When I was at my LCS (local comic shop) yesterday, I branched into a discussion about Mass Effect with one of the workers there. Based on my comic choices for the past 6 months – which includes basically anything led by a woman..and Saga – said worker immediately asked
So you played as Fem Shep, right?
I immediately assented. Of course, who else would I play? We talked for a few more moments about which games of the trilogy were our favorites, then I went home and read comics. As I was re-playing the conversation in my head later, I wondered why it was such a given that played as Fem Shep, and why it was such a given that the worker never had.
Of course, the most obvious clue for many is the fact that I identify as a woman. Evidence suggests that men gender-swap characters 3-4 times more than women. Unfortunately there is less data on women gender-bending, mainly because the reasons behind it seem obvious. Academics and journalists alike often assume that women gender-bend characters to fit in, nip harassment in the bud, or to play out their power fantasies (which obviously can’t be accomplished in lady form).
It’s true that, as a woman, I rarely ever gender-bend in video games on purpose. As long as I have an option about who I get to play, I will typically choose to play as a female character. Borderlands 2 is the exception to this rule because I am terrible with the Siren class and I really enjoyed playing the tank. To anyone who really knows me, it would be fairly obvious that I would play as Fem Shep.
The only thing I knew about the comic shop worker, is that he was male, and he confirmed that he had played as Male Shep. What really surprised me about the exchange, was that the worker had never even tried to play as Fem Shep. I have tried the game as both Fem and Male Shep, and like Andrew Kauz in this Destructoid article, found that playing as Male Shep was unbearable to me.
Compared to Jennifer Hale’s Fem Shep, Mark Meer’s voice grates at my ears, and he always seems more like a construct than an actual character to me (no offense Mark!). Fem Shep as a character feels more real to me, while Male Shep lacks a commanding presence or voice when I play. Since I have given both experiences a try, it always perplexes me to encounter those that don’t – particularly when so much of the internet supports Jennifer Hale as superior.
Then I realized, I lived with someone who could answer these questions for me: my partner. He has started playing Mass Effect multiple times, and always with a variation of Male Shep. I asked him why he had never considered playing Fem Shep before, particularly when it was clear that the game didn’t hold his attention while he played as Male Shep (he has never beaten the first game, let alone made it to the 2nd and 3rd ones).
The answer I received was perplexing. Partner explained to me that he had simply never thought to play Fem Shep before. He expressed that he though he would enjoy the game better if he attempted a run-through with Fem Shep, because he had heard the character was better. When I asked why he had never tried a play through with Fem Shep before, he just responded
I never thought about it too hard before. I was running on default
So for my partner, who identifies a feminist ally, default was choosing to play as a character that matched your own gender, without really thinking through the reasons he did it. His response makes me wonder how many other gamers may have missed on out a different experience in a video game (not necessarily Mass Effect) because they were running on default. Given the choice, the gamers defaulted to their corresponding gender option and never looked back.
How many experiences have people missed by running on default? Has ubiquity of choices available to gamers in-game and out has inured many gamers to the point where choice doesn’t register as important relevant to the game at hand? Have choices become obstacles to game-play that one must hurry through to trigger the next fight sequence? Probably nothing that drastic.
Instead, I suggest that previous games have not weighted the male/female choice favorably. In many games, nothing significant changes based on a choice of gender. No one speaks to you differently, interacts with you differently, even if you’re in a world where a woman outside of the kitchen is rare (I’m looking at you Dragon Age: Origins).What Mass Effect brings to the table is the pronounced difference of character by the introduction of voice acting.
With the addition of voice acting, Bioware made the difference important. Despite Male and Fem Shep having the exact same lines and the exact same actions, Mark Meer and Jennifer Hale added weight to the choice of gender by making Male and Fem Shep distinguishably separate identities. They made the choice matter.
Now, if only I can convince the comic worker and my partner of this.