I may not be a lady, but my character’s all woman

Yeah, sometimes I play as a chick. Come at me, bro.

One cold winter’s night, for want of anything better to do, I loaded up Mass Effect 2 to show my flatmate my awesome Renegade Commander Shepard. A cold-hearted, some might say callous defender of the human race who does whatever it takes to Get The Job Done. A battle-hardened soldier of countless battles who ain’t afraid to defenestrate some chump when the situation warrants it, yet understand words can be more effective than a Mattock Rifle with Warp Ammo in the right circumstances. ”What do you think?” I asked as my Shepard’s status screen appeared, showing off all the skills and cool toys I’d acquired during my epic mission to save the galaxy. ”Pretty awesome, no?”

My flatmate’s eyes narrowed in suspicion, or perhaps because our living room TV was cheap and cheerful Standard Definition. I couldn’t quite be sure. What she said next took me by surprise.

“Why is your Shepard a woman?”

Why indeed. Amongst gamers the conventional wisdom is any bloke who willingly chooses to play a female character, in CRPGs or MMOs, is either a leering, thigh-rubbing pervert or has serious gender-identity issues. It’s a stigma that has been around long before World of Warcraft and other MMO’s arrived on the scene. Dice-and-pencils tabletop roleplaying, of ye venerable Dungeons & Dragons variety, has extensive folklore about sweaty nerds gleefully describing in shuddering detail what their bisexual female elven wizards do with Immovable Rods and Bigby’s Clenched Fist. A lot of early videogames drew on tabletop roleplaying for inspiration and many of the first “gamers” as we know them now were also tabletop-gamers. Naturally, they also bought their old tales and taboos with them.

Gaming blokes actually brave enough to admit playing a lady over a butch manly man-male usually pussy out at the last second with the lame old excuse of “if I have to stare at a character’s arse for however-long it might as well belong to a fit woman, am I right lads? Eh? EH?!” As answers go it’s the laziest kind of cop-out you can get. Strangely this issue only ever applies to CRPGs and MMOs and never if a guy plays games with strongly defined and immutably female protagonists, such as Beyond Good and Evil, Portal or Tomb Raider. You could argue those games don’t let you choose your gender, yet if that’s the case why aren’t these guys sneered at for not buying God of War or any of the countless other games that feature cartoonishly masculine protagonists? Or is it okay to play a woman if developers “force” one on you?

This isn't my Shepard. Mine has different hair, looks even more badass and is only in ME2 right now.

Fuck that all sidestepping-the-issue bollocks: I’ve been a virtual cross-dresser for at least 15 years and I’m not the slightest bit ashamed of it. I don’t play female characters to stare at a make-believe lady’s derriere for 30+ hours, get my rocks off or con people out of virtual monopoly money. I do it because I enjoy creating and playing different characters and some of those characters happen to be women. Some of them are also berserk orc warriors and sly demon summoning half-elf wizards. That doesn’t mean I also want to hack people into bloody chunks with an axe or sacrifice my neighbour’s dog to call up Satan. By that warped logic playing Modern Warfare 2’s notorious “No Russian” mission would classify you as a potential terrorist incident, ready to explode quicker than you can say “bojemoi.”

My earliest memory of donning a woman’s skin in a game, and not in a creepy Buffalo Bill way (that would come much later and is completely unrelated to video games), was 3D Ant Attack on the ZX Spectrum. Ant Attack was an isometric action-adventure in which your bomb-hurling protagonist ventured into in an ancient ruined city, teeming with hostile giant ants, to rescue their significant-other. Notice the lack of gender pronouns there? That’s because 3D Ant Attack let you choose the gender of your intrepid adventurer, a revolutionary concept for the time. You could choose to play as a dashing young man saving his lady love or a no-nonsense woman rescuing her hapless boyfriend, and there was no discernible gameplay difference between the two. I played as the woman about twice for the novelty factor but I mostly stuck with the man out of convenience. I wouldn’t properly dabble in my virtual feminine side until Ultima Online.

