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Video Game Feminist of the Decade: or, when “You” is a girl

Video Game Feminist of the Decade in Kill Screen, issue 1

05/26/2010 update: So a newer, better, EVEN LONGER, revised version of this hokum will allegedly be published in issue #1, the ‘No Fun Issue’, of Kill Screen Magazine. I’m very proud. Please avoid this version and read the longer, better one! Thanks!

I’m disappointed I haven’t been able to actively participate in any Bayonetta discussion—I kind of haven’t played the game, so I have no fully formed opinions, here.

But that won’t stop me from posting a long stream-of-consciousness with squirrelly punctuation in the middle of the night. No sirree!

The ongoing Bayonetta dialogue reminds me of a short conversation I had on a patio deck at a casual (birthday?) party maybe a year or two ago. I don’t remember which editor of what website I was talking to (and that’s just total laziness on my part, because I could just google around until I find his piece and byline), but he wanted to talk to me about his pick for Video Game Character of That Year.

And, for this editor, his choice had come down to two characters, each of whom he admired. There was Faith Connors (Mirror’s Edge) and—he excitedly told me this—“You!” (Fallout 3). And he could not wait to pen this article, because Fallout 3’s “You!” had thrilled him, you know, not only as a critic, but as a gamer.

I could totally get where he was coming from. In 2006, for instance, Time absolutely got it right when the magazine named “You!” the Person of the Year. I think the magazine did something really smugly stupid, too, like a shiny, mirrored cover that reflected your own face, which invited a lot of eye-rolling.

Anyway, I remember reading that 2006 Time cover story and nodding zealously along with it. Because, and this is going back even earlier, maybe by another couple years, I’d read this bizarre column about the iPod being a blank slate or mirror or lens. The article’s crux was, the iPod is so different from whatever gadgets preceded it, because the iPod (or any music player, I guess) is basically valueless to the individual or end-user until the individual crams the gadget with his own information—his mp3s, his playlists, his favorite videos, whatever. And once he’s done that, once he’s inscribed his own iPod with music and media that he personally values, the iPod is basically meaningless to anybody else. That is, at least until he’s mugged at gunpoint and it is scrubbed clean again for black market resale (which, it happens).

In that way, the iPod is one of the first technologies where the primary feature and function are “You!” and it can’t really exist without “You!” what with all your making, doing, syncing, and being. Ergo: the iPod is the first truly successful instance, maybe, of a “vanity gadget.”

So that’s a pretty good idea—again, not mine, I read it somewhere—and it’s a little archaic, because ‘vanity technology,’ from your old Livejournal to your shiny polyphonic cell phone, is basically de rigueur now. So when Time named “You!” as the 2006 Person of the Year, the proclamation wasn’t a cop-out at all; in fact, I think Time was really fingering the zeitgeist. Ehm, so to speak.

Returning my thoughts to the party patio: The editor favored “You!” as his Video Game Character of the Year, and he said so. And his pick wasn’t a cop-out, and it wasn’t just clever; it was also legitimate.

Still, I disagreed with his selection. I admitted I wasn’t very far into Fallout 3, so my impression was, and remains, cursory. But it would have been one thing, I reasoned aloud, if I genuinely felt bonded to my Fallout 3 character, or if I had felt like the Character’s story were my story, too. But I didn’t feel that way at all.

Like, in the story, when another little girl comforted me during my botched birthday party, I suspiciously felt as if she were coyly putting the moves on my (ten-year old?) “self.” And I think I was supposed to like her, at least in the context of the game, and instead I just felt sort of weird, a dissonance, an artificial and completely fabricated gender dysphoria. And it would have worked if she had talked to me, well, I guess maybe like a lesbian, but instead the dialogue was vaguely heteronormative, like when eight-year old girls play House together and one girl says, “Now you be Dad” (we did! We did do this!), and then she talks to you in this put-upon, artificial way like she thinks Mom talks to Dad, instead of using the vocabulary and lexicon eight-year old girls use to talk to one another, which on an especially well socialized child sounds like “Can you please braid my hair.”

