Thursday, January 20, 2011

Ego of the Gamer cont'd: In which I appear to be sexist

Heroism is a thrill for a gamer.  But sometimes games show us the uglier -- or at least, unexpected -- truths about ourselves, too.

Your critic is not only a gamer; I'm an avid reader and was lucky to receive a Kindle for Christmas.  And after plowing through a half-dozen backlogged novels, I discovered a sale on something I hadn't heard of before: the gamebook.

Somewhere between the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks we remember from the 1980s and before, and the text adventure computer games we remember from, er, also the 1980s, there lies the gamebook.  You have stats (a rudimentary character sheet) and make a series of decisions leading to a number of possible outcomes.  Choice of Broadsides was being promoted for $0.99 and I thought, "For less than a dollar, let's see what this is about."

The premise is simple: Albion and Gaul (i.e. England and France) are fighting something just like the Napoleonic wars in an environment just like the early 19th century.  The player character begins as a 19-year-old sailor who can either advance through the ranks and retire young as a filthy rich, highly renowned Admiral and Peer, or who can be just a complete failure at life and die in a cannon explosion or a mutiny or just flat-out penniless and unloved.  And of course, there are loads of endings in-between.

But the very first option the game (book?) gives you is this: are you a young gentleman, or a young lady?

I chose lady, naturally.  I always do.  In every single game that lets you choose the player character's sex, I play as female.

And that's when it got interesting.  When you choose to play as female, all genders in the game are reversed.  The entirety of the Royal Navy and ruling class become female; young men have a "season" and stay home hosting parties, hoping to make advantageous marriages.  Young men are flighty; young ladies are successful and worldly.  And that which struck me most of all: ships become "he," as in, "Isn't he a handsome frigate?" or, "He's listing to starboard."

On my first playthrough (each lasting roughly half an hour), the Heroic Gamer Ego took hold.  Mme Midshipwoman Arabel Strange tried her hardest to make all of the right decisions, all of the honorable decisions, and to maximize both happiness and discipline on her ships and with her crews.  I gave almost every other character the benefit of the doubt whenever possible, and played with the same frame of mind it seems I always have: I wanted as many people as possible to like me.

Mme Admiral Arabel Strange retired happily to a moderately large country estate, after a successful career, and lived a long and honorable life.

Of course, having met the premise, I wanted to see what would happen if I made different decisions.  Mme Midshipwoman Mary Smythe took to sea but I kept finding myself making similar decisions.  I felt badly for subordinates who I felt were misunderstood, and for enemies who had noble intentions.  Although Mme Admiral Mary Smythe ended up married to a high-ranking Admiral's handsome blond son, her life was very nearly the same as Admiral Strange's.

This would not do.

Mr Midshipman Henry Villiers came along then.  And as a small-minded brown-nosing member of the King's Navy, he had no problem flogging subordinates, keeping his head down, remaining unaware of mutinies, and alienating young ladies.  He died from a cannonball wound sustained in a poorly-chosen and poorly-plotted maneuver, and most likely no-one would miss him, least of all his wife.

The shock came when I realized, in a sudden rush, that I had no problem making my player character an ass when it was a man surrounded by men.  I behaved completely differently as a woman surrounded by women, whether or not I meant to, than as a man surrounded by men in an environment we generally consider male (early 19th century naval combat).

Something deep in me socialized such that even in a completely fictional situation with no actual consequences, when surrounded by other women I strove to act diplomatically and to maintain as much harmony as possible in the unit, while assuming this would serve my self-interest in the long run.  As a man surrounded by men, I was able to flip the switch to, "I'm getting mine, fuck y'all."

I am enough of a historian to know that I played Captain Villiers closest to real life, albeit deliberately as a man with little to no natural capacity for leadership or heroics.  And yet I was and remain shocked to find how very stark, how completely opposite the difference in my attitude was based on not just the player character's sex, but that of those around me.

It's enough to make me want to go through something like a Fallout and make the Legion all-female rather than all-male, just to see what I do...


  1. Thanks for commenting on my blog, I'm really interested to see that I'm not the only one! One of my twitter followers and I were discussing doing a more expansive study into this because we found the phenomenon really interesting! 

  2. i think the only character i've ever managed to complete an entire game playthrough with as evil was a dark side female exile in kotor2.

    i dunno, for all of that game's flaws, the exile is a pretty great character. i think the reason i was able to finish as totally dark side in that game was because it felt more natural and plausible than in the first one. dark side revan, by him/herself, works just fine, but clashes with the other members of the party. dark side exile, on the other hand, pulls the people around her down into madness alongside her. that slow fall into the dark felt real.

    i still haven't found another game i can pull off the evil side with, though. i'm going through dragon age right now, and naturally i have to stick up for the people who need defending.

    i'm such a sucker for good alignment, it's ridiculous.

