Why are you Playing a Girl? Figuring out Why I Play as FemShep

August 12, 2011 at 7:41 am | Posted in Regular Feature, Video Games | 2 Comments
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Temper, temper.


I hate it when people watch me game over my shoulder. Growing up, my dad had this annoying habit of standing right behind me when I was twenty hours into a forty-hour RPG. He’d pepper me with questions about the plot, the characters, and the inevitable “can you shoot/maim/wound your teammates?” He always had an odd obsession with friendly fire, don’t ask me why. Inevitably I’d have to try and summarize all those hours worth of gameplay into a fifteen-second bullet point synopsis. Then I’d have to point out that, no, I can’t attack my teammates, the gameplay mechanics doesn’t allow for it.

Those questions paled in comparison to the awkwardness of one I would get whenever I played a game that allowed me to customize aspects about the player character: Why are you playing a girl?

If I’m given the choice when designing the player character, I usually select a female character. I recall one of the first times I did this was back in 2003 with Deus Ex: Invisible War (which wasn’t nearly as terrible a game as it’s regularly made out to be) and have, almost without fail, made that choice in every game I’ve played since then that has given me that option. For a long time, I really couldn’t explain why I played as these characters. Perhaps more accurately, I didn’t want to explain it. Whenever my dad would ask, I’d try and come up with an excuse. Usually that would involve me lying and saying a female character was the only option* provided by the game developers. For a long time, I was embarrassed by the fact that my avatar in these games was a woman.

*This was actually true when he asked that question while I was playing Oni. If you can find a copy of that game somewhere, play it.

Truth be told, I hadn’t given this subject much thought until about a year-and-a-half ago when Mass Effect II was released. Now, I’m not (entirely) ashamed to admit this, but I actually took a day off work to run to Best Buy to buy a copy and play it all day. I had been looking forward to this game for ages and it was far and away my most anticipated title of 2010. I had a blast with the original game, designing my player character and guiding them through a sprawling story that had a Star Warsian (that’s an adjective now, deal with it) sense of grandeur to it.

At one point, a friend of mine stopped by* in the middle of a cutscene where my character is having a conversation with Joker, the ship’s pilot (played brilliantly by Seth Green). When the cutscene ended, the game returned control to me. At this point, my friend finally speaks up and says that he thought that I was playing as the bearded, snarky pilot despite the fact that I was controlling the dialogue for another character. Awkward pause. Right about here, I know exactly what he’s going to say. Everyone who has watched me play this game asks me the same thing before long: why are you playing as a girl?

*Probably to ensure that I wasn’t gaming myself to death or surrounded in my own filth or whatever image of a gamer he’s got in his head.

Alas, I am of the legion of FemShep. I am one of the gamers that tossed canonicity to the wind in order to play through Mass Effect with my own character, a woman by the name of Jane Shepard. Now, this is a game that gives you a surprising amount of control over your character’s personality. My Shepard tends to run along the Paragon (equivalent of Light Side of the Force) route, but can be impulsive and occasionally prone to emotional outbursts. She’s immensely loyal to her crew and friends, but sometimes says something stupid that gets her into trouble.

After my friend left, I began to ponder his question to me in earnest for the first time. Why was I playing as Jane Shepard in this game? The answer didn’t hit me until later that night, when I took a break from playing to watch an episode of what was rapidly becoming my favorite TV show ever, Buffy the Vampire Slayer*. I can’t remember exactly which episode it was, but what I do recall was the titular character was having a rotten, no good, very bad day and was taking her frustrations out on those close to her. Buffy was always a character that could kick your butt ten ways to Tuesday, but she was also a flawed character. She had a tendency to be materialistic and a touch shallow at times. She often didn’t think things through all the way. She struggled to balance her wants and the needs of those around her.

Remind me not to get on your bad side.

*I can hear some of you groaning through the internet as we speak.

Suddenly it hit me. I knew why I played as Jane Shepard and other female characters in video games. It was because I adored Buffy. Well, I adored what Buffy was, a strong yet flawed female character and that was compelling. She was a lot like my Shepard, a good person at the core who occasionally let her temper get her into some trouble. Neither were perfect characters yet both were succeeding at being thoroughly entertaining in mediums that are typically male-dominated genres.

So why do I play as a girl when the video game gives me the option? Because it provides for a more interesting narrative. Because playing a strong but flawed female lead is an endlessly fascinating and emotionally satisfying gameplay experience. It can weave a far more complex story that  is such a needed departure from the industry norm of playing a tough-guy space marine. The next time someone asks me why I play as these characters, I’ll point them to this piece because I think it sums up why a lot of people like me have allowed Jane Shepard to be our character.

That, and I’m sick of you all watching me game over my shoulder.

Written by Lane for Roqoo Depot 


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  1. I really enjoyed this. I’m looking forward to more of your gaming posts!

  2. FemShep legion!

    I usually play female characters because I relate to them easier – but this was an interesting article about why you do it :)

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