And then, I complained on the patio about how, maybe twenty minutes further into Fallout 3, some teenaged bully is following me around, shouting, threatening—and trying, I think, to punch me in the teeth—and I just cannot shake the feeling that he thinks he is shouting at a guy. It’s as if his every pronoun has been shifted from “he” to “she,” carefully rerecorded for my personal edification, and yet it is glaringly obvious that the game’s “You!” was never intended for me.

With this said, maybe Fallout 3 is perfectly antisexist because the game is written so that it is absolutely the same for all gamers. You may choose the sex of your avatar, certainly, but you do not choose your gender, which itself is essentially written into the game dialogue and scenarios.

But, and so, because my chosen sex did not align with my apparent in-game gender, I felt extremely uncomfortable. No, it’s worse than that: I felt alienated. And so my experience of being “You!” in Fallout 3, at least in its earliest chapter, was utterly antonymous to this editor’s experience of being “You!” My experience was paradoxically different from this guy’s experience, exactly because our experiences were crafted to be identical, except that I bring my own jumble of contexts and expectations as a kind of baggage into every situation, and into every game. So the editor was able to seamlessly fall into the game and accept its scenarios as his own as if they really were written for him; I, in the meantime, was much too hung up on artifice. I just could not shut that part of my brain off, and I kind of rejected “You!” as my own “You!” because the dialogue just seemed too inauthentic. My disbelief ran unchecked.

I thought the editor should have picked Faith Connors, and I told him so, saying, “Because, well, she isn’t anything at all. She’s just an avatar.”

“But that’s what I hate about her!” the editor replied.

Faith of Mirror’s Edge isn’t fully formed or realized—she is nothing at all like “You!” with all his or her experiences and backstory—and in fact, she’s a little bit cold and distant. And that’s a pretty good argument against her.

But I preferred playing as Faith because, almost inexplicably, I could somehow accept that I was a streetrunning, wall-jumping nymph. She has a story, I guess, something about a sister and an inside job or a set-up and being on the wrong side of the law, but it kind of doesn’t matter. Her sex doesn’t matter either. Maybe Faith is presented with her own jumble of experiences and narrative contexts, but they’re secondary. She is spry and nimble and, with a gun, a pretty terrible shot, and that’s all you really need to know about her if you want to pretend to be her.

I tried to explain this on the patio, but I don’t think I had the opportunity to say it out loud, so I’m doing that now: Faith is meaningful because she’s so totally meaningless.

Let me step back again and put it another way.

The greatest feminist gaming icon—am I conflating that with ‘antisexist’? Probably—is Chell.

Chell is “You!” in Portal, of course.

You don’t see “You!” for a long time in Portal. It’s a first-person game, and so you’re you, and no one insinuates or presumes anything about you, and no one gives you any information or real explication about you, because you’re just you, and you’re in a labyrinthine obstacle course, being pretty much you, yourself, you, and except for some disembodied voice in turns encouraging and taunting you, it’s just you.

And, very much in the same way Link never utters a word in a Zelda game, the magic is never broken by dialogue. You have total agency—you are taciturn, a person of action—and really, your success or failure is the main theme and action of the narrative. The disembodied voice goes to great lengths to tell you so, and she sounds pretty invested in your fate, which is creepy in its own way.

And what Portal does so, so well, and the game has won awards for doing it so well, is establish character and motivation, as any solidly written vignette in any medium ought. And you project yourself right in, you accept the game entirely on its own terms—because they’re your terms, too, aren’t they?—and that’s why this avatar, this “Chell” person, is such a shock.

Because a long, long time after Portal establishes you as you, you run past yourself. You see yourself in your own periphery, in an orange jumpsuit, darting past. It’s terrifying, real uncanny doppelgaenger stuff here.

And you’re so startled, and then you say, “Oh, my God! That was me!” And after a moment or two, you arrive at the very next moment, a tiny revelation where you become totally self-aware, like a baby in the sensorimotor stage, discovering its own hands. Until this moment, maybe you didn’t realize you looked like anything in particular.

