Game Design Games

You Play Like a Girl

I recently received Morning’s Wrath to review for Game Tunnel. I won’t talk about it much here, but I will say that it may be the first game I’ve played in which I had to take on the role of a female character.

If anything, it led to some interesting conversations. I was telling a friend of mine about the peculiar way non-player characters give you items. Someone overheard the following statements:

“So my boyfriend has locked himself in a room, and he’s casting a spell to let the Ashidians invade the castle. So I go to the Royal Engineer to get the key to the room, and he says that he is giving me the key. I start to walk away when I notice the key on the ground. For some reason, people don’t give you items. They throw them on the ground as if to say, ‘Hah! Go get it!’

I’m thinking, ‘You can’t treat me like this! I’m a princess!'”

I got a strange look from a nearby friend who walked into that part of the conversation.

On a more serious note, I find it interesting that I’ve never played a female protagonist until now. Specifically, I’ve never played a game in which the story revolved around being a heroine. Immediately, I’m introduced to my secret lover, and my character has a secret tryst with him to discuss their plans for the future together.


It reminded me of an article I read. In a past issue of The Escapist, Julianne Greer wrote about playing Dragon Warrior and her encounter with Princess Gwaelin. If you don’t know about that part of the game, you save the princess, and when you talk to her in the throne room, she asks if you love her. If you say no, she says the famous line, “But thou must!” and repeats the question. There is no getting out of it. You must love her. Fanfare plays. In fact, Gwaelin’s Love is actually an item you can use to communicate with her no matter where you are in the world.

When I played it, I didn’t even blink. When a heterosexual woman played the role of the hero, however, the response can be a bit different and awkward.

Now, I realize that videogames have been traditionally created for males. That has been the bread and butter demographic for games. But, with instances like the above, isn’t it a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Yes, girls like romance and love and all that gooey stuff, but can’t there be a “Female Hero” button? Where you rescue Prince Gunther?

Playing the role of a female in Morning’s Wrath is interesting. It’s different. It was a new experience. It was fun.

But if all of the games I played required me to be a female, I can imagine being frustrated and unwanted. Clearly games wouldn’t be meant for me.

I remember as a child coming up with a game in which you can pick any of a number of characters to start out with, and depending upon who you picked, you would start your adventure in a different part of the world. Eventually, no matter who you picked, you would end up involved in the main story arc of the game. You would just do so from different points of view. You can start out as a thief in a big city or a poor farmer living with your parents. The thief may hear about some strange activities in a nearby village involving guild members getting shaken down. The farmer may just live too close for comfort to those same activities. Either way, the character you pick is now personally involved in the story, and throughout the game, the game caters to your chosen role.

Are there any games that already do what my childish creativity imagined years ago? If not, wouldn’t it be rather simple to make a game with a “Male Hero” and “Female Hero” button?

12 replies on “You Play Like a Girl”

That could very well be one of (if not The one) the major reasons why so few females play games. As you said, imagine the frustration of having 99.9% of the games out there with a male hero and the female element only involved in the emotional aspect of the story or as assisting characters; that is if it has a story to begin with of course.

If TV can be considered a form of comparison, when I think of what kind of shows my girlfriend likes to watch; it immediately jumps to my attention that most of her favorite shows are either led by females or have a very high, if not equal, female participation. She is by far not the “romance and love and all that gooey stuff” kind, in fact most of her favorite shows are police shows and action stuff.

So, we practically watch the same kind of TV shows, we spend equal amounts of time in front of the computer, yet I’m a gameaholic while “Spider Solitaire” is her favorite game!

I have often wondered about this and tried to get her to play some of the games I play, but when I think about it I can’t find a reason why she would! For me, one of the main reasons I play and like a game is the story involvement and the “connection” with the character; but I don’t think I would have connected that much with all the games I play if all of them had female heroines (no sexism here, it’s purely a matter of identity, gender included).

I love Tomb Raider, and if I think harder I could probably find a few more titles with female lead that I totally adored, but I can’t imagine how it would’ve been like if ALL the available titles were like this. I don’t think I would’ve liked games that much either…

The “female hero button” idea sounds like a good solution, but I doubt that it would that easy to build into an “action” game that has a preset story that you play through. It’s not as simple as a gender reversal, it would mean a fundamental story change because, naturally, males and females think in different ways and do things and react to things differently. It would (and does) work for certain types of games, such as RPGs, which also hold a great resemblance to your childhood idea.

One game that I have played from the genre of third-person action and which also had a slight resemblance to this idea was “Fahrenheit” (aka “Indigo Prophecy”). Although the main plot line “hero” was a male, there were parts of the game you had to play as other characters. One of these characters was the lead female character, the police inspector, who had an important, and rather large, part of the story to her side.

