I’m going to admit flat out; I play women in games very often.
Not all the time; I think I usually play as a guy. But I have quite a few female characters in my repertoire as well.
Some of you (I hope most of you) probably don’t see the problem with this. “Yeah, and?” you’re saying. That’s good! Keep being awesome and open-minded. However, I have some not-so-fond memories from some people in my life who didn’t appreciate my choice in sex (and I’m not talking about the fun kind). This mindset is mind-boggling to me, and I almost find it incomprehensible why so many people are disturbed by it.
This here is my latest Dragonborn in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Known throughout the region as The Black Flame, my Dragonborn is well respected as a hardened mercenary. The Black Flame’s name comes from the sellsword’s penchant for wearing dark black armor and ruining the battlefield with a conflagration of magic fire. Few individuals have seen The Black Flame’s face; it is almost always covered by a mask stolen from one of the ancient Dragon Priests. But everyone knows what The Black Flame has done, feats which include single-handedly destroying the Dark Brotherhood, becoming Arch-Magus of the College of Winterhold and halting a world-ending threat there, killing untold numbers of undead, vampires, and dragons plaguing the world, and oh yeah slaying Alduin the World Eater.
The Black Flame also happens to be a woman named Giselle.
This doesn’t diminish her accomplishments. It doesn’t make her weaker or incapable. She gets the job done, estrogen or not. She’s cut heads off bandits and stabbed dragons in the throat. And the citizens of Skyrim, while they would perhaps be surprised to find out her identity, wouldn’t care much that she’s a woman. The Dragonborn is respected and feared, hated and adored, no matter what their gender. The Greybeards don’t turn the Dovahkiin away because she’s a woman; they take her in and teach her regardless. They don’t care about her chromosomes, and Giselle here just happens to have two Xs. Why should it be strange or weird that I want to play as her? She’s a hardened warrior. She once fought three dragons at once, and won. Doesn’t that sound like someone you’d want to play as?
And yet I know that there are people out there who would roll their eyes if I announced that I made my character a woman. They’d scoff or get that look on their face that says something like “Oh god, you did what?” And I just find myself so frustrated by this that I need to formally talk about it. Somehow. Somewhere. So why not here?
I need to stress the fact that games are not real life. Much as I’d like to, I can’t strap on a suit of armor and run out into the wilderness to fight dragons.
Some people forget that. Games (often) take place in fictional worlds, with fictional characters and fictional problems. These things can all be grounded in reality, but ultimately they aren’t real. They’re magical, really, because they allow you to experience things that don’t exist in real life. You can fight robots, or fly a spaceship, or cast magic spells. But the real magic of games is that you can be whatever you want to be. You can do whatever you want to do. I want to lead an armada of starships, or board a merchant ship in the Caribbean, or fight a werewolf, or turn into a Super Saiyan, or be a Pokémon Master. I can’t do those things in real life, and in the outside world I’m a simple lab technician.
It’s fun to pretend to be something that you’re not. It’s why people like to play as alien races and dwarves and superheroes. I’m none of those things, but I’m allowed to pretend to be in a game. And you know what else I’m not? A woman. So in a subculture that embraces the idea of pretending to be something that you’re not, why am I shamed for playing as a woman? I can decide to be a seven-foot tall super soldier. I can be a dragon-man who breathes fire. I can be the child of a long-forgotten prophesy and save the world from untold destruction. I can be a tiefling bard if I wanted to. No one would question my decision to play these characters. No one would try to turn them into something that they aren’t. No one would say that I can’t or shouldn’t play them. But when I announce that the tiefling is a woman? People think that’s weird. They find it odd or unacceptable or dirty that I’d decide to control a woman in the game.
You know, part of what’s awesome about gaming today is how progressive companies are trying to be and how hard they are working to broaden their audience. If you flip through the newest Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, for example, you’ll find just as many pictures of women as you will men. These are women in armor. They’re women fighting monsters. They’re women doing the same work as the men that are depicted in the book. Just because they have boobs doesn’t mean they can’t be a fighter or a ranger or a sorcerer. And then we have video games, which commonly give you the option to play as a man or a woman. Besides a couple of altered pronouns or gender-specific lines the things you can do in the game are exactly the same. Commander Shepard, whether you’re a man or a woman, fights the Reapers and saves humanity in exactly the same way. Your player character in Dragon Ball Xenoverse, whether male or female, gets the same respect from the other characters and saves the day in exactly the same way. There are examples everywhere of this. We live in an empowering time, and some people need to get with that time.
