*Edit: I feel like I need to make this point before the criticisms go out of hand. I do not want all games to make gender relevant. I'm talking about this from a theoretical standpoint as if I wanted to pursue a development opportunity to create a gameplay experience that made gender relevant.
As the title asks, I am wondering if there is a way to make gender more relevant to the gameplay experience. (TL;DR below)
I'm sort of taking a postfeminist perspective on things here, so I figure the most important point is to separate 'gender' and 'sex'--sex being the biological junk between your legs, and gender being the social enactment or performance of man and woman. You can think of gender as a constant performance wherein every action we make represents, configures, and reconfigures our gender. Many have made the point that gender is an integral aspect of our lives, even in the virtual world, where we embody different characters, engage in role-play with others in online environments, and constantly act with (or without) identity in mind.
I think it is important to transcend linear narrative as the primary delivery mechanism here. We do not interact with linear narrative and there can be a fairly severe disconnect between character agency and player agency. What makes this medium special is the interaction, and what is integral to gender is it's performance. Saying 'derp, more stories about people with nonstandard representations of gender' really doesn't do much if these dialogues are spoke at players and cannot be explored through the play experience by the players.
The problem with most games is that they have very limited interaction with the world itself: typically you're looking at the world with a gun pointed at everything and your only options are moving and shooting. While movement around a space can certainly be enacting gender, choosing to shoot and not shoot is certainly limited. The game I keep coming back to is Fallout 3 as a pretty solid example of a game that remedies this. Not only does it allow you to construct a visual identity, but it allows you to construct a personality and skillset identity (mostly through the SPECIAL system). It forces you to construct an identity then act upon it in a world that rewards various approaches: you can use intellect, charm, or any other manner of things to defuse certain situations. Combat is not your only engagement with the world.
More than that, I think making the physical nature of sex as a relevant gameplay experience can, in turn, enable the exploration of gender for players. The most immediate examples coming to mind are dys4ia's exploration of hormone therapy, Heavy Rain placing emphasis on the female body typically being smaller/weaker than male alternative, and Tomb Raider's male NPC attempting to rape player from female perspective. Granted, player interaction in all three of these situations is kept to a minimum, but they are examples of allowing a player to explore physical identities (in a meaningful way) that are perhaps incongruent with their own. *Edit: I think this point is a bit more controversial and messy than I intended. I think having players experience a foreign bodily and social experience that they may not be accustomed to may help them reflect on the socialized minutia of their everyday actions that they take for granted. I included Octodad and Minotaur China Shop in some replies, and will throw them up here as examples: they are both bodily/social experiences that are incredibly foreign that can be enlightening to the bodily experience.
Then, obviously, there is a significant potential to explore gender identity in the context of online play (especially when laser dot sights are less relevant). Online RPGs like World of Warcraft are a perfect avenue to build up an identity within a particular community and truly explore meaningful action and reaction with their various emotes, noncombat abilities/skills, social elements, and role-playing potential. The power of a performance is obviously most relevant within a social/group setting and this approach remedies solo gender exploration.
How do you make gender relevant as a performance and negotiation?
I've thought of three approaches:
- More variety to the interaction with the world (i.e. noncombat alternatives)
- Make physical nature of sex more relevant to players so they can explore radically different bodies and have it be meaningful
- Incorporate social elements/online play
Can you think of anything else? Thoughts/criticisms?
I've always enjoyed exploring the topic of gender, and I've always enjoyed exploring it's relevance within the realm of video games: my biggest hobby. More often than not, the intersection of the two tends to shallowly address gender representation/oversexualization of both male and female characters, female gamers being scrutinized by men online, or the severe lack of female game developers in the industry. I wanted to explore this topic as a potential alternative discussion.