The Problem With Romance

I normally play female characters in videogames despite being a guy in real life. Part of the reason is I find women more aesthetically pleasing. Part of the reason is cold pragmatism – if there is no strict game difference, why not choose the gender that typically gives you ability to seduce NPCs, receive gifts/attention from others (in MMOs), and otherwise get the door held open?

The biggest part though, is that I find female characters inherently more interesting. A man is always expected to prove himself, both in games and real life. A man is supposed to stand up for himself, supposed to be the embodiment of chivalry, supposed to fight and die for what he believes in. Simply put, a man is expected to “be a man.”

Generally speaking, women are not expected to do such things. Oh, they are expected to quite a number of other things, sure. But to fight and kill and die? When I see a female character putting herself on the front lines, I always subconsciously wonder what it was in her life that drove her to that point. A tragic past? Is she striving to be the son her father wanted? Righteous vengeance? Men fight dragons and bandits and each other because it’s required, expected. Women fight those things out of choice. And choice is what makes stories interesting.

The problem I am increasingly running into is not really feeling comfortable with RPG romances, playing as a female toon. For example, my machinations trying to get Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins in the sack as a female dwarf was perhaps the most embarrassing moment in videogaming for me. Partly because Christ, do I have to draw him a picture?, and partly because I expected Chris Hansen to walk out of the bushes in the middle of the cinematic.

"Why don't you have a seat right over there."

And, well, having to help him [highlight to reveal spoiler] marry one chick and get a second one pregnant [/spoiler] wasn’t exactly the most inspiring of endings. Guys can be such assholes.

Simply skipping the romances is not an option: as I established yesterday, missing content of any nature is difficult enough for me. But more than just that, this is a issue for me because I also genuinely enjoy this “optional” content – deep, philosophical ruminations and high school-esque relationship angst hold equal (if not more) appeal. I live a mostly vicarious life; no deeper psychoanalysis required.

So what ends up happening, even in games wherein lesbian romances are possible, I end up playing a dude. In fact, my first character in Skyrim was a level 4 female Redguard before starting over once I realized there was marriage options… even though the “romance” consisted of 3-4 lines of text and one event. Hence, Leonidas.

In any event, I am curious to know how other people handle game romances. Do you ever play the opposite gender and hit up those romance options? Is it totally not a problem? I am also curious as to whether men have more of an issue with this than women. My default assumption is yes, based both on cultural norms and simply the history of gaming wherein most main characters are male and rescuing princess love interests. I could be completely wrong.

Either way, let me know in the comments.

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Posted on February 29, 2012, in Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 20 Comments.

  1. I had a friend once who made a female toon, made it look like my wife (she is Japanese) and named it after her. Was weird the few times I gamed with him because I wasn’t sure why he did it. I can only guess he was attracted to her so I faded away.

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  2. So your problem with romance is that it makes you uncomfortable when playing a female character? Perhaps the real problem is that those romances are not particularly well-written. You used the example of Alistair, and I have to agree with you that it is difficult not to feel embarrassed at his naïveté. It might be the case that this romance was targeted at certain demographics that consider this romantic, not because it is something appealing to females in general. In any case, I find the case of Alistair’s romance terribly dumb and unrealistic, even though I enjoyed his wittiness. For what I’ve heard about the male’s options, neither Morrigan nor Leliana seem to be much better. My point is, you really have to suspend disbelief and accept the awkwardness of the whole romance, with both sexes. For some reason, the Mass Effect ones are better done – perhaps because they carry from the previous games to the end.

    Moving on to something else, “why not choose the gender that typically gives you ability to seduce NPCs, receive gifts/attention from others (in MMOs), and otherwise get the door held open?” — As a female, I’ve never taken advantage from any fellow players, and think that we should stop this positive discrimination if we are to end gender inequality. Also, I’d like to see less female-oriented seduction plots in the media, including games (but especially films). Damn, if I’m playing a male character, I want to be able to seduce too. This tropes are not only tiresome, but also dangerous, as people tend to equate feminine to seductive power, and not so much with agency or “masculine” power. I wish there weren’t any reasons why you would play a woman to feel “unique” in that she is one of the few that displays power, unlike men, who are assumed to be powerful.

