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Interchangeable He and She
by Sande Chen on 06/30/14 10:48:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


After all the protest about the amount of work to animate female characters, it appears that female characters, like Assassin's Creed III: Liberation's Aveline de Grandpré, can use animations created for male characters.  As Aja Romano points out, this works out especially if animators decide not to oversexualize the movements of female characters.  It's also a production issue, since interchangeable male/female animations would have to be the plan from the beginning.  Interchangeable animations, along with a couple of gender-specific ones, would save both time and money so that there could be male and female playable characters in the game.

  These animations weren't so interchangeable...

But say, it's not the beginning, what I might call the pre-production phase, but at the beginning of crunch time hell, or even worse, at the end or after the game is released?  Then, sure, a development team may find it hard to provide a fix.

All of this reminds me of a thorny problem a video game company presented to the game writers Facebook group.  This video game company created romance games (in text) and after a game was released, customers asked why there wasn't a gay romance option a la Dragon Age 2.The company wondered if a solution could be found by simply replacing all of the love interest's pronouns by the opposite gender. 

Would that work?

I have played a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) game that did something similar and I truly felt cheated because my choice of gender was as meaningless as the selection of eye color in the game.  OK, the story was supposedly set in an enlightened (yet vaguely RenFaire) society in which men and women were treated equally and men had even achieved pregnancy, but I still felt cheated.  I can see that this might work in a different game, but not one that was all about relationships.  And a romance game is all about relationships.

I understood that the author had very cleverly done this to avoid writing whole sets of branching narrative.  Yet, I couldn't help but feel that the whole fun of choosing a female or male character in a romance game had been taken away from me.  If I had a female character, what would happen here?  How would people react differently?  Might I be able to succeed as a female character but not as a male character?  I feel that even if writers do create enlightened societies, we are still viewing their world from the present.

In our flawed and unenlightened world, females don't always act and talk like males and hence, the need for female-specific animations and dialog.  Female relationships are different from male relationships.  I believe that the experience of growing up as a female is special and worth exploring.  When this informed background isn't there, then the relationship feels hollow.  To me, all the romances, including the gay ones, in this CYOA game were somewhat shallow.

In the end, the video game company with the problem decided that a quick switch of pronouns would not be respectful to the gay community.  Gender would not be a meaningless string variable. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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Larry Carney
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As a fellow writer, I agree. Gender and sexuality comes with complex sociocultural histories and experiences unique to different parts of our globe and eras of human civilization: limiting oneself from being able to utilize that as source for either exploring characters or the overall narrative is like being a basketball player and deciding to play with one arm tied behind your back. Gender and sexuality are not some amorphous ether that exists in some strange state disconnected from everyday realities: they are not something interchangeable with the experiences of another, they are expressions and realities of the self.

As you said, it would not give respect to the differences between gender and sexuality in gaming audiences, it would not respect the player, to reduce the nature of a fundamental component of the human experience to some one-size-fits-all "narrative wrapper" as someone else here in the community calls such approaches to narrative:

To make characters more human, we must not rob them of their basic humanity.

John Flush
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but isn't one-size-fits-all the only way to reach gender equality? Otherwise someone will get offended. That's the nature of the beast. Do you write for how things really are or do you write for what equality really means? Either way you are doomed... unless you make it a time piece where we know it was like that but everyone can say "but it is different now" and move on with their lives.

Christian Nutt
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Only if you look at gender equality (and, as in this case) human interactions as a system rather than as the actual, nuanced reality of it.

Gender equality is not about saying that men and women are equivalent in all instances. And there's a tremendous difference in dynamic between male/male, female/female, and female/male relationships (and, of course, tremendous variation in the specific relationships themselves across all gender pairings.) To ignore that is to be a failure as a writer.

Ian Uniacke
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I think a good way around this conundrum (correct me if I'm wrong) is to write feminine traits as positive. Purely as an illustration (I wouldn't suggest being this ridiculous) but you could have a super hero who's special ability is caring. eg Care Bears...guess it's not so ridiculous after all.

The opposite of this is traditional culture, such as the poor innocent woman (who thinks compassion will win wars) is saved by the brave man who knows that violence is the only solution.

Matt Robb
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Equality doesn't require identicality. Two dimes and a nickel are worth just as much as a quarter.

Giving equal weight to the opinions of different people in any non-gender-related situation is equality. I also don't try to tell my wife what kind of bra is more comfortable and she stays out of the boxers vs briefs comfort debate.

