Man, I feel like a woman. Sometimes, anyway. I'm a big fan of games that let you create your own player character, and since that usually involves a choice of sex, some of my current PCs are female. I'm a dude, albeit a dude with princess hair and nail polish, and when I play women I find that it can result in a different emotional experience throughout the game.
When I started gaming, I never really consciously chose to play characters of the opposite sex, and anyway, options were few and far between. This was back when Chun-Li was the only female in Street Fighter. I remember that my favorite character in Genesis beat-em-up scroller Golden Axe was Tyris Flare, due to her awesome fire spells. Like many male gamers, my first experience with a female-fronted franchise was Tomb Raider.
I loved Tomb Raider but I really struggled to get good at it. Basically life was like this:
Nowadays women are more visible in the industry, both as creators and characters. But default male protagonists still predominate. But because I play a lot of games with custom created protagonists, roughly half of my self-made heroes are of the opposite gender.
This self-imposed affirmative action doesn't come from some kind of PC obligation, but is more for the sake of variety. Sometimes my imagination just wants to experience a girl's story. My last female protagonist was created because there was a female character portrait that most accurately captured the type of abilities I wanted to have.
Based on the frequent discussions that turn up on online messageboards, there are many different reasons why people choose to play the opposite sex in video games. Here are some of the most common ones, according to redditors:
The Sex Appeal
I once asked a friend why he always played female characters in games, and he gave me what I thought was the stock macho response: 'If I'm going to be looking at an ass for hours on end, might as well be the ass of a hot girl'. He's not the only one out there who pulls out that line:
I think it's fair to say that most video game characters are designed with sex appeal in mind. In fact, sometimes the sexualization of female models can be so extreme that girl gamers will gender swap just to avoid looking at them.
Not to say that female desire never gets a look in, though. Just not as often.
But is there more to this harnessing of sex appeal than mere physical attraction? Back to the friend I mentioned. Not only did he tend to play female characters, but they always had the same name and similar physical features. There was a strange consistency about this character that makes me think he probably roleplayed a very specific personality for her too.
In this case, there's a deeper level of emotional engagement going on, beyond just staring at a nice butt. Sometimes we create characters that we're not just attracted to physically, but we project onto them qualities that we find appealing in a prospective partner.
I've caught myself doing this on occasion, and it's probably an inevitable part of making your opposite-gender character badass, smart, or fun and so on. Video game protagonists as virtual ideal girlfriend/boyfriend can get weird in games that encourage romances with NPCs, but hey—if we can't be together at least she can find love in her own world.
To Avoid Self-Insertion
For some people, one of the best things about #RPG gaming is the self-insertion power fantasy; to make a character as much like themselves as possible, but more powerful and heroic. Other gamers, especially veteran players, crave more variety and want to see the world through someone else's eyes.
Obviously, gender is one of the main anchors of identity that can be made different when you create a video game character.
Putting some distance between ourselves and the video game character in terms of physical appearance can also help roleplay a different personality. It helps us think of the character as a different person instead of stand-in for ourselves and so we create a personality from character actions that aren't necessarily based on what 'we' would do.
To Address The Gender Imbalance
Quite a few male gamers aren't too happy about the lack of badass female protagonists in games with fixed player characters, so find themselves making their own in games where it's possible to create one.
This is an understandable reaction to the state of the industry and something that motivated me to start making more female characters myself. I know there'll always be games made with cool male leads, but when it comes to female ones, I won't have so many to choose from, so why not take the opportunity when offered?
Sadly, creating cool heroines in our own homes isn't going to do much to impact the industry as a whole, but if more gamers would be open about this particular frustration with the lack of female protagonists across the board, we might see the situation shift.
Different Design Aesthetics By Gender
Sometimes a game's aesthetics are noticeably different for the male and female character models, and if you're not choosing the better looking one based on sex appeal, then you might choose the opposite gender based on their clothing style or facial features.
For example, I never go for a buzzcut look on my characters, so in Mass Effect I opted for long-haired femshep based on that deciding factor.
I also have this thing about armor in medieval themed games. If the male warriors in a game have realistic armor and the female ones have boobplate or chainmail bikini, I tend to stick with male characters for immersive purposes. If all the armors for both genders are silly and cartoonish though, I don't mind rolling with a fur bikini barbarian babe.
When choosing your character's gender, sometimes what they wear on their body is much more important than what's underneath.
To Experiment With Trans Identity
For some players, games can be a way to express some issues they have with their assigned gender in real life. This can be a way to indulge typical 'what if' fantasies, but if the gamer really is transitioning they might find that they haven't been playing the 'opposite' sex after all.
Transexuality is still a controversial social issue in real life, and inclusion of trans characters in video games often suffers a backlash or censorship. While most games won't allow you to create a trans character, playing as the opposite gender can let players sample something of the experience.
To Challenge Stereotypes
Sometimes playing as the opposite gender in a video game can help us break stereotypes about sex and gender in real life. For example, by creating a male character who doesn't confirm to macho gender roles in-game, or vice versa.
Like Ruefully (a girl gamer, in case that wasn't clear) up there, some gamers' tendencies towards playing the opposite gender evolved alongside their own (and society's) understanding of gender roles and performance. She initially played male characters as a way to buck femininity, but now there's a greater variety of female characters out there.
Did my playing of badass female heroines in my teens help me get over the sexist stereotype that women were weak, or couldn't be leaders? I like to think that I would have figured that out on my own, but it may have been accelerated by the fact that my imagination was populated by heroines as well as heroes.
Do you like to play as the opposite gender in video games? Let us know why in the comments!