    This is not a tirade against you, I hope it didn’t sound that way. I just wanted to give voice to some thoughts that sprung up in my mind after reading your post.

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    • If I’m honest, it probably comes down to something rather simple: I don’t ever feel attraction to the male characters. Whether that is because they are poorly written or my own inability to suspend disbelief, I dunno. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find Alistair hilarious generally, or that there aren’t well-written men. There just always seems to be a disconnect between going from Friend to Something More that I find designers do correctly in female characters than male.

      It is entirely possible (and likely) it’s just generic hetero hang-ups on my part.

      This tropes are not only tiresome, but also dangerous, as people tend to equate feminine to seductive power, and not so much with agency or “masculine” power.

      Obviously I am biased, but I’m not entirely sure how dangerous that ends up being. I have always believed femininity to be more powerful than masculinity in that Daoist water vs rock sort of way. Holding the door open can be seen as patronizing, or it can be seen as deferment. And even if it’s taken in the worst way, as an implicit acknowledgement of weakness or whatever, what does that say about masculinity in its acquiesce?

      The quest for equality can certainly improve, no doubt, but I’m not entirely convinced the core values (on an intellectual level) are all that far apart.

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      • The danger of it is that it is reductionist. We hold beliefs that more often than not are based on cultural impositions rather than personal experience, and thus thinking that females are more or less powerful (depending on whether you assign more significance to sexual power or sheer strength) is a perilous reduction. Same thing with men: I don’t like the idea of having all my men in videogames as heroes, as you said: “A man is supposed to stand up for himself, supposed to be the embodiment of chivalry, supposed to fight and die for what he believes in. Simply put, a man is expected to “be a man.”” – It’s simply hurtful because it lacks possibilities of different attitudes. And doubly hurtful if our assumptions are negative (like the weakness that is often associated to the feminine genre). Also, we have to understand that those assumptions are not fictional, that they often prey on the subjects because they are expected to conform to this standards – If you shower people with tropes of femininity being used as a sexual weapon, some women will take the hint and try to be that way, as if that was the only option; the same with men: if any man that goes on our media is not allowed to show emotion, for instance, men start thinking that tears are a sign of weakness. This is more deeply embedded in our conduct that you might think.

        I’d love to play a weak-willed/physically weak/overwhelmed hero à la Hamlet someday. But that’s another story. My point is: gendered assumptions are harmful because of the expectations they place on you, and on whom you meet.

        I didn’t intend to derail your original post, but I’m always glad to be able to discuss these things, even though the starting point was far off :).

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      • Fair point about reductionism.

        Although I wonder if the better way to combat gendered assumptions is to stop using them, or start applying them to the opposite genders more frequently. For instance, the sort of stereotypical gay man on television can be labeled as feminine, but there is (increasingly) no corresponding negative value attached to it – it simply describes a set of behaviors.

        If that is still considered reductionist, then I confess I don’t how such a dilemma realistically is solved. I can see how constantly referring to someone as a “Criminal” would subtly reinforce the undesirable behaviors (or at least skew your own perceptions of their behaviors), but how far can we really unpack language on an intellectual level? I’m not saying we should give up, but I see gender stereotypes as altogether more complicated to deconstruct as compared to, say, racial stereotypes given the former’s ties to reproduction.

        I’m sure you’ve probably heard all those (presumably lame) argument before. Forgive me, I’m considerably late to the party, and still trying to wrap my mind around the scene.

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  3. I like to experience everything a game has to offer. So I always play once as a guy and another time as a female. If there are moral choices it usually goes up to four playthroughs as long as I noticed something different in the guy/girl runs.

    As for romance I have both the guy and girl do the romance stuff. Who and how they handle it depends on if my guy/girl is the good or evil character. Always trying to be a good guy most of my characters are good for the male character and evil/not nice for the female. For example in FO2 my male character got married and stayed faithful. My evil femal character got married killed the dude, and did the hooker stuff in New Vegas.

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  4. I would contrast the situation you are describing to an author writing romance from the viewpoint of an opposite gender character. Doing this effectively (rather than as a 1-dimensional caricature) requires getting into the character’s head. Much like acting, you have to construct that character in your mind and, at some level of abstraction, feel and think the things that character would feel and think. To a lot of people, this engenders (pun intended) a certain amount of squick.