Are there physical differences between genders? Certainly. Do most societies tend to "train" men and women differently? Sure. Doesn't mean they aren't equal.

(I looked up identicality, apparently it's a real word!)

Keith Nemitz
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Judging a CYOA game, patterned after a romance novel, to be shallow... um. My two cents is, some IF can get away with interchangeable gender (Leather Goddesses of Phobos), and some shouldn't. Your observation about depth of relationships and culture sounds like a good litmus test.

Rickard Elimaa
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"I feel that even if writers do create enlightened societies, we are still viewing their world from the present.

In our flawed and unenlightened world, females don't always act and talk like males and hence, the need for female-specific animations and dialog. Female relationships are different from male relationships."

I would say that this kind of thinking is what stops the industry from being inclusive/equal. I just saw this clip on Youtube ...

... and what was weird was my thoughts of how a girl would do an action, when I saw the question, would be like how the girls actually did it. I couldn't relate to the grown ups' and the boys' portrayals of the girls. I dunno if it's the fact that I grew up in and live in Sweden, but here are the topics of feminism and equality an everyday discussion.

Yes, there are physical differences but what's important to realize is that the background, or age, will control more of how someone thinks than the actual gender. Gender is, beside genetic, also a social construct. I like the fact that Metroid played around with gender thinking in year 1986, where everybody thought the hero was a male up until she revealed her gender. She didn't move or act like some stereotypical female. It's sad that people still blogging almost 30 years later, saying that females should behave in a certain way. What's important for how someone act is the background, not the gender.

This goes for ethnicity as well.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Matt Robb
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"Like a girl" is another one of those terms that needs to be made meaningless. I found it encouraging that the younger girls portrayed in the video seem to be bucking the stereotype.

That said, there are mannerisms that females can have (and really have no reason to stop having) that exist entirely to entice and/or manipulate males. I have long eyelashes but you won't see me batting them at anyone. Equality can be attained without everyone becoming androgynous.

Sande Chen
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I think what would be more beneficial is to tell the stories from a more inclusive stance. All of our stories don't have to star heterosexual white males.

People act whatever way they do based on their experiences. This does not mean that females have to act a certain way because of biology. To ignore a character's background is to be insensitive to how events shaped this character's life. In a fictional world, if a writer does want to portray something different from the present, then the writer must really think about what the impact would be to society and the world. If the premise were correct that males and females were equal and men could achieve pregnancy (as it was in this game), would the society of this world still be feudal with a King in charge? And females simply desired to marry well?

Regarding Metroid, Aja Romano pointed out in her article that for no apparent gameplay reason, Samus was stripped down to a bikini simply to show she was female. Would this have be done if Samus were male?

Rickard Elimaa
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I agree with your answer so I wonder if I misunderstood you.

Regarding Metroid. In this case? No, because, like I said, players thought it was a male. It was something directed to the audience by targeting their expectations, and not something that changed the game world. That's why I think it's so great.

Did she pose in a sexy manner? No, she was just standing there, waving her hand good bye. Just like a man could had done.

Joshua Wilson
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I think a CYOA game is not really the place for nuance and depth because it would be impossible to write enough choices to allow for everyone to customize it to exactly the way they behave, believe, think, etc.

And the more choices you provide the more you risk allowing one person to fully express themselves at the expense of another.

It seems to me that the emotions of romance are something that, when presented in a "neutral" way, are easily related to by ALL people. Which is generally what you want to accomplish in a CYOA so that the person making the choice feels invested in it.

Additionally to suggest that you COULD write a female, or gay specific story is to basically stereotype people who identify with those words by assuming you can understand what that entire group of people would relate to.

Generally if you want depth then you want to write/look for stories about specific characters where assumptions need not be made about a group of people but you are simply stating that this character is the way they are, and they may also be gay, female, straight, male, whatever, and in what makes them unique those things may have affected them in some meaningful way or not at all.

Sande Chen
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I think you could, but you would have to make the choice of gender in your story impact on how the character was greeted, treated, and regarded.

Jonathan Adams
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It isn't that hard unless you make your characters gender stereotypes to begin with. Create balanced characters and it's a lot easier to switch between genders.

Assuming you aren't in a really really low-resource situation, when you have a male and a female character, just give them different personalities. Which personality belongs to which gendered person shouldn't matter if you make them balanced, whole people instead of caricatures.

It also helps to establish how gender and sexuality works in the world itself rather than JUST through the character. If your character is the only person whose actions are defined by their gender, then it will be obvious, but if the whole world is balanced, a balanced character won't stand out for being so.