Cross-Gender Empathising – Why We Don’t Get Good Female Leads.

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I was reading an article on The Huffington Post this evening about sexism within childrens literature. It was a fascinating read, but one sentence in particular resonated with me and my experiences within the Video Game industry. 

“A girl’s imagination and literary life would be a stark and barren place if she didn’t learn early on to read books about boys, put herself in boys’ shoes and enjoy them”.

How perfect is that? It encapsulates so much about why the Video Game industry is devoid of awesome female leads. I bet you every single woman reading this who considers themselves a gamer has played a game with a male lead, probably at some point having a game with a male lead as their all time favourite game. We love video games, so we learn to empathise with men so we can still enjoy them. If we didn’t, we’d be pretty starved for choice when it comes to what games we play. I can name at least 10 games this year I’ve loved that featured male leads, where I played as and empathised with a guy. 

For Arguments sake my favourites are Joel in The Last of Us, the unamed voice in I Get This Call Every Day, Booker in Bioshock Infinite, Stanley from The Stanley Parable, the small child in Castles in the Sky, Link in A Link Between Worlds, Layton in the new Professor Layton, the nameless lead in No Time To Explain, Oliver from Ni No Kuni, Luigi in Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, Mondo from Kiler is dead and Scrooge McDuck from Ducktales: Remastered. Pretty sure that’s more than 10 but those were some I thought were particularly good off my head.

Let’s flip that around, how many of our male readers can name five female lead characters in games this year. More than that exist, but how many of you out there can name them without having to stop and have a decent think about it. I’m guessing most of you had to stop and think pretty hard to list five.

(For the record, my five favourite female leads from games I played this year were Katie from Gone Home, Jodie from Beyond: Two Souls, Ittle Dew from Ittle Dew, Wryn from Bleed and Nilin in Remember Me. Runners up include Ayesha from Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and the cast of Assault Android Cactus).

I asked men on Twitter to name 5 female lead characters from video games this evening, most couldn’t do it. Those who did all listed at least one character that is non playable or listed a game where you have a character creation screen with gender selection. I asked women the opposite and pretty much every one listed 5 games with male playable leads.

From a young age, boys are taught to actively reject things that are not seen as masculine pursuits. While a book with a male lead can be read by either gender, no way a young boy will read a book about a girl and her life. Boys are taught to resist femininity, girls have no choice but to cross-gender empathise if they want any chance of getting an interesting selection of books to read. Kids grow up and these attitudes very much stick with them. Boys won’t play games about girls, girls have very little choice but to play games about boys.

This leads to the assumption that female gamers are rare because games with female leads won’t sell as well. They don’t sell as well because women buy games with both gendered leads, many men only buy male leads. This leads to male gamers refusing to play games like Remember Me because they’d be playing a character that kisses a guy in part of the story and they “can’t relate to that”. You know how many games I’ve played that put me as someone I don’t identify as? 99% of the games I ever play.

I’m not asking for more female leads in games today. That would be nice, but wouldn’t fix the issues we have. What I want is for men to have the courage to step outside their comfort zone and play games with female leads, empathising with a gender they don’t personally identify as. If more men did that, you might start to see the differences and understand why women want more female leads for yourself. Go out of your way, try buying a few more games with female leads.

Why I Think Dual Destinies is Trans Progressive.

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Since I started writing about Trans issues in gaming last year I’ve become somewhat of a touch point for people with concerns, often getting tweets about Trans issues people want awareness of raised, particularly within games. It’s exactly the reason that for around a week my @ feed on Twitter has been full of people telling me to play Phoenix Wright: Dual Destinies. I heard horror stories of a case in the game that featured “the public outing of a Trans person in front of a court”. 

After getting a few of these tweets I picked up a copy of the game, sat down and started playing. Eventually I reached case 3, the case that people had been telling me to watch out for.