And so now you say to yourself—maybe not aloud, maybe internally instead—“I wonder what I look like.” So you backtrack, trying to get a better look at yourself. And ever so carefully, you edge into your own line-of-sight.

Surprise! You are a chick.


It’s unsettling even if you really are a chick, but probably also if you are a dude. Because, when you spatially align yourself so that you can observe your own avatar, she is staring off to her right or left through a space/time vortex, ostensibly gazing right back at you. And (this is the horrific part), you and she are standing in exactly the same spot and moment in space and time, eyeing each other. I don’t think there’s a stranger existential moment in the history of gaming.

And yet! Portal is spectacularly matter-of-fact with its big reveal—kind of like the Metroid thing, where your avatar removes its helmet, and surprise! you are a chick. If you play your cards right, you might even be a chick in a bikini.

But here is the next surprise: your being a girl doesn’t mean anything. It means nothing. You play on, and nothing has changed, and the game is still the game, and you are still you. But something has substantially changed, and fundamentally changed, because now you know. You have seen yourself.

And anything you can do, Chell can do—Chell, standing where you are standing, looking right back at you, every bit as disbelieving as you are, maybe even equally surprised that you’re the asshole at the controls—and this conveys something really important about identity, about what is superficially constructed and what is essential.

But it also conveys nothing.

It’s unimportant, in Portal, that you’re Chell, and that Chell is a lady. She’s just an avatar, and that’s totally meaningless. She’s just the skin you are wearing at this particular moment in space and time.

Do you understand why this is important?

OH! Edit: ”[Scott] McCloud’s point is significant: a meaningful avatar is one that is instantly relatable, if only because its identity is willfully indistinct.”—me, a year ago

Brand new just-saw-this 01/18/10 edit: Talking Time – A question to women about women in games

07/15/11 edit: Oh my good lord. Someone made a lot of these exact points a year before I did, and I didn’t realize until now.

28 responses to “Video Game Feminist of the Decade: or, when “You” is a girl” »

  1. Pete Davison says:

    Great article, Jenn. Always good to see some thoughtful discussion of Portal.

    You should check out Bayonetta, it’s an interesting one. I can kind of see both sides to the argument, but I’m kind of on the side of “Bayonetta is awesome”. She’s so sexy she stops being sexy – it just becomes part of who she is. She just happens to be seven feet tall with an attractive bottom – but unless you’re actively just standing and staring at her, that doesn’t matter.

    Bayonetta herself is clearly NOT “You!” in the game, whether you’re male OR female. She’s her own distinct entity, so far distanced from reality in terms of both her appearance, her behaviour and her abilities that she cannot possibly be “You!” Does that make her exploitative? Who knows…

  2. corbenfrost says:

    Portal is the “Smack My Bitch Up” of video games.

    I understand the importance of not being defined as anything but your actions in a game but is this truly feminism? Defining that you can do anything in the game, not depending on your sexuality or physicality but rather by your grasp of game mechanics is great but it hardly leaves room for character exploration of any kind. You don’t have any motivation, besides delicious cake for most of the game, and as you pointed out, you get no explanations or backstory. Wherein you felt alienated in Fallout 3 (So did I) I actually felt nothing at all for my personal character in Portal, it became an exercise in detached puzzle solving, like soduku but funnier. If people are defined by personalities, is a husk a good example of the similarities between all people, male and female? After discovering that I was actually a girl in-game, I was left with the abstract and vague thought that all people are equal in everything “In principle” but I’m not sure that’s a very good way to view things because it’s not a very realistic statement. I think a more relatable character might have done a better job of attaching me to the game and given me a new view point to see the world through…. though I have to admit that the game left wanting to know a lot more about Chell, considerably more. I wonder if this is virtualized feminine mystique?

    Though I noticed that there were a few games in the last decade that completely immersed you without assigning sex or even alluding to gender in their dialogue. Steel Battalion being one of them (Yeah, I pulled it out ever since you reminded me of it) Would this make them more feministic?