Another game I just recalled with a very obvious “male/female hero” choice was Resident Evil 2, which enabled you to either play as the male cop or the female survivor, and whichever side you chose the storyline proceeds in the same direction, although you get to see it from different angles. The obvious effect this had was adding playability; as soon as you finished the game as one character you would wanna play it again as the other character to see the difference. I can’t be sure whether this also encouraged any female players to play it or like it, but the fact that it was a horror game full of gore doesn’t give me high hopes. The following sequel, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis; enjoyable as it was, was led by none other than the female heroine Jill Valentine. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite games.

The conclusion from all this is, we certainly do need more female-oriented games if females are to be a part of the game audience. We also need some significant amount of creativity to make more games with a “male/female hero button” that still makes both sides want to play it. It’s not easy, sure, but is anything worth doing ever easy?

(P.S.: Sorry if the comment was too long, it actually feels like an article of its own *blush*. For a moment I thought of publishing it on my own blog, and maybe I will; but for the time being it seemed more in-context here…)

Islam: Feel free to write entire novels in my comment section! If you can keep them as insightful as what you wrote here, I’ll allow them. B-)


Knights of the Old Republic, Knights of the Old Republic 2, Jade Empire, and Neverwinter Nights 2 all had the “female hero button” that would end up substantially altering the relationship portions of the game (usually the romantic side plots). The only other alterations to to game were pronoun usage (which was problematic — even playing a female character, I get “he” more than I would like ). All of those games were build-your-own-character RPGs (3 using the d20 system), so they already had the structure for dealing with the protaganist having different names anyway.

Neverwinter Nights & Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines also let you create female protaganists, but they had no real impact on the gameplay. I loved Neverwinter Nights! They didn’t do anything special to attract female gamers, just gave us our own avatar and let us run with it! VTM, however, was definately NOT writen with the idea of attracting female players in mind — if you played a malkavian female, every single outfit was striper clothes. Since I need third person perspective to play, I ended up having to stare at my avatar’s butt (either entirely uncovered or in a short skirt that floped up as ran). I was so annoyed that I never finished the game (this is also why I have never played Tomb Raider). This is the kind of (likely unintentional) sexism that annoys me so much in video games (and comics) — can we write/draw something for a gender-nuetral eye, please? I highly doubt that game sold more because one of 8 or 12 playable characters was nearly naked, but it did certainly turn me off from buying any games made by that development company again.
Seriously, given the chance I will by maxis, obsidian, bioware, and stuff by the civ guys as an impulse buy. Anything else? I’m going home to research (preferibly feminist reviews, if I can find them) how annoyed I’m likely to be before I bother to spend my money.

Also, Islam — I get what you mean, and I am definately not reading your statement as sexist (and ask GBGames here — I get offended and loud easily and often :-)). That is the same reason I don’t tend to play male characters.

I will, however, argue with your idea that more creativity is needed to attract both sexes to a single game. Hit the Kotor fanmedia site — you’ll notice that that game managed to attract a large ammount of female plays without doing anything different from the male game-play. All the did was create a good RPG that let you play as a female character! Having talked to many female gamers (casual gamers included), and women who say things like “I would get into games but …”, there isn’t a big demand for a massive re-thinking of how video games are writen; the big demand is for games to get rid of the sexism and stop actively driving us away! Getting away from the male-only protaganist is a big part of that, yes, because that means getting away from the idea that men are the only ones who play games, and there are a lot of other small changes that can follow that(please please please if you’re making a game with armor, don’t give the women something that exposes thier abs — gut wounds are bad!!).

Anito: Defend a Land Enraged offers a choice between two different protagonists in the same story: one is male, the other is female.

I like the idea of offering the player a chance to replay the game with a different protagonist, because it allows you to show another side of the same story and that’s a powerful tool, especially for moral tales.

GB: Thx! Actually I didn’t even realize how big it had gotten until after posting. It’s just that this has been one of the things I thought a lot about and wondered what can be done about it. I really believe that games should be played equally by both genders and should be created accordingly.

Katie: I suppose RPG is one genre where you can easily make a game gender-neutral. Although I like a good RPG, and I liked Neverwinter Nights; RPG isn’t really my genre. For first-/third-person action games, I think it’s much more difficult to have a gender-neutral game without at least a certain amount of creativity. I do believe, however, that having female-targeted games as well as gender-neutral ones is not only fair but necessary.

Thinking about Tomb Raider, I can attribute a significant percentage of my liking Lara to attraction towards the opposite sex. I won’t pretend to be a saint, of course the outfits were part of it; but I think it’s mainly the character itself that captured me, her strength, her sense of adventure, and her extreme defiance. Of course, there’s the fact that her main life’s work was desecrating graves, but that felt as unreal as shooting opponents with infinite ammo guns. I loved the game for different reasons, however, and character aside it’s still a pretty good adventure game. But then of course, although one of my female gamer friends is nothing short of a Lara Croft wannabe, I can totally get why you wouldn’t want to play such a game; Lara’s outfits (especially the classic one) seem to have been designed with only one goal in mind.

