I’m a straight cis man and, when given a choice, I will usually play as a female character. Not always. I played a man in Fallout 4 because I could make Codsworth, my robo-butler, actually say my name, and I played as a man who looked like Ozzy Osborne in Bloodborne because, of course you create a character who looks like Ozzy Osborne in Bloodborne! But most of the time, all other things being equal, I will choose a female character. When my wife, who is also a gamer, noticed that I did so she wanted to know why. I couldn’t give her a proper answer right away. I had to think on it. In truth, there are a lot of reasons, some that make me look good, some that I’m embarrassed to admit. What I can say is that it probably started in the 1980s with a little game called Metroid.
Metroid is widely considered one of the most influential games of all time. In it, you play Samus Aran, a space bounty hunter in a neat battle suit with a gun arm, who has to save the galaxy from the evil Mother Brain and her army of Metroids, weird jellyfish-like aliens that live off peoples’ life energy.
It’s common knowledge now, but in the 1980s when I first got my hands on the game, Samus’s “real identity” was a big selling point to drive people through the game. I was promised that if I finished the game in under two hours, I would find out Samus’s big secret. Was Samus a Robot? An Alien? I had to know!
It didn’t hurt that the original Metroid was one of the best games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and that it was easy to get lost in. I had notebooks filled with passwords and maps. My incentive was not only conquer the evil Mother Brain, but to do so as efficiently as possible. And that truth, when I finally earned it after months of effort? Samus Aran is a woman.Mind. Blown.
Even cooler, the game let you play as Samus out of her suit. Playing as a woman was actually a reward in that game. It felt awesome. From that point forward, I think I was desensitized to the idea that being a man (well a boy at that point) meant that playing as a woman gave me cooties. I mean, Samus Aran was a woman and she was awesome. But I didn’t play Metroid because Samus was a woman. I played because the Metroid games are flat out great. Seriously, play as many of them as you can (except for Other M and Federation Force *bleah*).
After playing Metroid, a number of other great games with playable female characters emerged, be it Street Fighter II with Chun Li’s thighs of doom or Final Fantasy VI (Final Fantasy III in its initial North American Super Nintendo release) with two female protagonists taking turns as the lead in one of the most epic stories ever told in a video game. But in Street Fighter II, Chun Li played differently from any other character. And in Final Fantasy VI, the female characters had strong, pre-defined personalities and stories.
It wasn’t until Baldur’s Gate II on the PC that I remember choosing to play a female character over a male character when their stats and roles in the story were virtually interchangeable (outside of the relationship options. The sole male romance option was Anomen, perhaps the most obnoxious character in that game and perhaps a subtle advertisement for celibacy). I created a Paladin and I named her Celes after the character in Final Fantasy VI. But still, why I did it, and why I’ve done it with almost every game since? Well, I have a few theories.1. Because I’m Tired of the Cranky Anti-Hero Ideal of Masculinity
I’ll be the first to admit that I like the sound of my own voice. I’ve spent a lot of effort cultivating it. I starred in high school musicals and sang in my college choir. When David Hayter was replaced as the voice of Snake by Kiefer Sutherland in Metal Gear Solid V, I have to have been one of the few gamers alive who celebrated the choice. Listening to Hayter’s raspy voice made me want to find that poor, poor man and give him a giant glass of water. I HATE HATE HATE gravel voice. I recently picked up Dishonored 2 and I couldn’t stand Corvo’s new voice. He didn’t have one in the first game, and I missed his silence. Now he sounds like he regularly sandpapers his larynx and gargles caltrops. Listening to him speak is painful. Actively painful. In short, I’d much rather listen to clearer voices of Jennifer Hale or Laura Bailey than someone who sounds like they drink metal shavings recreationally. There is such as thing as trying too hard to come across as badass.
But that’s precisely the problem. The game industry expects me to love Frowny McMarlborothroat, the guy who’s so edgy that his beard cuts his razor when he shaves.
Picture your generic video game protagonist from almost any game from almost any major genre over the last couple of decades. Chances are he’s a young to middle-aged white dude with varying degrees of facial hair. And while I rarely have that guy’s problems given that I’m not a space marine or a criminal or a post-apocalyptic scavenger, I know that I’m supposed to slip into these identities because they’re supposedly the embodiment of the masculine ideal.
Except, I don’t admire these people. They’re not my heroes. Very often I kind of despise them and not in a fun way. I loathed Niko Bellic so much that I gave up on Grand Theft Auto IV simply so I didn’t have to listen to his constant misanthropic whining. My favorite superhero when I was a kid was Spider-Man. He was a guy who always tried to do the right thing, was finite, screwed up from time to time, but still tried his hardest to be a good person, even when it hurt. Niko Bellic is no Spider-Man. Marcus Fenix is no Spider-Man. Solid Snake is no Spider-Man. I neither admire nor want to be these guys with their abrasive personalities and their poisonously cynical outlooks. Their games may often be fun, but they themselves aren’t.
