Disclaimer:  I’m wrote this article because I was researching this topic out of personal curiosity.  I’m not going to say if anything mentioned below is for good or bad socially – because I really don’t have a particular option on that  I just find this subject interesting, purely based on game design and choices made by companies.  So.. fair warning.. this is just me saying that I’m not looking for drama here; I just want to look at some games, how they dealt with gender choices and cover a little game history and things of interest to me (and hopefully to you) along the way.  

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Skin-Deep Differences

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One usual aspect to gaming is for you to roleplay as someone else (whether you try and tailor your character to closely resemble yourself or just throw on an appearance for the heck of it).  Generally, in regards to gender, this character creation is merely visual (a sprite or 3D-skin that changes with the selection).  And usually there is the same gameplay regardless of what you gender pick.  In fact, the vast majority of games in which you can pick a gender (old and new) have kept it simple like this – presumably to make the game generally accessible and generally non-controversial.  Another (and perhaps the more-likely) reason this is the general case is because of development time and the overall effort it would add to differentiate genders.  That’s why it’s fascinating to me when I discover there actually is a difference for a particular game.

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(I mean this game really doesn’t care what options you pick body-wise.. very forward-thinking, right?)

Regardless of how genders are portrayed visually, historically games have treated gender more as a embellishment for flavor than as a design element.  Think of how Mario/Luigi were guys and how the Giana Sisters were girls.  Other than the sprites, the games played pretty much the same, right? Another example is all the TSR role-playing games (like Pool of Radiance) – where there’s basically no difference (besides at the sprite-level and portrait options.  

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And this skin-deep gender option sort of carried into the MMORPG era with games like Everquest and eventually World of Warcraft.

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Are Gameplay Differences Gender or Character?

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As I mentioned before, there are those few games that make a difference in gameplay based on which gender you play as.  But before we get into that, I’d like to point out how it’s not often actually the gender that sets gameplay apart.  What I mean is that sometimes it’s hard to tell if gameplay differences are really about the gender or if they’re due to some other factor. 

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For example, there’s Princess Peach in Super Mario 2 (which was Doki Doki Panic before).  Sure Miss Peach can hover briefly in the air after jumping while the gentlemen cannot, but then there are also differences between males Mario and Luigi (both Mr. Mario’s) regarding jumps as well.  So what might, at first-glance, be associated to gender (assuming the hovering is due to Peach’s dress) is probably more of a character difference instead (versus if the developer had only had Peach jumping differently and the others with the same jump).  

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Chronotrigger is an example of character driving gameplay differences instead of gender (another clue is that you only get to choose who is in your party rather than custom tailoring your characters).  The primary character Chrono (with a heavy close attack and assault magic) serves a different party role than Marle (who can heal, but has a weak ranged attack).  The reason I think these differences are more character than gender is the inclusion of the female Ayla (who is a melee attacking powerhouse just like Chrono) and (my favorite) female Lucca (who has medium ranged attacks and strong assault magic with no healing).  I’d tend to think this game is letting you choose a class – i.e. fighter – (like with traditional RPGs) since there’s no distinct pattern of males being melee characters or females being magic-users.

There are just a lot of games out there like Chronotrigger in regards to characters being male or female but not really representing changes in gameplay as that aspect.  And (at least for this discussion) I tried to not consider games where it’s the character or class you picked rather than a gender consideration that is affecting the gaming mechanics.

(Morrigan in Dragon Age Inquisition)

Also, when considering gender gameplay differences, there are the typical romance options in games like DragonAge and Baldur’s Gate – where, based on gender, you can woo other characters in your party (and yeah, now that I think of it, I guess you could count the stat boosts you get from the highest friendships in DragonAge as gameplay differences).  But I’m not really counting these as gameplay either since, outside of storytelling and cut-scenes, they’re of little consequence when you’re actually playing the game (well maybe DragonAge’s romance system blurs the line a little bit with the stat bonus).  

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(Pic above from Vampire Bloodlines)

And, true to what I’m saying about romance decisions not counting, there are always games like Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines that don’t even change these options at all based on gender (probably since it’s sort of a 1st person view type of game anyways).

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Really, off the cuff, when I think of gameplay differences relegated by gender, I’m thinking about games like Diablo II where, if you want to throw down frozen orbs at demons, you’re going to have to do it as a Sorceress.  There’s no male counterpart with the same powers (and I’m kind of thinking this hearkens back to games like Gauntlet Legends that gave a role to a specific gender).  It’s the same for melee and summoner characters in D2.  The class and the gender are combined into a single choice.

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(Gauntlet Legends character selection.)

