Gaming and gender

When I play online everyone assumes I’m male

Continuing on from my analysis of the gender norms inherent in the first person perspective. Like many I picked up Borderlands 2 recently. While it is a game that does have up to two playable female characters, I’m reminded of another reason with I’m disheartened with the gender norms in female character models.

When I’m playing or talking about games online, almost everyone assumes I’m male.

Interesting gender issues

I touched on the possible reasons for this in my Metroid Prime post:

Some male gamers play as female characters when given the opportunity to experience something outside of their normal experience of the world. Confusingly many women gamers like myself play for the opposite reason. To experience our games in an body more akin to our identity, as the “different experience” is often the norm.

So by playing in my preferred body, many gamers still expect me to be male. While this is a liberating choice for male gamers to be able to make, it does enable a certain amount of prejudice against women who genuinely identify as women.

Conversely, some male gamers do not believe me when I state that I am a woman. These moments sway uncomfortably into hints of prejudice.

Some gamers will urge me to shake such slights off. These are normally the same people who don’t have to concern themselves with reality of the wrong pronoun being used to describe them, or the wrong greeting, or even verbal abuse when playing a game. This is all because of me being a “she” instead of “he”. Unfortunately (and sadly so) my presence in games does still (even in this allegedly liberal decade) set a small minority of gamers off into a prepubescent rage*.
Tannis, (insane)ly smart."A view of my character, Maya, labelled as me.

Uncomfortable territory

This is despite the fact that online I do everything possible to flag up the fact that I am female. I use feminine sounding names for usernames, I always use female avatars on forums and other applications that require them. I mark myself as female on my profile. I’m certainly not ashamed of my gender, but I certainly know of many women (that because of the reasons above) use the lack of clarity surrounding their gender to decide when (or indeed if) to reveal that last detail of their identity online.

Such is the ultimate irony of this situation. Because many men play as female characters, and because their isn’t any real benefit to revealing your gender online in the context of online gaming, or gaming discussion. All of us – male or female – are damned either way, usually by the lack of character choice. Somehow we’re encouraging these sorts of assumptions about who chooses to play games.

I can certainly understand this. As choosing to speak up and correct someone on their assumption either leads to regret or discomfort for the person that has made the assumption, or a far worse reaction – an escalation into anger or violence.

I choose to speak out (and constantly correct people) because otherwise how else is this community going to know that a very real, and growing percentage of the people they play with or against are women. It should provoke nothing other than understanding and tolerance, not shock or rage.

Moxxi stands at her bar.Lilith stands on a balcony.

More issues with female character choice

I suspect some of the reasons for this, is the genuine for men to play using a female character – to tap into that different experience of play. I totally understand and respect their decision to do so, but I wonder if they realise how that decision (inadvertently) makes the playing field that much harder for women.

We need to take the root causes about why these odd assumptions about gender online still happen. Games should have more female characters – but crucially, I’d have to argue against the Borderlands method for separating classes by gender and ask instead that all classes have male and female options. It would make things much easier for everyone, and take a little pressure off women who identify as women, and men who want to play as classes like the siren.

I hope this post vocalises a constructive observation of what I (and many other women who play games) go through on a daily basis. I write only to inform and speak more openly on this topic. As promised in my recent post on prejudice in the gaming community.

* I note with interest, that I have being playing video games longer than the vast majority of people who consider my presence in “their game” to be a problem.

Video games

A recent history of cross platform play

The latest version of a western Monster Hunter Game was announced recently to almost universal excitement. Monster Hunter fans have been waiting for a new game to get excited about for the best part of two years.

One of the concepts for Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate that’s getting people most excited though is the cross-compatiblity between the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game. While this isn’t a new premise, it’s something we’re seeing more and more of for multiplayer led games.

Cross compatibility and a strong Monster Hunter History

Two other games in the last two years have announced similar handheld gaming support for the console or PC based game. Tellingly the first to do this was Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s predecessor Monster Hunter Portable 3rd. It did so for many of the same reasons. To enable simple multiplayer access through the PS3 version of the game and to provide an HD mode to make the original game look and sound better.

