Becky Chambers' recent article "A Few Good Chells" is an honest, refreshing perspective on third- and first-person gaming. Specifically, the importance of protagonists' gender and how that importance is diminished or enhanced depending on third- or first-person interface. It's a great read.
Of particular note is her childhood experience of choosing female video game characters even though they didn't fit her preferred style of gameplay. The best parts are when she's trying to explain video games to her mom and why this all means so much to her. Mom sums it up wisely: “It’s not so much about wanting to be female as it is about wanting to be you. And you are female.”
In general, I try not to start big, serious internet discussions about race or gender in gaming. The subject draws a lot of heat, but little gets produced. Many of my friends dive vigorously into those discussions, but I'm content to sit out. I find it much more satisfying to just make my own games and let them speak for themselves. Still, in light of the article, I couldn't help but reflect on my two published games. I made some deliberate choices in each that must be saying something, yeah?
Both Happy Birthday, Robot! and Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple could be considered something like a third-person game. Most role-playing games assume a first-person perspective, wherein players to some extent inhabit their characters as they engage the fictional world. Heck, you could say that's what defines a role-playing game. (Though that's a whole other discussion, to be sure.) But no, in my games I put you, the player, outside of the protagonist in the story. You are you. The protagonist is the protagonist. Call it a holdover from years of abstract board game design.
In Happy Birthday, Robot!, you and the other players share control over a story about Robot's birthday. I specifically chose "Robot" as the central character because Robot is gender-neutral. I wanted a girl or boy to both be able to bond with Robot equally. I do find it odd how often players assume Robot is male, though. Perhaps I was a little naive? Well, either way, that was why the game was called Happy Birthday, Robot! and not Happy Birthday, Princess! (Also, the combination of "happy birthday" and "robot" had very good SEO opportunity.)
In Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, each player gets to control his or her own character in the story. So now if you want your hero to be male or female (or a robot), that's up to you. Still, in the game instructions I chose to use the female pronoun in all general contexts. I wasn't trying to make a profound political statement. I just thought, "Why not?" Interesting to note that the only comment I ever got on that choice was one player reading a playtest document. He saw the consistent use of "she," and asked whether all pilgrims were female. "Nope," I said. And that was the last peep I heard on the subject.
I guess that "Why not?" impulse also influences my decisions when it comes to art direction and cover design. Why is the cover character on Greg Stolze's REIGN a woman? Why not? Why a woman on the cover of J.R. Blackwell's Shelter in Place? Why not? Okay, I do have more substantial reasons behind those design choices, but mainly I try to break out of default assumptions about game protagonists. If for nothing else, it makes honest marketing sense: Cool characters in compelling contexts will draw fans of all stripes. (Just ask the adult male fans of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.)
Soooo, yeah. Just some idle thoughts, I guess. No cohesive commentary. If you want to read more on this subject, check out "Intro to GLaDOS 101," about a professor assigning Portal on his class's reading list. Turns out many didn't even notice that the character they inhabited was female. "It came as a surprise to a couple of the guys--'What, what? A chick?'"
» Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Danny Duarte