BackgroundA couple of years ago, a buddy of mine delivered a paper for Lewis & Clark College’s annual Gender Studies Symposium on the topic of gender identity and MMO RPG’s. My main take-away was that the online format allows for an exploration of gender roles and identity that real life doesn’t, and the occasional break-down in rigid normative structures. Put another way, players can build characters of whichever gender they like, regardless of the sex organs of their own bodies. For cisgendered players, this lets them either default to their own gender or try on the other one to see what the experience is like (or, let’s face it, so the backside of the avatar you’re going to be watching for a lot of the game will be that of a member of the opposite sex).
For transgendered and/or transsexual players, it’s a whole other game. Living out your life with a body that fundamentally doesn’t match up with the identity you have of yourself can be a frustrating, terrifying, alienating experience, made all the more awful by a society that is only now beginning to have any understanding of your situation, let alone acceptance. Being able to create an electronic persona that looks and moves like the gender your brain is telling you that you are can be a profoundly freeing experience. Further, as players tend to treat other players with the gender roles ascribed to their avatars, trans- players have an environment where they can be accepted as their true gender with vastly less effort than they’re forced to invest any day they leave the house.
Jennell’s Three Sliding Gender-bars
In Harlequin’s interview with Jennell Jaquay, she described three gender-related character traits players will be able to adjust when making characters: gender, physical sex (presumably body movement and/or predominance of secondary sex traits) and (I believe) sexual orientation. To be honest, based on the much-loved-and-hated floor show at GM2011, I’d assumed there’d be a sliding scale for gender, rather than the female/male selection with other games. I was rather surprised to hear of those three, as two of them (gender and orientation) would most likely be handled by roleplaying. Still, that CCP is talking about including this element of identity into a Triple-A game title is an unmistakable sign of the IP’s continued support for the Queer Community.
For that, I can only offer my sincerest regards. Bravo, team.
All well and good, Crowl, but we’re you going to write something about Game Theory and stuff?
Yes, and... Choice is a fundamental element of games. When we talk about player behavior in a game or a game-like situation, we often jump to thoughts about strategy, character development, moral choice, and so forth. Another important question is, when faced with a choice, what kind of character will players build? If appearance has no bearing on mechanical performance, would players given the choice opt for their characters to be fat, slim or muscular? If it does provide some benefit or hindrance, how much impact would it need to have to start influencing player choices? In Bloodlines, for instance, the gender you chose for your character greatly influenced your experience of the game. Several other characters interacted with you differently, giving you an inherent reason to try playing the game a second time, just to see how the other half lives (errr, dies... errr, unlives... gets by). Another example comes from rumors around World of Warcraft. A story I’d heard (pure conjecture) is that the Blood Elves were a nod to players who wanted to play on the Horde side, but still wanted a character who was “pretty.” Rumor was that Blizzard found more players playing Alliance, supposedly because they wanted to play human or almost-human characters, whereas the races making up the Horde were all variously-monstrous. (Again, just a story I heard. No citations. Moving on).
In a game in which players can design characters with traits they themselves can’t choose for themselves, the patterns of behavior around those choices becomes an interesting point of discussion, itself.
Character-building choices, and gender-bending vampires
If you’re at all in touch with modern vampire media, and have an internet connection (two things you’ve pretty much got to have to be looking at this page), you’re aware of the conversations around gender and vampirism. Vampires in modern literature tend to walk lines between a lot of things, gender being one of them. Sure, Ms. Rice gets credit for a lot of it, but there were a couple of scenes in the original Dracula
that the astute observer will note as sexually-ambiguous, to say the least. (Really clear example: Dracula holding Mina to his breast, in a clear act of nursing). In short, boy-vampires are often beautiful and emotional, while girl-vampires are often physically strong and sexually-aggressive. Nothing new here.
That said, given that players are going to have a lot of flexibility in defining their character’s sexuality, from a game-theory standpoint, I’m really interested in how the actual breakdown of how many players use it. Off-the-hip, I’d imagine most players building cisgendered characters would likely have the choice of just how extreme those characters will embody male or female body-types (ie, rippling muscles for the men and buxom curves for women) versus more modest body-types that might even trend in an androgynous direction. Of course, players like to experiment, and I’ll bet we’ll end up with a pretty wide array of variation, as characters who were originally an experiment in variability grow on a player, potentially even rise to prominence and power. It won’t be long after the game is introduced, for instance, before the first clearly M2F or F2M Prince declares Praxis over a city. I think there might possibly be a trend of seeing more trans-folk represented in the game for this reason than existing the the real world's general population. That wouldn’t be a bad thing, but might need some explaining to new players taking their first look. On the other hand, given the demographic that plays video games (and MMO’s, to boot), we could just as easily end up with cities of muscle-bound Toreador with buzz-cuts and Nosferatu sporting colossal mammaries. Ah, the terrible burden of freedom.
