This is what’s wrong with fictional gender-neutral societies in videogames

Mariel Hurd on how 'the basic rule for writing Gendertopia is a cliché: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.'

Annie Lennox

When creating a world for the player to romp joyfully in, many writers start with the intention of making it a completely post-patriarchal society. Speciesism runs amok, class warfare may be rampant but whether you need a little extra in your breastplate isn’t an issue. It’s especially common in RPGs, where the designers are understandably disinclined to fuck over anyone who doesn’t want to play a dude. The problem is that they’re often not very good at it.

Oh, they try. Your badass barbarian babe won’t face a single gender-based criticism for solving every problem with her axe, but they’re not quite so on the ball when it comes to anything else. Visual differences are common: the tunic skirt cuts a little higher, the neckline a little lower. (‘A little’ is generous. Armour that covers Conan throat-to-knee loses two square foot of fabric when Sonja pulls it over her head.) This isn’t standard by any means – Morrowind clothing is the same badly-displayed monstrosity on everyone – but it is frustratingly ubiquitous.

Morrowind Fasile Charascel Gender Neutral

Not just a pretty...interesting character.

Putting aside hilariously skimpy armour as the tedious design failure it is, we can now focus on the multitude of other ways games screw up egalitarianism: the first of which being that background1 characters sodding matter. Tinker, tailor, soldier or spy; if they all default to male it’s going to break internal consistency. Make your grunts 50/50 and you add another rope to the suspension of disbelief. Avoid using ‘he’ as a default pronoun as well and… most people won’t notice, but I’ll appreciate it, okay? It’s satisfying on a world consistency level, as the reason English uses the male default is because we unconsciously separate humanity into ‘people’ and ‘women’. When NPCs casually refer to monsters as ‘she’, ‘he’ and ‘that giant fucker’ it adds a little bit ‘o sunshine to a bleak, bleak world.

Dialogue has veritable mansions of wet floors for games slip up on. If this universe – now named Gendertopia for my convenience – doesn’t demonise femininity, then ‘you [verb] like a girl’ isn’t a badass thing for a female NPC to say, it’s A. nonsensical, B. a sign that the writers aren’t paying attention and C. blends into Gendertopia like a razorblade in an apple. Most people don’t spend much time planning out how to write a sexism-free fantasy world, so these little phrases sneak through the cracks, but by the time the third draft rolls around someone should’ve spotted it. ‘Grow a pair’ is easier than thinking up a snappy way to say ‘stop whining and do something useful’, but this is what you’re getting paid for, so suck it up, buttercup. Life is harsh on us all.

If Gendertopia has people who, for reasons religious or random, consider judgin’ some sluts to be a good Friday night, they will be happy to pour scorn onto a flirty ladies man. As far as these NPCs are concerned, the handsome hero who has one-night-stands with barmaids is easy and not worth marrying. Why buy what he gives away for free? You can skip all of this by making a world where slut-shaming doesn’t exist because sex isn’t vilified, but it can be an interesting element. If you do have a female NPC with a high sex drive, do not pathologies her. She doesn’t need a wangsty backstory to justify why she likes having orgasms. Inflicting this on male and female characters alike doesn’t really improve the situation, as it just starts to give the impression that you think people who have casual sex are broken. Don’t be that guy. No-one wants to be that guy.

Chole Sevigny

When it comes to the vile side of sexual behaviour, the same kind of rules apply. The villains cackling and talking about raping NPCs are under no contractual obligation to be heterosexual men. In Gendertopia, women are free to be despicable little pustules. Unless the plotline specifically requires the survivor to become pregnant, there’s no reason the PC can’t overhear the mercenary swordswomen discussing how they’d like to have their wicked way with the captured prince.

There should be femme male characters and they should neither be, nor be treated like, jokes. Likewise for butch female characters because Gendertopia is down with that shit. (Unless you’re deliberately making an equal world with strict gender roles, in which case step bloody carefully and more luck to you.) In a setting without those boundaries characters should be more fluid: big butches can wear skirts, tiny femmes can fiercely believe in the power of stabbing beasties. Clothing should not shapeshift. If they’re trousers on a guy, they’re trousers on a woman and vice versa. Don’t screw around with forcing players to gender-normative up their characters. And yes, I’m looking at you, Oblivion. No-one’s impressed with your bullshit.

(Don’t divide hairstyles by gender either. Your average RPG let you customise the length of your characters nasal hair, so why can’t I give Honest Joe (owner of Joe’s Legitimate Trading Company) pigtails if it suits my sadistic fancy?)

The basic rule for writing Gendertopia is a cliché: what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If getting knocked up by a Lord is sound social climbing, so is knocking up a Lady. A pretty boy can use his looks to distract an androsexual opponent, and the female knight he travels with can tell unwanted barroom suitors that “the gentleman said no”. It’s not like he wouldn’t do the same for her.

What do you think of gender-neutrality in video games? Share your views and contribute to the discussion below.

Mariel Hurd is a console-shunning queer feminist with too much time on her hands. She likes to fill it with wargaming, RPGs and forming unpopular opinions.