The Deception of Gender-Neutrality

In the wake of the Dec. 9th announcement of Dina Abou Karam as Comcept’s community manager, the gaming community is still feeling the aftershocks of screeching dudebros splitting the earth. Outcries range from simply not getting along with her personality to demanding that she be fired from the team and/or refunding donation money. Karam’s big crime? Suggesting on the Mighty No. 9 forums that the female audience receive more acknowledgement. Oh, and being a woman herself.

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The unanticipated backlash of Karam’s appointment has once again raised the issue of the grotesque amounts of sexism and misogyny present in the world of video games. Discussions have fired off over the harassment of female gamers (such as what’s happening to Karam) as well as the under-representation of women in games themselves (which was Karam’s original point). I was going to write an article that examined these issues as well, but my attention shifted to something more subtle — and more insidious.

I’ve written before about the lack of gender-neutrality in video games, and have been intending to do an article on the topic for a few months now. In the past, my arguments have largely revolved around what I call “male-shifting.” This is when a game has the opportunity for protagonist neutrality, but for whatever reason (I presume status quo) they default to male. This typically occurs in simple, mechanic-based games, which rarely have in-depth plots if they have a story at all. In male-shifted games, the gender of the player character has no impact on the story and the game would play the same way even if they hadn’t defined a gender.

Male-shifted games unnecessarily favor male gamers. Had they been left neutral, they would’ve allowed all players to relate to the protagonist on an equal level. This trend is more notorious in retro games, but it is still a problem today. I learned this first-hand while making games in college, and I believe I’ve identified why male-shifting occurs so frequently. In my experience, it largely comes down to lingual and visual norms of our society.

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A large part of the problem is how our language has traditionally handled gender-neutral pronouns — or rather, how it didn’t handle them. Up until very recently, using the term “they” as a neutral way to describe an individual was considered grammatically incorrect in the English language; in fact, there are still rule sets in practice that continue to identify this as an error. Our culture has also traditionally considered it rude to refer to a person as “it,” despite the fact that this is one of the few neutral ways to reference a person. In most cases, masculine terminology was the standard in situations where a gender wasn’t noted. Although this habit has become far more flexible in recent times, the trend of assuming an unidentified gender is male continues as an internalized, subconscious practice for many people.

Perhaps because of that, the word “guy” has evolved to have two standard meanings in our culture. Its original definition as a casual way to reference a male is still prominent, but over the years, it’s also become a slang term for “person.” This is why phrases such as “you guys” can include women without sounding odd. However, without a given context, this term tends to connote the idea of a man prior to connoting a person of unidentified gender.

To some degree, the word “man” has followed the same trail, but with a more severe impact. While it can be used to refer to people in general (ex. mankind) or to casually address a friend (“Hey, man!”), its base definition is to identify males. The word “man” is much more pervasive, however, because it’s not only the base word for our species (human), but it’s also the base word for females of our species (woman). Hell, it even happens in the alternate words I just used (male/female). In the English language, the very terminology we use to identify the sexes defaults to males, with females simply getting a modified version of the masculine default. It’s because of this that there are advocacy groups that suggest changing the spelling of feminine terminology.

This shift in language came the most clearly to my attention when I was working on the game Shape’Scape. As the game is about shapes — not even humanoid characters, just shapes — I felt confident that I could write it in a gender-neutral manner. The protagonists consisted of a square, a circle, and a triangle. I saw no need to define any of them as one gender or another, because I believed they were completely outside of that realm all together. When I explained my reasoning to the rest of the team, they agreed.

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However, it wasn’t long before I noticed the use of the word “guy” in our design meetings whenever someone was referring to a character. The sentence wasn’t simply, “I think the circle should be able to double-jump,” it was “I think the circle-guy should double-jump.” I’m pretty sure I was the only one catching it, and at first, I didn’t say anything; after all, as noted above, “guy” can be used as a relaxed, slang term for “person.”

A few meetings later, this practice evolved into using “-man” as a way to describe the characters with a pseudo-name. I heard sentences shift into, “I think Triangle-Man needs a new particle effect,” or “Square-Man’s upside-down jump isn’t working.” With the language feeling more and more gendered, I decided to point out that they characters did not, in fact, have defined sexes. My team was always receptive of my reminders, and dropped the suffixes for a few minutes, but it wasn’t long before the “[shape]-Man” monikers returned. It wasn’t that any of them were particularly attached to those names; it was just where their linguistic habits had led them. In the end, I realized the names weren’t going away, so I decided that if the characters were going to end up with gender, I was going to see to it that at least one of them was female.

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If I were to tell you to imagine a gender-neutral figure, you’d probably envision something akin to this.

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This image is a simple visual example of the things that define a human without going into detail on what sex the figure is. Humans generally consist of a centralized torso, two legs at the bottom, two arms at the the sides, and one head on top. These are traits that are shared by both men and women.

However, if I asked you to imagine a male figure and a female figure, you’d probably envision this.

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We’ve all seen this pair of symbols before; they’re the designations found on pretty much every public bathroom in the United States (and possibly worldwide, for all I know). These images have been burned into our psyches because we see them almost every time we go out in public, and we started seeing them at a very early age. We’re so familiar with them that this is essentially a given whenever gender differentials are called upon.

However, this imagery also points out a big problem in the ways we’ve been trained to think about gender: The male figure is identical to the gender-neutral figure, and the female is simply a modification of the male/neutral figure. In theory, if the neutral one is truly neutral, then both genders should’ve been modified with sex-specific characteristics. The male/female image ought to have looked something more like this.

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This image demonstrates characteristics that generally define one sex from the other (shoulder and hip width) without even having to detail the genitals. It also negates the use of clothing, which is less and less gender-specific these days anyway. There are enough physical distinctions in most men and women to sufficiently convey that difference purely through a physical silhouette.

Unfortunately, this notion is rarely recognized, and the default look of the bathroom sign is so pervasive in American culture that changing it would be an immense uphill battle (and probably not so unlike that of Sisyphus.) Even if we managed to adjust the pictures on the bathrooms, we’d still have the problem of seeing a neutral figure as male. Just as with the last section, I experienced this problem myself while working on a game in college — in this case, Baker Cat.

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The programmer and I had agreed from day one that Baker Cat did not need a gender, and that we would refuse to establish one in any way. When I designed the character, I was very careful to avoid anything that would suggest whether the cat was male or female; however, I quickly discovered that I continually saw my character as male, despite all of my efforts to the contrary. I even caught myself referring to Baker Cat as “him” on several occasions (and in fact, I still have that problem every now and again to this day). I would sit and stare at my design and try to identify what exactly was making the character look male to me, hoping to subtract that trait and obtain neutrality.

It was weeks before it finally hit me that Baker Cat looks male because our concept of “male” looks neutral. There were plenty of things I could add to make Baker Cat look female (eyelashes, breasts, wider hips, skirts, high heels…), but no amount of subtraction would erase the inherent masculinity of the design. Pretty much the only thing that could be done to make the character neutral was to make the character a complete silhouette — perhaps because that erases the opportunity for the viewer to discern if it has tacked-on tits or eyelashes.

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The problem isn’t that neutrality doesn’t exist; neutrality has always been there, and will continue to be there no matter what we do. The real issue is the way our culture views and addresses the issue. Male-shifting is both a conscious and unconscious act, and in order to reel it in, it’s going to take a lot of long, difficult, and uncomfortable work. It’s going to take adjustments of the status quo and changes to iconography that people find standard and familiar. It’ll also require that we really examine our own mental habits and work toward changing them. Quite frankly, it’ll take the sort of efforts that most gamers (and Americans in general) are not willing to put forth.

That isn’t to say that real neutrality will never happen for games, but I don’t believe it’s going to happen anytime soon. The gaming industry has been making efforts to chip away at it over time, but as this article demonstrates, it’s not purely the responsibility of the dev teams. We, as gamers ourselves, also have to put forth our own time and effort to shift this climate. There is currently some traction, but it’s very, very slow. We won’t see major results in this realm for decades, but I’d still rather have it later than never. With any luck, maybe this article gave the issue a tish more momentum by raising awareness to more gamers out there. The more people we have pushing together, the faster we’ll cover ground.

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I am in no way affiliated with Comcept, Dina Abou Karam, or Mighty No. 9. Although I’m sure if I was, there’d be hell to pay from dudebros.

Shape’Scape and Baker Cat are both my property, along with the other members of the respective teams I was on.

The bathroom signs belong to… … I don’t know. John the God of Toilets or something. I made the modified gender ones myself, though, so John can fuck off from that set.

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About Leedzie

Leda "Leedzie" Clark is a writer and game designer with a sharp eye for detail and a kooky sense of humor. She's been a nerd as long as she can remember, and always seems to notice the wrong thing first in any given situation.

Posted on January 21, 2014, in Analysis, Feature Articles, Game Characters, Indie Games, Journalism, News, Original Characters, Video Games, Women & Gaming and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Arg. I don’t hear about haters for a while, and optimistically think the world is changing. Did a bunch of writing/research on gender/games a few years ago, and I have recently felt more accepted as a female gamer. But maybe that’s just cause I stay off Kotaku these days..
    Great thoughts on language and visuals and how they pertain to the neutrality issue. Maybe culture should take a cue from Futurama’s Yivo and add schlee and schler as pronouns! fyi, my brain called Baker Cat a her before I read the paragraph. Schlee is just so cute!

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