Rants & Essays

Boys Who Play Girls and the FemShep Phenomenom

Femshep-N7-Day

by k-atrina on DeviantArt

Rick is currently on his third (that I know of) play through of Mass Effect, this time so he can initiate a relationship with Liara to carry on to the recently released Lair of the Shadow Broker DLC. In anticipation of this he sent me a recent Spoony Bard article on the apparent popularity of the Female Shepard option. Simply known as “FemShep”, the option of playing a female space hero is apparently catching on with fans of Mass Effect and Rick and his video game compatriots have now started swearing by her.

In his article, the Bard (a.k.a. James Bishop) makes reference to a recent poll on the official BioWare site for the game that shows that 27% of respondents play exclusively as the female Shepard, whereas only 17% said they play exclusively as the male Shepard. “Bicurious” gamers are more evenly split, with the slight edge going to those who usually play as a female but have tried playing as a male at least once.

While players undoubtedly have numerous reason for their choice of gender, the overwhelming popularity of the female option with fans is curious because to the outside observer this option doesn’t even exist. All the advertising, tie-in comic books and game box art for ME show only a male protagonist, positioning the game as yet another testosterone driven space shoot ’em up. And for most people it probably is. Comments on a reposting of Bishop’s article on Gamasutra quote BioWare released statistics showing that 80% of players play with the default gender and class settings, never bothering to do any customization. However, other comments point out that other statistics show that only 50% of people who start a game in Mass Effect actually finish it. Let alone replay it. Again. And again. And again.

So, for hardcore fans of the game like Rick, what is it about playing as a woman that is so enticing? Bishop posits a couple of explanations and completely glosses over a few others. First of all, the obvious: girls play video games. And given the rather rare option of creating a female protagonist, it’s fair to assume that a lot of women are going to choose that option and stick to it. But what of Rick and his male game playing buddies? The explanation there is more complex, but not really that complicated.

While Bishop gets all wrapped up conflating masculine traits with those of a strong female character, he gives only fleeting attention to something that Rick and the official FemShep Fan thread on BioWare’s website seem to feel very strongly about: voice actress Jennifer Hale just does a better job than Mark Meer. While Meer by no means does a “bad” job of voicing the male Shepard, Hale seems to grasp the nuances of the character that much better, balancing the need to be tough, persuasive, comforting and humourous in a way that is entertaining and seldom seen in female video game character voice work.

What’s even more remarkable about Hale’s performance is that most of FemShep’s dialogue is verbatim that of ManShep. While some non-player character dialogue differs depending on your character’s gender, most of Shepard’s reactions and choices are exactly the same regardless of whether he’s a he or a she. The character animations are even the same. But far from being a lazy design choice this, probably more than any other given factor, is the reason for FemShep’s apparent popularity: the fact that she is a woman is completely incidental.

Much like Samus, the hero of the insanely popular Metroid series, FemShep’s gender has absolutely no bearing on how you play the character. The character animations aren’t necessarily “male” or “female”, they are the animations of a soldier. Her decisions and comportment are a result of her experiences and preferences, not whether she has a penis or a vagina. Unlike other calculated attempts to create a “strong female video game character” (I’m looking at you Lara Croft), FemShep doesn’t have to “act” tough to prove that she is a strong female character. She just is a strong character.

And in the world of video games this ends up making FemShep a remarkable novelty. A strong female character created almost by accident because the fact that she’s female is a matter of player choice, not character design. And for most gamers, playing a female starship captain with reasonable proportions and exactly the same abilities as any man is awesomely unique.

But, because I’m sure some people might suggest it, I’m sure a few of the “mostly male, but tried FemShep” camp did so to scope out the lesbian romance options. And yeah, that could be considered fan service if it weren’t for the fact that Bioware went all out in Dragon Age and included same sex relationship options for both sexes. But really, the joke is on them, because almost all of the love scenes offer nothing but fleeting glimpses of cheeks and hands. Barely PG-13 save for the fact that it’s two women.

What FemShep’s popularity really shows us is that there is a market for games with intelligent, well written, strong-willed female protagonists and the secret to creating them is to take gender out of the equation.

Now the only question that remains is whether it’ll be ManShep or FemShep in the upcoming Mass Effect movie.

You Might Also Like

10 Comments

  • Reply
    Archibald F. Winterbottom
    September 21, 2010 at 11:07 am

    I think you’re missing the simple explanation that more often than not the female models are just nicer to look at when you have to stare at the back of them in 3rd person view for the majority of a game. Often male character models look ridiculously over-muscled; maybe a better option would be to allow a more effeminate male option in the middle. Gripping a controller with my own girlish hands and watching an on-screen hulk wield a 300lb plasma rifle with his glazed-ham-like fists makes me feel like tucking my penis between my legs and running out into the street, naked.

  • Reply
    Rick
    September 21, 2010 at 11:11 am

    And I think that most of it is accidental. They do fall into the classic pitfall of TRYING to write strong female characters through the NPCs. Ashley is “the soldier girl”, Liara is “the smart, independant, bookish girl”, Miranda is the “sexually liberated modern woman” and Jack is the “tough as nails chick”. All interesting characters BUT all ultimately written AS WOMEN, unlike Shepard who was written to be simply Shepard, as you said. They’re following this template for the new Dragon Age, which is encouraging! Though this was accidental, it goes to show that they realize what they ended up with.

  • Reply
    Tom
    September 21, 2010 at 11:39 am

    What really sucks about Samus Aran is that with the latest games, they’re going back to “writing a female character”, effectively taking away what made Samus interesting in the first place. I mean, just in the trailer, she’s drawn to her new mission by something called “Baby’s Cry”.

    I read an old article where some developers and designers were proud of their character for Bullet Witch, claiming that she wasn’t a bimbo because she didn’t have huge breasts or dressed like a lady of the night, as if these were the defining elements between a good female character and a bad one.

    In Mass Effect 2, I was actually really disapointed with the same-sex relationships. I totally wanted to get Tali in the sack!

  • Reply
    Tom
    September 21, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    http://www.mtv.ca/news/article.jhtml?id=9912

    The #1 entry sort of states it better.

  • Reply
    Collapsing the Vacuum «
    November 10, 2010 at 10:54 am

    […] author of the article that inspired my FemShep piece found my article and promoted it himself (second link in the tweet). He doesn’t seem […]

  • Reply
    FemShep Finally Gets Some Love «
    July 22, 2011 at 9:13 am

    […] and “would the series be as successful with only a female protagonist?” My previous post on the subject addresses some of the “why?”, but the 18% statistic seems to suggest no to the former […]

  • Reply
    De Gereedschapskist: of je maakt er een spelletje van « De Zesde Clan
    January 21, 2012 at 8:06 am

    […] met zo iemand wil je je wel in gevaarlijke avonturen begeven. En het leuke is: zowel vrouwen als mannen staan graag in haar schoenen. En kunnen op die manier wennen aan een vrouw die 1. geen lustobject […]

  • Reply
    dagdamor
    February 10, 2014 at 4:47 pm

    I’d say you nailed it.

    • Reply
      Mariko
      February 10, 2014 at 4:51 pm

      Wow. Thank you.

  • Reply
    30 Days of Gaming, Day Twenty Five: A Game You Plan On Playing | Comics and Cookies
    May 9, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    […] I’ve heard from around the Interwebs (my friend Mariko wrote a pretty ace blog about Mass Effect/Fem-Shep on her blog Gamerwife) and my friend’s thoughts on the game series, the other reason I want […]

  • Penny for your thoughts...