    A lot of people would have gone with the traditional Jade (From G&E) but I’m kind of glad you didn’t because as good of a character as she is, she’s also rendered bland because of it. Frankly, a lot of game characters are, especially female characters. The video game industry needs to start taking chances.

    • jenn says:

      I understand the importance of not being defined as anything but your actions in a game but is this truly feminism?

      I mean! Wow! I think very literally and definitely yes it is? Um. Rallying for equal pay for equal work, for instance, and to therefore ask to be defined very literally and only by actions instead of boobs, would mean to demand equality irrespective of sex, which is kind of, um, so yeah.

      ...all people are equal in everything “In principle” but I’m not sure that’s a very good way to view things because it’s not a very realistic statement.

      I think the developers suspected there would be some disbelief—“Hey! Women can’t jump as far as men! Why and how am I a lady??”—so they gave Chell some nice carbon-fiber gazelle legs, so gamers wouldn’t feel like her biological athletic inferiority is holding them back, or something. (I’m actually not totally joking; that was a thought I’d had when I first played.)

      • corbenfrost says:

        Well the part with the gazelle legs I found ironic, especially if you consider that women traditionally have more lower body strength then men do, one need look no further then the last olympics to see that, though there is plenty of other data to suppor that. But I thought that feminism would best be championed by well…a woman. If for no other reason then because I don’t think anyone but a woman could understand and relay and expose the scope of the issue without coming off as a panderer or hypocritical. The statement wasn’t meant to contest it in Portal in particular, it was meant to give another view point to complete immersion in a game. That is why I pointed out and asked about Steel Battalion afterwards.

        More importantly, when referring to the differences in characters and people, they aren’t as stark between Gordon Freeman and Chell as they are between Marcus from Gears of War and Gordon Freeman. That is a much better dichotomy, it’s hard to get much different then those two characters and that has nothing to do with gender. Portal doesn’t make a big deal out of the protagonist being a woman but it does make a big deal out of the protagonist being a thinker but it does it in such an interactive yet subtle way that the message is easily obscured or even misconstrued as being a gender issue. Could you picture a muscle bound person like Marcus trying to make all those jumps? It plays into stereotypes in it’s own way.

        On a less serious note, there are also a few games where being a woman with boobs has a distinct advantage like getting past security guards in PS1’s Fear Effect for instance but even in some RPG’s like Stormreach.

      • Dan Lowe says:

        Pardon me if I’m preaching to the choir, jenn, I just wanted to further contextualize the discussion. I think it is most certainly a feminist objective to eliminate both the masculine as normative and the female as having pre-established definition/placement. Fantastic “long stream-of-consciousness with squirrelly punctuation in the middle of the night” either way. I hadn’t given any thought to how foreign the NPC interaction in a first-person RPG like Fallout 3 would be if I weren’t a ‘male.’ In the same way that Bethesda avoided some controversy by giving immunity to children in the game, I wonder if there was any thought about how creating a narrative that genuinely portrayed how women/children might be treated in a lawless post-apoc environment would have created situations that fit the tag ‘too-real-for-virtual-reality.’

        Which is to say, too thought-provoking, creating too much potential to make us reflect on ourselves as we actually are.

        There’s a fairly fundamental principle in race and gender studies that reinforces your point: one of the advantages of being in a privileged group or class is the ability to lack placement, the freedom of inherently being unbracketed. While it’s not entirely accurate to say that there are no white/male/etc. stereotypes, they have no grounding power. It’s one of the reasons why historically there have been so many redefinitions of ‘whiteness;’ it, like other racial descriptions, is entirely arbitrary and unrelated to any of the varied qualities that compose people shoved into those groups. (Pardon my lack of direct reference, but see the case about the Afghan man in the early Twentieth Century who fulfilled all the so-called scientific [eugenic] requirements for being defined as ‘White,’ and yet was still denied American citizenship on those grounds.) Those in the oppressed groups (‘Black,’ ‘Hispanic,’ ‘Asian’ and on), though, are defined by their orientation, while those who lack such characterization hold an advantageous position because they are unpositioned. Whiteness is largely undefined because it doesn’t need to be. Its lack of definition is what makes it so potently favorable.

