Taking a step back: Handling gender dissonance in games with distance and abstraction


I’ve been thinking a fair bit about gaming and some of my choices in games. Sometime over the last year, my partner noted that I’ve been running almost exclusively female avatars, and asked what was up with that. Earlier this week I found this essay by Riley MacLeod on responding to a certain type of masculinity as a trans man:

The male bodies in shooters disrupt, beg for attention, decide how a situation will unfold. They storm in and take what they want, destroying everything in the single-minded pursuit of their desires. They are greedy, unpopular children, behaving in all the ways men are told we have to but can’t, all the ways that wreak havoc, big and small, on ourselves and those around us in the real world. Stealth bodies let me share in what is; they have the dexterity to repurpose what’s provided to my own ends. They let me cooperate with a situation, ask me to take into account all the moving parts and my role in them. The way men behave in stealth games feels closer to what I hope my own masculinity is: thoughtful, adaptable, aware of myself and my effect on the world around me. Shooter masculinities close off possibilities, make an enemy out of the world; stealth masculinities place me firmly in the world and let me nurture it into something new.

In recent months, I find myself feeling much the same way from a different perspective. Even “stealth” bodies are, at times, painfully masculine. And I think the difference is as much to do with narrative and game design as character design. I find myself gravitating to games with more abstraction that give me more distance from the gender of the player character or protagonist.

I’ll define a game as a set of rules for organized play including some method to keep track of game state, rules for manipulating that state, and likely a set of goals or outcomes. Open-ended and “open-world” videogames may not have a single defined victory condition, but they usually will have a set of iterative or intermediate goals and achievements.

What I intend to do here is describe abstraction, gendering of characters in games, and how I find myself responding as a non-binary/non-conforming person.

Abstraction: From Senet to Mocap

To start with, modern video games exist as an interesting synthesis of board/card games and cinema. I generally reject the idea that video games offer much that is new in terms of social impact. One of my grandmothers taught me to play contract bridge, the other repeatedly warned about the additive nature of playing cards as a gateway to alcoholism and gambling. The debates about games have changed in degree but not so much in character.

English Caricature of Whist Players (wikimedia)

Evidence of games dates all the way back to the neolithic. Equally as long, we have evidence of different degrees of abstraction with tokens that resemble animals. On one end of the scale, you have backgammon pawns or pips. Senet is a game ubiquitous Egypt starting from pre-dynastic times using primarily abstractly shaped tokens.

Senet Board (By Keith Schengili-Roberts, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the other end of the scale you have the Lewis “chessmen” (probably used for a different game) with figures representing different ranks. Chess is an interesting example with sets having different degrees of abstraction ranging from human and animal figurines to nonrepresentational Muslim “pepper-pot” pieces with the standard Staunton set approximately in the middle.

Lewis “Chessmen” (wikimedia)

Staunton Chess Set (Frank A. Camaratta, Jr.; The House of Staunton, Inc.; via Wikimedia Commons)

Early video games used a high degree of abstraction due to the limitations of the hardware. When publishers communicated gender, they used secondary text and artwork to do it. Pacman is masculine by virtue of name and secondary art work. We personify Pacman more by contrast to the ghosts. Advances in video and audio technology over the last 30 years has brought us to high-fidelity rendering on home hardware (warn:feminine android violence).

At this point, representation of gender in-game is a stylistic choice. Those choices tend to reinforce gender binaries to various degrees. However there are ways to get some distance from forced gender in games.

Pushed Gender: The Cinematic CRPG Protagonist

One of the areas that I’m struggling with as a gamer is the popularity of the cinematic CRPG/action protagonist. Game storytelling typically alternates between action sequences and menu-driven dialogues and cutscenes. In early versions, the game told the story purely through text. NPCs received limited voice acting for particularly important scenes first. Today, in a typical AAA game, storytelling cut-scenes can involve animation and vocal performance for all characters.

While this offers a more cinematic experience overall, the relationship of player to the performance becomes something akin to a stage manager shouting cues off-stage. At least for me, the use of player-character vocal and animated performance limits the degrees of freedom to imagine variation of the characters. In Mass Effect, Jennifer Hale owns Commander Shepard, I’m just picking which variations of Hale’s performance I prefer. Which I should say isn’t a slight against the quality of Mass Effect (at least the first two games), just a statement regarding how I perceive the player-character when animated and voice-performed.

The tension is particularly jarring for a player-character with even fewer options, Jensen from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The sexual tension driving the plot is hinted in the prologue and made explicit in the opening credit cinematic (warn: medical horror). Of course, you can “headcanon” and fanfic just about any interpretation of a character, but the more stuff on the screen, the further you have to go “off the page” to get to a bi or nonbinary interpretation.

Getting Distance: The Isometric RPG

Shadowrun Hong Kong, Establishing Shot

“Isometric” RPGs are named for the bird’s-eye, top-down perspective on the scene. The genre is currently undergoing something of a revival, with Pillars of Eternity and Shadowrun Returns as new games, and remasters of the classic Baldur’s Gate series also on shelves. Some common features of the genre include:

  • “Isometric” perspective.
  • Control of multiple characters.
  • A “primary” plot line centered on the player character.
  • “Secondary” plot lines centered on companion characters, sometimes more interesting than the primary character arc.
  • Primarily text-based storytelling, usually shorter than provided by cut-scenes.
  • Character customization primarily via pre-generated portrait images.
  • Reduced or minimal voice acting.

While I don’t know of any that allow you to specify a nonbinary character at creation, Shadowrun games have a “shadow” character portrait with obscured details.

Shadowrun Hong Kong Character Creation

The visual distance from the character makes it easier to imagine androgyny, while the multiplicity of game identities opens the door for some fluidity.

Vehicles: You are the Machine

Vehicle games put most of the action as the driver/operator/pilot of a vehicle. The game may or may not offer character icons or a character model, but they don’t interact directly within the game world. With the perspective centered on the vehicle rather than a humanoid character, the physicality of the human character can be completely re-imagined.

In Euro Truck Simulator 2, all of the game mechanics are achieved at the wheel of the truck or through a text-based management interface. There is a character icon that appears in some views, but the game offers a fair variety of photographic choices with a range of age and ethnicity. If you twist the camera round far enough, you can get a view of your pragmatically dressed character model. Voice performance is limited to increasingly emphatic yawns when you stretch a driving shift out too far.

Euro Truck Simulator 2 (Yes, those are bi-pride colors.)

In Eve Online, you are the immortal cyborg pilot of a set of space ships. The development of Eve is an interesting case. Several years ago, the company announced the development of “walking in stations.” The project went as far as new character-creation tools and two rooms of “captains quarters.” Players objected strongly to the shift in focus combined with planned microtransactions, and development was dropped. Eve Online is intensely social, almost every action involves cooperation or competition with other players. However the community rejected the idea of basing that sociability on virtual avatars.

Eve Online

Both games offer a role-playing component. Choices professional development unlock skills and goals over time. However that role-play doesn’t involve interactions between animated human bodies. With sexuality and gender presentation kept off the screen, I can imagine anything I want behind the metal and chrome.

Conclusion, the tl;dr

Taking a step back from the cinematic perspective of many contemporary AAA titles helps me work with the dissonance between the publishers ideas about gender and my own ideas about gender.