thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 1)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 16, 2012 at 7:59 am

brian psi

Check out Part 2 of this series here.


James Cameron’s monsterpiece Aliens opened in the US in 1986. That same year, in Japan, a playing card company re-establishing itself as a consumer electronics giant released a game for its still new Nintendo Entertainment System called Metroid. The game dropped the next year in the US, at about the same time Aliens gained a larger audience with its release on videocassette. The two are forever intertwined for me, and not just because of how much the atmosphere, music, and creatures of Metroid reminds me of Aliens (not accidentally), or the fact that they were, at the same time, my favorite movie and favorite game.

It’s mostly those characters. By now, the bad-assedness of Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is well documented, affirmed, and granted. But the other franchise, as successful in its own way if less mainstream-famous, also featured a resourceful, tough-as-a-railgun protagonist in bounty hunter Samus Aran. Wearing a full suit of power armor, constrained by mid-80’s 8-bit graphics, the fact that Samus is also a woman was not apparent while playing the game. This was not advertised by Nintendo, and the game’s manual used male pronouns, essentially keeping her secret from the game’s (mostly) male players. Tantalizingly, the page where Samus and ‘his’ mission is described concludes by saying Samus’ “true form is shrouded in mystery.”

Defeating Metroid took players dozens of hours, as they were required to find a number of secret weapon stashes and learn the patterns of a handful of difficult boss monsters. But those that learned the tricks and replayed the game (including myself) discovered that Samus’s pre-credits salute to the player changed based on how quickly they were able to finish. Five hours or less, and Samus removed the red space helmet, revealing for the first time that he was… she.

This was groundbreaking. Female game protagonists were largely unknown at this time, mostly relegated to quickie tie-in games designed to capitalize on various girl’s toy crazes, or occasionally feminized versions of male characters like Mrs Pac-Man (1981)—never in a AAA action title marketed on back covers of Uncanny X-Men comics. But then it happened that some players, even more skilled, got ever faster. They learned that if they defeated the game in under an hour, Samus’ armor disappeared altogether. She would stand waving back at her operator… in a pink bikini:

Samus undergoes two transformations. Before she takes off her helmet, she is mostly identity-less, intrinsically identifiable because beneath the helmet ‘he’ is mostly the player’s vague projection. Once she unmasks, this projection is shattered, and the made/male-in-one’s-own image is replaced: the confident and resourceful alien ass-kicker is actually a woman. This is surprising, and for its time, incredibly progressive: Ripley would be proud. But in the second transformation, the player’s projection is replaced with something very different: the ass-kicking heroine becomes the ass-revealing reward for player competence. (Years later, metagame rewards would come to be called achievements or trophies). The dual nature of Samus’ transformation exposes a tension that will run throughout the piece below. Specifically, that ‘crossplaying’ gender too often serves to confirm the same harmful ideologies which reduce the bodies of others to objects of desire (or, sometimes, revulsion). But it also produces potentialities: the promise of surprising, often radical re-imaginings of the ways we understand—and are bound by—concepts like gender, sexuality, and identity.

Video games, a medium which is inherently collaborative, invite and indeed force their consumer/players to both watch and manipulate the protagonists that they will also in some way be inhabiting for an afternoon or a year. The relationship is intimate. A rather strange—for art even perverse—power relation constitutes the experience. The character’s creator-programmer(s) can only create contexts and establish limits, while its consumer-operator make all of the character’s actual decisions—where to run, what to eat, and who to shoot or sleep with. When I’m feeling optimistic, I think that the player’s interaction with their in-game avatar is the closest we can get to actual, unmediated character identification in a narrative art form: after all, you are the character, or at least, the direct instigator of their actions. When feeling more pessimistic, I fear that the instrumental, controller-ing, slightly creepy nature of this relationship simply expresses a newer kind of domineering fantasy play.

