Forget your gender for the next two minutes. Have you ever played a game before? Perfect. To put it plainly, may I suggest that you play as many games as possible as a female. I mean this in both ways. If you are female, please play as many games as possible in order to establish the female as a viable consumer of interactive media. If you are male, may I suggest playing some of your more favorite games using a female avatar, when appropriate. The reason behind this is simple: games become more interesting.
Case and point: Mass Effect. Already played through the whole trilogy? Think you’re done until the next Mass Effect game releases? Think again. Mass Effect has become an international sensation, in addition to eclipsing the success that the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic ever attained, despite being popular in its own right. If you are the type of player who picked the default, buzz-cut-sporting male version of Commander Shepard (the main character in the series), let me be the first to tell you that you missed out.
While there is no problem with going through Mass Effect with the standard character features, (perhaps because you were afraid you couldn’t make any custom avatar look normal) the female version of Commander Shepard changes more than the semantics and pronouns–she changes the story. What before seemed so prototypical in sci-fi action shooters and RPGs (growing up surviving the death of your family, eventually gaining command of your own ship, inciting others to join your cause, convincing the council to recognize the alien threat, etc.) now seems more inspiring, more significant in its execution. As a woman, Shepard takes charge as a strong and capable hero, inspiring those she meets, resolving conflicts without violence, practicing diplomacy where appropriate, yet knowing when to get her hands dirty. Interactions with menacing aliens are charged with tension and contrast, unlike a bristled bruiser conversing with an equally spiky humanoid.
Another reason to play Mass Effect with a female avatar is her voice. Jennifer Hale is one of the most talented voice actors I have heard, in any media (as a bonus: remember Bastila? Guess who did her voice?) The emotion she imparts to every line as Shepard is fantastic, and more than kicks the pants off the drab, run-of-the-mill male actor (who shall remain nameless-to protect his identity) who contributes (barely) to his conversations.
Don’t believe me? Take the challenge. Boot up Mass Effect 1 or 2 and play the first hour with a male character, then start over with a female one. Then return to this blog and thank me in the comments section
Fallout 3 is another example of a great game made greater with a female character. This shooter/RPG set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland features a main character/avatar who emerges from life in a sheltered vault to confront the vast and dangerous land around Washington D.C. In search of her father (played by Liam Neeson). Eventually, your customized character is reunited with his/her father, and must work together with him to save the survivors of the fallout. This consists of your avatar being sent on perilous missions to recover priceless items, being consoled by Liam Neeson’s soothing voice as you brave the darkness. His reassurance and confirmation of his love and respect for you (“I’m so proud of you”) at key moments in the story mean so much more when you, his daughter, endured countless trials of strength to find your long lost father. When the character is male, though, these interactions feel weird and a little too touchy-feely for a father-son relationship in a post-apocalyptic environment (despite Liam’s wonderful voice).
The more games I play with a female character, the more I am impressed or taken with the details that change so many aspects of a game with such a small choice. This brings me to my main point, which is the most important reason to play video games as a female–
Games are a simulation. They allow us to be things that we are not, and sometimes cannot be. This is one of the most prized aspects of the medium. To not take advantage of this ability is to not fully realize its potential. Games let people play as a 6-foot-5 basketball player, or throw perfect 75-yard passes. They let the player enjoy some experience that might never be possible any other way.
Although early progenitors of the modern, customizable, or avant-garde avatar were typically crude and solely for fan-service or exploitation (read: Tomb Raider), the majority of game developers and publishers are realizing that gamers can and will respond to an opportunity to play outside the box.
Some games ossify the player character, male or female, to force the player to reconcile with a concrete character, instead of some cookie-cutter customized face with a standard voice that must be watered down to fit all permutations.
Others have embraced the choice of the player, favoring the unique interests and desires of the player. Want to experience the game world as an African-American woman? Or play through a fantasy RPG as a bipedal, talking lizard? Or cast spells as a two-foot-tall gnome? Where else can you do this but in a game?
I know it’s easy to fall in the rut when given the choice in a game to create a character or avatar that looks just like you (and sometimes that is fun, too), but never forget that at the end of the day, why would you want to be yourself for another hour when you could be someone else? And by playing as someone else, we might learn from the other’s experience, and begin to see our own world with a new perspective.