Player-Character Dynamics, Identity, and Sexuality in Video Games
The relationship between the creator, the product, and the audience, are all important contexts to consider during media analysis, especially with games. This is because the audience is an active participant in the media. So if you are creating a game you always have to keep in mind the audience. Even if you say the audience doesn’t matter to you, it won’t cease to exist, and it does not erase the impact your game will have.
Similarly, if you are critiquing or analyzing any media, you can’t ignore the creator and the creator’s intentions. Despite those who claim the “death of the author,” if the audience is aware of the creator’s intentions, it can affect how they perceive the game. Particularly, if you consider the ease in which creators can release statements talking about their work, you’ll have an audience with varying levels of awareness about the creator’s intentions. These factors all play off of each other–they do not exist in a vacuum.
THE MALE GAZE
The Male Gaze is the idea that the audience for some piece of media is, by default, assumed to be male. If you are already aware of this definition, you can just skip to the next section here. If you are looking at that definition and thinking, “What the fuck are you talking about?” then I’ll give a primer on the topic so we are all on the same page.
Here is a simple example of the Male Gaze. I’ve yet to see anyone fail to understand what the Male Gaze is after considering this example:
Imagine you’re watching a music video of a male performer. Someone similar to Justin Timberlake or 50 Cent or some other presumably straight male. In the music video, he’s dancing in a sexy, skimpy outfit with a bunch of other sexy, scantily clad male backup dancers. They’re not, you know, doing anything to each other, they’re just dancing and looking sexy. The average viewer would probably look at this and think “Woah, that is really gay. Is he gay?” despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing homoerotic going on in the video.
Now let’s say you’re watching a music video of a female performer, like Beyoncé or Britney Spears. And let’s say she’s looking sexy and dancing with a bunch of other sexy female backup dancers. Oh, well that’s not gay! No, that’s totally normal. In fact, this is something we see all the time and nobody questions if the performer is secretly a lesbian.
Why would an MV with sexy men be considered “gay,” but an MV with sexy women be considered “not gay?” It’s because the presumed audience is male. And a male audience looking at a sexy man is “gay” but a male audience looking at a sexy woman is not. This is an unwritten, unspoken assumption which we ALL make, no matter our gender. We make this assumption often without realizing it, despite knowing the reality that most audiences do contain women. Even women themselves have grown up saturated in this type of media culture, and thus grow accustomed to viewing, evaluating, and judging female figures through a Male Gaze as well. A typical example is the use of attractive women to advertise products for both men and women. For a men’s product, attractive women can be used as an example of someone who you can have once buying the product. For a woman’s product, attractive women are used an example of who you can become in the eyes of men. Rarely are attractive men ever used to sell women’s products.
The Male Gaze is also the reason why, when there is media which attempts to create a Female Gaze, it is often labeled as being “gay.” This is a pattern which repeats over and over. Every time there is some sexy dude that girls go crazy over, they’re labeled as “gay.” Justin Bieber, Robert Pattinson, One Direction, The Jonas Bros, they’re all called “faggy” and unmanly. Their female counterparts–women whose celebrity status rides primarily on their sex appeal–may be called talentless or fake, but they’re never insulted as “dykes” by either men or women.
The irony, of course, is that all of these guys were specifically marketed to be sexy for heterosexual girls. The media they star in is created with a Female Gaze, but the audience is still operating under a Male Gaze. The mismatch causes their sexiness to be perceived as gay rather than for a straight female audience. This is just one of the many crossroads between sexism and homophobia.
Usually the Male Gaze is brought up when analyzing film and advertisements. There is quite a lot of extensive literature on this topic. However, not much has been said yet about the Male Gaze in gaming.
Video games often encourage the player to identify with a playable character more intimately than one would with the main character of a movie or book. Many character-driven games attempt to create an immersive environment for the player, where it feels like you are really exploring the world and experiencing the plot. For example, the Half Life series forces the player to take on the identity of Gordon Freeman. You’re not just passively watching Freeman, you are Freeman. Of course, it is possible for a game to facilitate different levels of player-character projection. Half Life has a first-person POV, which greatly contributes to the player’s projection onto Freeman. In contrast, an RPG like Final Fantasy VI has the player control multiple characters at a time while viewing them from afar; this facilitates player-character separation. Even still, one can construct the lore of a game so that the player does not project onto playable characters at all. The game League of Legends is one in which you are really playing as an unseen summoner controlling a champion, and also one in which you engage in immersion-breaking communication with other live players throughout the game.
This wide range of variability in player-character projections can affect the importance of the game’s Gaze, and thus affect how the game is constructed and how the audience responds to the game. Most creators and publishers are indeed aware of this dynamic, particularly when it comes to mainstream developers out to make a buck. They know that most of their audience is male, they know that their audience operates under a Male Gaze, and they tend to make games which reinforce, rather than break, the assumption that men cannot adopt a feminine point of view, and that any women playing the game should be capable of adopting a masculine point of view.