Ostensibly Samus is a character, but formally, she is a plaything, a toy. At a whim, I can tell her how high to jump, or command her to curl up into a ball (and she will). And there’s the rub, yes? As a rabid player of games, I am deeply invested in and troubled by this question, of what actually happens when a person/player, inhabits the (virtual) body of an_other: in this case, a character of a different gender. Why do I, for example, always (always) play a female character when given the chance or choice? I would like to think that this experiential relationship is instructive, even beautiful, a subversive exploration of how identity is always performed and constructed (indeed ‘played’). But I must also consider the possibility that this kind of identity tourism, virtual though it be, is deeply problematic for a number of reasons, which I will elucidate now.


Not surprisingly, other bloggers have attempted to answer this question, with interesting if under-developed results. I will start with Ted Lee’s 2010 post, “Gender roles and video games: Or, why do guys play as girls all the time online?” which gives several possible answers to its titular question, all of which seem unsatisfactory. Let’s take them up separately:

“Female characters’ proportions (from bust to hip) are exaggerated as well, but the male characters seem too hyper-masculine – and perhaps, even though I’m a male, I’m intimidated by their monstrous physique.”

The non-mimetic (to euphemize) representation of the human form in games is well-known. While its importance to this conversation cannot be overstated, I will just summarize by stating that, Yes, bodies are both idealized and objectified, and that this is true for both male and female characters. It is, as Lee alludes to, also true that in the former it is musculature and build that tends to be exaggerated, while in the latter it is sexual characteristics (primarily breast size, frequently accompanied by unlikely or impossible hip to waist ratios). This is no secret, and as Quinnae @ The Border House has shown, many game designers who are aware of this problem are unwilling to address it.

What is interesting to me is that Lee suggests that the small female form—even one of a different species (he plays a gnome)—better represents the ‘complexity’ of his being than the hulking male, because it (the male) is defined mostly by its physical characteristics. The gnome apparently isn’t likewise reducible, which seems at best paradoxical, and possibly self-servingly myopic. To understand why Lee is arguing that physical characteristics embodied by a female gnome are more thematically aligned with the ‘complexity’ of his persona and that of his friends, requires an understanding of his second argument, about how these personas are steeped in and shaped by geek/gamer culture. He writes:

“The minute you decide you like video games as a hobby, you move into this subset that doesn’t belong in mainstream society, and that this subtle marginalization exacerbates social problems. We don’t fit the social criteria and expectations for masculinity, but we can’t simply just change our gender. We’re stuck in some sort of gender limbo.”

Hence, crossplaying for Lee is not the crossing of a boundary or an exercise in discovery but rather the naturalized expression of some kind of ‘true self’ (an idea we will return to below). Unfortunately, this view figures the female body as largely symbolic, character-less except as a vehicle for men whose apparently subversive hobbies make them un-men, gnomish genderless pariahs.

It’s an interesting argument, but a difficult one–especially considering that the idea that (only/primarily) males are reducible to their bodies is laughable, especially if you’ve seen a lot of video games. (And besides, EVERYONE plays some kind of games now, and geek culture has kind of taken over everything: check the ratings for The Big Bang Theory sometime. You will likely be amused/horrified.) But yes, OK, the the oppression of the geek male continues apace. Really. Stop laughing.

Lee’s next observation, one that I put more credit in as an explanation, even if it is far more problematic, is expressed thusly: “There’s various reasons why when you question other people – my friend James plays a catgirl in Final Fantasy XI and his justification is that if he’s going to have to stare at a character’s backside all day it might as well be attractive. My friend Troy also agrees.” It isn’t just James and Troy, not by the longest of shots. A little context: the default perspective of many games, including online roleplaying games like World of WarCraft, is a third person view in which the camera (actually, the frame provided by the screen, of course) follows directly behind the player’s character, at a distance of perhaps 2-10 virtual yards. The viewing angle shifts as the protagonist turns so that this character is always in the center of the screen. Formally, this perspective became the default one in many genres because it provides a rough approximation of a first-person perspective while also giving a greater view of the field of play. Since this is often some kind of battlefield, the third person perspective allows the player to easily determine where enemies are, in case some ninja or robot is sneaking up from behind or attacking from the side. But it also means that what you as a player spend most of your time watching is your own character running away from you, their/your body bouncing in-step, never getting any further away.