My first character in Ultima Online was a male archer who was also a dab-hand at woodcarving, since the game expected you to be somewhat self-sufficient, and bows and arrows didn’t come cheap. He was eventually pushed aside in favour of another character I came up with on a whim one day, after deciding I wanted to play an assassin-type character. Thus was born Nuala Sapphire, assassin extraordinaire and the female alter-ego I’ve since used in every CRPG I’ve ever played a woman in. On Ultima Online’s Europa server this character took part of some of the most enjoyable roleplaying scenarios I’ve ever experienced, and no I don’t mean the smutty kind that happens in chatrooms or the Goldshire Inn. I’m talking Game of Thrones-type shenanigans with plots, intrigue, action and adventure, along with mundane day-to-day interaction like buying bread or discussing the weather. Narratives grand and small acted out by real people playing roles on a digital stage. Concentrated industrial-grade geekery. Snigger all you like, it was incredibly immersive and damn fun to boot.

Good games and especially good RPGs let you step out of your own comfortable shoes for a while and see things from a different perspective. As a white heterosexual man born in the 1980s who has never killed anything larger than a house spider, I can never truly know what it’s like to be a member of an ethnic minority, a woman, a homosexual or an elf. Through RPGs however I can acquire a smidgen of something vaguely resembling an insight into other perspectives – real or fictional – as well as a better sense of my own personality. I suppose my experiences around dinner tables with paper and polyhedrons give me a different outlook to your average adolescent male gamer. In a regular D&D session you’re in the same room as your fellow players, face to face, so you’re always aware the adventuring party’s lithe elven sorceress is actually your weird mate Dave.

Things get more murky in MMOs where a player’s true identity is hidden behind their character, like a reveller at a masquerade ball. Discovering your loyal guild mate Rayventytz, an attractive Night Elf Priestess, is played by a middle aged accountant called Bob can therefore come as quite a shock to some sheltered, precious little snowflakes out there. More so if little miss Rayventitz has flashed her Lightwell to select audiences in the Deeprun Tram for enough gold to buy Netherdrakes in all the colours of the rainbow. An audience that included you on more than one occasion. Entire guilds have collapsed over this sort of thing, and at the very least it can totally ruin your sense of immersion.

Who says women can't wield a massive greatsword?

Yet what about a different hypothetical Bob who doesn’t run his female characters like a gaggle of  stereotypical gold-diggers, but quietly goes about his business pulling his weight in dungeons and generally plays his character like he would any other. Maybe he only chose a Night Elf female because it fit the particular character concept he had in mind, or he came up with the name Rayventytz as a joke and was compelled to use it. Don’t brand the guy a pervert or sad case just because he’s having a laugh and playing the character he wants to play. In an environment as fluid and anonymous as the internet, bitching about someone pretending to be something they’re not is very much a case of Pot flinging racial slurs at Kettle. How people play a single player RPG is nobody else’s fucking business at all.

I don’t always gravitate to the double-X chromosome option in video games and I’ve played way more male characters than female ones. My renegade Commander Shepard in Mass Effect 2 punches journalists in the face, throws people out of windows and generally acts like a stone-cold  bitch, but she can also show great kindness to people and isn’t afraid to intervene if she sees injustice being done. The male Shepard I played before her in my first ever run through the game was a jolly swell aw-shucks kind of guy, who’d throw himself in front of a truck to rescue a kitten and gave long-winded speeches about duty and honour. My male orc warrior in Skyrim beats up sex-pests and entertains children when he’s not killing things and taking their stuff. All unique in their own way, yet also containing a little bit of my “true” personality. Qualities that I like to think transcend such arbitrary lines as gender.

Whether it’s in an MMO, a single-player CRPG or round a table with my friends, I play whatever damn character I like because that’s all they are. Characters. Masks. Outfits. Going to a Halloween bash as Jason Vorhees doesn’t mean you secretly want to murder a score of horny teenagers, so don’t assume a guy who plays a female warrior in an MMO has a fetish for strong women in platemail or feels he was born in the wrong body. Right now there are people in Second Life pretending to be winged anthropomorphic foxes with four dicks and sixteen tits, so if you get bent out of shape over a little harmless virtual gender-bending you’re better off not play games anymore. “Make believe” is one of the oldest games known to man after all, and one you act out in nearly every videogame you play.

Kind of puts Bob and his Night Elf priestess into some perspective, doesn’t it?


About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.