An example from early 2013 is when the game Remember Me had trouble finding a publisher for containing a female protagonist. It wasn’t just that the protagonist was a woman, but that the game explores this woman’s romantic life and includes a part where she kisses a man. Creative director Jean-Maxime Moris recalls publishers saying, “You can’t make a dude like the player kiss another dude in the game, that’s going to feel awkward.” In other words, they are skeptical that the phantom male player will be able to fully take on the identity of a heterosexual woman and operate through a Female Gaze.
In 2012, during the hype for the 2013 release of Tomb Raider, creator Ron Rosenberg explains how you’re not supposed to identify with Lara, you’re supposed to want to protect her. Rosenberg states, “When people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character…She’s definitely the hero but—you’re kind of like her helper. When you see her have to face these challenges, you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.” This attempt at creating a separation between the player and the character is consistent with how the developers approached previous Tomb Raider games. You were never supposed to identify with a sexy, busty woman; instead you were supposed to look at her and be titillated by her image. This more recent incarnation of Lara attempts to replace titillation and sexualiztion with a more paternal feeling of protection, but keeps the player-character separation and Male Gaze in place.
Another example: the 2007 release of the game Mass Effect allowed an option to play as either a male or female character. The fact that the player has options, rather than being forced to conform to one gender or sexuality, allowed room for various romantic experiences. However, the player could only engage in heterosexual or lesbian relationships, not gay male relationships. Interestingly, hidden dialogue shows that one of the characters, Kaidan, was intended to be a potential romance option for male Shepard, but was later removed. Gay male options were not introduced at all until Mass Effect 3 in 2012. It begs the question, why did Bioware give preference to lesbians over gay men? They weren’t; they were giving preference to men over women. Mass Effect’s brand of lesbian relationships, much like portrayal of lesbians in most mainstream media, is not made for a lesbian audience in mind. It’s made to be sexy for the presumed heterosexual male audience.
Going back further in time, even the original Metroid plays on this topic. The game’s impact is entirely dependent on the fact that the audience is operating with a Male Gaze. The game’s creators relied on the player’s perception of Samus as a man, and thus invited the player to identify with Samus. Then at the end of the game, when Samus takes off her armor (the amount removed depending on how fast you get through the game), it is revealed that you had been playing as a woman all along. The “competent male character is really a woman!” trope is not unique. But, sometimes the opposite is employed to create a completely different effect. Bridget from Guilty Gear is one well-known example, in which the player and the other characters assume Bridget is female. Bridget’s design and the game dialogue encourages the viewer to find Bridget cute and attractive. When it is revealed that Bridget is male and identifies as a boy, the resulting impact is supposed to be one of embarrassment and disgust.
Note that whether the game includes a Samus or Bridget-style trope, both examples revolve around the Male Gaze and playing off the expectations of a male audience and heterosexual orientation. If the creators, the game, and the audience employed a Female Gaze, the impacts of these gender revelations would not be the same. But, more on that later.
These are all very visible examples, but they are not the only examples. The Male Gaze is something which subtly permeates nearly every game with a “general” audience. Put simply, most games feature male characters who you are supposed to identify with, and many such games involve female romantic interests who you, the player, are supposed to feel attraction to. When a game does involve a female protagonist, often the case is that you can look at her, watch her do things, and control her actions, but not BE her. It is telling that, among the few games with female-only protagonists, they rarely feature male love interests.
Before continuing, I’d like to remind you about the various factors in play here–it isn’t so much that 100% of the audience will conform to the Male Gaze, but many creators create a media culture which encourages and perpetuates the Male Gaze. You, as an individual, are perfectly welcome to identify with female characters or gaze at male characters, but it doesn’t change the fact that these games were probably not made for you.
CULTIVATION OF NON-MALE GAZE
Straight Female Gaze
Are there games which attempt a Straight Female Gaze? Such games do exist, but are rare. Among mainstream games, this sort of thing is especially rare. Here are some examples from Portal 2:
In the first Portal 2 dialogue, Wheatley tries to get Chell to jump into a deep pit. You only run into this dialogue if you bother to stick around long enough, which most players probably don’t given the urgency to escape. In this game, there isn’t much that Wheatley knows about Chell. After enticing you with character-specific things, he resorts to making assumptions and stereotypes about your femaleness. You could have a lovely handbag, a nice new tailored jumpsuit, hot boys who don’t care if you’re kind of frumpy, and a pony farm!
On the more extreme end of the spectrum are “otome games,” a very small but nevertheless existing genre of Japanese romance/sex games made by and for straight women. Otome games often take the form of visual novels and dating sims where you play as a woman who can romance one or more men. The available men often come in a range of personalities, body types, and ages to increase the probability that the player will be attracted to at least one of them.