The bouncing booty phenomenon is not an uncommon motivator. While men often own up to crossplaying women to admire the view, many women do, too. On a recent Kotaku post (about the percentage of players who choose the female version of Commander Shepard in the Mass Effect series), STG7 writes, “Meh. I ended up playing as broShep (Adept) because I’m a straight woman and I’d much rather look at his ass running across the screen than femShep’s, because I’m shallow like that.” There is a single reply to her comment, from rickster999, who states: “That’s the exact same reason I play as Femshep – spending 60+ hours looking at a guy’s ass smacks to me as a little bit homo…Whereas femshep’s curves & sexy voice, mmmm.”

Both replies posit the game characters one plays as objects for consumption as much as or more than subjects for negotiating gamespace. Both are very clear as to what they hope to get out of the experience. In a vacuum, it is difficult to find fault with the idea that one should be able to spend time with characters that one finds attractive. To say otherwise is to enforce one’s own ideas of what kinds of desire are acceptable, and could lead to repressive approaches towards that which should be most sacrosanct: the individual’s imaginative and fantasy life. However, the second response does just this, espousing anxiety about what rickster’s own consumption of digital entertainment and the bodies delivered through it might be saying about his (and others’) sexual identities. This claim, along with his stated desire for the body belonging to his Commander Shepard, and the voice of actress Jennifer Hale, quite explicitly bases his choice of characters on their presumed suitability for sexualization.

Lee’s next argument, then, is unintentionally programmatic: “Role playing as females allows a gamer to expand his persona. In literature, women are complex – they can be the virginal maiden or the powerful femme fatale. They can create and heal, but they also can destroy. Females in fantasy genres generally fall into the magical and religious roles, but they can also play as assassins and helpless royalty, as powerful paladins or demure druids.”

I will quote Lee’s friend and fellow blogger Jilly Bean on this point, because she replies to this passage with aplomb: “This is a notion that exists at the very core of human thought in our society. Women have two roles to play: the virgin or the femme fatale. Both of these have everything to do with sex. When a man plays a female character, whether he plans to play the virginal maiden or the femme fatale, he is taking control of her sexuality.” And limiting it, too. An attempt to ‘expand one’s persona’ becomes in practice an exercise in diagramming someone else’s, and in very specific, historically troubling ways.

Jilly Bean’s full response espouses the thesis that “Men play women characters to control women,” and that regulating their sexualities to maintain the virgin/whore dichotomy is only the most obvious example of this. Bean reiterates Lee’s claim about the status of the socially awkward or neutered gamer-geek male, and this frames her response: “It is a common belief that men who play role-playing video games have a hard time existing in the real social world. In some way or another they just don’t make the cut when it comes to expectations for masculinity.” Hence—and this is where I think Bean really nails it—“why do men role-play female characters? Because they like that women can think for themselves? Hardly. It’s because they like that they are in control. If the type of men that play role-playing games are the type that have lost the control society dictates they must have as men, then it makes perfect sense that these men gravitate towards role-playing female characters. It is the only way they gain back that control they are told they must have.”

So the presumed powerless do all they can to exercise it over those who have even less. David Wong recently blogged about the “5 Ways Modern Men are Trained to Hate Women.” Despite the occasional over-reliance on questionable evolutionary psychology, the piece is an insightful and devastating takedown of contemporary misogyny. Take a close look at Wong’s top two reasons: “#2: We Feel like Manhood Was Stolen from Us at Some Point” and “#1: We Feel Powerless.” Both of those cover the ideological presuppositions that Lee and Bean operate under, but are also ignorant of and unswayed by the contextual parameters established by them, ie, that these feelings of powerlessness and less-than-maleness are somehow special provinces of a specific class of males (gamer geeks). As Bean suggests, Lee’s supposed disenfranchisement of the geek male serves to actually excuse a power grab, and their desire to appropriate a body that they very easily can dominate. The idea that gamer geeks are somehow victims, is, again, simply wrong. As even the most caricatured representations of them points out (the ad below, for instance), there will always be (even if puppet-like, virtual) women one can attempt to control.

