Gender and Character Customisation

Following the success of the Grand Theft Auto series (2004, 2008), the open-world sandbox crime genre of video games seemed an obvious path to financial success, and so many imitations were created. One such imitation was Saints Row (2006), a game that was not without its fans but, aside from a surprisingly high-profile voice cast (Saints Row 2006), didn't really stand out from the crowd. It was not until the release of the sequel that the series really found its footing and achieved cult status.

And it was Saints Row 2 (2008) that did something, if not revolutionary, certainly extremely unusual; it made the protagonist's sex adjustable on a sliding scale, from -50 (female) to +50 (male) with a variety of masculine, feminine and adrogynous options in between (UltraYahooify 2011). This, combined with a broad range of skin tones, body shapes, facial features and other customisation options (Saints Row 2 2008), made it possible to play the game as a protagonist that could look like almost any real person.

In a world in which around 80% of girls play video games (Dill et al 2005: 115), and yet are still “marginalized prima facie by the [male-targeted games]” (Jensen and De Castell 2011: 168) and “sexually objectified in 60% [of video game] trailers” (Skoglund 2014: 28), Saints Row 2 would have stood out simply by offering the choice of equivalent male and female protagonists, but by offering such a range of customisation it did something more.

“Individuals learn cultural roles from the stories told in that culture … as they relate to race, sex, and age … who is [powerful] and who are the victims” (Dill et al 2005: 116). By allowing the powerful and motivating role of the story (ie. the protagonist) to be so heavily customised, Volition made it possible for any type of person to be shown to be powerful and have agency (Saints Row 2 2008). Where the Grand Theft Auto series generally gave true agency only to men (most often young white men) (i HJProductions 2011), Saints Row 2 (2008) had a protagonist who could be a teenage girl or an old Chinese woman or anyone else.

This is a significant difference from most other mainstream games, which either lack female characters entirely, or depict them “as victims or as damsels in distress” (Dill et al 2005: 116). This is not to say, however, that the Saints Row series (or even Saints Row 2 specifically) contains only positive portrayals of female characters. This same game also portrays women as strippers, prostitutes, and helpless victims. The difference is in the range of roles women play in the story and gameplay. With the exception of strippers, male and female characters play all the same roles and are shown to fulfil those roles with the same ranges of skill and competence (Saints Row 2 2008).

The best example of this is the player's allies; these are Johnny Gat, Carlos Mendoza, Pierce Washington, and Shaundi. All four can be summoned to assist in fights and perform identically. All four take part in the story; Shaundi and Pierce contribute plans and intelligence, Carlos and Shaundi are both captured, necessitating rescue by the protagonist, and all four contribute various skills and talents to complete objectives. All four are fully developed as characters with strengths, weaknesses, goals and motivations (Saints Row 2 2008; NRMgamingHD 2014).

But perhaps the most significant example is the player character themself. Most likely due to budgetary constraints, the game uses the same script and voiced dialogue (for characters other than the protagonist) regardless of the player character's gender (Saints Row 2 2008). This means that other characters cannot react differently to a female protagonist than to a male one, so there can be no reference to or acknowledgement of the character's gender. If this had been handled poorly, it could mean that a female protagonist would seem incongruous in some instances – as indeed, is the case in Saints Row: the Third (2011) – but in this game, the constraint has forced the writers to take more care and create a script that works in either case.

For comparison, Saints Row: the Third (2011) contains a scene in which Johnny Gat reproaches his companions for going soft in which he states that they have “traded [their] dicks for pussies”, a line that, in the case where the player character is female, is nonsensically delivered to two women. Saints Row 2 contains no similar example. The only incongruity is the occasional use of the pronoun “they” where “he” or “she” would sound more natural.

Another obvious contrast can be shown with the latest game in the series, Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell (2015); although it contains no examples as egregious as Saints Row: the Third, the method used to avoid incongruity is less subtle and serves to marginalise the female protagonist. In this game, the player is given the choice of two characters, Johnny Gat as the male option and “Kinzie” Kensington as the female, however the cut-scenes and final mission play out identically regardless of which character is chosen, making Kinzie a secondary character and Gat the main protagonist (Saints Row: Gat Out of Hell 2015). This gives the impression that Kinzie was added as a concession or afterthought rather than a core element of the game.

Of course, there are different approaches to this same problem. One example is Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003), notable for predating Saints Row and featuring a choice of male or female protagonist and three options for skin tone. Although the character was otherwise not customisable, the male and female characters were both fully voiced and some non-player character dialogue was changed based on the player character's sex. While most of the dialogue is identical, some characters are flagged to react differently. Specifically, a heterosexual male pilot will offer a discount to the female protagonist if the right dialogue options are selected, and a homosexual male executive will allow the male protagonist access to a particular game area if the right dialogue options are selected (Deus Ex: Invisible War 2003).