For many it’s become the de-facto way to experience that game. While I love Monster Hunter I’m finding it harder to play it single player for long stretches with a handheld. Compatibility between a console and handheld version of the game allows you to experience the best of both worlds. Relaxing with the game at home for the bulk of your journey, and moving the savefile for your handheld version to so you can play the game on the go or experience local multiplayer easily.

While Monster Hunter Portable 3rd (and it’s HD equivalent) didn’t start this idea it provides gamers lucky enough to experience it, with probably the most seamless and easy-to-use online multiplayer experiences since in a Monster Hunter game so far. Crucially it may give some clues for how Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s implementation may work too.

Moving my Monster Hunter save file from my PSP to the PS3.Choosing between playing Monster Hunter Portable 3rd or starting up ad-hoc party.

Phantasy Star Online versus Monster Hunter

Sega announced that Phantasy Star Online 2 would have cross platform support between the PC and Vita versions. Phantasy Star Online is in many ways the predecessor to Monster Hunter, highlighting an audience of gamers that enjoy a real-time RPG multiplayer experience with cooperation at its core. This is evidenced by the fact that many PSO players took up Monster Hunter as a replacement to PSO and the concepts it pioneered.

PSO later found its stride again through it’s portable versions. However by then Monster Hunter had already exceeded it on handhelds through its strong emphasis on local, cooperative gaming. In essence Monster Hunter took up the mantle that PSO started. In a compelling chapter in the great multiplayer RPG story, it was the Phantasy Star Online series that announced cross-platform play for the masses through its Vita version of PSO 2, despite Monster Hunter implementing it first with Monster Hunter Portable 3rd.

It’s not too surprising that these two series are promoting a similar idea, since they share many of the same audiences. What is interesting is that both developers are using cross platform play as a marketing tool – another reason to buy a 3DS or Vita to support play on the go. This is beneficial to the developer as it also promotes the old mantra of console loyalty.

Because surprisingly, despite a rich history of cross-platform play, historically the idea hasn’t done very well outside of Japan, or is largely associated with niche or unsuccessful titles.

The title screen for MHP3s version of ad-hoc party.The lobby list for ad hoc party.

Other cross platform implementations

Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate isn’t the first cross-platform implementation that Nintendo have supported. They tried their own version of it using the Gamecube and Gameboy Advance. This ranged from the odd game (such as Metroid Prime or Animal Crossing) having areas of the game that couldn’t be accessed without a GBA being connected to the Gamecube as another controller, it was also used successfully for map treatments and the display of secret information in games like Wind Waker.

The most extensive support for this system was saved for Zelda: Four Swords Adventures and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, where four player multiplayer for these games required each player to have a Gameboy advance plugged into the Gamecube using a special connector. The GBA then served as the controller for the game, showing the players inventory, map or gameplay screens related to them on their own personal screen. It was a neat way to sidestep the issues of local multiplayer RPGs, that often require a lot of information to be shown on one screen, or the other problem of two or more players being tied to the time it takes for another player to organise their equipment.

It was a rare and interesting way to experience these two titles for those that not only had the money and equipment to support this premise, but also the time and investment needed to encourage other friends to experience the game with them. For many though the barriers to entry were too high, and many people didn’t get to play these Gamecube titles as intended, and the technology itself became not much more than an old gaming curio.

This wasn’t the first foray into these sorts of console and handheld connectivity though. Famously both Sony and Sega dabbled with the idea of a memory card (or other peripheral) serving as a mini-game station that was related to the game you were playing. Many Dreamcast games supported this feature through the VMU, better implementations of this include on the original Sonic Adventure game which allowed you to manage and train your Chao outside of the game, then update your game data with the progress made by booting up the game again. Tellingly Sony’s Pocketstation for the original Playstation used a similar idea much earlier on, but never made it outside of Japan.

Different platforms playing together

So cross play has a long, and interesting history. Despite that the examples of its usages are rare, the various implementations were great to experience for those lucky enough to play the games during their limited life cycle.

Recently cross play has had a bit of a revolution. It was briefly left to games like Shadowrun and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles: Echoes of Time to continue the idea. However Portal 2 has also famously used this model with more notable success, allowing PC and PS3 gamers to play cooperatively with their friends through Steam access.

So Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate will be the most ambitious chapter in the cross compatible platform legacy. Many Monster Hunters look forward to seeing not only this implementation, but how it may determine the cross play future of this series and others.

