Hi there. I’m a cisgender straight male. I have no gender dysphoria; I identify as male. It’s the role I was given from birth, and I don’t feel strongly enough to change anyone’s minds, though I feel like the gender binary mostly doesn’t suit my needs. I derive very little conscious identity from my maleness, though unconsciously it does influence who I am and I have no doubt benefited from being male in hundreds of small ways. I do think that the way society treats me because I am a man is pretty silly, and, most of the time, when I have a chance to choose my gender in a video game I play a female.
Cross-gender identification, through media, has been a trend for me for awhile, before video games that offered a choice. I’d often identify more with female characters in television shows than their male counterparts, partially because of how they were written. They tended to be more interested in the people around them, and weren’t afraid to show and reciprocate emotion – and I was, and am, a person that feels strongly. In games of pretend with my brother, I’d always gravitate toward being the women in whatever scene I was re-imagining, and often, oddly, to roles of sacrifice. On Thanksgiving, the rest of the men in my family would watch football. I’d talk to my aunts and cousins about stories and art. While my father and brother hunted on Black Friday, as they always did, I’d trudge with my mother and aunts to the store. Not my favorite way to spend the day, but I preferred it to stalking about the woods. I have no desire to shoot any living thing outside of video games.
The things that were defined as “male” to me (hunting, fishing, sports, working on the car, being the tough and hard one) were actually distasteful. I’d occasionally try to watch sports with my family, but I more acutely remember waiting impatiently for the football game to be over so I could get back to the MechWarrior game I had rented. I found very little in the typical men’s world to interest me. There is a common split in the RomCom contrasting the men’s world with his friends (sports!) alongside the women’s world with her friends (manicures!). I have always felt alienated by… both worlds, actually, but especially the men’s world, because that’s the one to which I was supposed to belong.
My desire to play as a woman might have something to do with this: when there were oppressors in my life, they were inevitably male. When I received the nickname “Piggy,” it was coming from the mouth of a man. When my things were stolen, they were men’s hands that took. When I was threatened with violence, pushed around, had a knife pressed to my throat… it was all men. I wanted very badly to be something other than the maleness that they regularly enacted in my young life.
The desire for novelty also plays a role. I spend all my waking hours being male, being judged by male criteria and encountering odd assumptions about my maleness. When I play, I seek the new over the familiar. That’s why I play games – to have experiences that range so much further than my own. I play to feel strong and weak, respected and hated and overwhelmed. Often, I play to be a woman.
This is something more than just tourism in female aspect. The tourist sees, but does not understand. The tourist is not the seeker. My actions spring from a desire to understand the experiences of other people in a deep way, to broaden my self-perspective, and because I still find society’s feminine side so much less offensive than its masculine.
It’s odd, though, that when playing women, I don’t have a substantially different experience than when I play a man. Part of it is in how I’m treated in the game. Moving the “gender” slider and the “nose width” slider usually has about the same effect on a game’s experience – it changes how I think of my character. Perhaps it opens and closes a few romance options. But it doesn’t dig deep into what identifying as one gender or the other means for how the world will react to an individual.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; art shouldn’t just spit out realism, that’s not what it’s about. Art can be about casting a vision. Star Trek serves a similar purpose, especially with humanity’s relationship with violence and class struggle. Star Trek shows us a world delightfully liberated of many of our social ills, and that vision is powerful and enticing. But while that’s a fantastic lure, it doesn’t reveal the problem to people who assume, perhaps even because of visionary art, that the problem is insignificant or already solved, and for those of us who are already aware of the insidious problems of discrimination, it doesn’t deepen our understanding. Discrimination is still a huge part of human life and it should be a part of our stories and our conversations. I believe that games can have something unique to say in that conversation.
But there’s another side, as well, and what a complicated side it is. The heart of this issue for me is not the digital world’s treatment of my avatar, but the sort of actions that I send out into the digital worlds I inhabit. The modern roles of the masculine and the feminine are predominantly matters of appearance and behavior. These roles assign traits to men and to women – boys will be boys. Based on the traditional American divide between genders, men tend to exercise “hard power” while women exercise “soft power.” I’m co-opting the political science terminology of Joseph Nye here, and though these terms are meant to be applied to nations rather than individuals, I think they’re useful enough categories to be beneficial to the conversation.