This was the actual ad displayed when I read Wong’s piece. Geek males as victims? Or entitled misogynists? You decide!

Jilly Bean’s thesis is, I think, mostly sound. But there are some areas in which her framework can be extended. It only really tackles the question of why men crossplay as women. It does not attempt to answer the question of why so many women crossplay as men. For STG7, the advantages are evident: everyone likes pixelated eye candy. But it is difficult to simply reverse Bean’s thesis, to say that ‘women play as men because they want to control men,’ even if the attraction of borrowing the robes of those with greater historical and institutional power might be in some ways understandable. More importantly, it does not address questions of queer identity, transexuality, or intersexuality—all of which not only complicate the binary that Lee, Bean, and myself have already too-much contributed to upholding thus far (straight men playing or played by straight women), but also complicate any conceptualization of power and powerlessness, expression and repression. To start gesturing in that direction (ever slowly, sorry), let us now tackle that always popular because (somehow still) controversial question of privilege.


Non-male (and non-white and non-straight) others are not sufficiently represented in video games, and when they are, they are often represented very badly. These representations are created by mostly white, straight male coders and designers making the games, and reflect the supposed desires of a supposedly white, straight, male playerbase. That playerbase is rapidly diversifying, however (development houses are too, if more slowly). But because female protagonists are still the exception, and still too often portrayed as objects of desire and/or rewards for male players rather than fully human participants, many or most women who game already crossplay, and must do so frequently to play many games, certainly the majority of AAA ‘core’ titles.

The lack of gender choice in many contemporary games is head-scratching and, frankly, inexcusable. 2011’s sci-fi shooter Brink was initially billed as having virtually unlimited character creation possibilities. But at some point in development, the level of customization was reduced. Let’s hear from the game’s creative director, Richard Ham: “From the outset, we wanted to create a character customization system that was so deep and varied that you would never run into another player that looked exactly like you. As we got deeper into development, we were faced with an incredibly tough choice: massively cut back the amount of customization options as well as the quality of the assets, or cut female models.” Guesses as to which one they chose?

There are exceptions, of course. Recently, a piece by Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue praised the female player-models in Blizzard’s upcoming action/rpg title Diablo III for being more realistic than in most games. The female barbarian, to cite one of Chambers’ examples, actually looks quite burly, easily strong enough to wield her enormous axe. The design emphasizes this strength and toughness, rather than her breasts, hips, and pubis. Obviously, the fact that reasonable representations like this are so rare that they merit news stories is in itself troubling. But this is where we still are, as one of the article’s comments, by Cade DeBois, makes clear: “I actually gave up on gaming for many years because I couldn’t take how female player characters were either non-existent and just gratuitous wanking-off material for 13-year-olds. Now I’m slowly getting back into it, and I confess, what the female characters look like is a big part of whether I’ll try out a game, let alone buy it.”

Having the choice to play as oneself is clearly important. Since it is largely male (and straight and white) bodies represented in games, then some men probably play something different, given the chance, just to… play something different. But if you are not represented (because you are, for example, fat) or are not represented well (because you are, for example, black), then crossplaying isn’t a novel diversion or extraneous convenience one is privileged to explore. It is the price of admission. These limitations reinscribe existing hierarchies, letting women and minorities know that their experiences and their bodies are consumables or simply irrelevant, virtually nonexistent.

Frequently, those that choose not to crossplay, who choose not to hide behind the majority’s bodies and identities are mercilessly harassed, solely for the great crime of being themselves. Many women play male characters in online multiplayer games because if their true statuses were discovered, they would be subjected to a shocking level of vitriol; told to go back to the kitchen, or that they are fat, ugly, or slutty. Other identities are unwelcome, too. Take, for example, the ubiquity of the word ‘fag’ as an epithet in the gaming community, certainly in forums and in-game chats, but occasionally even in official industry promotional materials.   For many, temporarily exploring a virtual identity is not therapy or diverting playtime, it’s a very unromantic, pragmatic strategy for retaining one’s dignity, sanity, and sometimes even safety.

