Identifying with Characters

If any of you are fans of Western RPGs, you’re likely familiar with BioWare. They’re the people behindthe Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age franchises. Besides being known for their great writing and recycled plots, BioWare is also pretty well known for being one of the few companies that allows players complete a romance side quest with a member of the same sex, some options being more problematic than others.

Which brings me to the plight of the Straight Male Gamer….

In a post that is both very hilarious and so, so sad, one fan accuses BioWare of “neglecting their main demographic: the Straight Male Gamer”. What would cause them to say such a thing? The fact that all four potential love interests can be romanced by characters of either gender (there’s a fifth character who can only be romanced by women, but he’s a DLC character so he doesn’t really count). Oh, and the fact that one of the male love interests DARED to make the first move without the player prompting him to do it.

Needless to say, he was pwned hard by lead writer David Gaider, you can read part of the original post (note the OP’s blatant sexism) and Gaider’s amazing response here.

This sort of response to same sex relationships in general is by no means alien to the gaming community. I used to participate on BioWare’s forums (before they became a nesting ground for trolls) and before Dragon Age: Origins came out someone started a thread to ask if it was possible to kill their party members if one of the men ever flirted with his male character, not just kick out of their party, no, this player wanted to KILL their companions for the great crime of FLIRTING with him!

Now, before I descend into a frothing rage from all this rampant homophobia, what I wanted to talk about was something that Straight Male Gamers (and others) scream about whenever someone brings up the issue of diversity in games, and that is this phrase:

“I can’t play as [minority] because I can’t identify with them!”

Bull. Shit.

This excuse is such a big steaming pile that I don’t know where to begin. Let’s start simply: How many games can you name which only give you the option to play as a male character? How many only give you the option to play as a female character? Of the ones that let you select your sex, how many only show male characters in the promotional materials for the game? If the game has a sequel, is the “canon” character of the last game assumed to be male?

Looking at the games on my desktop right now: three only give you the option to play a male character, two a female character (from the same developer: Hanako Games) and the rest let you pick. Of the games that let you pick your character’s sex, all of them only or mostly showed male main characters in promotional materials (although the one game, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, showed a much greater ratio of female main characters to male main characters, and Mass Effect 3 had one commercial and box art design that featured femShep).

Identifying with male characters is something that women who play games are FORCED to do on a regular basis (swap “male” and “women” for any majority/minority position and this statement will be just as true), and somehow, we manage to identify with our characters. Hel, all of us manage to identify with non-human or superhuman characters. If you really can’t identify with someone because of their naughty bits or the colour of their skin, I feel sorry for you, I do.

I’ll use one of my favourite characters as an example: Kanji Tatsumi from the amazing RPG Persona 4. (Spoilers ahead!) When he’s first introduced, he fits the “tough guy” character type to a “T”–he skips school, swears like a sailor, and all the other tough guys in the area are scared of him. In short, he’s not someone you want to mess with. The very first time you see him is in the context of a news report involving a fight between Kanji and a biker gang.

Why does Kanji beat the snot out of a biker gang? Because they were making too much noise at night and his mother couldn’t sleep because of it.

Maybe you’ve never beaten up a biker gang (and if you have, there are probably some embassies who could use a badass bodyguard), but surely you can understand the kind of love that drives someone to do anything if it means their loved ones will be happy. Kanji’s major issue in the game involves coming to terms with his sexuality, but regardless of whether you’re straight, gay, or whatever, you’re honestly going to tell me that you’ve never had identity issues? Never known what it’s like to try and “fit in” with a group? There are many ways that you can identify with a character that don’t involve their bits or their skin colour or the type of people that they find attractive. Love, joy, loss, despair, these are emotions that pretty much everyone has experienced, so that even though most of my characters are male, I can still step into their shoes and find something about them that speaks to my own experiences. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want the option to play my characters as lesbians, but that I can at least deal (and complain to the devs) if those options aren’t available to me.

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