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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.

Sexism: Point Taken

This should be my last post on the sexism topic for a while, as the items below essentially obsoleted a 1500-word post on the subject I had scheduled to go up.

Item 1: The Comic

False Equivalence from

Although I would still argue the finer points of what physical features are power fantasies to whom… well, point taken.

Item 2: The Paradigm-Shifting Article

Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women. An excerpt from the thesis bit:

I think the major problem here is that women were clamoring for “strong female characters,” and male writers misunderstood.  They thought the feminists meant [Strong Female] Characters.  The feminists meant [Strong Characters], Female.

So the feminists shouldn’t have said “we want more strong female characters.”  They should have said “we want more WEAK female characters.”  Not “weak” meaning “Damsel in Distress.”  “Weak” meaning “flawed.”

Good characters, male or female, have goals, and they have flaws.  Any character without flaws will be a cardboard cutout.  Perhaps a sexy cardboard cutout, but two-dimensional nonetheless.  And no, “Always goes for douchebags instead of the Nice Guy” (the flaw of Megan Fox’s character in Transformers) is not a real flaw.  Men think women have that flaw, but most women avoid “Nice Guys” because they just aren’t that nice.  So that doesn’t count.

This article, much like the two videos I posted previously, came from such an unexpected direction that it shifted the entire way I looked at the issue itself. Even the nagging objection I had in the back of my mind – “Is attractiveness in these female characters harmful, then?” – is addressed towards the latter end of the article.

Item 3: The Pithy Video

Why Men and Women Can’t be Friends.

While the previous two items changed the scope of the debate for me, this video summarizes the problems I have with the article Nerds and Male Privilege, the one that made me /facepalm so hard I developed an epidural hematoma and set me to writing a 1500-word post. At one point in the aforementioned article, “Dr. Nerdlove” writes: “Y’see, nobody’s saying that women don’t receive different treatment from guys… I’m saying that being treated differently is the problem.” While the examples of sexism he goes on to use are legitimately bad (assuming a woman is a quota hire or got to where she is by sexual favors, etc), there is an implicit underpinning to the article that if nerds just treated women equally, all this would go away.

Except… it can’t. The harassment and stereotypes can and should be diminished, absolutely. But as the video succinctly demonstrates, there will always be a difference, even under gender equality.

A Few Unresolved Issues

First, there is the question of whether characters like Samus, Chell, FemShep, etc, are actually strong female characters if they could be replaced by male characters without a loss in narrative integrity. The Rule 63 Dilemma, if you will. I’m inclined to say that any non-fanservice female is a win by default, but I can acknowledge how that may amount to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Second, I am beginning to question whether a call should go out for more weak male characters (see Item 2). While some would point to, say, Batman as an example of a flawed male character with depth, my point is that male protagonists inevitably succeed at “being a man.” Chiseled men kicking ass may be a male power fantasy (see Item 1), but I consider it just as pernicious a fantasy as Objectified female sex objects. When I was out of work for 14 months, I felt a crippling sense of shame for not “being a man,” because men provide, men aren’t weak, men aren’t emotional, and so on. While there is obviously a power difference between being conditioned to be aggressive versus demure/passive/accommodating, it is still harmful conditioning.

Third, while the debate on Syl’s blog has wound down, one of the main issues we have “agreed to disagree” on was why Tifa/Sylvanas were drawn sexy. Syl asked “Why?” I asked “Why not?” They both are written as strong characters, so it should not matter in the scheme of things to also dial up the visually appealing meter while we’re there. Syl asked: “what’s the message there exactly and why will their male equivalents not come with equal, sexual innuendo?” My counter-question would be, if I were still permitted to post there, “What would you like to see, innuendo-wise, from males?” From my (limited) understanding on the subject, what women find visually appealing or sexual varies wildly from woman to woman. In contrast, pretty much all men are visually attracted to boobs and butts. If the Batman from Item 1 is only appealing to 20% of the female audience, is that a win or a loss considering the traditional Batman model is 100% appealing to men for power fantasy purposes (and presumably X% of women)?

I understand that it’s more fair if the audience breakdown for games is 50/50 to draw as visually appealing characters as possible without alienating one side (i.e. women) with panty shots or barely-there clothing. I suppose the question is: what’s the impact when one gender is more predisposed to visuals than the other? Is equal still fair? Or can we agree with the article in Item 2 insofar that the problem isn’t the sexiness of female characters at all, but rather when the whole depth of their character concept is visual sexiness?

