thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying (part 2)

In body politics, gender, race, technology on April 17, 2012 at 6:56 am

brian psi

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.


One of the more beautiful aspects of games is that since their worlds are created from scratch, they need not follow the rules and conventions of the non-virtual world–its culture or even its physical laws. In Dragon Age 2, anyone’s Hawke, regardless of gender, can romance any of the game’s four romanceable npc’s, regardless of their gender. Specific categories of sexual identity, therefore, are not necessary in the game’s fictional universe and may not even exist within it: sexuality is in fact just the performance of sex, which can and does occur between any two willing participants. Comments made to your character about your romance(s) are mostly limited to your partner’s perceived fit based on their personality and backstory. At one point, my lady Hawke engaged in a casual three way encounter with Isabella, a female human pirate, and Zevran, an elven male assassin. Note the other npc’s reactions: bemused, but really pretty muted (video shows male Hawke, sorry!):

In terms of gameplay mechanics, male and female bodies are equal. Game developers do not code differing baseline statistics (for physical strength, or the ability to take hits, for example), so a female warrior is just as effective as a male one. Games therefore already realize the potential for a fundamental equality–and more importantly I think for us, the acceptance of equality as an idea–in ways that the nonvirtual world does not. Samus Aran is the great bounty hunter, and FemShep saves the universe. By creating worlds that espouse this vision, and allowing us to explore them and consider their implications, games are usefully utopian.

Of course, realizing this vision in ways that make for useful change in the nonvirtual world will require more and better visual and written representations, especially of female, LGBTQ and nonwhite characters. It is too early to be too optimistic, but in some very small ways, this is already happening. Recently, a couple of sports games, officially licensed properties of male professional leagues, have begun to allow the creation of female players to compete in them. These changes were driven by female fans of the sport and games, who, forced to crossplay as men, asked the companies (who had to ask the leagues) to allow for the creation of female athletes. As a result, you can now make female rinkwarriors in EA’s NHL 12  and golfers to play The Masters in their Tiger Woods PGA Tour.  Hopefully, baseball and the other sports will jump on board, too.


Gamespace, that virtual universe that can be entered and exited at will, can serve as a safe space to try on identities one is unable to in the nonvirtual world. Take this widely disseminated post from earlier this year, by blogger and Gamespot manager Kristen Wolfe. In it, she recounts an experience at her store in which a teenager buys a game and controller for his younger brother. The younger boy insists on getting a game with a female protagonist (Wolfe helps him choose 2008’s sci-fi/urban traversal title Mirror’s Edge), and a new “girl color” controller. The boy’s father is incensed, and tells his son get a zombie survival game instead. Eventually, older brother stands up to dad, explaining that it is his money and present, and that little brother can get whatever he wants.

We will never truly know the rationale behind the choices of this game, and this purple gamepad. Psychoanalyzing the kid here will undoubtedly limit him rather than explain him. But dad’s admonitions, his desire for his child to buy “[s]omething more manly. Something with guns and fighting, and certainly not a purple controller,” to use Wolfe’s paraphrase, highlights the fact that some boundary is being transgressed, that the son might be exploring wishes and needs that are to dad unthinkable and must be quashed. This does not seem like evidence of Jilly Bean’s thesis, this particular boy’s unvoiced/unknown desires do not appear to be an attempt “to control women.” Rather, it seems to be an attempt to explore ideas, feelings, and (possibly) identities which are, at least in one household, forbidden.

There is certainly evidence that the safe space thesis has validity in some contexts. Jessebeach’s reply to Jilly Bean’s post, for example, reads: “I’ve always played female characters because I’m transgendered and it gave me an outlet to play the role in a fantasy world that I desperately wanted to play in the real world. Second Life was my favorite: no plot, no tasks, just lots of room to build. And my female Orc Hunter in WoW was kick-ass. … I often wonder if more men out there aren’t role playing their gender spectrum in this way. In my case, I thought it was painfully obvious.” In instances like this, gamespace can be a place where one can try on identities that would not be safe to otherwise–a virtual world where, maybe earlier than usual, ‘it gets better.’

Of course, some spaces are safer than others. Single player games, for example, allow someone to run free in a world built, quite literally, for them. Every individual can use these game as their own personal sandbox and dreamspace, where expression and identity are safe from external sanction and constraint. Multiplayer games, as I have already suggested, even when moderated by customer service agents, are often prisons effectively (over-)run by some of the worst offenders (here’s looking at you, X-Box Live). But even they can act as a kind of training ground, albeit a fraught one. Since crossplaying is now so common in these games, someone like Jessebeach would likely not encounter any resistance if it was ‘discovered’ that they were biologically male and playing a female character. Of course, admitting to being–or outed as–actually transgendered in these environments could very well elicit a hateful backlash. Finding supportive communities is important.

My final point (for reals, sorry!): the promise of games is that, when well-conceived, they allow for experiential identity formation and performance in ways that few other mediums do. When Judith Butler published her groundbreaking Gender Trouble in 1990, many readers felt that within her theorization of gender performativity resided the seeds of our great hope. Since gender, differing from sex, only finds stability in the recurrence of its performance, subversive performance of gender might hold some key to our liberation. Phenomena like drag, for example, enacting extreme displays of gendered behavior and dress, remind us that our smaller daily performances are likewise artificial (or at least, were developed within specific contexts and not representative of ontologically a priori realities).

But as Butler has pointed out in that work and afterwards, individual performance is itself limited–not only in effect, but even in the essence of its own execution: the cultural discourse that establishes norms also produces the specific way(s) we can even conceive of subversion. And so even if we do find it, Butler agrees with Sinfield that subversion is always “recuperable” by the dominant, which is ever-flexible. So, maybe it is all some kind of big ol’ Foucauldian trap.

Certainly, we are held within the steel jaws of history, the weight of all our accumulated ideologies and discourse. Given and granted. But I would like to think that those structures could be, even if only in very small ways, used against themselves. Cultural historian and theorist Anne McClintock seems to think so. In Imperial Leather, she discusses how specific ritualistic practices turn the world sideways, demystifying the assumptions which, dominant, underlie our every thought and action. One of these practices, which I promise is germane even if seems not to be, is S/M, with its penchant for navigating social risk, and its flair for costuming and roleplay. She writes, “As theater, S/M borrows its décor, props and costumery (bonds, chains, ropes, blindfolds) and its scenes (bedrooms, kitchens, dungeons, convents, prisons, empire) from the everyday cultures of power. At the same time, with its exaggerated emphasis on costumery, script and scene, S/M reveals that the social order is unnatural, scripted and invented” (143).

Gameplay, like S/M, occurs in a sacred, or virtual, or safe space. It uses some of the same implements, utilized in many of the same settings. Both are cut off from the world as it is, bounded by bedroom doors and convenient safe words and off switches. Both clearly emphasize play, and offer the promises and pleasures of power and powerlessness. Both also have the potential for abuse, allowing for reveling overmuch in representations and structures which are hurtful and repressive, for solidifying myths instead of deconstructing them. But ultimately, the play inherent in practices like S/M, and, I believe, games, shows us how our own world is in many ways just as arbitrary as Azeroth or Amalur, its conventions just as (co-)authored, and just as subject to revision.

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. […] 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 […]

  2. Bravo! Excellent essay.

  3. […] Brian P. contemplates cross-playing gender in video games in “Gender/Play: The Problems, Promise, and Pleasures of Video Game Crossplaying” Part 1 and Part 2. […]

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