Every Gamer Should Cross-Dress

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, January 7, 2011 at 9:00 am
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Last September I wrote a fairly provocative headline: "How 4 out of 5 People are Playing Mass Effect 2 Wrong." Based on player data BioWare had determined that most gamers opted to play the male version of Commander Shepard. And I took the opportunity to point out that Jennifer Hale's turn as female Shepard was the superior performance. 

Turns out gamers don't like to told they're in the wrong. The story generated a slew of comments -- many angry that I critiqued the way they played Mass Effect 2. I even fielded an email or two. The tenor among many was eerily similar. "I just don't play female characters," they told me. 

Looking back this strikes me as doubly tragic. Video games give us a unique opportunity to walk in the shoes of someone else. If the only difference between you and that fantasy avatar is the fact that they wear combat boots, then you're squandering the magic of this medium.

An incident that occurred while playing World of Warcraft over the winter holiday could be instructive. Two lady Worgen were minding their own business in Lor'danel. The pair stood near the entrance to the town's inn. Wyndenrane, the priest, was in her wolven state wearing a jaunty top hat and white robes. Anouska, the Druid, sat low to the ground in cat form. The two were quietly planning their evening of adventure when a cheeky male Worgen strutted up to them and began to dance with Wyndenrane. "Hey, bebbeh," Fenrirus leered, "Wanna take a walk with a real wolf?" He didn't stay for a response. Fenrirus just went about his business leaving the two lady Worgen stunned and bemused.

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My good friend, Tim, was on the receiving end of that come on. I, of course, was Anouska, the lady Druid. We had a good laugh about the unwanted advances in guild chat, but the moment stuck with me. If we'd both rolled male Worgen the incident would never have happened. And that would be one less experience I would have missed out on. 

For now lets set aside the complications of gender issues. Video games give us the opportunity to be anybody we want to be. We can be heroes and villains. We can play as aliens, mythical creatures and mortal humans of myriad ethnic backgrounds. Video games may not be very good at expressing these experiences in deep or nuanced ways. But they're a chance to try on  a new skin -- to walk a mile in virtual shoes. 

When I think about my readers who said they had "no desire" to play Mass Effect 2 as a woman I feel profoundly sad for them. Sad and disappointed. Because video games afford us an incredible chance to step out of the roles we're stuck with and toy with a new existence.

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There are countless people on this planet who are frustrated with the way fate made them. They're bummed that their body isn't as fit as they'd like. They don't like that their hair is too curly or not curly enough. And that's not to mention the nettlesome differences in skin color, religion and nationality many of us are born into. Then, of course, there's the issue of sex. Many come to realize that they were born the wrong sex -- that they'd be happier as the opposite gender. The latter are big, often life-shattering, realizations that can take years to make and a massive amount of emotional energy to approach.

Gamers on the other hand need only click a button, tweak a slider or type a couple of words and we're utterly transformed. There's zero risk. We can slip in and out of personas as often as we like with no risk of embarrassment or alienation. 

There's nothing at all lurid about it. Trying out new roles is what gaming is about. Look beyond the choice of playing Medic or Engineer to a choice more profound. If you're not stepping outside of your comfort zone when you game you're throwing away an opportunity to see life from a slightly different angle. Start with a tippy toe and see how it feels. You won't be sorry.

Pretension +1 is a weekly video game column by Gus Mastrapa that explores the intersection of the way we we play and the way we live.
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