In closing, I want to mention again the importance of tailoring one’s argument away from Goal-oriented methods towards more Results-oriented ones. The articles and arguments that shifted my attitude on this subject were NOT the confrontational ones that attempted to guilt me into accepting their conclusions wholesale. Even though the comic in Item 1 began that way, the unique perspective of what a woman actually found attractive in comparison to the standard fantasy male was intriguing; not to mention the idea that Batman’s chiseled abs were drawn for men. That, along with the notion that sexy poses were actually demeaning and patronizing to men too, were game-changers. How could you argue against that? There is no defense. Appealing to self-interest may not be as noble, but at some point the question arises as to whether you’d rather be noble, or actually accomplish what you set out to change.

Strong Female Characters

I was not going to write a follow-up to yesterday’s post, but I came across another Kotaku post today titled “It’s Time for a Lady Hero in Grand Theft Auto.” I agree with the article, in that such a thing would be awesome, assuming they find a way to make it work. And by “work” I mean actually make the main character being a woman matter, as opposed to merely swapping gender models in a story written for a man (or gender neutral, which so often defaults to man anyway).

But then I got to thinking… is that not what typically occurs anyway, even with strong female characters?

In the comment section of that article, the following was posted:

Oh shit a female character? How am I supposed to relate to that?


The comment is obviously sarcastic, referring to the strong female characters of Samus Aran in Metroid and Chell in the Portal series. And yet, at what point does it matter in any meaningful sense that the protagonists are women? Don’t get me wrong, I love that they are. As I mentioned in the comments on Syl’s post:

I love strong women. I love the rich, dramatic narrative possibilities of balancing strength with femininity; “being a man” is almost always one-dimensional (i.e. strength == man) in contrast. It is why I almost always roll female toons in MMOs.

A woman slaughtering a bandit camp or slaying a dragon is automatically more interesting to me than a man doing the same. But if I am honest, it’s that way because I’m imagining more complex inner struggles into those events from the female side. I expect a man to slaughter a bandit camp or slay a dragon, because that is the cliche. To not do so would be a renunciation of “being a man.” Which, incidentally, is something I consider far more pernicious than any Objectification that goes on with scantily-clad women, but I may be biased. But when a woman slaughters a bandit camp, I envision a struggle against conformity, against despair, against a nature inclined to nurture, and so on. The Bene Gesserit of Dune and Aes Sedai of The Wheel of Time are more interesting groups of people because they are women; a mystical cabal of controlling men is almost too cliche to commit to paper.

Going back to the Metroid and Portal examples though, did it really matter in a narrative sense that they were female? I would say no. Samus and Chell could have been dudes and the game would have played out in the same way. If strong female characters can be replaced with males with zero narrative loss, are they really strong female characters? As I mentioned, them being dudes would have certainly diminished something from my play experience, but I’m struggling with the intellectual notion that the gender of the character model really makes that big a difference to me. Or is the fact that they could be replaced by men without a loss of narrative integrity actually a win? Gender equality and all that.

Perhaps silent protagonists are not the best examples. Final Fantasy 7 is my second favorite game of all time, and I consider Tifa one of the deepest characters in any RPG I have ever played, despite (and perhaps in spite of) some of her more obvious fanservice qualities. Tifa is strong, capable, independent and yet distinctly feminine at the same time. That being said, outside of taking care of Cloud during the whole Mako poisoning bit, and the pseudo love triangle thing, I could not really give examples of what I mean by “distinctly feminine” that does not have something to do with the way she looks or otherwise read like a laundry list of cliches. Maybe that’s okay, and those prior distinctions are enough?

So, good luck Rockstar. I cannot wait to see what they would do with a female lead in GTA.

P.S. While “researching” this post, I came across two excellent examples of What To Do when talking sexism in games, both in video format. The first is The Big Picture: Gender Games, and the second is Game Overthinker: Bayonetta. The former is rather brilliant with it’s “pose” argument, which is both intuitive and unassailable. The latter doesn’t focus on sexism explicitly, which makes its implicit argument all the more compelling when you realize what just happened by the end, i.e. you agreed with everything.

If you want to affect real change, you do it that way.