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.