Last summer, right before E3 2014, a lot of rumors started circulating on the internet that the new Legend of Zelda game for the Wii U was going to introduce a huge change that would shake up the entire series. If the comments online were anything to go by, I was not the only person whose immediate reaction to this news was to scream at the top of my lungs: “FEMALE PROTAGONIST!” We were all wrong, of course. When the game’s promo trailer was released at E3, the “big change” turned out to be that the new Zelda game would be open-world as opposed to the more linear, controlled design used almost exclusively in the rest of the series. However, Link’s new, somewhat androgynous design emboldened many of the vocal “FemLink” fans to press the question: Why couldn’t we have a Legend of Zelda game where Link was female, or where Zelda was the main playable character?
Of course, that’s such a crazy idea it couldn’t possibly work, and those who dared to voice it online were quickly shouted down by those who disagreed. “You can’t change a character that already exists!” was a frequent complaint—this, despite the fact that Link and Zelda have gone through no fewer than six major character redesigns apiece, and the series has a timeline so convoluted it’s now a multi-branched tree with three different parallel universes. The retort that really bothered me, though, was the stock response: “What would be the point of making Link female?” What would be the point? We have talked over and over again about the point of gender representation in popular media. Right now I want to ask a slightly different question: What was the point in making the hero of The Legend of Zelda male in the first place? Why are we treating “male” as the default?
Male-as-default is not a phenomena restricted to games with a recognizable male hero as the face of the franchise, or to games released as part of a mainstream series. It’s widespread even in games with a selection of male and female characters, in games with one single protagonist whose gender is selected by the player, and in games where the player’s gender is not immediately specified and is largely unimportant.
In many games, the player’s gender simply isn’t relevant to the gameplay, so there’s really no need for the game to force us to select one. Some games, like the Myst series, handle this flawlessly, carefully structuring player-game interactions so that the player can seamlessly fit themselves into the game world without having an identity or gender forced upon them. Yet in order to join the Ghostbusters, I apparently have to be a nondescript young white man.
I recently had a blast playing the zany spy parody game Jazzpunk, which functions mostly as a first-person exploration game with a cartoony art style. Because of the perspective and style, I didn’t bother to think about the gender of my character until midway through the second level when I was exploring the bathrooms in a restaurant. Out of sheer habit, I walked into the ladies’ room—whereupon I was met with scandalized screams from the woman standing at the sink just inside.
“Oh,” I thought, taken aback. “So I guess I’m a man. And I present as male, too, which is pretty impressive, considering everyone in this game is the same stock human-shaped cutout with a piece of clothing or two tacked on.” Why was it necessary for this character to have a specific gender when apart from a few gags, it is never relevant to the game? Later, the player character has to disguise himself as a beautiful woman in order to complete a mission. This involves putting on a wig and makeup and wandering around a hotel bar getting hit on by various men. Jazzpunk, I love you, but there’s a lot more to being a woman than getting wolf-whistled at simply for walking around in heels.
It’s a commonly quoted statistic that women only make up 17% of any crowd shown in a movie. As an audience, we’ve become so subconsciously used to this that when the percentage is any higher, it seems to us that there’s a strangely large number of women present—even when they don’t make up a quarter of the group. In many mainstream video games that provide a selection of characters to choose from, the numbers are not much better.
Mario Kart 64 had eight playable characters; only one of them, the inimitable Princess Peach, is female. Mario Kart Wii managed to up this to 7 female characters in a cast of 24; Mario Kart 8 manages only 8 out of 29. Street Fighter IV has 11 female characters in a cast of 44. LEGO Marvel Super Heroes features 32 out of 180—which is, how interesting, exactly 17%. Team Fortress 2 has nine playable characters, each with their own distinct personality and hilarious introductory video … and the only one not made explicitly male is the masked and mumbling Pyro (whose gender has never canonically been confirmed). Not one of these games comes even close to a 50:50 gender ratio, even when gender-nonspecific characters such as robots, animals, and Pokémon have been discounted.
The Mass Effect series offers an interesting twist to customizing the player-character by featuring only one playable character: Commander Shepard, whose gender (male or female) and appearance is chosen by the player at the beginning of the game. The female incarnation of Shepard, affectionately dubbed “FemShep” by fans, is one of the most beloved and iconic female video game protagonists ever written, with voice acting that is frequently praised as being far superior to her male counterpart’s.
So why is it necessary for both fans and developers to specify her as FemShep, while MaleShep can be referred to simply as Shepard? Despite her popularity, it wasn’t until the third installment in the series that FemShep even appeared in an official trailer for the game. Mass Effect 3 was also the first game to feature FemShep on the game box’s cover—at least, she was on the cover if the game’s owner felt like fishing out the sleeve and reversing it to reveal the alternate version. The message was clear: MaleShep was default, FemShep was merely a secondary version.