This approach (mostly identical NPC dialogue with a few isolated exceptions) was also used in Saints Row: the Third (2011), while Saints Row IV (2013) reverted to the Saints Row 2 model. If done well, the Invisible War method provides some advantages for the story-teller, allowing for dialogue that would seem out of place if the wrong protagonist were to be addressed, but it can encourage laziness and problematic attitudes have more room to slip into the script.

Additionally, the Saints Row 2 method is less restricting than it may at first seem. To use the scenarios from Invisible War as our example, there is no reason for these dialogue options to be restricted based on the player character's gender; after all, the only way we know the two NPCs are heterosexual and homosexual respectively is because of their apparent attraction to the player character and lack thereof when the opposite-sex protagonist is selected (Deus Ex: Invisible War 2003). It poses no problem to the plot to have both characters demonstrate attraction to the protagonist regardless of the player's choice. If the player chose a male protagonist then the story plays out with those characters being homosexual; if the player chose a female protagonist then the characters are heterosexual. Just as a character who survives one play-through may die in the next, there is no requirement for these minor characters to have the same sexual orientation each time the game is played.

And the more that is changed based on the player character's gender, the more obvious and incongruous it becomes. We see this in Dragon Age: Origins (2009), in which several characters are available for the player character to pursue a romantic relationship with. Two of these characters are available regardless of the player's choice of male or female protagonist, while the other two are restricted specifically to heterosexual relationships. As these segments are largely extraneous to the game's plot, there is no apparent reason for such arbitrary restrictions, and it stands out to the player as an obvious and inexplicable choice on the part of the game's writers.

If we compare this to Saints Row IV (2013), which contains similarly extraneous “romance options” (although played as comedy rather than seriously, as in Dragon Age), the necessity of changing the script based on the protagonist's gender is called even further into question, as nothing is changed in Saints Row IV and it works perfectly. One character (Pierce Washington) even comments that he “[doesn't] normally swing that way” (Saints Row IV 2013) and despite being a long-standing and well-established character, the line works in either case as his sexuality has never been relevant in the series before this point, so the player is free to infer that he is nominally either heterosexual or homosexual based on their own choice of protagonist.

And so this technique of modifying key pieces of dialogue seems to result mainly in arbitrary restrictions based on the player character's gender, which works against the main advantage of having a customisable character in the first place – that is, to allow the protagonist to be anyone the player wants them to be and to have the same role (or choice of roles) regardless of factors such as age, race, and gender. Given that “men and women who currently play [video] games are overwhelmingly similar in terms of what they like to do with them. And stereotypical assumptions of gender motivations are … nonsignificant” (Yee, quoted in Jenson and De Castell 2010: 56-57), it seems clear that if players are to be given the choice between male and female protagonists then those protagonists should be able to do the same things and participate in the story and action in the same ways.

And even this applies only when female protagonists are actually available. Jenson and De Castell (2010: 59) note that “while the possibilities for choosing a female character … have certainly increased … they are highly underrepresented … are drawn as highly sexualised [and] are almost exlusively white”. Given that almost 80% of female video-game players will always choose to play as a female character when given the choice (Jenson et al 2015: 869) and a similar number will choose an avatar that resembles themself (Jenson et al 2015: 870). This is apparently a very large demographic that is not being served by the majority of currently available video games, particularly mainstream, big-budget titles.

And this creates a feedback loop where games are aimed primarily at boys and men so girls and women are seen as not being interested in them, which further reinforces the conclusion that games should be marketed to boys and men. Games are for boys, so girls don't play them, so no one makes games for girls, so only boys play games, etc. Games like Saints Row 2, by allowing character customisation and making some small concessions in the game's script, not only stand out amongst a slew of games in which white, male protagonists are the norm, but also help to fight bias and preconceptions about gender roles and the preferences and capabilities of women.

Deus Ex: Invisible War (2003) Ion Storm, Texas 2 December 2003.

Dill, Karen, G. Douglas, W. Richter and J. Dill. (2005), ‘Violence, Sex, Race, and Age in Popular Video Games: A Content Analysis’, pp. 115-130 in E. Cole and J. Henderson Daniel (eds), Featuring Females: Feminist Analyses of Media. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

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Skoglund, Kaj (2014) 'Female characters in ten mature rated game trailers according to a sex object test' Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Department of Game Design. 10 October, http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A752227&dswid=4632, Accessed 4 February 2015.

Taylor, T.L. (2008) ‘Becoming a Player: Networks, Structure, and Imagined Futures’, pp. 50-64 in Y. Kafai, C. Heeter, J. Denner and J. Sun (eds), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

UltraYahooify (2011) 'Body Shape slider in SR2', YouTube, 21 December, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twpe_yiCi_8, Acessed 26 February 2016.

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