    Not me. I tend toward female main or viewpoint characters when I write, and I think that there are a number of reasons for this. One is that I like to explore characters that are not me, and gender is one of the most obvious differences. Another is that women potentially face a lot more conflict than men, and it is conflict that drives plot. While your female lead is dealing with this big problem over here, she also has to deal with her male companion’s misguided protectiveness or the passive-aggressive sexism of another character.

    I think that it speaks to how people identify with their character in a game. If you make a character and essentially think, “that’s me”, and your character always makes the same decisions you do, it’s going to be a bit of a shock to have you, a hetero male, playing you, the female character, and suddenly some guy is flirting with you. My game characters, male or female, are not me. They say and do things that I would not do, but I get to be there to experience them as if I were that character. It doesn’t mean that I have some impossible wish to not be me, only that I enjoy exploring a different role. You get to be yourself while getting a taste of what it might be like to be someone else.

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    • If the romances were scripted, I’d be right there with you. I loved the His Dark Material trilogy by Philip Pullman. I loved reading all of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series (aka True Blood). Most of my favorite parts of Dune and The Wheel of Time was when the narration came from the ladies.

      It is when a dialog box pops up and asks me to choose what I want them to say, that the gears stop moving. The entire point of my vicarious enjoyment stems from me not knowing the machinations of the female mind. Am I attracted to Alistair? Nope. Would the Grey Warden be? Well… I guess so. Could be. Would she play it all coy? I don’t play coy, so… no? But, wait, most of my exes were coy, and I liked that. Am I supposed to be playing the female lead as though I were her, or as how I would want her to be, or as she “really is”?

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  5. I often play female characters, and I have no issues with the romances. I actually liked the Alistair romance. It was interesting to see a romance where the male character was more … innocent.

    I think part of the reason is that I don’t really identify with my character. To me, it’s like reading a novel where the protagonist is female. I’m perfectly fine with reading those novels and the romances within. I don’t see a great difference between that and playing a game where the character I am controlling is female.

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    • I suppose my disconnect happens when I am presented with a choice wherein I must decide between what I would say, and what I presumably would say if I were actually RPing a woman. If it’s just me in a female body like some bad 80’s Freaky Friday comedy, well, I’d be pulling a reverse The Witcher (The Witch? The Witchette?) across the galaxy/Tamriel/etc because why not?

      That isn’t what I imagine FemShep would do, or even what I’d necessarily want her to do, but that is what I would do in those circumstances. The cognitive dissonance knocks me right out of the romance.

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  6. While I have started to play more female characters recently, I have no issue playing male characters or participating in romances as a male character. This includes both the casual encounters like in the Witcher and the more drawn out romances (which are written with varying success) like in Bioware titles. If I really think about it, romances as a male avatar can occasionally be more difficult to role-play, but I would not consider them awkward by any means. Part of this could be due to social norms I suppose. But, as a massive fan of high fantasy and sword & sorcery novels, It is more likely that I am simply used to seeing these situations approached from the perspective of a male archetypal character. In the end, storytelling is storytelling be it in a book or a video game. Should the character I’m playing decide to become involved in a romantic situation, then I figure that the situation will play eventually end up playing out as it should no matter what the avatar’s gender is. I am just the person moving the avatar around. It is the character who decides how it all plays out and how awkward (or un-awkward) the encounter will feel.

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    • If you don’t mind, was there a specific example of where controlling the male side of a romance was difficult for you to role-play? Was it difficult because it was corny/insulting, because you didn’t know how a guy was “supposed” to react, or something else entirely?

      I am genuinely interested.

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      • No, I would not say it was any more “corny” or “insulting” than playing the female side. If anything it boils down to the fact that undefined male characters (as opposed to one with a very defined set of characteristics like Geralt) tend to get played as a “woman” in a male skin if I am not careful. This is particularly true when I find myself in scenarios where I do have not had a great deal of RL feedback from male acquaintances about their perspective in a situation. As such, engaging in romance scenarios with a male avatar is less natural, and forces me to sit back, really take a look at the personality I have given him, and consider what the particular character I am playing would do in a situation. After all, games like this are more interesting if the character has his own opinion of things, and doesn’t always line up with my personal perspective of the world and gender relations. When playing as a woman that pause for contemplation is completely unnecessary since I can instinctively “know” what she would do, even if her decision runs completely counter intuitive to what I would normally do IRL.