        Gender is of course another matter. Here, it is less that being male lacks placement (it does, and being female continues the theme of placement having oppressive force), than that the male placement is the established norm. ‘Maleness’ defines the standard, or more precisely, with maleness holding its own set of favored definitions: the masculine. There is a normative conflict in Race as well—the concepts of norm and placement are interweaved—but gender offers a binary juxtaposition that the variance of ethnicity and ‘Race’ cannot. Gender can be simplified absolutely: male/female, us/them, and most fundamentally: is/is-not. Orientated this way, genders can be defined with precise detail, and has historically, perhaps even prehistorically.

        This dichotomy of positions is why recreations of reality such as that in Fallout 3 are incomplete so long as they paint our experience in the world as consistent regardless of whether our lens (through which we see and are seen) is male or female. It’s the reason why something like a rape scene in a movie should be dual-screen: one with the aggressive, overly sexualized perspective of the assailant, and one of the disgusted, defensive horror of the victim. Left alone, the former perspective remains normative, as if this is the only experience of the event. This is a usual example, perhaps because it is the most startling, but it suggests that if the experience of a woman in a conflict, such that video games often require, were to be accurately portrayed, it would be too unsettling for an audience whose patronage relies a great deal on hormonal compliance.

        God forbid video games be a cock-block.

      • Gregory Weir says:

        I believe that the developers mention in the commentary that the leg-extensions exist to explain why Chell doesn’t take falling damage, even when falling for the subjective equivalent of miles.

      • Tim Maly says:

        At the risk of latching on to the least relevant point, I always thought that the gazelle legs weren’t for explaining the jumping ability (which isn’t all that special) but for explaining the surviving falling FROM A VERY GREAT HEIGHT ability. “See, these shock absorbing spring things are the reason your bones aren’y jelly after recursively falling through hundreds of storeys worth of air.”

  3. corbenfrost says:

    @Dan Lowe

    Wonderful comparative on the differences between gender and racism and their classifications.

    I was just thinking about how Fallout 3 seemed incomplete due to a lack of different reactions to different gender. This would be indicative of a gender neutral society (If you’re going by context alone) and wouldn’t that be a better example of feminism in a game then, say, a game where you discover you’re a girl for simple shock effect? Does it make for a worse game if you’re not treated differently or is there a way to make it better without having to rely on such a traditionally gender based conflict like rape?

    I would personally like to see the video game industry to take on such a challenge. In the last 25 years or so, games have become more emotional but have they actually become more complex or nuanced? Is it even possible for that to happen in this medium?

    Side note: I think Irreversible, starring Monica Bellucci and that one hatchet faced french actor, did a pretty awesome job of showing the dichotomy of rape in a single scene. Both the rapist and Bellucci were really emotive in it. I think it did the dual screen idea in one single scene and screen. It really gives you a better impression of rape as a weapon in modern society. It is kind of a messed up movie…and in French.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      I was just thinking about how Fallout 3 seemed incomplete due to a lack of different reactions to different gender. This would be indicative of a gender neutral society (If you’re going by context alone) and wouldn’t that be a better example of feminism in a game then, say, a game where you discover you’re a girl for simple shock effect?

      Well, you’re making a great point here, Corben, and I honestly kind of tried to sidestep it in the actual blog. And this is why I worried about conflating “antisexist” with “feminist”—I guess they really aren’t the same thing at all, are they?

      Maybe I took umbrage with Fallout 3 because it didn’t convey the world as-it-is. And maybe Fallout 3 really does depict, instead, the world as-it-should-be. Because the real world is filled with “benevolent sexism”—that’s dudes on Jersey Shore shouting, “Oh, man, you never hit a girl! No matter what she does!”—and Fallout 3 is chock-full of adversaries who will freely whomp your lady-face. And maybe Fallout 3 would have been an equally engaging experience for me as it was for this other game critic dude, if only other characters had talked to my You, I don’t know, in a sexist way!

