Note: This is fairly long. Also, it is cross-posted on Queeresque!
I\'ve just recently started playing a new video game, Saint\'s Row 2. From what I can tell it\'s a more or less exact remake of the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I loved that game, although it remains to be seen whether Saint\'s will have the same appeal*.
However, one thing that it does have (and the reason I\'m reviewing violent video games for Queeresque) is this innovation: it\'s the first videogame I\'ve ever played that separates sex and gender.
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More accurately, it separates sex from gender presentation. The main character seems to be a sociopathic thug regardless of sex, so there really isn\'t a way to play it as a culture-typical woman.
When you create your character, you choose whether you want to play as male or female. This choice effects height, secondary sexual characteristics, and nothing else*. After choosing sex, ethnicity, body type and skin color, you choose a voice type, hair style, and walking animation--it\'s a pretty robust character creation process!
Once you finish constructing your character model, you can dress it with clothes that you buy throughout the game. In all of these areas every possible choice is available, regardless of whether is \"appropriate\" for your sex--every other game I\'ve ever played segregates certain things (clothing, for example). As a man with three times as many skirts as pairs of pants, that\'s unacceptable!
As your character walks around the city (and dances, too, I\'ve just discovered!) the way that ze walks is animated using a process called \"motion capture recording\". Basically, they took a variety of male and female actors and had them strut and swagger in character while wearing a special suit that allowed a computer to record their motion. So when you create your character, you choose one of these recordings to be how you walk (and dance). The choices are labeled according to the actor and style (e.g., \"female sway\", \"male swagger\") but the game is perfectly content to let you pick any of them that you wan. My character is definitely male, but not terribly macho--he swings his hips and bobs his head in the \"female, perky\" manner.
You can choose from a wide variety of voice acting, ranging from a Lil\' