How Can Video Games Be Most Accommodating of Gender Performance Through Avatars?

This essay was originally written for the Game Design course at Middlesex University in 2020.

Content warnings: This essay features multiple screenshots of Genderwrecked (Aceae, 2018) featuring gore and body horror. Several quotes from Ryan Rose Aceae and from the game itself include overt sexual references, threats of violence including murder, and swearing. 

On the itch.io page for Ryan Rose Aceae’s 2018 Genderwrecked, the game is described as follows: 

“GENDERWRECKED is a post-apocalyptic genderpunk visual novel about traveling broken lands and kissing/fighting/talking to monsters in an attempt to learn the true meaning of a mysterious force called GENDER.” 

Ryan Rose Aceae is a self-described “gay monster fucker”, who makes “gross queer comix & games”. Their works are focused on themes of gender, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, and mental health. A mission statement of sorts can be found on their itch.io page, where they state, “existing is gross and beautiful and horrible let’s make art about it… smash capitalism, kill fascists, make sure to eat & sleep enough”. Aceae is non-binary, and specifies that they prefer others use the personal pronoun “they” to refer to them, though they also allow some to use “he”. This essay will be focused on Genderwrecked (often stylized in capital letters as GENDERWRECKED) and answering the question of how video games can be most accommodating of gender performance through avatars. 

So, academically speaking, what is gender? While there are many definitions, among the most broadly accepted is that of Judith Butler, who in her 1990 book Gender Trouble wrote the following: 

“Gender proves to be performance—that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed.” 

As Butler puts it; gender is performance, a performance that is affected by the context in which it takes place. It is widely accepted that games take place within a “magic circle”, originally alluded to by Johan Huizinga in 1938, and expanded upon by Salen and Zimmerman in 2003: 

“The magic circle can define a powerful space, investing its authority in the actions of players and creating new and complex meanings that are only possible in the space of play. But it is also remarkably fragile as well, requiring constant maintenance to keep it intact.” 

In such a space, the context of a performance can be said to have changed. If the actions of a player carry different meanings within the magic circle compared to without, then it follows that the same acts that constitute a gender outside the magic circle may constitute a different one within it. However, in most digital games, players interact with the fiction by way of an avatar, described by Casey Hart (2017) as follows: 

“from a basic functional level, avatars provide the means by which individuals can interact with a game environment… [but] avatars are not just digital dolls for the player to interact with in electronic space, but rather cultivated projections of the user.” 

Much research has been conducted into how players relate to and project onto their avatars, as well as how they use the virtual space for experimentation and escapism from their own identity, even in Hart’s own paper. Due to the minimalism of expression permitted by Genderwrecked, as shall be seen later, this essay will be focused on avatars as reflections of the player as they are within the digital space, including any perceived flaws and vulnerabilities. 

Genderwrecked, as described by Aceae, is a visual novel, a genre defined by Lebowitz and Klug (2011) as follows: 

“A visual novel is a type of game that is in many ways similar to reading a book. The story is told through large blocks of text, generally written in a first-person perspective from the main character’s point of view. However, unlike e-books, visual novels contain background images that change based on the hero’s current location and facial and/or full-body portraits of any character or characters he’s talking to. 

 

Visual novels (with a few rare exceptions such as Higurashi: When They Cry) use branching path stories... Every so often, the player will be presented with a choice, with the story branching accordingly depending on his or her decision. Also similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure formula, it’s quite common for many wrong choices to lead to the hero’s unfortunate demise, forcing the player to back up and try again. 

Genderwrecked is one such game that uses “branching path stories”, with the player selecting from multiple potential choices at certain pivotal narrative moments. This is the only means the player possesses of interacting with the game, other than simply watching it unfold and advancing conversations a line at a time. But, significantly for this analysis, the “hero” of Genderwrecked is an avatar for the player, under the previously stated definition. Rather than the “first-person perspective” described by Lebowitz and Klug as being common among visual novels, Genderwrecked generally uses a second-person form of narration, directly addressing the player. However, the avatar themselves never has a visual representation shown within the game world, leaving their appearance up to the imagination of the player. Still, Wright’s definition of the avatar suggests that “avatar spaces indisputably involve choice and communicative exchange in the creation and socialisation of one’s [avatar]” and this is still true in Genderwrecked, although it is reduced to two short questions at the game’s outset. 

Figure 1 – Pronoun selection in Genderwrecked 

The game asks the player first their name, and then their pronouns. It never asks the player to define their gender. Compare this to the system used in many role-playing games, for example Ultima I, first released in 1981 by Richard Garriott and Ken W. Arnold, and popularly considered to be among the first computer role-playing games. As illustrated in figure 2, this game offered the player a different choice to Genderwrecked at its outset: “Select thy sex”, with only two options to choose from. While sex is a valid scientific means of categorizing living beings and their methods of reproduction, it is not the same as gender, which is performance. Furthermore, a binary option does not account for the approximately 1.7% of people that are intersex (Blackless et al., 2000). It is important here to note that sex does not constitute gender under Butler’s definition; gender is performance, and one can perform in any way they choose regardless of their sex. This option also has no effect on the appearance of the avatar sprite, meaning that it is only present here for the sake of allowing the player to better project onto the avatar, assuming that their sex falls into the category of male or female, and that their gender is closely aligned with what is normatively expected of their sex. 

Figure 2 – “Select thy sex” in Ultima I 

Similar systems persist in modern RPG’s. Take, for example, Dragon Age: Inquisition (Bioware, 2014), releasing more than 30 years after Ultima I initially did, but still featuring only binary sex options. While these affect the proportions of the avatar and with which other characters romance options are available, there is no mechanical difference between the choices on display, and indeed, it would likely be derogatory to include such differences in most cases. Why, for example, should sex affect strength, intelligence, or charisma? However, both sex and gender are vastly more complex than a binary switch with “male” at one side and “female” at the other. Therefore, Genderwrecked never asks the player’s sex or gender, instead requesting their pronouns. Consider these as a part of a sign system, specifically, the dualistic model of Saussure (1916): 

The linguistic sign unites, not a thing and a name, but a concept and a sound-image. The latter is not the material sound, a purely physical thing, but the psychological imprint of the sound, the impression that it makes on our senses. 

Figure 3 – An illustration of Saussure’s model of the sign 

As illustrated by figures 3 and 5, we may apply Saussure’s model to the pronoun: the sound-image, or signifier, is the pronoun itself, and then the concept, or signified, is the person or thing to which it refers. Traditional third-person English pronouns come in four forms, indicated by figure 5. While different languages feature different systems of pronouns, English is the language in which Genderwrecked and this essay are written, and furthermore features a fairly typical system of pronouns for an Indo-European language. 

 Singular Plural
Masculine He/him/his  They/them/their[s] 
Feminine She/her/hers  They/them/their[s] 
Neuter It/it/its  They/them/their[s] 

Figure 4 – Table of third-person pronouns in English. 

Figure – Traditional English third-person pronouns represented as signs in diagrams 

Considering these pronouns and their use in terms of the sign, one can see that the singular third-person pronouns’ usage as signifiers depends upon the normatively accepted gender of the signified. Men are called him, women her, and objects it, diagrammed as signs in figure 5. The assumption made by games like Ultima and Dragon Age is that the signifier can be derived from the signified and vice versa in all cases: men are always him, and women are always her, just as he always refers to a man and she always refers to a woman. But as Saussure says, the signifier is, in fact, arbitrary, and “arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified.” Compare Saussure’s model to that of Peirce (1897), who used a triadic model: 

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea. 

Figure 6 – A diagrammatic representation of Peirce’s triadic model of the sign. 

The triadic model of Peirce shown in figure 6 clarifies the process which leads to the assumption made in games like Ultima and Dragon Age; the pronouns are, here, the representamen, which generate normatively generate an interpretant with the same correspondences as in figure 6. These interpretants are then assumed to refer to the objects of “male” and “female”. This process is usually acted out in reverse; men are masculine, masculine people use “he”, and women are feminine, and feminine people use “she”. However, this is only the norm. If the sign is arbitrary, there is no reason why a man could not use she, why a woman could not use he, why people whose gender is neither man nor woman could not use another pronoun or invent a wholly new one. As described by Judith Butler in 2004: 

“The norm appears to be indifferent to the actions that it governs, by which I mean only that the norm appears to have a status and effect that is independent of the actions governed by the norm. The norm governs intelligibility, allows for certain kinds of practices and action to become recognizable as such, imposing a grid of legibility on the social and defining the parameters of what will and will not appear within the domain of the social. The question of what it is to be outside the norm poses a paradox for thinking, for if the norm renders the social field intelligible and normalizes that field for us, then being outside the norm is in some sense being defined still in relation to it. To be not quite masculine or not quite feminine is still to be understood exclusively in terms of one’s relationship to the ‘quite masculine’ and the ‘quite feminine’” 

In limiting the player to two choices of sex for their avatar, and assuming that these which are signified necessitate certain signifiers, many games inherently limit the player’s ability to freely perform their own gender through their avatar. A person whose sex is female in these games often cannot have features traditionally viewed as masculine, and a person whose sex is male cannot have features viewed as feminine, as gender in these games, and how it will be performed, is always assumed based upon sex. 

This brings the conversation back to Genderwrecked: as mentioned, the game never asks the player their gender or sex; not to choose it from a set list, and not to type it in. By asking the player’s pronouns instead, it changes the question from “What is your sex, based upon which your gender shall be determined for you?” to “How do you perform?” Although the breadth of questions the player must answer about themselves in creating their avatar is much lower when compared to most RPGs, the depth of the question it does ask is increased many times over.  

