Character creators in video games have always had limitations reflective of their designers’ priorities. Whether it’s specific hair types, body sizes, or disabilities, something or someone ends up being excluded. That isn’t to say that these exclusions were done maliciously, and many games that emphasize customizability have opened up more possibilities in recent years, with additions like prosthetic limbs becoming more common. Lately, though, one issue in particular seems to be confounding designers: gender.
In the past, this wasn’t much of an issue. If games let you create female characters at all, there was a simple toggle between male and female characters, each typically with a number of distinct presets. Some games, like the Dark Souls series, also have a slider that controls gender expression in a more granular way between “masculine” and “feminine” ends of a spectrum. But as developers have become more concerned with allowing player expression, they’ve begun experimenting with other possibilities.
One solution that several games have hit on is a simple one: removing the terms “male” and “female” from character creators. In the place of these words, they instead use more neutral terms. This year’s Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, for example, presents players with two body types: one most would perceive as male, (“That One”) and one that most would perceive as female (“This One.”) An upcoming update to World of Warcraft will do something similar, changing “male” and “female” to “body 1” and “body 2.” These kinds of moves are typically accompanied by decoupling of voices from body types, and sometimes — for more narratively-focused games like Wonderlands — by the ability to select a gendered pronoun.
These changes are being made in the name of inclusivity, and in general, any change to a character creator that allows for more possibilities is great. But part of me wonders whether they’re putting the cart before the horse. In the real world, gender is still very much a reality — women are legislated against, assaulted, harassed, paid less, and generally suffer the effects of a power structure built on their suffering. To simply remove gendered language can seem almost minimizing, like we’re pretending that none of this is real.
On the other hand, we’re talking about video games here, and there’s no need for them to reflect sordid reality. But replacing “female” with “body 2” isn’t going to stop female players from getting harassed in online games, nor does it address the ways that female characters are still typically depicted. And at the end of the day, if your goal is to “disrupt a binary,” then simply hitting CTRL+F and changing a word to a number doesn’t really do that.
Some games are getting a little more ambitious with this stuff, like the upcoming Saints Row reboot. In that game’s “Boss Factory” character creator, you’re provided with a number of presets to work with, and can then separately adjust build, chest and groin size, and voice. There’s no “body 1” or “This One” here, just a bunch of people of varying degrees of masculinity and femininity that you can mess up pretty badly in innumerable ways. Instead of trying to be cute, Saints Row just provides a bunch of tools and then gets out of the player’s way. And while that’s more work than just changing some text around, it might be the best approach for character creators in games moving forward.