This, the Vampire the Mascaraed’s avatars, and many more examples are yet another clear-as-day reason why lots of females simply don’t play games. Right now, I can think of so many games that, had I been a female, I definitely would have crossed off my shopping list, and so very few that I would have liked to play. As someone who hopes to one day make games, I know the kind of games I would wanna make is the latter. And I already know that the team I want to have with me while I do that would have to have a strong, effective, “female opinion” for that to happen…

— Gender Stats from the Game Developer Magazine Market Survey 2007:
> Programmers: Female: 3%, Male: 97%
> Artists: Female: 9%, Male 91%
> Designers: Female: 7%, Male 93%
> Producers: Female: 18%, Male 82%
> Testers & Q/A: Female: 5%, Male 95%
> Audio: Female: 10%, Male 90%
> Business/Legal: Female: 17%, Male: 83%

This is a good topic. I think building a gender choice into a game gives the game more flavor and steers it away from a generic “run-jump-shoot things” kind of story.

Some great games that had female leads: No One Lives Forever (my personal favorite), and Beyond Good and Evil. Also, playing the Baldur’s Gate series with a female character was fun, although in BG2 playing a male character gave you three romance choices (females only got one — that pompous prig Anomen).

I’m still trying to think of lame games that had female protaganists. I’m sure they’re out there.

Could you clairify why it would be hard? I have a real thing for the RPG, so I don’t have much experience with action games (and I can’t play FPSs — vertigo). It seems to me that switching genders should be a bit easier — don’t they usually have a slightly less involved plots?

I see what you mean about Lara Croft — I really don’t have a problem with the character, and I honestly enjoyed the movie and think that she can be really awesome (from one perspective on “strong female character”, at least). The big problem really is sitting there going “you know, they designed this game thinking I’d never play it”. It’s one of those things that just sits there and irritates you, and it sucks a lot of fun out of a game.

BTW, there really arn’t so that few women playing games. There’s been some stats out that would put the numbers higher than you’d think. One of the reasons that you might think that there are less women gamers than there are is that a lot of women conceal thier gender on-line for fear (usually warented) of harrasment.
If you find yourself without a “female opinion”, don’t worry too much. Try getting ahold of LinuxChix — the mailing lists are mostly linux-based, but everyone there is very helpful and I’m sure that you’d find a ton of help designing woman-friendly (but not woman-sterotyped) games.

GB: I posted the reply below a few days back but for some reason it didn’t get published! I tried reposting but I got a message warning about duplicate posting. Technical difficulties? Just thought I’d let you know anyway…

As I said, my true passion is action/adventure first-/third-person games. I refuse to use the term “shooters” because I believe there’s more to these games than just shooting around; I rarely like the ones that only revolve around shooting. It would be easy to have a gender switch in such “shooters”, however, since as you said it would have a much less involved plot.

A game like Unreal Tournament, for example, lets you choose the gender of your character because as a matter of fact it won’t make any difference on the game’s end, you will still get out there and shoot anything that moves! Although I do like Unreal, and a few select others; this is not my favorite type of games.

Many other games with such less involved plots, depending on the level of this involvement, should also have an easy-to-accomplish gender switch. And actually, after putting some thought into it, I can probably name a few games with slightly more involved plots that can still accomplish such switch with not much more than re-recording a few conversations as “she” instead of “he” and maybe slightly changing some parts of the game.

The difficulty, however, is not for such games. What I meant was mainly the kind of games that I *really* enjoy playing; the kind that stays in one’s mind long after and that you might wanna replay just for the fun of it, even if replaying didn’t add any new elements. Such games, at least for me, have deeply involved stories and highly mature characters.

I’d imagine it’ll be a little difficult to add a gender switch to Metal Gear games, for example. Although every one I remember playing had a female character (usually more than one) with high story influence, I doubt the game would make much sense if you could simply change the character with which the game is played – male be it or female. The character is infused in the game’s story, and the story develops this character as its events progress.

In my opinion, the game designers would be faced with this same dilemma with any such game where the character is more than just a drone or a reflection of the player himself. It’s just like movies; you can make a movie with a male lead, and a movie with a female one; but I don’t think we’ll be seeing a gender switch in the DVD version of any movies anytime soon… That one – seemingly slight – change would more or less alter the whole story, and would require either a specific amount of creativity to get the right blend, or simply a re-do of the whole thing to cope with this change. But then again, that’s just how I see it; no expert opinion there!

