The issue of representation in games is a long-standing one. In ye olden days of gaming, the vast majority of well-known games released featured a white/straight/cis/male/badass protagonist. But recently, the gaming community — or certain branches of it — has been pushing for more representation of marginalized groups, particularly women. The movement has been met with aggressive opposition, Gamergate being the purest embodiment of this. Gamergate, for the uninitiated, was a harassment campaign of prominent women in the gaming community which occurred about three years ago, in 2014, in response to the rising social awareness of the industry. Gamergate was a massive cultural event, and its repercussions are still very visible today, even though the majority of the movement has died out. In many ways, Gamergate was in direct response to the push for representation, particularly, though not exclusively, of women.
For the most part, though, the push has been successful. Many games today feature minority and female leads. But a curious trend has arisen among the advancements in representation: games have begun offering players the choice between playing as a male or a female character. It’s worth clarification here that this pattern is distinct from letting players create their character of a chosen gender in games like Fallout or Skyrim. Rather, the trend, which I will call Dual Gendership, consists of two pre-developed characters, one male, one female, being presented to the player at the beginning of a game. Some prominent examples of this include Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and Dishonored 2. On the surface, this trend seems like progress — and it is. But the trend is unsustainable. The option to choose between a male and a female character, while certainly a step in the right direction, is likely motivated by the fear of alienating a misogynistic audience, thus preserving this audience’s misogyny in the mainstream of the community.
Representation issues are relevant in all forms of media — think Hollywood whitewashing or manic pixie dream girls — but games seem to have it especially bad, particularly with respect to misogyny. The relative lack of non-objectified female protagonists, or even characters, over the past thirty years of gaming is staggering. And when a female protagonist is featured in a game, it all too often takes the approach of games like Bayonetta, which depict the protagonist as little more than a sex object.
In recent years, there has been rising cultural awareness of these sexist trends. In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian uploaded the first episode of her ongoing video series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, which examines problematic ways in which women are portrayed in games. Though there was much pushback to the series, it remains a staple of progressive/feminist games culture to this day. Since then, social progressivism within the gaming community began entering the mainstream. From Horizon Zero Dawn to Gone Home to Life is Strange, today more games feature a non-objectified female protagonist than ever before. But the problems with the industry persist, and trends of problematic and often nonexistent representations of women still remain, unfortunately, quite relevant.
As representation of women improved, the peculiar trend of Dual Gendership has emerged. But Dual Gendership wasn’t a phenomenon before feminist movements in gaming gained traction, so why has it suddenly begun occurring? And why may it be unsustainable over long periods of time? To understand the answers to these questions, we first must examine why games have such difficulties with representation in the first place.
There are many possible explanations for the problematic representation of women, but one that keeps cropping up is that developers fear that challenging the status quo will negatively affect their sales. Basically, they’re afraid that nobody will want to play as a female character. A recent example of this was Battlefield 1. Before the game’s release, the developers revealed that they would not provide the option of playing as a female soldier in multiplayer because they felt that the prospect would not be appealing to their male audience.
Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: it’s total BS. In a survey of 1,400 American high school and middle school students spearheaded by writer and voice actress Ashly Burch and education consultant Rosalind Wiseman, only nine percent of adolescent male gamers do not want to see more female heroes. You can find Burch and Wiseman’s GDC talk on the survey here, and The Guardian’s article on the survey here.
Nonetheless, the fear persists, signifying that there must be some lasting perception of sexism within the industry. This is likely due in large part to Gamergate. Its members were, and still are, quite vocal in their discontent with the direction that the games industry has taken over the past few years.
Dual Gendership, much like other representation issues, is a trend which is motivated by the continued fear of the remaining ‘Gamergaters’, so to speak, but also by an effort to be socially progressive. Essentially, it is a way for developers, to have their cake and eat it too.
In terms of what Dual Gendership represents, I don’t really have too many big problems with it. It’s when Dual Gendership is taken into the context of the culture it exists within that things get problematic.
See, because Dual Gendership is born from a place of fear — fear that people won’t want to play as a female character, fear that Gamergaters won’t buy the game — it does little to actually fix the issues of misogyny. Developers wish to accommodate Gamergaters and their intolerance, so they provide Gaters with the option to not play as a female. But we need to show that misogyny is not tolerated instead of building special accommodations for it. The industry and culture needs to firmly move on to a higher state of responsible storytelling and stop letting the residuals of sexist movements like Gamergate sway it.
And as we’ve seen, the fear of substantial negative social and financial repercussions is unjustified. Not only do the majority of young gamers not mind female protagonists, but most of them want more in the industry. This year’s Horizon Zero Dawn, which features a non-objectified female protagonist, is projected to sell 8 million copies, putting it well within range of similar AAA titles of the likes of Uncharted 4.
But certainly giving the player the freedom of choice is always better than restricting them to any one role, right? Well, yes and no.
The problem is that, with very sparse and only partial exceptions, we didn’t see the ‘freedom of choice’ concept applied to games until the feminist movements within gaming gained traction. There were character creators, of course, but hardly any games which provided two discrete character choices, even of the same gender. It’s as if there wasn’t a second thought given to the prospect until women in games became normalized. Then, freedom of choice suddenly becomes very important.
But there are still plenty of games — the majority of them, in fact — centered around male protagonists. Those sexist enough to object to representation could just play those games instead, meaning that they would still maintain their place in the community. So why would Dual Gendership hurt anything in the first place?
Well, Dual Gendership doesn’t hurt things, per se. It just doesn’t help them as much as it could. When games are presented with a female protagonist, it sends a clear message to the people who spearheaded and supported harassment of women. It doesn’t say to them ‘you aren’t welcome here,’ it says ‘we’re moving on, with or without you.’ When developers put alternative male protagonists in a game specifically to cater to those people, it essentially negates that message.
Look, I’m not being totally fair here. Sometimes games incorporate the design decision quite nicely. Broken Age explores the idea of playing two distinct stories, one centered around a male character, the other female, as the game’s central conceit. And in Dishonored 2, (even though Emily is, in my opinion, the better character from a mechanical standpoint) the trope greatly improves the game’s replayability — which is very important in Dishonored games. And after all, optional female characters are still female characters. The more representation, the better. Dual Gendership is a definite step in the right direction. We just shouldn’t treat it as the finish line.