Want to dual-wield executioner blades in D2?  We’ll you’ll be doing it as a male barbarian.  Want to summon the undead in D2?  Outside of finding a wand with charges, you’ll be doing it as a male necromancer.  And you can’t really argue these are characters (which you’re just taking control of) since they don’t present much story-wise outside of some verbal quips (although to be fair, in SMB2 you couldn’t really say much about Peach’s traits either).  

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Gender-Specific Armors

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(Neverwinter Female Armor – source)

Some games make gender-based gameplay differences through equipment options.  This is kind of a sneaky way to alter things and it might not even affect the casual player – only the item collector or power-gamer.  And sometimes it can be even more indirect – with only certain classes (that are available to only one gender) being able to equipment armor.

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(Pic from Adventure Time)

And the cartoon Adventure Time sort of brings up this very topic up in Blood Under the Skin (an episode in which the main character Finn must go through embarrassing quests to find a super-armor – only to realize that it’s appearance is for females.  Jake the Dog (despite being against it) has to don the armor to save his friend and in the end they fly off with the armor’s wings – flying through mountain tops unscathed.  In this case the armor was usable by males (well embarrassed males).  Again there are games where that’s not possible as a conscious decision by the designer..

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(Pic of Demon Souls female-only Dull Gold Beggars Armor)

For example, the action-RPG Demon Souls limits some armors the player can gather to use by male or female only.  And (besides just potentially finding useless items) this can actually make a significant difference in gameplay due to the stats that these armors provide.  If you were speed-running this game, you might consider your gender based on your equipment strategy.  

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(Valkyrie Mail above.  Source)

Fantasy Life (another RPG game) also limits armor options based on gender (although in this case the game is more casual). With regards to gender-specific equipment, the game seems to be slanted toward female characters – focusing on giving them more content (outfits, voices, etc).  And (like with Demon Souls), as far as gameplay and min-maxing, there are indeed stat differences: such as a female-only Luck-boosting set that’s simply better than the gender-neutral version you’re going to have to pick as a male.  

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Dragon Quest IV on the NES significantly predates the previous two games.  But this game too offers some of the armor and weapons as only usable to one gender (in this case to the female hero Sofia).  This is a lesser difference in the gameplay though than the previous (as the items are optional quests after all).  At least in this case the developers wrote this into the story as something extra for Sofia rather than just a wasted item drop.  

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Gender-Specific Statistic Caps/Maxes

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Rather than limit equipment, games like Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura take another path with these differences and change the starting stats based on gender – removing 1 strength and adding 1 constitution for females (which in effect affects the max you can reach as well).  There are also other odd differences involving the races you can pick in this game.  Females can be Humans, Elves, Half-Elves and Half-Orcs while males can be all of those plus Dwarves, Gnomes, Halflings, and Half-Ogres.  

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Just one note here:  The developer (Troika Games) went on to develop the Vampire Bloodlines game without any such differences at all.  Of course that could be because they had strictly adhered to the White Wolf pen-and-paper game so well.

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The Fire Emblem games work in a similar fashion to Arcanum – only this time more indirectly – in regards to statistic caps based on gender.  In this case some classes aren’t available to females and the statistic caps are based on the class (as well as the actual character themselves).  So in Awakening if you’re male you cannot be Pegasus Knight or Troubadour.  And if you’re female you cannot be Barbarian or Fighter.  This affects your stat maximum potentially (unless you never reach your max capacity).

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Other Gender Gameplay Differences

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Fallout 3 has two gender-based perks that have an interesting effect on the game.  Lady Killer is a perk for male players in which you do 10% more damage to females and get further dialog options with them.  Black Widow is sort of the inverse where you need to be a female and you can affect males.  Sounds even.. Right?  Well it sort of is except that most of the enemies in the game are males – so you can imagine it pays to be a Black Widow here.  Aside from the damage vs the population this perk is mostly for role-playing purposes.

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Harvest Moon s another interesting series with regards to gender and gameplay (specifically Boy/Girl versions).  In this case you get different (somewhat important) rewards early on.  You can make a offering of a crop grown to the Harvest Goddess (via a holy spring) and, on the fifth offering, she rewards you.  If you’re a boy you get a red power berry (which increases your stamina).  As a girl, you get a piece of lumber worth 3000G.  As you offer more crops you will be able to attain the other rewards, but it’s the order that really makes a difference here between the genders.  

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So I’ll be honest.. I had to look all over to really find any real differences between genders in games that offered the choice (and not just at the character level).  I think the reason they’re rare is the additional development effort it would take to code in and test these differences.  The cookie-cutter approach to gender (which is common) sort of reminds me of all those Boy/Girl games where the games are the same except the sprites are changed around for the target audience.  Plus it’s not really desirable to actually make gameplay differences these days since it opens up companies to criticism they wouldn’t have to face if they kept things even to begin with.

If you can think of any others that I’ve missed (fairly likely), please let me know in the comments below.