Interestingly, a subset of otome games known as Boy’s Love games don’t feature female protagonists. Rather, you play as a young man who pursues or is pursued by other men. Similar to the case with Mass Effect, the use of gay male relationships is not meant for a homosexual male audience; it is explicitly meant for a heterosexual female audience.
In the first few minutes of this video from Togainu no Chi, we see the familiar “Bridget” style trope of an effeminate boy being mistaken for a girl:
As I wrote earlier, the use of this trope doesn’t work the same way with a Female Gaze. The revealing of Rin’s sex and gender and his androgynous appearance is meant to encourage the player’s interest in him, and Rin is in fact one of the game’s romance options. The narration reads, “Indeed, upon further scrutiny, his bony fingers and knees were indicative of a male physique. It was nevertheless hard not to mistake him for a girl – the smoothness of his skin all but invited one to unconsciously touch him.”
Likely there are gamers who wish to see a middle ground between these examples I’ve given. Otome games and other romance-based *~Games for Girls~* cater to an extremely specific subset of women who seek out such games. Unsurprisingly there is a demand among many women for games similar to typical mainstream games but which include relatable female characters and other aspects catered to their interests. In March 2013, game developer Mike Mika modified a copy of Donkey Kong for his daughter, so that she could play the game as Pauline and save Mario.
Later that month, Kenna W., who was inspired by this, did a similar modification of the Legend of Zelda, so that the player can play as Zelda and save Link.
Gender-Neutral Gaze & Multi-Gender Gaze
Probably more common than a compulsory Female Gaze are games which employ multiple or gender-neutral character identities. Many games now include the option of choosing one’s gender. Though as was described in the previous sections, such games may still be subject to the Male Gaze anyway. A common complaint is that playable female characters tend to have skimpier clothing and less practical armor than male characters, and are sometimes less customizable with regards to body type, thus implying that the audience is male and heterosexual even while playing as a woman. Still, many games avoid this, such as the Pokémon franchise, Left 4 Dead, The Elder Srolls V: Skyrim, and the Dragon Age series, all of which present relatively equal experiences for both male and female characters. Demon’s Souls/Dark Souls is also a notable example, which provides masculine/feminine sliders in addition to choosing sex. Though, there does remain the issue that often these games are written for a male character at first, with female options tacked on later as a sort of afterthought. Occasionally, these tendencies can result in script errors where NPC’s refer to female protagonists with male pronouns, and advertisements and promotional art will tend to feature men more than women.
A different approach to multi-gender character identities is to forcibly assign a random gender to the player, thus providing variability but without option. One might wonder why such a game would ever be desired, but is this not more true to our real life experience? In fact, the miniscule number of games that do this are actually related to simulating life from start to finish.
The game Real Lives by Educational Simulations is a game meant to do exactly what it sounds like. You are assigned a sex, ethnicity, location, and various socioeconomic factors based on statistical probability. The events which happen to you and your available resources are determined based on real sociological data.
In the game LIVE FOREVER by Hubol, you play as an abstract blob, and the purpose of the game is to avoid death for as long as possible. Upon birth, you are randomly assigned a gender and sexuality. Depending on your specific combination of gender and sexual orientation, you will react differently to the consumption of porn featuring men or women.
For those seeking a gender-neutral experience, the indie game scene is for you. Diverging from the mainstream formats for character-driven pieces, games with more abstract environments and characters allow for a more inclusive and unified experience.
In the game Journey, the player takes the form of a Robed Figure with no known gender, race, or species. All other bipedal NPC’s and in-game players are Robed Figures as well.
Lim by Meritt Kopas is a game meant to represent the exploration of transitionary and liminal states. You play as a color-changing block which must match the color of other blocks as you traverse the area. The longer you stay as one color, the more difficult it becomes to move. However, if you do not conform, you will be bullied and prevented from proceeding.
In 100th by Droqen, you must traverse the area with the help of a balloon. The player character and NPC’s are of ambiguous gender.
This game, Within a Deep Forest by Nifflas, is a 2D platformer where you play as various sentient, bouncing balls.
You may notice here that one of the limitations to facilitating a gender-neutral identity is that although the game is now equally relatable to all genders, there is a risk of diminishing player-character projection as the character design becomes more abstract. There are ways of counteracting this–for example, in the aforementioned game Lim, I explicitely mentioned the meaning of the game. The willingness of the audience to accept this meaning is what prevents it from being interpreted simply as a game about moving a block from point A to point B. Another solution is to create a first-person POV game where you are unable to see yourself. The game Digital: A Love Story by Christine Love is one in which you play as someone using a computer and having online interactions with fictional characters. The game avoids mentioning the player’s pronouns, thereby allowing for an experience that is both gender-neutral and intimately human.
