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...