Is Fem Shep the Obvious Choice?


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). mass_effect_2__female_and_male_shepard_scars__by_troodon80-d4kgvsj

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.

Commander_Shepard 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.


  1. A very interesting piece. A comment on the weight of the male/female choice in Mass Effect. I completly agree that Hale’s voice acting provides a far more interesting character than Meer’s. Her voice alone has much personnality. Fem Shep also seems a lot less stereotypical than Male Shep, which at times takes the appearance of an exagerated rendering of masculinity. Yet one thing I appreciate in ME is the fact that, as far as I can tell, the body language is unchanged whether you play Fem or Male Shep. The developpers didn’t give Fem Shep a sexy way of walking, for instance. She is as assertive as her male counterpart. That adds a great deal of credibility and quality to the game in my view. In other words, sometimes what makes the male and female characters credible is the fact that they are written differently, and sometimes giving them the same attitudes and attributes does the job beautifully as well.

    • I really appreciate the unchaged body language as well. She walks and moves just like Male Shpe, and that is a confident gait.

      I feel bad for games developers sometimes, because differentiating whether or not the female character needs similar or separate writing can be a hard decisions – and probably not one most companies spend enough time thinking about.

  2. Woah, woah, wait, what? I’m sorry, good article and everything, but one comment sticks out to me – that ” even if you’re in a world where a woman outside of the kitchen is rare (I’m looking at you Dragon Age: Origins).” I’m sorry, but what? How, by any definition of the word, are women “rare outside the kitchen” in Dragon Age? Are we just going to ignore Morrigan, Leliana, Wynne, and Shale? Mhairi, Velanna, and Sigrun? Cauthrien, Branka, Jarvia, and Anora? These are all strong women who take agency of themselves and have interesting, varied personalities. With the exception of Anora, all of them are damn good fighters, too – and even then, I’d argue Anora has power, just of a political rather than physical variety. And this is all to say nothing of the fact that the Warden can be female (And really, a female Warden who romanced Alistair probably provides the best story, next to a male Warden who romanced Morrigan) Seriously, where the hell did that comment come from?

    • Hey Elyssa – you are absolutely right. There are quite a few fantastic female characters in the Dragon Age series – and they’re all varied and interesting. My comment at that you don’t find women outside of the kitchen was more in reference to the un-named women you see in Dragon Age.

      Even though the women of your party are fascinating, when you enter towns and villages you typically see women in more traditional roles (aside from Elven societies where roles seem to be different than in human and dwarf societies). The main places you see them is in the Chantry, in their homes, and serving in bars. There’s a stark difference in the characters you interact with and then what you see in the background environment.

      • But aren’t the named female character of far greater importance and contribute far more to the issue of representation than the unnamed background characters? Also, it’s not just the women of your party that are fascinating, women outside of them are, too. The entirety of Elven and Dwarven main quests wouldn’t have even happened if it weren’t for the female characters driving them, and that’s about a fourth of the game right there. The Landsmeet wouldn’t have been an issue if if weren’t for Anora fighting to stay on the throne, so there’s another main quest that wouldn’t exist. This isn’t even going into Awakening, which had two major female villains in The Baroness and The Mother (And the Queen of the Blackmarsh, though we can only assume she’s female and… well, she’s a ghost dragon that doesn’t talk at all, so I wouldn’t really call her a character.) There’s littler female characters in Rylock, Lanaya, Alfstanna, Shianni, Utha, Hespith, Isabela – how are all these women erased by what goes on with characters we never talk to, that only exist in the background?

        Also, I’d argue that the majority of Chantry leader being female is actually a good example. The Chantry’s got an obviously matriarchal structure, where it’s far easier for women to advance and gain power than it is for men – Alistair remarks on how the dragon cult is the first time he’s heard of a Revered Father, after all, and all the mentioned Divines have been female, to say nothing of Andraste herself. The boys either have to become Templars or resign themselves to being monks. And even then, Rylock as well as Meredith proves that the Templars take women, too, so it’s not the boys-only alternative.

        It just… seems a little silly to erase and ignore all of that because there’s a strange abundance of bar maids and house wives. Frankly, I consider Dragon Age as the model that all games should strive for, as far as how it treats female characters goes.

        Also… I mean, it’s got Flemeth! Flemeth! She’s, like, the best female character in gaming right now!

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