  3. DAO Awakening: Female Elf who does what I honestly think I would do (not counting cowardice) so basically good.

  4. Not to say you aren't a horrible sexist, but...I think that character generation is an important part of getting you into the right mindset for your play-though. If I'm getting set up for a deliberately villainous playthrough I'll probably make different character choices. Usually the opposite of my first (almost always virtuous) run.

    The intervening variable is often the romance subplots. My first KoTOR playthrough used the PC that looked like a young Denzel with a high fade. He was a light side rock star. The second playthrough with a female PC started as an attempt to be evil, but I couldn't break Carth's heart (also, I couldn't be an villainous couple with Bastila). Finally, I picked the white dude with the scar over his eye (because obviously deformity=evil, oh good, more baggage to unpack) and managed to be a dark side jerkass for the duration.

    So...don't beat yourself up too much? Admirals Strange and Smythe sound like they were a lot closer to having the Nelson touch than Villiers.

  5. For sure, and that was a thought I was having in an initial draft of the post. If His Majesty's navy was integrated, would your reactions have been different? Would I be harder on dude subordinates being jerkasses to their female crew mates than if they were jerkasses to other dudes? Was I harder on Garrick's loose cannon impulses than Ashley's xenophobia because I had a crush on the latter? I don't know.

  6. Pretty fascinating... I wonder if I would do the same.

  7. BG2: Good man
    Kotor: Good Woman
    Kotor 2: Bad man
    Mass Effect: Good woman
    ME2: Good woman, bad man
    FO3: Good man
    FONV: Good woman
    DAO: Good (elf) woman, Bad dwarf lord

    So although I don't instinctively and automatically hate all males like our critic I'm clearly less inclined to make a negative female character. Which is funny because Kerrigan and Morrigan are my two favorite personalities in gamedom. Or maybe gamedom already provides interesting wicked female characters for me.

  8. The part that surprised me was that apparently, the only way I can play a villainous character, or one who makes bad choices, is by rolling as male. (This has kind of been supported in other games, too, although since they're all longer and more detailed I don't get the benefit of 3 or more chances to go start to finish in a single day. The only character I was ever able to make a jerk in Vault 101 was a dude, though.)

    It was interesting with Broadsides, though, and I've heard this from another female player of the game as well, that something about swapping all the genders creates a particular set of reactions. I don't know how it is for guys, but I feel that throughout my upbringing, I was definitely taught to socialize differently with an all-female group than with a mixed or all-male-but-me group. Lisa Simpson definitely explored this area for me. ;)

  9. Just remember this is an obligatory ritual of the Royal Navy. Gender bendery doesn't get you out of it.

  10. On Ashley? Homegirl could make the assault rifle really sing, but I found her completely unlikeable as a person.

  11. This was a third play-through in which I explicitly attempted to romance Ash. Liara was definitely my first run crush, though I still carry a torch for dear, awkward Tali.

  12. In my own experience, I tend to run female characters as more extreme, whether for heroism or villainy. Male characters can be virtuous paladins or badass butchers, but ladies are more often saints or monsters. Like Joan of Arc / Mother Mary super-pure (even if the class says "Rogue"), or Child-Eating Gingerbread-House Hell-Witch (even if the class says "Cleric of the God of Freedom"). It's all martyrs vs. mean girls.

    As a pervasive example: In tabletop RPGs, I tend toward characters with high Perception attributes, but the dudes tend to use that Perception pragmatically to accomplish immediate tasks, while the ladies tend to use it more often either to morally inspire and encourage a vaster greatest good, or instead to immorally manipulate/blackmail others and coerce compliance with more grandiose, selfish goals. I don't know if this is because I have to exert more "active cognition" to run a female character, or if I'm less familiar with what "boring normality" looks like in a female character.

    As an experiment, I might try running a male super-sinner or super-saint next ... and then maybe see about running an apathetic, uncaring scoundrel of a woman.

    (Perhaps you could join the experiment and run a complete asshat female, followed by a punctillious team player of a dude.)

  13. i went most of the way through the first kotor with a dark side female revan, but for some reason it never felt right. i can't decide whether it's because revan never felt like a female character, to me, or because revan's turn back to the dark side just isn't all that compelling a story compared to a redemption story.

    but yeah, seriously, synchronized game schedules or what. once i get through dragon age, i need to hit mass effect 2, finish bioshock 2, go through mirror's edge, and hopefully be done with all of that by the time the old republic mmo gets here.

  14. ME2 is fantastic. I don't like the story quite as much as ME1 but it's still great, and the gameplay is much better. The NPC's are still fantastic. BS1 is probably my next RPG after DAO:A

  15. Are you me? Or am I you? Or are our gaming schedules just implausibly synced? I've been meaning to replay KOTOR as a darksider. Not so good? I played Kotor2 as villainous scum and really liked it. I think in KOTOR2 everyone is dirtied up including the Jedi so it feels like a more plausible choice than "Hey, I've decided to be bad."