Exploring someone else’s world-view, or just playing up a stereotype?
If gender and sex are going to be player-set variables in the game, we have to assume race is going to be as well. Bringing gender and sexuality into a game can be dangerous, but racism, overt or otherwise, and be equally-so. The video series Extra Credits has a great episode on race in games.I’m not going to repeat all of their arguments here, but I will recommend taking a look. What I’ll say here is that allowing players to determine their characters’ ethnicity can open some really dangerous doors, and introduce some slippery slopes. The first time a player with poor typing skills makes a non-white character, and, as a result, gets labeled for it, it’s going to get ugly, really fast. That’s not even getting into the struggles ESL players have had to face, particularly if their country of origin happens to have farming issues. (Same story when a gay or gender-queer vampire does something seriously terrible, especially if it's a crime with any kind of sexual element. There'll be the players who'll make the "all of you people ___" comments on one side, and the ones who make the "you're indulging in an ugly stereotype" replies on the other, and no one really wins...) I’m very curious about how the culture of race will emerge within the game. Will players truly be color-blind? Will pockets of racially-selected social interaction emerge? Will everyone just choose a default brownish color, and hope it doesn’t offend anyone? I’m anxious to find out.
Bigotry, and why you need to have it in an adult game about the modern world
Okay, Here’s me going out on scary limb here, but please hear me out. There was an sidebar in a Black Dog book years back talking about the importance of including visceral horror in Vampire games. The real world is, at times, quite awful, and the World of Darkness, often more awful, still. The shadows are darker, the streets more crowded, the people more desperate, and hope more fleeting. Sometimes, you kind of have to make awful things happen in a game, to convey the scope of the WoD’s trend toward depravity. Poverty, class struggles, domestic violence, drug abuse, insanity; these are all real-life tragedies that find their way into the world we’re talking about in our games..
Bigotry is a very real part of our world. In the World of Darkness, it’s no better.
We know for a fact that players will need to be Embraced by other players to become vampires, which on the plus-side will hopefully deter the worst stereotypes of adolescent behavior, G-d willing. Without convincing someone who’s already On The List to let you in, you’ll be standing out in the cold, possibly trying not to get eaten. On the other hand, it could also lead to some icky trends in behavior around players discriminating against minority characters when making a decision on whom to Sire. If, for instance, your progeny’s actions somehow reflect on you (mechanically, or otherwise), you’ve got some serious motivation to be selective of Childer. That becomes a problem, though, when heuristics start creeping in, coloring your choices in ways you might not even see. To be honest, it could even force some players to act out “passing as straight/white/cisgender” to temporarily earn a potential Sire’s approval, at least long enough to get fangs. Forcing a gay or transgendered player to relive The Closet, or a player of a racial minority to experience a fresh wave of Jim Crow discrimination (or, worse, overhear white characters complaining about “reverse discrimination,” and just how hard they had to work to get blah blah blah) leads us into some very dark territory, indeed.
...And in a sense, there’s some silver lining to that.
(Ho-boy. Here’s where it gets really scary. Please keep reading).
When was the last time you really felt moved when you accomplished something in a game, outside of the simple pride of having won? I’m willing to bet that somewhere, there was a backdrop of horror. It was at saving someone from a clear and immediately-wretched fate, or saving yourself from something similar. Finding the loot, and saving the pixilated princess stand-in gets old when losing seems less awful. Sometimes the most satisfying thing you can do in a game is make the game-world, at least for a little while, a less awful place to be. The best Horror is personal, and the greatest triumph comes when you overcame something that you felt in your bones was wrong.
It all comes back to freedom
The one thing they’ve been clear about in the all the press releases, interviews and hints is that this is going to be our game, for better or worse. They’re giving us tremendous freedom to define our characters, build alliances, and make others’ unlives a living hell. Stories require a degree of conflict, and almost always start off with a terrible idea. In a player-driven game, players are going to have to be both the ones fixing things, as well as the ones breaking them. We can’t all be the “good guys” here, and in fact, if the black-hats don’t at least outnumber the white-hats by a little bit (forgive the horrid simplification), Team Protagonist is going to leave things pretty dull, pretty fast.