Currently playing

Animal Crossing: How a niche became a norm

It’s almost impossible to imagine now, but there was a time when there was genuine uncertainty about Animal Crossings future outside of Japan. There were many other British gamers like me facing an arduous wait for the Gamecube version of the game to reach these shores.

So certain was my belief that it was never going to make it to Europe that I imported a copy from America and started the process of cultivating my very first town. It did finally make it here, but over two years after the American release. That’s actually the normal sort of time for a localisation of a game here, but Animal Crossing was still a complete unknown to a Western audience, a silly but sincere sim game that utterly captivated gamers and non-gamers alike.

How it all started

Such is the power Animal Crossing’s methodical madness that I still have people with far less interest in video games than I recommending it to me, or sharing their accomplishments in game as if it somehow remains gamings best kept secret.

Part of the games success is the now commonplace concepts it popularised. It was many gamers introduction to concepts completely new to a simulation game. Concepts like the real-time clock to positively change and adapter in-game environments or characters. An idea started with games like Seaman and NiGHTS into Dreams, but something that Animal Crossing improved on and used as the core concept for its world.

This is part of the reason that any version of Animal Crossing is a suitable game to return to, something that many of us like to indulge in from time to time. It’s a great example of a game that encourages peaceful responsibility for in-game characters and environments, which in turn captures the imagination of the player. Animal Crossing encourages players to invest their personality, time and care into a carefully-cultivated town of their choosing.

The inside of my house - decorated as a plaza, with plants and decorations.Talking to Tom Nook about some potential purchases.

It’s also a great case study of how games can be utterly silly, but crammed full of merit. Animal Crossing is a fine example of humour being used as a narrative tool. Patience is a huge gaming virtue and Animal Crossing’s day-by-day rhetoric sits with this principle nicely.

Crucially Animal Crossing pushes eccentricity as a positive attribute rather than a pejorative. It was sold to us as a gamers game – kooky as they come – straight from Japan, with a sprinkling of Western humour bundled into the localisation. In gaming circles it was chatted about as something people outside of a gaming audience couldn’t and wouldn’t understand.

Instead, it became a beautiful metaphor for how inclusive our pastime is.

On becoming too scripted

Animal Crossing is filled to the brim with whimsy. Its odd (yet relatively) unique method of welcoming, inclusive gameplay became a mainstay. As such the concepts that remarked Animal Crossing as such as intriguing daily play all those years ago, has led to it losing its way a little bit. Its insightful gameplay concepts such as land management, mortgage payments and fossil collections have moved from being dynamic ideas to well-travelled tropes. This have become the concepts we use to describe Animal Crossing now. As if the game has become more about box ticking rather than the revolutionary ideas we fell in love with.

Many of the same elements that made Animal Crossing enjoyable are now making it stale. This is evidenced by core concepts like the tutorial with Tom Nook remaining relatively unchanged since it’s inception here in the West with the Gamecube edition.

There’s a groundswell of ideas that the franchise could have tapped into by now, without defiling the essential ideas that make it so joyfully weird. The key elements such as the bright, stylised art style, the random village with hand-picked inhabitants or the consumerism focused element of decorating and redecorating homes don’t need to be changed, but something does.

Chatting with Kappn on the bus.Wondering about with my villagers.

Perhaps instead there could be renewed focus on multiplayer. The “city” element in the Wii version of the game was woefully underused. Instead it became a sad hub area for the animals who didn’t live in your town, denying you the ability to recruit animals that you thought suited your town. The last of the unfixed elements of the game (like the characters who visited your village random) are now relegated to the city taking all the mystery out of their appearances.

Instead the city could have been a player-focused area filled with player run shops or activities. Building on this idea, players could also create their own animals, complete with their own defined personalities to share out to others to use and rate. Both of these ideas could build on the ideas of character and world development by simply mixing the boundaries a little more. A lack of new ideas, does sadly sum up what Animal Crossing has become – a tired repetition of what it has done before, rather than the imaginative and inspiring novelty that was truly exciting to experience for the first time.

Learning from what’s gone before

In fairness the formulaic nature of Animal Crossing has always been there. In any addition of the game you start to spot the patterns of its development everywhere. From the way that animals appear and disappear on the same days, or the events that happen on the first saturday of every month. Animals are grouped into broad personality types, which you start to recognise and identify. You start to know exactly how an animal will behave within two pages of their chatter.