Of course, performance and norms are contextual, and the question is posed at the very start of the game. The only event the player has witnessed before this moment is a brief introduction, and then meeting with Phil. While this establishes the player’s goal (to learn the meaning of gender) and the types of characters they will be encountering (non-human “monsters”) the player has not yet had any chance to clearly see what norms apply in the world of Genderwrecked. The magic circle generates new meanings – and thus can generate new norms. Characters encountered in Genderwrecked are described by the game itself as “monsters” and are often sexually unquantifiable. Take, for example, the Chorus, a group of small creatures made of meat who coalesce to form a great, screaming mass. 

Figure 7 – The Chorus 

Each individual member of the Chorus insists that he is a “BOY”, and the Chorus as a whole insists that they are all “BOYS”, yet each individual boy is capable only of existing as a part of the larger Chorus. The Chorus, and each of its members, are unquantifiable as male or female, but are, as they proclaim, “BOYS”, because this is their performance. Again, the avatar is never seen from a third-person perspective, because they are supposed to be “you”, the player. But each of these monsters prove that any kind of male-female dichotomy in Genderwrecked’s world has long since been destroyed. Therefore, if the player selects their avatar’s pronouns based upon their understanding of the norms of reality, which do not exist in the game, how is their performance contextualised within it? 

Genderwrecked is set apart from most games by way of its outright rejection of any norms and uses its world as an exploration of what it means to have a gender. The player comes to understand through the game’s course that the so-called monsters used to be humans, who became exaggerated so that their physical forms matched the performance of their gender. The fiction of the game takes place in a world where the “bigots” and “killers” are all gone, and all that is left are the queer, who are free to become what they already were. The norms that the player understands, and the norms that the player brings into the magic circle, are the same norms under which the characters lived before the apocalypse. As the game itself says: 

You live in a society where there is no perfect ideal to strive for. And if there’s no norm, then everyone’s a deviation. So being monsters means everyone’s original, different. It’s beautiful. 

This is the explicit thematic statement of Genderwrecked, which, uncoincidentally, directly mirrors a statement of Judith Butler’s: 

One tendency within gender studies has been to assume that the alternative to the binary system of gender is a multiplication of genders. Such an approach invariably provokes the question: how many genders can there be, and what will they be called? But the disruption of the binary system need not lead us to an equally problematic quantification of gender. 

In much the same way we might look at the worlds of a game like Dragon Age, a world with not just humans but a dozen races besides, and ask how it is that the developers did not conceive that a player’s gender might not match their sex. There is no ideal solution to the quantification of a player’s gender in a digital space, because gender, as Butler states, is unquantifiable. Including a “third” option for the next Dragon Age game would not be nearly as useful as eliminating it entirely. While the pronoun selection choice is great for its minimalism and ease of implementation, visual novels are one of very few genres where the player’s avatar never appears. In Dragon Age, the avatar is visible at nearly all times, requiring that appearance options also accommodate a diversity of genders. This brings this essay to its final point: Nintendo’s 2020 game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. 

Figure 8 – Choose your style in Animal Crossing: New Horizons 

While still a relatively new release, the game made waves when it was revealed that instead of requiring that the player select a sex, they instead chose an initial “style”, which was accompanied by the phrase: 

You can change this later. 

Simply by opening all customization options to all players, regardless of sex, the avatars of Animal Crossing take on the capacity to perform almost any gender. While they may not have the player’s exact hair style or nose shape, there is a greater chance that the sum total of the elements that comprise the avatar’s appearance in Animal Crossing will better represent a non-binary player than those of the avatar in Dragon Age: Inquisition. The ideal solution for most games should be clear, and in fact, exists as a direct response to a design decision already made by most RPGs: if sex does not affect anything mechanically, why should it affect anything aesthetically either? If gender is performance, why should the player’s ability to perform through their avatar be restricted by anything other than their own choice to do so? The imposition of a limitation on a player’s range of performance based upon arbitrary factors in digital spaces is a sad and unfortunate reflection of our own reality, and one which need not be carried by designers into the magic circle. 

Figure 9 – The author’s own character in Animal Crossing. 

References

Bibiliography

  • Blackless, M. et al. (2000). How sexually dimorphic are we?
  • Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
  • Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter
  • Butler, J. (2004). Undoing Gender
  • Hart, C. (2017). Getting Into the Game: An Examination of Player Personality Projection in Videogame Avatars. – http://gamestudies.org/1702/articles/hart 
  • Huizinga, J. (1938). Homo Ludens.
  • Lebowitz, J. & Klug, C. (2011). Interactive storytelling for video games: a player-centered approach to creating memorable characters and stories
  • Peirce, C. (1897) On Signs. 
  • Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of Play
  • Saussure, F. (1916). Course on General Linguistics
  • Wilson, L. (2002). Interactivity or Interpassivity: A Question of Agency in Digital Play

Ludography

  • Aceae, R. (2018). Genderwrecked
  • Bioware (2014). Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Garriot, R. & Arnold K. (1981). Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness
  • Nintendo (2020). Animal Crossing: New Horizons. 

Webography

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