      So the difference between “antisexist” and “feminist” has something to do with gender, with acknowledging, addressing, and confronting sexism and prescribed gender roles, instead of just ignoring those things, which seems noble but willfully naive. Stick with me, here:

      In a hypothetical feminist video game I just made up in my head, I play a teenaged female trying to get on my all-male high school football team. And the coach says, “This might be tricky, but I think we can fight the schoolboard.” But in an antisexist video game with the same premise, the same coach might say, “I really need you on my team, Ace! You’re the best [gal] we’ve got, Champ!” And the latter is straight out of an ideal world, but it’s also inauthentic and not-believable. And there’s no social construct to fight, so it isn’t feminist, either.

      Chell is a quietly feminist character because she is fighting a construct or idea about gender and ability and roles. But the construct isn’t explicitly stated in-game, because it isn’t in-game at all—Chell is confronting you, your ideas, she is confronting an experience or presumption you brought to the table. She is opposing whatever it is you thought you would be.

      There’s a riddle that ends with the sentence, “And the doctor (or surgeon) says, ‘I can’t operate on this boy—he is my son.’” And when I was a kid, I actually couldn’t figure the riddle out.

      (Again, I’m typing pretty rapidly and artlessly—at my day job!—so, plenty of salt grains, please.)

      • Rotha says:

        I see and agree with your points here, but I find exactly this effect appealing when I play Fallout 3. It’s part of the escapism, away from real life where I’m defined as “woman” rather than “person” and where most of the things I am good at or want to do fall under the “it will be tricky, but we might be able to make a special exception” category. In-game, a boy says I’m a big strong lady he wishes he could be like, and while it’s just lazy writing, it makes me feel at home.

  4. Jenn Frank says:

    @dan Foremost, thank you. I really appreciate the time and care you threw into your response, partly because I feel a couple different types of relief (like, “Yes, exactly!” and “Someone articulated this really well!” but also, “Someone read this! Carefully!” which I know is vanity).

    It’s hard for me to respond directly, just because I don’t think there’s too much I can really add. But what you reminded me of—and this is sort of funny, funny-weird and not funny-haha—is, uh, the TV series “Quantum Leap.”

    There were a few special, lesson-filled episodes where Dr. Sam Beckett is transported to another period in history, with all its differences in cultural values and mores, and for the first several minutes before the opening credits, he is surprised by the way people respond to his presence, because he hasn’t seen himself yet. And then he finally gets himself to a mirror, so he can finally glimpse what skin he’s in.

    That’s when Dr. Sam Beckett discovers that he’s black, or that he has enormous ta-tas and dainty hands, and that this must be why people are no longer responding to him as if he were a white, youngish male who has a doctorate in time travel. And then he utters that immortal cliffhanger refrain: “OH, BOY.” And then, the opening credits!

    And that’s me, seeing Chell for the first time, but it’s also me wondering why everyone in Fallout 3 is responding to me so strangely. It’s both. (I am obviously tired from staying up all night hmming and typing.)

  5. Tim says:

    That was really great, I appreciate it a lot, and I’m too drunk to say anything more.

  6. steve says:

    Just to be fair, you can see yourself in the first room in Portal. The designers in fact stated in their GDC talk about Portal that you were intended to see yourself in the very first room, so you could make a spatial connection between the two ends of the portal. So. Yeah.

  7. Vincent Povirk says:

    You saw Chell at the very beginning of portal. Right when the very first portal opened. Weren’t you paying attention?

  8. Rob Marney says:

    I wasn’t shocked by Chell being female at all. I was shocked by how artificial she was, now that I could see the unrealism of the first-person-shooter conceit. But a female player character? I’d been picking those since Samus Aran and Chun Li, so it was only expected.

    A feminist game is Dragon Age, where NPCs are constantly ignoring or flirting with you, but you can still accomplish the exact same story-wise.

    An anti-sexist game is Mass Effect, where nobody seems to care that your character is male or female, except the marketing department.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      I wasn’t shocked by Chell being female at all. I was shocked by how artificial she was, now that I could see the unrealism of the first-person-shooter conceit.

      OK. You’re not really selling me on our disagreement, though, because I think this is pretty right on.

