Gender Play, Gender Power 4

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.


Matthew Schanuel

About Matthew Schanuel

Matthew Schanuel lives in Boston, Mass. He's a beer aficionado, a game player (and designer!), an academic-in-exile, a DM, and, most recently, an employee of a financial non-profit. He draws the comic Embers at night over at

4 thoughts on “Gender Play, Gender Power

  • Evan Johnson

    I think you’re not giv­ing the cat­e­go­ry of “games” the cred­it they’re due.

    The gen­er­al con­cept of a game as we know it today involves peo­ple using some man­ner of input sys­tem, be it key­board, mouse, or con­troller to send a com­mand to a char­ac­ter to (verb). That’s the only way that games, as we have them today, can prop­er­ly work. Sure, the verb may be “talk” which changes the sit­u­a­tion to choos­ing between options in con­ver­sa­tion, but the core mechan­ic is still verbs. And verbs, when you’re deal­ing with some­one that does not have human style intel­li­gence, almost by def­i­n­i­tion have to fol­low the hard power ideas.

    The obvi­ous excep­tion, of course, is the Sims. In the entire series, your char­ac­ter can’t real­ly FORCE the NPCs to do any­thing. It can make things strong­ly sug­gest­ed via con­ve­nience, but nonethe­less, all your Sim can do is pro­vide options and some­times ask the other Sims to do things. The other Sims might not nec­es­sar­i­ly do them, though it is fair­ly like­ly once you’re com­fort­able with ask­ing them in the right way.

    The other excep­tion is one that I hes­i­tate to call games, as do many peo­ple who make and play them. Visual novel style games, such as Katawa Shoujo, do not exact­ly give you con­trol of your char­ac­ter. Your char­ac­ter will do things on his own until he comes to an impor­tant deci­sion, at which point it is up to you what he’s going to do. In doing so, you choose how he lives his life and who he befriends. In the case of Katawa Shoujo, you end up with a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent Hisao (the main char­ac­ter) based on who decide to befriend because his life is at a point where every­thing has changed around him. He does­n’t get in fights, he does­n’t threat­en peo­ple (often) and in gen­er­al, he uses only soft power. Even doing that, he can bare­ly get his friends (or even him­self) to do what he wants some­times, but it still affects the world around him with­out direct­ly forc­ing any­thing on any­one.

    Unfortunately, the tar­get mar­ket for the visu­al novel style game tends to be angst filled teenage boys right now, as you can tell from the vast major­i­ty of sto­ries they all involve. Katawa Shoujo is no excep­tion — there are vivid­ly described sex scenes with art depict­ing them of the teenage char­ac­ters, and almost every sin­gle per­son you can befriend is a girl. Those scenes can be turned off in the options, and if you do so, I think this might be the kind of thing you’re look­ing for.

    • Matthew Schanuel

      I think you might have missed my thrust. While the play­er’s rela­tion­ship with the avatar/subject is an inter­est­ing lens to me, it’s not what I’m talk­ing about here. My default assump­tion (and, indeed, the way I approach my games) involves a strong iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the avatar, an expan­sion of the self to include that which the play­er has con­trol of. In this way, an avatar’s expe­ri­ence in the world is the play­er’s; their suc­cess­es and fail­ures are shared, their emo­tion­al beats some­what unit­ed. When I’m play­ing the Walking Dead, I find it dif­fi­cult to lie, as Lee, to Clementine because Lee is me. I can’t lie to her; that’s not going to help her, and I want her to sur­vive. *I* want that.

      So even though, yes, I am exert­ing con­trol over Lee’s body, it’s as an exten­sion of me. You may as well say that I exert coer­cive action over the cells of my hand. Hard and soft power only exist between actu­al beings, and when we play many things, we are given illu­sions, which is not to say that they’re any less *real* to us. The rela­tion­ship between my rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al self and the rest of the game uni­verse is what I’m look­ing at here.

      • Jesse Miksic (@miksimum)

        I think Evan under­stood your post well enough, unless I’m com­plete­ly mis­un­der­stand­ing it, as well. However, I agree that he con­flat­ed two con­cepts: first, how rigid­ly the play­er’s con­trol is over their avatar; sec­ond, how coer­cive that player/avatar behaves in the game world. As I under­stand it, you’re only talk­ing about the lat­ter point, not the for­mer.

        Evan’s exam­ple of The Sims is an excel­lent one; in fact, pret­ty much all the “Sim” games are con­cerned, to some degree, with soft power. Yes, it’s an exer­tion of hard power to cre­ate a build­ing in a cer­tain place in SimCity… but the con­se­quences and reward con­di­tions are all based on soft power, like, how does this fit in the gen­er­al social and eco­nom­ic ecosys­tem of this city? Is it some­thing peo­ple need? The genius of Sims is that this kind of soft-power ecosys­tem is unit­ed with an actu­al embod­ied avatar expe­ri­ence, which isn’t true of the other Sim games.

        I’ve been think­ing late­ly about how to cre­ate a game with lit­tle or no com­bat, and your thoughts here are an inter­est­ing angle on that topic. Soft power is a com­plex and sub­tle thing to try to sim­u­late, espe­cial­ly as a mechan­ic that could be used repeat­ed­ly in pur­suit of some sort of nar­ra­tive res­o­lu­tion.

        You could also do it by work­ing from a clas­sic adven­ture game tem­plate… those old King’s Quest games had very lit­tle com­bat or coer­cion. The basic mechan­ic was find­ing the right object or talk­ing to the right per­son, advanc­ing small inter­per­son­al goals and rela­tion­ships with­in the game world, and see­ing the con­se­quences play out in the game’s plot. If you start­ed with that, you might be able to build a more open-ended sys­tem of con­se­quences and land­marks and rela­tion­ships and path­ways to var­i­ous out­comes.

        You know what would be awe­some? The goal-oriented nar­ra­tive approach of an adven­ture game like the King’s Quests, built on a social set­ting (NPC’s, towns, avatars) inspired by the inter­per­son­al sim­u­la­tion of The Sims. I’d love to see some­thing like that come to fruition.

  • Reese Millican

    I real­ly empathize with your potryal of iden­ti­fy­ing as a man but not what is tra­di­tion­al­ly “mas­cu­line.” I think many self-identified male geeks do.

    I am curi­ous: what are some exam­ples of “soft power” game mechan­ics in Civilization? Cultural vic­to­ry? The spread of reli­gion? Building an army but keep­ing it with­in your board­ers?

    Can you think of other game mechan­ics that would be exam­ples of “soft power? ”

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