On your note about the number of female gamers, I did some investigation in my surrounding community. It must be noted that I’m a Computer Science senior, so it’s obvious that this said community is a bit of a concentrated sample. More or less, it turns out many more girls around me than I thought do play games. They are still not the gameaholics that myself and my male friends are; I can’t recall seeing one of those girls psyched about this new game’s release or that, but they do play the occasional game and some even have some few select favorite titles.

The reason that might have given me this impression is that they rarely even talk about it, and they get extremely uninterested when we guys start talking about games and usually drift off into their own conversations. It even turned out that my own girlfriend (same college, same year) did at some point like playing video games, at least until the early years of high school or a little before that. After reading my comments here, her response was that that was actually not the reason why she had stopped, but the fact that it seemed all the games out there were nothing but “shoot-em’-ups”, which didn’t interest her much. She mentioned a few games she had played back then, which were mainly ones that had a “meaningful” story or idea behind them.

On that note, I promised I would get her some less-shooting-more-meaningful games as soon as we finished exams and she would see whether she likes them or not…

sorry to bludgeon you in the case that i’m parroting:

i find it funny that you haven’t played females in games until Morning’s Wrath. i can think of a slew of games with the option – Pokémon is foremost in my head. i usually DO pick the girl given a choice, i find that i like the sights and sounds more that way. in most of the games i’ve found myself playing a female role in, though, the actual gameplay wasn’t affected by sex. i stop seeing the graphics after a while and see the mechanics underneath.

i actually hate the lara croft games. control is sloppy and story is boring for the games i’ve played. thought i’d throw that in 🙂

in any case, i don’t actually care about the gender of the character i’m playing with. thats about it.

I agree with SteelGolem. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to the fact that the main character will usually be male and it became a non-issue since gender didn’t determine how other charcters treated the protagonist… usually. When the game had female characters hitting on the main character, it either a) got on my nerves b) became akward or c) it was okay and didn’t bother me.

Speaking of female leads in games, there’s several games that come to mind (shortened since I could think of some others if given enough time to think… ):
Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure – PS (Atlus/Nippon Ichi)
Magic Knight Rayearth – Saturn (Working Designs) – three female leads in this one
Threads of Fate – PS (Square Enix) – You can choose male or female lead
La Pucelle – PS2 (Mastiff/ Nippon Ichi)
Phantom Brave – PS2 (Atlus/Nippon Ichi)
Harvest Moon – GBA, Gamecube, Wii, etc (Natsume)
Phantasy Star – Genesis, GBA (… I forgot who made it…

Speaking as a female RPG addict I have to say that in some ways I agree with this, and some ways not.

I do enjoy playing the protaganist as a female, but because of the storylines I can always see why the hero is male in so many of these games. The ones that could just as easily be either male or female don’t tend to interest me much for that very reason.

I have to say, I think the reason that this “choose male or female” button wouldn’t work for many of the games is because in order to do so, the main character would have to go back to being well… bland. Blander than Squall in FF8. Only other option is to make the game bigger and add in completely different storylines, add this into the mixture of bigger and better graphics being the mainstay these days of RPG’s (I put forwards the laters Final Fantasy games as my example!), they are just getting shorter and shorter. Needing more memory to put in an entirely new story for the opposite gender would bring our game time down to around fifteen hours (seven once you remove the video parts designed to make everyone stop and stare but not actually play anything).

A lot of my friends and I tend to throw ourselves into the spirit of the game anyway right down to actually playing the parts of the men and women when we write our own versions of what the characters get up to.

I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t worry Overly much about the survival of the female gamers. We’re not only remaining, we’re increasing, as more and more of us are getting into the whole aspect of RPGing and the ideas of feminine stereotyping that girls “shouldn’t be playing computers” are being wiped out.

Besides, some of us actually quite enjoy seeing the world through the other gender, it helps us to understand men more:-D

Also, I can’t help but feel that the majority of game writers are male, so can’t really blame them for not wanting to try to guess into the whole female psyche, easier to stick with what they know right?:D

Well, that’s my tuppence on the subject.


Rebecca: Thanks for your comments. I think you’re right about concerns that providing male/female buttons would require the game to be bland or require less game time for either version of the protagonist. Then again, perhaps part of the point of the game would be to allow play as either protagonist so that it isn’t a matter of choosing which gender you feel the most comfortable playing, it’s a matter of deciding which one to play first.

NetHack allows you to choose your gender, but it is exactly the kind of game where it doesn’t matter very much which gender you picked. There isn’t much of a story there at all. A modern, full-fledged, story-driven RPG, on the other hand, might provide a better immersive environment if NPCs actually had different things to say to you depending on who you are.

I don’t think shorter games is a big problem, but developers can probably find a way to give plenty of value and give female game players who care a sense that they are allowed to play the game, too.

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