I think, if asked, most people would point out that there’s a strong sexual overtone to this problem. The stereotype of guys who are geeks is that we’re extremely antisocial, have non-existent love lives, and we literally don’t know how to speak to women in any situation. Thus, we must get our “kicks” through weird fetishes on the Internet, since we can’t actually get a real woman. And the individuals who see us this way (often male geeks themselves) assume that because I want to play as a woman that I must have some sort of disturbing sexual attraction to my character. They assume, to put it as PG as possible, that I think about her while I’m showering.
There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that someone is attractive, and that’s true even of fictional characters. Back in my WoW days I remember there were a couple of guys who I heard claim “I’m staring at my character’s ass for 99% of my gameplay; I might as well be looking at something I like.” Crude way of explaining it, but this is completely fair. Sexuality is a very human element, and one that I don’t believe we as a society should be inhibiting. It shouldn’t be a bad thing to acknowledge that a straight male likes the look of the female form; that’s sorta what we’re supposed to be like. Straight women enjoy the male form; that’s okay, too. The problem comes when that’s all someone cares about, and when characters are blatantly sexualized for that enjoyment. And unfortunately, most people assume that’s how all guys are.
This stereotype is insulting to me on multiple levels. I don’t think I have to go into detail as to why; it’s pretty obvious. But I will be fair here; I know for a fact that there are people out there who play as women for this very reason. Take five minutes to browse the Skyrim Nexus and you’ll find tons of NSFW mods that are highly endorsed by guys that fit this stereotype. They exist, and I can’t pretend they don’t. However, I personally believe that a majority of guys playing women aren’t doing it for the sexual thrill, and the ones who do are ruining it for everyone else. I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to install their favorite Bondage Mods if they want; it’s their game and they have the right to play it however they want. Yet at the same time they perpetuate a stereotype that is damaging to other gamers. It’s a stereotype that causes someone like me to be ridiculed when I just want to tell a story that happens to be about a woman, which is really the whole point.
Here’s an example for you. Meet Rainelleth Lúinwë (and please be gentle about my art skills), one of my older D&D characters. She was perhaps the youngest individual to join the esteemed society known colloquially as the Rangers of the Wilderness. Young even by human standards, at the age of 17 she applied to become a ranger and was almost immediately inducted into their ranks. Combat-wise she is a crack shot; I literally never missed with an arrow while playing as her. She heavily employs the use of stealth and crowd control; pin the enemy down and then take them out from the safety of the shadows (in this regard she’s more of a ranger/rogue). Rain is a bit haughty about her abilities, and gets frustrated when someone callously leaves her out of the loop or assumes she wouldn’t be useful in any given situation. Hot-headed but kind, she dislikes authority but will gladly put herself in harms way to save another.
Rain is one of my favorite characters, and it’s not because she’s a woman or because she’s attractive or anything like that; she’s one of my favorites because of the awesome storythat my group and I sketched out with the game she was part of. Rain was the youngest in the party. She was also, unfortunately, the only one who didn’t know that our fifth (and only other female) member of the party was a vampire. Two other characters did, and they went to great lengths to hide it from Rain. She is, after all, a ranger. They all knew that she had killed a werewolf by herself sometime before the events of the game; her first instinct when she heard the news may very well have been to kill the other PC. The other characters couldn’t let that happen; both characters were important tot he party and their mission. Rain was furious about this; she knew secrets were being kept from her, and that pissed her off. It pissed her off because it implied, in her mind, that she wasn’t good enough or respected enough by the party to be involved in something so important. Our characters were at each other’s throats a lot, but we as the players loved it! It was interesting and flowed well from a narrative standpoint. It brought a level of “social combat” to the game. We spent many hours discussing how we thought best we could reveal Agni’s “condition” and not destroy the party or have Rain kill her. It was a very important part of the story and our gaming experience.
That’s the kind of thing D&D is about; rich and interesting stories that are remembered for years to come. Rain was an integral part of this, and her gender had very little to do with it. Her value as a person is what made it interesting. I enjoyed playing her because of that, not because I wanted something to think about when I’m lonely at night.
What’s particularly bothersome for me is that I don’t see this sort of anti-gender-bending attitude when it comes to women who play games. They, at least in my experience, can freely play as a male and no one seems to mind. I imagine this may be because it’s more acceptable for a woman to be “boyish;” it’s more socially acceptable for women to wear pants (historically masculine clothing) and do “guy things” than it is for a man to wear dresses and do “girl things” (quotes for emphasis), at least in western society. So when a woman wants to play as a guy? Yeah, sure. No worries.
I don’t know what else I have to say on the topic. I do think that, lately, this bias is disappearing. It’s not as prevalent as it used to be. But it’s still there, and it shouldn’t be. Role-playing is all about stepping into the shoes of another character, another person. It’s about pretending to be something you aren’t. Saying a guy can’t play as a woman is like saying an atheist isn’t allowed to play a cleric; you’re missing the entire point.