Saturday, December 11, 2010

Scholarly Musings: Sex and Character Preferences in Video Games


Hey everyone, Scholar here to talk about video games again. Big surprise, I know. As you can tell from the title, however, this is something a little different. This isn't even a rant, just an interesting observation and I guess a bit of wondering-out-loud on my part. It has to do with sex and gender in video games, both yours and the characters you play. And how does it affect your game? (Side note: this would be a pretty cool thesis for someone to do. If I was more into socio-cultural anthropology I probably would).

Now let's talk about sex in video games. By this I am referring to male/female designations, the other kind of sex might come up later. For a long time, and even to some extent now, gaming has been seen mainly as a male pursuit. This is changing mind you, but many games still have the sense of being "guy games". But I don't want to detract from the topic at hand too much so that will have to wait for another post.

Anyways, back on topic. What spurred this was an observation I had about myself regarding my player characters and party characters of games. If given the choice, I will always play a female character. Granted there is the odd exception, such as Mortal Kombat where my favorite character Ashrah only appears in Deception and Armageddon, so in other games I tend to play Raiden (Kung Lao in Shaolin Monks). I even played the female characters in Diablo and Diablo II (Rogue and Amazon, respectively) where I was stuck as a ranged attacker rather than my much preferred melee. Why? Because I prefer to play female characters. I also love the game Portal, and that game is really neat for having basically two characters in the game, and both are female. How awesome is that? This is not to say I don't play games where you play as a male. I adore the God of War games, Bioshock was amazing, and I had so much fun with The Force Unleashed. So don't get me wrong, player character sex isn't a deal breaker as long as the game is good, but I will choose a female character if I can. In fact, I've never played a male Warden or a male Shepard, what I know about them comes from when the Cynic plays because he will generally play male characters.

However, things seem to change for me when playing a game in which you have party members. When I choose I party, my character tends to be the only female. For example:
Dragon Age: Origins Typical Party:
Dog or Oghren

But wait you say, you have Wynne, and she's female! That may be so, but she's also the only healer in the game, and thus gets brought along so I don't use all my health pots which I tend to hoard for the Archdemon fight. Okay, how about a couple of better examples?

Dragon Age: Awakening Typical Party:

As you can see, there is a pattern, although this party does work well for me. Me as DPS warrior, Nathaniel as rogue and to lockpick, Anders as DPS mage/healer, and Oghren tanks.

Mass Effect Typical Party:

Again, this fits the pattern and tends to work with my play style. I am usually Soldier class, so Kaidan's biotics complement that. Garrus can be a tad squishy at first, but does well especially with a sniper rifle.

Mass Effect 2 Typical Party:
Mordin/Grunt/Thane (who I wasn't able to recruit when I played but based on videos I have seen, I quite like Thane)

This is just based on how far I got in the game, but again it works for me.

As you can see, there are a few names that repeat themselves, which leads me to my favorite characters of each series:

Favorite Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening Characters (Party and NPC):
Bann Teagan
Wade and Herren

Favorite Mass Effect Series Characters (Party and NPC): (remembering I didn't finish the second game)
Captain/Councilor Anderson

From these lists there are exactly two female characters, Shale and Flemeth. Flemeth is awesome for being mysterious, humorous, possibly a little crazy, and fantastically voiced by Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek: Voyager fame. Shale is a great party addition with unique skill trees, has an overwhelming hatred of birds (with often humorous results), flirts with Sten. And is a golem. But, she was once a dwarf, Shayle of House Cadash, who volunteered to become a golem.

See. Totally Female.

So my question is this: why? Why am I not a fan of the female characters? One could make the argument with some such as Alistair and Kaidan that the only reason they are on the list is because they are romance options. While the romance part is true, and I have romanced both, that isn't the only reason I like the characters. I find their stories interesting. Mordin isn't romance-able, but the conversations with him are awesome, interesting, and hilarious. Garrus is just a badass character, and quite sweet as a romance option. Such as the interaction between Nathaniel Howe and my Cousland (human noble) character in Awakenings, I was greatly interested in the potential friction between the two (I killed his father after said father killed my PC's parents). He turned out to be my favorite party member even after all of that was sorted out. Couldn't say the same about Velanna. She was irritating and a supreme bitch to everyone. While she was an interesting study for being as much the victim of her own prejudices as her people were victims of human racism, the whole "You're all human and bad and I don't like you all because I'm Dalish blah, blah, blah, blah, blah" got kind of old. Switching to Mass Effect, the ladies don't fare much better. Ashley always kind of annoyed me with her xenophobia, although as a love interest she is pretty romantic. And you can't deny the awesomeness of a name like Ashley Williams.

Hail to the King, Baby.

Female NPC's don't fare much better. Lady Isolde has a voice like nails on a chalkboard and about as much intelligence. But, unlike with Mass Effect's Khalisah al-Jilani, there is no option for a rather satisfying punch to the face, which is somehow more awesome as a FemShep. Observe:

Two of my favorite NPCs, however, are the Blacksmith Master Wade and his partner Herren from Dragon Age. Not only does Master Wade make some excellent stuff for you with the right materials (Drake and Dragon scale armor, Golem Shell Armor, Vigilance, etc.), but the banter between the two is absolutely priceless. They are confirmed as a couple, and bicker like only two people who have been together a long time can.

But again, we get to the question. Why? I can continue to give examples until my fingers fall off from typing, but it doesn't answer the question. So I'm asking my reading audience, what do you think? Do your favorite characters and NPCs in a game seem to fall to one sex or another? Do you play your own sex or the opposite when given the choice? Is it a matter of what characters you identify with? And if so, does the sex of the character matter? It seems I identify more with male characters, yet prefer to play as a female. What do you think? Feel free to leave comments, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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