found them empowering as well. For instance - While the female Krogan was on the Normandy, there is a very nice woman-to-woman moment where she comments on how it is nice to see a species that takes their women seriously. It is additions such as this that make it easier to overlook the fact that you can take a shower with another female crew member.
In addition to the wonderfully wise comments of Urdnot Bakara (the aforementioned Female Krogan,) the Mass Effect universe also features other strong female characters, and even though the game lets you literally strip them naked at times, the fact that they even have personalities at all is a far cry from many other popular games today. Sure there are many ways you could argue that Mass Effect exploits it’s female characters, and even took drastic modeling measures to sex-up FemShep herself, (http://kotaku.com/5892386/my-female-shepard-how-youvegrown) but for me, the overall experience of playing Mass Effect as a strong and powerful woman was a huge step in the right direction. Sure giving Shep bigger boobs or letting her bang that stupid Jessica Chobot clone isn’t my ideal of gender gaming equality, but big-budget games need to sell, and as a reasonable human being, I can understand that.
Another hot topic in the Mass Effect world is the wonderfully weird world of romance on the Normandy. I have read all sorts of comments about these situations being “awkward” and “cardboard,” and in a way I would have to agree, but the fact that this part of the game exists at all is an incredible achievement. Being able to “have a relationship” at all is a really cool and interesting game play element that could potentially intrigue female players to want to step outside their comfort zone and give the game a try. Personally, when I found out you could “do it” with your crewmates I was giddy with excitement. Although it is a bit weird, it is always exciting when you get to finally make that suggestive comment and invite someone up to your cabin. I spent the afternoon watching all the different FemShep romance scenes play out (and although I’m a Garrus girl myself,) I found each one very interesting. This is one part of the game where I feel like an opportunity to cater to female players was a bit missed. Even though these scenes are more or less stepped in the male gaze, at least you are rewarded for “committing” to your lover (you even get the ultimate validation for doing so…an Xbox achievement!) Not all was lost however, the limited pillow talk did have a few kernels of depth, and even Specialist Traynor makes the interesting comment, “I never thought I’d see a woman under all that armor,” after making sweet lesbian love to our heroine. Even though it may not be the daring change we need to make games more equal, it is game elements such as this that let the player invent and explore the character on a different and deeper level. I think these kind of conventions could be a great way to draw female fans into the console gaming world, creating an experience for us that is more than, “men shooting men in the face.” (In the wonderful words of Anna Anthropy)
In the past few weeks many people have made it their personal mission to tell the world all the things that the Mass Effect series has done wrong, and although nothing is perfect, I think it’s important to step back and think about all the things that Bioware has tried to do with the Mass Effect series (Female Heroines, Freedom of choice, Homosexual relationships, etc) that truly are a step in the right direction, even if right now they may seem a bit contrived. Hopefully the controversy and interest surrounding all these elements will encourage other big budget game designers to consider mixing things up in their next releases, and who knows, maybe by the time we rebuild the Mass Relays, we can share games that promote equality throughout the galaxy.