So, the other players are being awful. The Ventrue Clan of your city is real old boy’s club that only women who “know their place” (read: are sufficiently shapely and dress like strippers)? The Brujah won’t Embrace you because they think trans-chicks aren’t going to hold their own in a scuffle? There’s a Nosferatu in town who only feeds from children (if they include NPC kids in the game)? The Prince of Dallas Blood-hunts all Latino Kindred found in his city? Well, that sucks. Whether it’s an in-character persona, or real-life douchebaggery brought into the game, imagine your sense of satisfaction when you and the players you get to side with you manage to bring them all crashing down. (Look me up on the inside. I’ll totally be on your side for that). And if you fail, and the bad guys win, at least you’ll have tried, and that is, perhaps, the most important choice of all.
345 days ago
I agree with Rick Gentle. Also, will there be, "kiss" and, "hand-in-hand" animations to macro from a list? These two animations would themselves solve the problem of visual gender bias when combined with roleplaying which is conducive to homosexual desires. "Ahhhh, so you're gay, huh? Heh-heh-heh how 'bout that. You can still bleed like the rest of us. You got my back? Good. Now get your claws out Nancy, it's time to make war."
1 years 55 days ago
Yes im loving what im hearing being able to roleplay who you want is going to be great. as for what Morpheus said as long as it is easy for other players to report such actions such as sexism/homophobia/ racism then won't be a problem. also a bann on such groups i would also suggest to the team to loom a Bioware Social Network for ways and ideas on this as well
1 years 57 days ago
Excellent blog, JL! It reminded me of one of my all-time favourite movie scenes. From the Costner Robin Hood movie - a little girl walks up to Morgan Freeman and asks him "Did God paint you?" Morgan Freeman laughs in amusement and says "For certain." The little girl says "Why?" and Morgan Freeman replies "Because Allah loves wonderous variety." It was a beautiful movie moment that carried a ton of meaning. God and Allah are used interchangeably, and the differences in race and creed were shown as things that should be celebratred, not feared or reviled. This is why I've always hated the term "colour-blind" in regards to racial relations. Of course I see colour when I look at other peoples. I love that there are so many differences. Our differences make the world interesting, and should be celebrated more
1 years 56 days ago
Explain that to the Spanish Lasombra who lived through Moorish occupation. (And then go tell it to the Moorish Brujah and Assamites who lived through the Reconquista.) Racism and all the other -isms are horrible things to deal with no matter who it's being foisted off on. It's one thing for a character to have a history of an -ism, but it's another thing entirely for a player to use their character as an expression of their personal views. How you can control that, I have no idea, as somebody can just say they're being "in-character". I say if they're leaving everything else up to the players, then it should be up to the players to police that themselves. If someone's character is being an -ist towards your character, then your character has the right to... express their displeasure.
1 years 57 days ago
Have I gamed with you on another MMO before. That is always my disclaimer: "Yes this character is female. No, I am not If you have to look at the backside of someone for the endless hours of playing this game, what would you want to look at?" And as for me, I always go the other direction. If I'm building a tank/dps I go with waifs and if I'm building healer/cc characters I go with brutes. It's funny to me to see someones assumption of my abilities due to my appearance. And you are absolutly correct. There can be no light without darkness, no good without evil. I say let people live out their base sides, they may learn something from their experience in the game. Wouldn't that be wonderful.
1 years 57 days ago
Well as you pointed out, segregation is going to be inevitable. There will be cliches and groups based around prejudice towards a specific group. I believe its primarily going to be a Clan/Sect/IG Gang Prejudice towards certain groups but sexism/homophobia/ racism might also crawl into the game. But I doubt that CCP itself will support something as severe as that breed into the game. Though they cannot control anything like a certain Kindred not embracing a particular race of kine, I think open agendas will be strongly discouraged. Though I can see many of what you point out coming to life inside the game (like Brujah not embracing women, Prince of Dallas calling blood hunts on Latinos who speak Spanish in the open simply because of paranoid fear of being schemed against, Ventrue elitist cliche and Nosferatu pedophile), I think open discriminatory antagonism is simply impossible. Well unless an entire city is controlled by Skinheads.
1 years 57 days ago
The sneaky thing about racism since the 1970's: it's a much more subtle beast, or at least it can be. Fewer and fewer people want to self-identify as "racist," but the trends still stick out like a sore thumb to any statistician. The players may not see their actions as being influenced by 'isms, but the over-all trend might still show up... Weird world we live in...