Creating games with multiple gender options can also have its restrictions during development. The game must either be constructed so that there are little to no gender-based differences during gameplay, or an immense amount of work and resources must be used to create a separate and distinct experience. Often times the latter is not cost-effective, as is with the case with many open-world RPG’s like Skyrim and Dragon Age. This results in games with poor/shallow social interactions and minimal character development, which reduce emotional investment and, ironically, empathy for one’s character.
Sexual Orientation and Gaze
It is probably apparent to you that both Male and Female Gaze come with the assumption of heterosexuality. Generally, if a game features a compulsory relationship, that relationship is usually heterosexual and from the POV of a man, and thus unambiguously employs a Straight Male Gaze. Sometimes, even when there are homosexual relationships in a game, they are there as an addition tacked onto a game that is in other respects heteronormative, in the same way that female options are added into a game initially written for a male character. For example, Star Wars: The Old Republic added homosexual relationships as a DLC. In this case, we know that the game’s characters, designs, and interactions had all been made with a heterosexual audience in mind long before homosexual relationships were shoehorned in. Contrast this with a game like Fleshcult, which was written from the start as a literotica/RPG hybrid that lets the player choose their sexuality as they play either a succubus or incubus seducing various humans.
Consider also games with compulsory homosexual relationships built into the core of the game:
In the text-based Twine game Even Cowgirls Bleed by Christine Love, the player takes the role of a cowgirl flirting with another cowgirl.
The game Mighty Jill-Off is just one of many games by Anna Anthropy involving queer themes. Here you play as Jill, who must make it to the top of her beloved Queen’s tower.
In Kindness Coins, you play as a lesbian demon girl figuring out her sexuality as she is being pursued by the protagonist of a dating sim. The game purposefully turns the object of a dating sim into the subject, and seeks to criticize other dating sims for their often unrealistic portrayal of interaction with women.
Of course, the mere presence of a homosexual relationship, even one central to the game’s objective, doesn’t necessarily translate into a Queer Gaze. We saw earlier that games like Mass Effect and Togainu no Chi have homosexual relationships, but they serve the purpose of being watched by a heterosexual audience rather than facilitate player-character projection. Such fetishization of homoeroticism can be seen in other forms of media. In fact, I would argue that the dominance of the Male Gaze makes it difficult for lesbian artists to create a true Lesbian Gaze. Often times, a Lesbian Gaze must be constructed by explicitely stating the product’s intended audience so we get things like “ACTUAL lesbian porn,” The L Word, etc.
This brings me to my next subject: games which have no relationships, and little player-character projection, but which still objectify characters for the benefit of the audience. In such a case, is there a difference between the Straight Male Gaze and the Lesbian Gaze if one is simply viewing an objectified woman? Do such games automatically cater to a lesbian audience simply by virtue of lesbians being gynephilic? For example, are Scarlet Blade and Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball facilitating a Lesbian Gaze as much as a Straight Male Gaze?
I would argue that no, there is actually a difference. The distinction lies in the dynamics between the creator, the game, and the audience. The difference between “actual lesbian porn” and “lesbian porn for men” is primarily mediated by how the porn is being marketed. Similarly, there is a difference between “general” games that contain the objectification of women vs. games specifically intended for a queer audience. And, it isn’t just the identity of the creator, but how the creator presents the game and how it is received by the audience.
Take the game, Skullgirls, for example. In response to claims that the game is sexist for containing gratuitous fanservice, developer Peter Bartholow said that such claims were unwarranted because their lead animator is a woman. More specifically, she’s a queer woman who likes to draw sexy women of her own volition. Of course, it should be noted that she didn’t do the actual character designs–those are a product of Alex Ahad. But does the fact that a queer woman had a hand in this game mean the game now has a Lesbian Gaze? Not necessarily, because in the end she was still being hired by men to make a game that is marketed to a male audience. There were no attempts at portraying this as a Queer Game for Women, so naturally the audience assumes a male identity. To reiterate what I had said earlier in my Male Gaze primer, even if you try to create a Female Gaze, it doesn’t mean the audience won’t operate under a Male Gaze anyway. On the creator’s part, presentation is an important part of establishing how the audience receives a game.
With this all being said, I like to be optimistic about gamers. I think that developers don’t have much faith in men’s ability to fully relate and identify with female characters, and that this assumption perpetuates a toxic and sexist attitude about men and their ability to empathize. An increase in the acceptance and encouragement of male-on-female, female-on-female, and other variations of character projection could potentially dismantle the Male Gaze as a default form of projection, reduce the need to establish a game as being “for [non-men],” and allow a greater variety of products. More importantly, I would vouch for gaming as a great platform to encourage empathy with others via experimentation with identities different from one’s own.