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. Read the rest of this entry »