I Just Pick The Girl A.K.A. Character Selection Shouldn’t Be an Exercise in Gender Studies

After seeing a lot of what was on offer this year at E3, it is clear that many developers still don’t understand the importance of gender identity to players.

Even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was being presented with evidence of the importance of gender identity in video games as early as 1988. Back then, my sister and I would often play video games together. When Super Mario 2 came out, my sister finally had a chance to choose an avatar that matched her gender with Princess Peach.  Despite the game offering other characters with other abilities to choose from, she always chose the female character. “Because she’s a girl” was generally the entire reason given. This trend continued in games like Super Mario Kart, with her always choosing the female character regardless of that character’s performance in relation to the others.

Later, when I began playing games with my girlfriend (now my wife), I noticed the same thing. We would play games like Baldur’s Gate Dark Alliance and if the game contained a female character for the players to choose from, she always chose that one. I would ask her about it and her response was always “I just pick the girl.” This was the case regardless of the play style involved.

We now know (or should know) that when the gender of a player’s game avatar matches their own it increases their immersion and presence. Avatar/player gender match helps the player focus less on their avatar and more on what they are doing. In short, all things we as developers want to happen.  We also know this goes even further when you get into other things like age, race, and social status. But those can be exponentially more complicated and bring along other issues. So for now, I am going to focus simply on the basic personal identifier of gender.

Now, I am a strong believer that there are games where the player character’s gender can’t or shouldn’t be mutable. Most commonly these would be cases such as Halo or Tomb Raider where the game is about walking a specific character through their story. It’s also the case that alternative choices for gender may be thematically inappropriate such as playing a front-line combat solider during World War II as a woman. I’m not addressing those types of games.

What I’m referring to are games where the identity of the avatar is not specific or functionally relevant. This is more often the case in multiplayer games (and perhaps more relevant due to the social nature of multiplayer) like Battlefield 3 but can also be the case in single-player games like Crysis. In both these cases ,and in countless others, the gender of the player’s character could just as easily be female and could make them that much more appealing and enjoyable by female players. It seems like a no-brainer as these developers and publishers often lament about the need to gain more marketshare, particularly with the female demographic.

Sometimes developers try. There are good examples such as most Bioware products like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. Also most MMOs provide the ability for players to choose their character’s gender. Sadly, most developers end up patronizing gender choice by feigning diversity of character selection.

Consider a games like Borderlands. A multi-player cooperative game where players are given a choice from a cast of characters that includes exactly one female. Assuming we want maximum player immersion and connection with their characters (re: enjoyment), this setup is perfect if the group of players contains exactly one female and she likes the play style the female character offers. Great. As my own anecdotal experience (and probably research) shows, the female player will likely pick the female character and maybe just suck up any quibbles with the gameplay.

But what happens when that is not the case? What happens when 2 women are playing? Who gets to play the female character? What about 4 women playing together? What about 4 men? Maybe as a male I don’t identify with the female character as much but that’s my only option because I like the abilities and the play-style that character offers.

There are so many games with this type of setup I couldn’t even come up with an appropriate short list to represent this situation but here are some examples: Diablo series, Left 4 Dead series, and the Trine series. In all of these cases the gender (and indeed the identity) of the characters is irrelevant and could easily be male or female but this choice was omitted. As much as I would love to chock these up as old examples of an industry still trying to figure out the changing demographics of its players, it is clear from E3 2014 that this trend is still going to continue.

In these cases there is no excuse for not offering both a male and female option for the player’s avatar character. Yes, it takes extra time to model/animate. Yes, it takes extra time and money to pay additional voice talent and manage double the voice assets. Yes, it takes extra code to manage the difference between avatars. I don’t care if you are not creative enough to design and budget for it. Handling character customization is a solved problem at this point. Not only is it worth it, but at this point in time the community will let you know that it is no longer acceptable to omit this choice.

The bottom line is this: If you don’t give players the ability to choose their character’s gender, you fail. 

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