The case involves an apparently Male character called Robin Newman. With a name that just screams “we named them this because they have gender issues”, Robin was witness to a crime and as such ends up caught between the Defense Attorney and Prosecutor. Robin is shown to be a constantly angry character, testosterone fueled and adamant that they be viewed as manly. Everything they do is very overt and deliberate, see me as a man. Athena is able to use her Mood Matrix ability to sense that Robin is struggling deeply with discomfort and Dysphoria, feeling emotions that don’t seem to fit when confronted about wearing female clothing. I was gearing up for what I thought would be a straight forward outing of a Trans character and reveal that they were not really the gender they present as. I assumed this was a biological male being outed as trans, having their desire to present as female revealed. It’s actually far more clever than that.

Robin is female and has only ever self identified as female. She’s not presenting as male due to discomfort with being female, but rather due to her parents trying to steer her into a male dominated “real career” and away from her love of art. She’s a Cisgender female character trying to force herself to live as male to get a foot up in the world after being raised male by her parents and she feels horribly Dysphoric. She’s forced into living as male, but desperately wants to present as female.

I can’t think of a single piece of media I’ve come across that actually does this. Dual Destinies actively takes a Cisgender character and puts them in the feet of a Transgender person, forcing them to present as a gender they don’t identify with from a young age. The big reveal is that if you try and take someone who is comfortable one gender and make them present as a different gender, they will be deeply unhappy. Rather than this being another case of the crazy trans person feeling weird but the cis characters being unable to understand, this is actively showing that Gender Dysphoria is a real thing that can be experienced by Cis people if they’re forced to walk in our shoes.

The fact remains that it’s not what I came in expecting tonally. Rather than this being a case of someone being exposed as lying about their gender, being some disgusting figure that’s masquerading for personal gain, this is a story of someone being forced to present as a gender they didn’t feel comfortable as and being hugely relieved when they become able to start presenting how they really want to. By setting this with a Cisgender character at the centre it completely flips the tone. 

So, you know what? I think this might be one of the best examples out there of how to tackle Gender Dysphoria in games, just because it puts a Cis character into the wrong gender presentation and shows that they feel uncomfortable. She’s the Trans character in effect, because she’s uncomfortable because of her presentation and desperately wants to be seen the way she sees herself, feels and knows she should be.

Sure it’s not perfect, it deals in some pretty extreme gender binaries to make its point. It throws the reveal that she was born and identifies as female in the players face quite strongly by changing the music to something upbeat and feminine and completely changing her whole demeanor within a matter of seconds quite dramatically. She instantly feels happy and free, with no signs of any embarrassment, guilt, sadness over being outed or difficulty presenting as a gender she’s spent very very little of their life living as. Her instant and natural feminine flourishes are somewhat balanced as the trial continues as she starts to switch back and forth between the gender binaries she inhabits, trying to be overly feminine but having outbursts of her ingrained learnt male behavior. It’s not uncommon for trans people when first coming out to struggle with the extremes of their learnt behavior and going over the top when trying to present how they feel, but this game does go a bit over the top in the way it handles that difficulty.

I was also a little annoyed that as soon as she is revealed to be biologically and self identified as female that a lot of her strength as a character is dragged away in an almost comical fashion. She transforms from a strong and determined character who’s able to do anything she sets her mind to, to a character that constantly crying, portrayed as helpless and who faints far more frequently than is amusing. While this isn’t really a problem for trans depictions, it is annoying in terms of presentation of Cisgender female characters in games. It takes her from being a strong female character that endured a huge amount of discomfort and was strong enough to keep going and presents them instead as the typical useless, helpless and powerless female video game character.

Still, I think many people have misinterpreted the scene and it’s intent. This is a scene not about outing someone and revealing their “embarrassing desires”, mainly because the subject is Cisgender. It’s that wonderful thing about privilege; If you make someone with privilege the subject of your depiction of a scenario, it suddenly highlights how wrong it would be to act the way most people act around those without privilege.