Hard power is, in the words of Ernest J. Wilson III, coercion of “another to act in ways in which that entity would not have acted otherwise.” This implies action taken to directly affect another person’s condition. As applied here, hard power might refer to threatening, commanding through fear or the capacity to harm, or simply eliminating one’s opposition. Games often justify the exertion of hard power by placing the player in a weaker state, and phrases the actions of the games as preventing or ending oppressive instances of hard power. When the moral values of the protagonist and the antagonist are discrete and clear, then hard power barely needs to be questioned; when the antagonist assaults us with hard power (as nearly all game antagonists do), then a response of hard power feels natural. Hard power is, in my experience, strongly associated to masculinity. It is inherently competitive, very self-regarding, and tends toward an us/them vision of the world. It encapsulates a lot of what I find disgusting in traditional masculinity.
Soft power, on the other hand, focuses on means of co-operation for success rather than competition. Instead of coercion or payment, one reaches one’s desired end by simultaneous activity. I think its links to traditional femininity are especially evident in this statement from Nye: “Seduction is always more effective than coercion, and many values like democracy, human rights, and individual opportunities are deeply seductive.” Soft power is power exercised via attraction and cooperation. When the merits of my way of life are passive yet evident and somebody else grows curious and enters into agreement/partnership with me, that’s soft power at work. Most negotiation, if it lacks an undercurrent of threat, is soft power.
How often do we have the opportunity to exercise soft power in video games? The verbs that are most commonly available to us belong to hard power. In attempting to conjure up titles that allow for experiences of soft power, I hit upon Civilization titles, and, to a much lesser extent, BioWare games in which we can use conversation instead of violence (but even then, threats of violence and other modes of coercion frequently take center stage in such negotiations). More to the point, the mechanics of soft power outside of Civilization or other similarly-wide 4X titles simply aren’t nearly as extensive or engaging as the systems that support hard power. Look at Dragon Age; convincing Zevran to join the party requires two steps – first, that we defeat him and his band of assassins in an extensive and taxing battle sequence in which we utilize myriad interlocking skills developed over hours of play, reacting to an evolving state of battle as a dozen enemies assault the player’s heroes in different ways. This is the hard power portion. Second, we listen to the characters talk, and pick the option that clearly invites the assassin to join up. That’s the soft power portion… sort of. We do threaten to kill Zevran, but that doesn’t seem to be an effective tactic. The weight of mechanics clearly falls on one side of that encounter.
There are a couple of likely reasons for this, but the biggest is that our games have a long history of being hard power simulations. This is a cultural reality rather than a game-making reality; it’s not that games are naturally better at exploring hard power, it’s just that we’ve seen so many compelling implementations of hard power and comparatively few examples of soft power. We have such robust rules for combat and coercion because that’s what games have spent the most time mulling over. Even in experiences where soft power would make much more sense for the themes, we find ourselves bashing men’s heads into walls or slitting their throats. Take Assassin’s Creed III. The player is told to identify with the Assassins and their ideology of freedom, but during the intro we play as a Templar, and the activities engaged in while enacting the Templar and the Assassin are indistinguishable. Despite the lofty ideals and frequent righteous speech-making of my Assassin characters, I am still murdering people because of their national and military affiliation; the only tool for increasing my influence and realizing a better world is still hard power. I can no longer play the series because of my unease with that cognitive dissonance.
Exploring soft power with games demands extreme levels of creativity. Game makers have spent a long time generating compelling physical worlds to inhabit and fight through, and soft power requires more than just physical space to swing a sword through; it engages with ideas and people’s lives in ways that games don’t often address. Soft power requires compelling mechanics and implementation for it to be successful, and that means developing new styles of games. I mean, we have the “first-person shooter” category of game that is built around a very specific implementation of hard power, and look how many games have flourished from that basic tool-set. Soft power offers a wide frontier, and there’s no good reason why it can’t be as satisfying or valid (if not more so) as games in which we glorify the spectacle of hard power.
No matter who I play in a game, my protagonist uses the same techniques as all the men whose legacies I am so keen to avoid. And you know what? I’m bored. I want a game that lets me change the world, or even just the mind of one person, without having to bend it to my will.