Male Player, Female Avatar: It’s Not Me

It’s been fun watching where getting back into game mastering has taken me. A video game streamer I followed for a while got back into streaming recently, but not just video games – he game masters Dungeons and Dragons twice weekly for two different groups of mates. Go check it out – Legends Through Shadow on the Twitch channel, The Spartan Show.

One of his players in the Tuesday evening (US time) group, Alana Evans, has a podcast called Pwned By Girls, where she and her co-host and guests talk video gaming. We traded show links on Twitter and I’m slowly catching up via iTunes (temporarily hampered by their network’s RSS feed only giving the first four episodes until they finish migrating hosts). I’ve tried video game podcasts before and as I’m not deep into the hobby I tend to not stick with them unless I really click with their personalities. Thankfully, Alana and her co-host, LilBlueBox, are a fun, rough and ready pair who are happy to just geek out with each other and their guests.

In Episode 4, I heard them talking about the perennial subject of men creating female avatars for their characters in modern games. They brought up the usual reason blokes have been known to give for it: “If I have to spend most of the game looking at the arse of my character it might as well be a nice arse.”

And I found myself wanting to put my two cents in on that topic. Because while it’s true – and hey, I’ll admit I’ve been testament to it at times – I think I’ve found another reason for it.

Me and the “Nice Arse” Angle

Let me talk about the obvious reason first. It was MovieBob’s review of the movie Sucker Punch that introduced me to the concept of “male gaze”; while I’ve not looked it up for this article, I understand it from context there and elsewhere to mean the seeking out of an objectified, pretty/sexy ideal of female appearance by a male and the concomitant pressure on females to meet that ideal. It’s the stare, the leer, and other perhaps less obvious acts.

Me? Well, I’m not going to shrug my shoulders and say “I’m a bloke, what can you do?” I have to again give a nod to MovieBob who discussed this pretty well in his article on the controversy over the design of The Sorceress in the game, Dragon’s Crown:

Hellooooo, nurse! … mage.

On the one hand, I’m a feminist… a full-bore proponent of knocking down, busting up and sweeping away the white/western/heterosexual/cisgendered/male power structure … of course I’m sympathetic to those who looked at The Sorceress and saw just one more neon-lit “No Girls Allowed!” sign going up in the window of the Game Culture Treehouse.

On the other hand… well, how best to put this? I’m a bit of a pig… not only do I get the aesthetic wellspring from whence The Sorceress seems to have leaped, I actually find her design rather pretty – as cartoons go, at least. And those who know me can, hopefully, attest that in spite of this I’m rather far removed from the basement-dwelling, socially inept, casual misogynist that this outlook is alleged to only be shared by.

While I’ve not purchased Dragon’s Crown – brawlers have never been my thing – I have had my moments:

  • She even spanks angels.

    One of the reasons I went with the ALEPH faction when I dabbled with the miniatures game Infinity was the svelte, busty, figure-hugging bodysuit design of the Ausra in the ALEPH starter set. (Was my getting out of the hobby due to unfiar comparisons of my painting skill with Angel Ghiraldez or my shame that i couldn’t do my Asura justice?)

  • When I decided to try creating a Hunter character in the video game Destiny, I was thinking about going with a male avatar – and then the random appearance generator threw out a headshot of a short-haired, fine-boned female character and I went “Her!”
  • Of the thirteen folks (as of this writing) in the “cosplay” category of The Paid to Play Podcast, ten are female (and my chats with the blokes were more focused on their other business initiatives).
  • And, of course, there’s Bayonetta. Though I never did finish her game…

That said, though, I think there’s another reason that some men choose a female avatar that isn’t talked about as often, possibly because it’s a little complex.

The Relief of Not Playing Another Bloke

I happened on it a couple of months ago, when my wife and I were watching Channel WIN while waiting for anohter programme to start. On before it was a session of the Women’s Big Bash League, a format for local and international cricket.

I’m no expert on sport but as far as I’m concerned, they play damned well.

Now, as far as I’m aware, there was very little, if anything, male gaze-y in this league. This was no Lingerie Legends Football League. The women were clad in professional-looking cricket uniforms . Hell, it was one of those moments when you realise that, when women don’t wear makeup, there’s not much difference between them and men.

Here’s the thing. Normally, I don’t dig sports. I’ve seen folks in the geek scene who profess puzzled dismissal of everything sports-related, and while I don’t hold that view (I played some indoor soccer with work mates for a couple of years), I know what I’m interested in spending a couple of hours watching and sports is definitely on the “I want something on while doing housework and I’m not in the mood for Critical Role, Iron Man, Star Wars or Pacific Rim” list.

Yet, I found myself enjoying this match. I thought about it and realised something:

I was enjoying it because it wasn’t me out there.

See, the whole “bloke” thing isn’t just about the male gaze. It’s what you’re meant to be as much as whom you’re meant to find attractive. Be tough. Dig sports. Like cars. Drink beer. Check out hot chicks. And as anyone who knows me can attest, that’s not me. (Well, except for the hot chicks part; I just hope not to be obvious/rude about it.) When I watch blokes take to the field, there’s always this little bit of me that measures myself against them and says, “Well, you came up short, didn’t you? Could have tried a bit harder on the field instead of crying about letting that one through to the net while you were still putting your gloves on, eh?”

And while video games are on one hand meant to provide an escape, sometimes they don’t allow escape from that weight of expectation. Neal Stephenson once wrote in his novel Snow Crash that every man, until the age of twenty-seven, secretly wishes he were The Baddest Motherfucker In The World. Sometimes gaming plays into that wish so well that it reminds you that it was not, is not and never could have been you.

Saving The World is The Man’s Job. So be the Master Chief. Be Marcus Fenix. Be Adam Jensen. Be the Man Who Kills The Bad Guys and (maybe) Gets The Girl. Let’s remind you once again how you’re not the The Guy Society Wants You To Be.

Commander Shepard of the Mass Effect trilogy – probably the best example of a Strong Female Character in gaming of recent years.

While we’re all human and gender should be only one of the wonderful myriad of elements that define us as individuals, playing a female avatar brings that true point of difference from my male self that lets me be finally fucking free of that expectation.

I think a good part of my really enjoying playing a female avatar in games like Destiny or Mass Effect is the real chance to get out of my own skin, my own expectations. That I don’t have to be kick-arse, that I can let it be someone else.

And while I wouldn’t wish this need for escape from What Men Are Meant To Be on anyone, I hope that I’m not the only one who finds this kind of escape in gaming.

Sorceress image from the Dragon’s Crown fan wiki. Photo of WBBL match from ESPN. Mass Effect 3 trailer screen shot from XboxViewTV’s YouTube channel.