        This, of course, is not an issue with male avatars that come packaged with predefined social mores, perceptions of women, perceptions of romance/ commitment, and the like. When playing I just have to make sure that the character’s actions are in line with the mythos surrounding them. The character’s gender at that point really becomes a non-issue from my perspective since the story tells me everything I need to know, and I am not having to come up with character’s motivations/morals/perspectives on my own.

        I hope that makes some kind of sense.

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      • Sorry I just re-read your post and you mentioned “specific example.” To be honest I really cannot think of one at the moment. I just generally know that the “difficulty” usually rears its head in games where I am responsible for the male character’s back story. Due to my play style, only about half of the story is actually taking place on screen while the rest of, especially in regards to interpersonal relationships and character biases, it is happening in my head. Therefore, having to get into the head space of a male character when I have, in fact, never been a guy just takes more effort when I am the one responsible for deciding where he comes from and how he relates to the world. And yes, figuring out how a male avatar of my own making is “supposed” to act in romantic situations falls under that whole umbrella.

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      • It’s very comforting to know that someone else has the same sort of problem on the other end of things.

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  7. I usually play female characters in solo RPGs (my Shepard is female) but males in MMOs, basically because it feels like lying if I don’t. I did play a female character for a bit in swtor, but it confirmed why I usually don’t; the few people I did quests/flashpoints with were often… over attentive. Not offensively so, but enough that I felt like I was misrepresenting myself. I do have some trouble with romances in RPGs, usually I feel awkward in a no-pants-on sort of way trying to elicit “male” attention. It’s funny, because I’m not homophobic, and I’m not embarrassed to make those choices. I’m embarrassed for the poor guy I’m trying to get in the sack! There was a kids in the hall episode with two guys playing strip poker, at the end when they’re both down to birthday suits one asks the other “so… what now?” after thinking about it for a minute the second guy says “…I think I’m going to put my clothes on…” It perfectly fits how I feel in those situations in RPGs: OK, got him, check. Uh… Now what?

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  8. My issue with in game romances is having to choose. I want choices in my games and I want them to matter, but then again, I’m unlikely to play again and I have this burning desire to see everything. It’s really a no win scenario. I often wind up in analysis paralysis and stop playing.

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  9. I play both, male and female characters and don’t really go for romances on either in games, because usally you got one to three pre-defined romance targets. Often I don’t feel attracted to these and thus I cannot play on naturally because of the might-be-consequences that Chad described spot on as analysis paralysis.
    There are games where the flabour of in game romance is so shallow, because there are utterly no effect on the game, so I usally avoid them. Then in others you might even loose your valuable party member because of turning him/her down or he/she might not gain a very special ability because you two are then linked.
    Romances in games – no thank you.

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  10. I’m right there with you on the female character choice. I even paid EUR to make my gnome rogue male alt into a female. Ever since, I enjoyed playing this character more.

    As for the romance, I think its a projection. If you are not attracted to X or Y IRL then you are probably not attracted to X or Y in-game either. You can only roleplay so much, in the end you are your character.

    As a female jedi consular (sage) I had 2 guys. One was attracted to his hologram, his imaginary girlfriend (which was even one of his CC abilities like succubus). It was hilarious. He was the typical nerd. I couldn’t romance him. Then my other option was a black guy who although friendly served in the army. Only him I could romance. I did that for the story, but regretted him ever since because it kept going on while I regretted the choice. The only female companion I got was an insecure, curious girl who had recently lost her father yet eager and excited to learn and explore. I suppose a male consular would romance her, but for me as a guy I’d rather have seen my female jedi consular romance her even though that’d perhaps be seen by most people as “gay”. And I ask you: “why not?” Maybe I don’t see the problem because of my background. I’m Dutch. Right now I only picked the person I did romance because of lack of the other options (the girl and the professor) IOW he was 3rd choice. That’d become a happy marriage I’d say, I’d never be unfaithful, we’d be long an happy together!! NOT.

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