This cranky anti-hero aesthetic is rarely embodied by female characters. When it is, like with Lightning in the Final Fantasy XIII saga, it’s just as boring as it is with your average cranky male hero. Sure this trope can be done well, see Geralt of Rivia from the Witcher games or John Marston from Red Dead Redemption, but I still see this trope as a negative when deciding which games to play. I’m sick of the rough around the edges jerk who occasionally shows a redeeming quality between bouts of mowing down hordes of enemies. Games with female leads, mandatory or voluntary, tend to give me distance from this garbage. It’s positively liberating.2. Because I Like To Use Games as a Platform To Explore Lives Different From My Own
Quantum Leap was one of my favorite shows on TV when I was a kid. Its basic premise was that Sam Beckett, a time traveler from the future, went back in time to “set right what once went wrong.” The catch is that he can’t go back in time in his own body. Instead, he has to inhabit other people, people explicitly different from himself. While he was armed with knowledge of the future, Sam didn’t have their experiences or lives to draw on. The end result was a show that somehow managed to make the absurdly talented Scott Bakula play a Sam Beckett attempting to play someone else to make the future better. The best episodes were often the ones where Sam had to become someone wildly different from himself, maybe a pregnant teenager or a black doctor or Dr. Ruth. The point is, instead of Sam being himself every week, he got to be someone else, and when he finally got to be a younger version of himself in one of the show’s best episodes, it meant far more than it would have had he not spent so much time as other people.
The thing is, though, I play games as escapism. I play games to experiment with being someone else. I want to leap from life to life. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is to play a woman. The distance is established from the character selection screen. Click and done. I’m no longer me. I’m exploring a strange new world as someone else.
I’m the kind of person who finds the description of Life is Strange as a “teen girl simulator” to be a selling point. I played through all five episodes in a couple of days because it offered me experiences that my quotidian life simply didn’t. I’ve never been a teen girl and the opportunity to explore that world fascinates me. I’m curious about how other people live. I want to know what the world looks like through different eyes. Video games, when done well, can allow that kind of journey better than any other art form.
This isn’t a noble reason, but in the interest of honest disclosure I’m not going to avoid it.
On an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine Benes said that the male body was utilitarian and simian while the female body is a work of art. I’m inclined to agree. If I had the choice between staring at Cranky McBeardface or Lara Croft for dozens of hours, who do you think I’d find more appealing? The calculus is easy.
Now, I actively dislike it when a game tries to titillate me. I admit to playing and loving the Bayonetta games, but I don’t play them because they show me extreme close-ups of every square inch of Bayonetta’s body the ESRB will let them get away with. Rather, I play it in spite of that. They’re the best third person melee action games on the market, and I would play them if the protagonist looked like Jabba the Hutt. While playing Bayonetta I feel like one of those men who claimed to read Playboy (when it still had naked pictures) for the articles. Because the gameplay in Bayonetta and its sequel is really good.
Generally speaking, I avoid games that go out of their way to service my male gaze. I prefer more realistic looking women who are dressed in a way that makes sense with what they’re doing in the game. This isn’t me playing feminist. I really do have a weird thing for women in armor. Lenneth Valyrie from Valkyrie Profile and Christ Lightfellow from Suikoden III are two of my favorite game characters of all time and it’s in part because they’re badass women in armor. I like a woman who can murder me. The fact that my wife knows how to use a broadsword and can easily kick me in the face are plusses in my book. I’m also a big sucker for Laurana from Dragonlance and Eowyn from The Lord of the Rings. Heck, I’m into women in high tech armor. See the aforementioned Samus Aran, or the character I created for Xenoblade Chronicles X.In short: fighting pole-dancer = bad; armed woman who can plausibly wreck me = good.
So those are the reasons that spring most immediately to mind. At least as many as I could pull free from my subconscious and type in under the maximum word count allowable at Speculative Chic.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, this bearded 30-something man is off to play more Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky as a heroic teenaged girl named Estelle.
Howard Kleinman is a writer, educator, and full-time nerd. His writing has been published in Tablet Magazine, The Forward, and the New Jersey Jewish News. He has also ghost-written as other people for other publications that he won’t tell you about even if you ask nicely. Additionally, he’s written TV promos for Spike TV and the Discovery Channel, DVD Trailers for Comedy Central and co-wrote a College Football Documentary for CBS Sports. His favorite Final Fantasy game is VI. Except when it’s IX.