Should “the man” no longer be the default?

So that you know, I began thinking about this after reading this article.

Let me start by saying a few things: it is impossible to answer this question with a flat and simple “yes” or “no.” Saying “we want MOAR women characters” for the sake of balance and diversity is too simplistic be discussed any further, but I have nothing against it.

Also, when it comes to story-driven games, I will usually care more about the main character if it’s a woman, not a man. I specifically mention story-driven games because chances are I wouldn’t care if: you “sprite-swap” Mario an Peach in Super Mario because the game will still be about running and jumping; the Material Defender in Descent were a woman because I’d still be blasting hordes of robots; Samus was a man in Super Metroid because I’d still power-bomb Ridley’s rear part to pieces.

The reason I wouldn’t care is because the gameplay itself would not change, and because I didn’t play Super Mario, Descent or Super Metroid for their deep storylines. However, as I said before, I have nothing against the simple gender swapping. That by itself would be a nice change of things, but nothing more because just don’t expect that gender swap be anything meaningful.

Samus is a special case because you don’t know it’s a woman unless you get a specific ending…

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So, having gotten that out of the way… women in story-driven games .

In story-driven games things change because I come to care for the characters. When I say story-driven I don’t mean some overly complex game with dialogue trees or deep storylines. To me, something as simple as your average RPG would count because, it features a character I get to know and care about. That’s something I don’t get from Descent, Super Metroid, or even modern games where gameplay comes first.

So if your game features a woman as the playable character, I hope you’ll make me care about her as a person and about her story.

There are times when certain gender is “mandatory” (please don’t get me started with the whole “gender and sex are not the same” argument because that is completely unimportant to me at the moment). I use quotations because, in some cases, it’s more related to social, political and cultural backgrounds than it is to universal laws.

However some rules can be bent and some can be broken. Just for fun let’s make a small experiment: There’s no universal law that says only a man can be the happy trigger protagonist with no brains, it’s just something that gaming has come to define (based on whatever social or cultural background).

One good question would be if we’d be ok with a happy trigger protagonist with no brains, that happens to be a woman (think Duke Nukem, only reversed). There’s nothing objectively wrong with such character, but I’m pretty sure not everybody would like her.

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It’d be fair to ask this question, though: who says your main character must be someone you totally adore, and who says your main character must be nice and perfect because it’s a woman? I don’t like FPS or TPS games that much, but I’m thinking it could be interesting to have more main characters like her instead of your perfect woman you’d love to take out for dinner (and I’m not talking about looks, but also personality.

Just for fun let’s make another experiment: I’ve spoken about what I think about Gone Home A LOT but I think it fits my experiment perfectly. There’s nothing that mandates the main character to be a woman, so we can swap the two sisters by two brothers, and the love interest for a man. Is the story more likeable, less likeable or as likeable? You’re free to keep the answers to yourself or share them below. However, from a purely storytelling point of view, the game is equally interesting.

On the article I linked above (but never referenced until now), the developer states that he was thinking about making the main character a woman but then it became a man because he was following a Robin Hood style story. Knowing the protagonist could have been a woman I can’t help to wonder why story style was meant to be a male-only thing, as I begin to think how amazing it would have been, specially contrasted to the setting’s political, social and cultural background (assuming, of course, the game was set in some medieval time).

Of course there are things where a specific gender is mandatory, due to universal laws. Like, there’s no way you can make a game where a man and a kid can play the mother-child relationship, unless you know of a man who’s been able to naturally give birth and nurture. And no, Arnold doesn’t count. I don’t consider that a bad thing because nature and biology end where social, political and cultural environments start.

On to a different subject… I’ve read about women representation in games a lot, and while some good points can be found, there’s something many miss. In real life there are women you get to know and respect, just like there are women who clearly don’t even respect themselves (the same applies to men, but in gaming nobody cares about stereotypes in men), and games only reflect that.

How about a game where you approach that subject? Forget the damsels in distress (no pun intended, really) and forget the perfect adventuress and make your protagonist a woman who’s more than willing to be the “hot girl dancing in the music video” and gradually earns more self-respect and becomes more secure about herself?

There’s many other things and examples that could make it to this blog post but you get the basic idea, so maybe it’s closing time?

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I want MOAR women characters not because I am in some sort of quest for equality or balance. I certainly don’t want them because “we need more strong, non-sexualized, realistic, believable female characters,” because female characters should not be considered a “holy grail of character development.”

As a gamer, I want female characters because they can be memorable, because they can be interesting, and because they can give a different perspective to any game based on any theme (I’m looking at you, Robin Hood!). As a developer I want female characters because I find them relatable, interesting and nice to work with. That’s why the protagonist of my current project is a woman, and that’s why there’s a big chance the protagonist of the next one will also be a woman.

So, at least to me, “the man” should not be the default choice if you want me to care about your story and character. But if the game is about blowing up glowing things or collecting coins, I’ll be happy with the game regardless of the main character’s gender.

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~ by nemirc on February 24, 2014.

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