Finally, the other problem associated with playing virtual dress-up is that this borrowing is often too concerned with those very characteristics that are the most visible markers of differences, often highlighting and indeed exaggerating these differences, and therefore tending to reduce others to their visible identities. An analogous example of this phenomenon is the tradition of dressing up as, for example, an American Indian for Halloween, a practice critiqued by Angry Navajo/Indian Girl in her 2009 post, “My Identity is Not A Costume for You to Wear!” She compellingly argues that this kind of identity tourism is not an exercise in understanding an/the other, but rather just another form of appropriation, one that perpetuates hurtful stereotypes. Some may say (some of the commenters on her blog do say) that there is ‘no harm done,’ that it is only a child’s holiday, that we are all post-racial now so these things don’t matter. They are wrong.

When Andre Agassi (to so-hurtily call out someone I personally admire!) paints his skin black to dress like Mr. T, he is–even if unintentionally–re-raising the specter of blackface and re-signifying all of its racist assumptions and caricatures. So, too, does the college girl donning the sexy Indian costume resignify the noble savage, and reinvest the myth of the readily penetrated native body (itself representing a readily colonized native people). It must be entertained that crossplayers too could be remaking some of those same myths, appropriating other identities that they neither hope nor attempt to understand, and are therefore causing real pain.

Why, Andre, why?!

Disk-case closed? I hope not, and not just because I have may have some desperate need to self-justify! In part 2, we will look at how some of worst excesses of crossplay might be mitigated, and some ways of the ways in which it might even be redemptive.

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.

  1. Nice post, very well researched and written.

    In my particular case I play both male and female avatars almost evenly. My choices depend much more on the performance of the character than on the percieved sex of the avatar.

    If I am playing a role in game that rewards being smaller (ability to hide more effectively, smaller “hit box” for area of effect bad things to hit, etc.) then I will play the smallest avatar availible to me.

    Often that is the female avatar, but I am playing it more for the advantages it gives me in game play verses role playing the sexuality of the avatar itself.

    I might be an oddity in that regard, but I honestly don’t think about the sexuality of my video game characters. It’s merely an avatar in a game world to me.

  2. My only real complaint about this article is the heteronormitivity of it. Gay male player who often(but not 100%) cross-plays.

    I think the idea of comparing gender in the game with psychological gender of the player merits more Study.

    I think it also tosses out the basis of a large chuck of games: Tabletop RPGs. I think there are plenty of people with pasts in tabletop RPGs who can put on the skin of a character regardless of gender. I realize not everyone has a strong enough sense of self to be able to do this, but I think there is enough people to making a sweeping statement about power.

    I do think that some people might do it for power issues, but I don’t think there is enough evidence to make sweeping statements.

    • Daniel — I think you’ll be interested in part 2 of Brian’s series tomorrow. It delves into a lot of the issues you raise here, particularly with respect to the relationship between cross-playing and the player’s sexual orientation and identity. Hope you’ll come back to check it out!

  3. [...] Earlier, we looked at some of the problems with ‘crossplaying’ gender, or taking on an identity that is not yours in video games. Next, we will look at some of its promise. [...]

  4. As a white heterosexual male who plays female character at every turn, I’m always troubled when I read articles like these. Not because I disagree! In fact, I think your thesis is quite sound!

    No, I’m troubled because it forces me to understand better why I game the way I do. Is it just because of control? Am I that shallow? Should I feel shame? If it’s true, what should I do about it? Stop playing female or ethnic characters?

    I’m also a game developer… though I’m not in a very good position (I’m an effects artist) to eliminate hypersexualization, I do encourage my coworkers to consider the topic when they’re designing or creating character art.

    I’ll be very interested to read part 2.

  5. [...] Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 1) : “‘crossplaying’ gender too often serves to confirm the same harmful ideologies which reduce the bodies of others to objects of desire (or, sometimes, revulsion). But it also produces potentialities: the promise of surprising, often radical re-imaginings of the ways we understand—and are bound by—concepts like gender, sexuality, and identity.” [...]

  6. [...] games in “Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying” Part 1 and Part [...]

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