      I think what I’m saying is, I like the artificiality of Chell because she really is just a skin, a representation. I could roll with that artificiality because the game was only telling me, “Hey! This is what you look like,” instead of “Hey! Here’s who you essentially are,” and so I still felt authentically like me, myself, me, hence my whole argument about projection and the seeming authenticity of blank-slate characters. While I think I get where you’re coming from, for me, the trick works, rather than being a tacked-on gotcha. (Above, a couple folks note that the reveal maybe isn’t a ‘gotcha’ at all, or that the game shows its full hand from the get-go, which I’d stupidly never noticed.)

      So Portal’s conceit—that’s a good word for the reveal, and I’m filching it from you—really does ring truer, for me as a female player, than maybe a female avatar might in a gigantic Bethesda world, in which everything is so anti-gendered as to become disingenuous. (I know I’ve started repeating myself, so I don’t think I have too much more to give; over here, someone makes an articulate comment I really appreciate about NPCs and “othering.”)

    • Amen to the “marketing deparment” comment; Bioware seems to have the worst one of all. I can never tell if a new game by them is going to be exploitative or socially innovative. Btw- have you played Mass Effect 2? It REALLY seems this time like they caved in.

  9. I see what you are driving at, it is a bit of a shock to have a female avatar in an FPS. I must admit I was suprised a little simply because I just presume my avatar in an FPS is a male, which is precisely your point isnt it Jenn?

  10. I’m bookmarking this page for so many reasons! I am writing a term paper this semester about viewer identity in video games. Also, I’m very conflicted about Mass Effect 2. As Rob Marney mentioned, Bioware tends to handle gender issues well. Why would they suddenly regress by filling ME2 with oversexualized, inflatable women?

    I suspect there is a force in the industry that pushes for games to act this way, despite the massive success of the more inclusive Wii. Who wants to think up conspiracy theories?

  11. Bakka says:

    I have written a post http://bakka111.wordpress.com/.....-portal-2/ where I cite you at length. I am a little worried I might have quoted too much. Please let me know whether this is ok with you. If not I will edit it down more.

    • Jenn Frank says:

      That isn’t “too much.” Or even if it is, A) I hardly mind, and B) as I appended high above, the new, improved, print edition of this blog entry is really long now, so now it’s like, ah! You’ve barely quoted anything! High five!

  12. christine says:

    hehe i’m writing an assessment on gendering in video games so this forum was so perfect for research, as i don’t know very much about video games at all. Thanks girls and guys!

  13. cypher says:

    As someone who’s looking into creating video games, this has me conflicted.

    On the one hand, you have prospective female players that will feel alienated if all the interaction is very strongly gender-neutral.
    OTOH, as per another commenter, some female players want to be treated in a gender neutral way, because they’re not fond of the gendered treatment they receive IRL.

    On top of that, there’s a risk that if I do introduce non-trivial differences, I’ll get it wrong.

    This is not to say this isn’t something a valid concern, something which should be addressed, but more that, answering “How do I reliably address that without offending people?” is difficult.
    I think that’s a lot of why you see games which are anti-sexist, but not feminist.

    This post has got me thinking, and I’ll keep thinking about it later.

  14. Pete says:

    Thanks for the great article! I know I’m coming in literally years late with this, but I was surprised that this hasn’t been mentioned before in the comments.

    Thing is that I, as a man, knew Chell was a woman long before I ever saw her image. I could tell, for the same reason you could tell the Fallout 3 avatar was originally written as a man. You did mention GlaDOS’ taunts, but you didn’t mention their content: most frequently in the game, she insults Chell by calling her fat. That’s incredibly specific to a female gender experience.

    On the other hand, I’m not THAT surprised you didn’t notice it—for the same reason you weren’t surprised about the editor not noticing Fallout 3’s shortcomings. These things aren’t jarring unless they go against what you’re used to experiencing in real life… that baggage you bring with you.

    Of course, the difference is that in Portal you’re definitively a woman—which makes this gender awareness a point in Valve’s favor, rather than an oversight.

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