The series has become less about an gradual process of evolution and more of a series of well-used and knowing Animal Crossing cliches. Yes every day is still different in Animal Crossing, but repeated play makes it far easier to unravel the mystery behind how the game is put together, not unreasonably this is about the point the core audience can begin to lose interest.

Animal Crossing has lost its way a little, and yet I still return to it for a dose of whimsy every year or so, each time reminds me of what was so remarkable about it that very first time, when I found no patterns in its strange, but very welcome niche.

Gaming and gender

Metroid Prime and gender norms in the first person

I’ve spent some this month trying to get acquainted with a game that I should have played years ago. It’s been on my to play list for years. The idea that ultimately got me to the title screen was the idea of playing game that’s both combat driven with a strong narrative core, crucially it’s also a game that features a strong female character as its lead – and does so using the first person.

It’s extremely common for a game to feature the first point, it’s normal for a game to consider the second. A game that features both those as well as the third is still sadly rarer than I’d like.

The game of course is Metroid Prime.

A glorious experience

I’ve arrived extremely late to the Metroid series, but what is immediately apparent is Samus Aran such a compelling hero because she is associated with a quiet power, a resolve and tenacity to get a job done. Her brilliant portrayal in the Metroid series over the years (Other M excluded) remarks that her success and strength comes from her skill and experience rather than pre-defined expectations of her character or ability based on her gender.

Being able to play as a female character in any character driven game is always important to me. It aids the process of me getting into the mindset of the game in a way that being forced to play as a male character simply doesn’t enable.

Scanning a boss.A triumphant pose in a save area.

It’s rarer to get this level of comfort when starting a game, I am so used to a male character model being the default in an adventure or FPS game such as this that when the opportunity presents itself, I find myself playing with a sense of elation that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

This may seem particularly strange, especially given the fact that the game is in a first person view. I am spending most of the game looking and experiencing the world through Samus’ visor, seeing the world as she would, with only fleeting glances of her suit and face.

But the idea of being playing a great game, especially one where I am able to play in the “right body” is sublime and is important to me.

Some male gamers play as female characters when given the opportunity to experience something outside of their normal experience of the world. Confusingly many women gamers like myself play for the opposite reason. To experience our games in an body more akin to our identity, as the “different experience” is often the norm.

The problem with the first person view

I suspect that such is the power of Samus’ persona that few would feel uncomfortable playing as her. That said how many first person based games are there where you can play as a woman? Despite the rising popularity of the first person view, a female character model (especially for single player mode) is still not particularly common.

It’s just as well that I have Samus as a guide through Metroid Prime. The game is uncompromisingly difficult at times. I often find myself playing at a level far beyond my comfort zone, as the game stretches and challenges me to be worthy of Samus’ equally uncompromising skill.

I simply wouldn’t have persevered for a character I related to and admired half as much. If I ever need a reminder that I’m playing a game that challenges the norm of this genre I see a flash of Samus’s face every time a missile explodes too close to her, daring me to continue.

A closeup of a map screen.Spotting a space pirate using the thermal visor.

After long thought, the only other recent examples of story driven games in the first person perspective I can think of (with female protagonists) are Portal and Mirror’s Edge. Both of these games (along with Metroid Prime actually) are not first person shooter games. Two of them are first person adventures, with the third being a first person puzzle game. While I find it impressive that I can think of three games that circumvent the gender and gameplay norms of the first person view in such a way, I am still saddened that very few true FPS games continue to ignore their female player base, providing male character models exclusively.

Epic games didn’t include the option of female characters in multiplayer until its third iteration of the Gears of War series. Bungie finally provided the option in Halo Reach (but only after making elites playable first in Halo 2). The ability to play as a woman is still missing from the genres two most popular series – Call of Duty and Battlefield.

The only series I can take any long-term pride in is Rainbow Six: Vegas, which has always given me ultimate level of character creation (in its multiplayer) and has done so from the very beginning. Regardless of genre, women have the undeniable need to be able to experience a game in a model matching their gender, particularly if the game is about customisation and bespoke player rewards based on skill.

Metroid Prime has helped to remind me of this fact, and not only that, it’s made me want this option in even more games.