Adding more options to a character creator, such as races and classes, does not necessarily fix this problem at all. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim offers not just a gender toggle, but a choice of ten whole races to choose from. So why is the “default” starter character always a male Nord? And why does every single piece of official Skyrim promo art feature the same hulky, bearded man in a horned helmet? I’m not saying Bethesda needs to make a Khajiit or Argonian the face of their franchise (although representing a fantasy game with a fantasy race actually makes a lot of sense), but why are they only willing to represent the game’s hero as a buff white man? Why not some promo materials that show off the capabilities of the character creator and the expansive and (potentially) diverse fantasy world that is Tamriel? Why can’t we have a female Redguard or an androgynous Wood Elf on the cover for a change? I’ve played as both of these Dragonborn, and they had no problem taking down Alduin with an epic shout or two.
Dragon Age: Inquisition, on the other hand, seems to have neatly avoided having a gender default in their character creator. While I still haven’t played Inquisition, I vividly recall a conversation I overheard a day or two after it was first released. Two of my co-workers—one male, one female—were geeking out about their respective first few hours of gameplay. When discussing the Inquisitors they’d created, my male co-worker complained that he’d had to restart his game because he hadn’t noticed until too late that the character creator had given him a female character. He didn’t explain why this was a problem; he simply wanted to play as a male character, and shouldn’t be expected to play as anything else. I eagerly butted in on the conversation to say, “You mean it randomly selects the gender of the default character the creator starts with?” Apparently this was the case—my female co-worker said that her character’s gender was set to male when she first started the creator.
I think this is a wonderful and fascinating decision on Bioware’s part. By adding a game mechanic as simple as a coin toss, Inquisition forces players to pause, if only for a millisecond, to reconsider their interpretations of “default.” If gamers, male or otherwise, are never forced to confront their own assumptions of what is normal, how can they ever be expected to change?
I watch a lot of Let’s Plays by this one particular group that is almost exclusively made up of men. I get a kick out of most of their videos; they’re inventive, funny, and enjoyable enough that I can usually manage to grit my teeth and ignore the sexist and homophobic jokes that seem to inevitably get tossed around. Recently, I was watching a video from their channel in which two of the LPers had been goofing around in the Saints Row IV character creator, trying to get a laugh out of the audience and each other by creating the most absurd-looking player character they could imagine. One LPer had created a heavyset man with luscious curly hair that fell past his shoulders; the other had created a blue-skinned alien with heavy eye shadow and an enormous red afro so tall it kept disappearing off the top of the screen.
This was not the first time I’d seen this particular LP group go crazy with character creators, and normally I was one of the people laughing at the results. But this time, I actually stopped the video and didn’t finish. Because both of the characters they had created were male. Because one of them was a blue-skinned alien. Because these two men obviously found it more conceivable to play as an exaggerated, inhuman creature than to play as a character with a gender other than their own. It was a brand of internalized sexism that they were completely oblivious to, but it was right there on the screen—plain for me and everyone to see.
Yes, I identify as female, and yes, I pick a character with a gender that matches mine every time a game gives me the opportunity to. But in a majority of the games out there, I’m forced to play as male. For male gamers, it’s much, much easier to avoid ever playing as female. On Forbes’s list of top ten best-selling games for 2014, only three games offer the option to play as a female character, and a fourth offered the option only by downloading alternative skins. IGN’s list of nominees for Game of the Year 2014 presents a somewhat more level field; the winner for Game of the Year is the aforementioned Dragon Age: Inquisition, and of the remaining ten nominees, only two limit the player to being a male character—a number matched by two games that offer only female playable characters: Transistor and Bayonetta 2 (though Bayonetta’s character design obviously comes with its own set of problems).
But it’s still far from equal. While female gamers have had to put up with playing as male characters for years, many male gamers still find it inconceivable that they’d have to play as a character who isn’t explicitly male. And many of the female characters that female gamers can play as are stuck with skimpy outfits and boob-plate armor while their male counterparts get to cover themselves from head to toe in rugged, non-sexualized attire. These types of female characters are not created to let female gamers feel empowered; they’re there for the pleasure of male gamers and their straight male gaze. And what about games starring transgender or genderqueer characters? I was stunned when I launched Saints Row 2 for the first time and found that in their character creator, gender was selected with a slider, not a toggle. I don’t think I’ve seen gender presented as a spectrum in any other video game, before or since.
Games are only as good as the defaults they set—not every gamer has the time, knowledge, or inclination to hunt for second options, be it in the design of the protagonist or the difficulty of the gameplay. When games offer playable characters of more than just one gender, that’s progress. But if the game offers an overwhelming selection of male characters compared to a tiny number of female characters, or presents male as the default with female as a secondary option, it’s not progress by much. Just once I’d like the legend to actually be about Zelda. It shouldn’t be that much to ask.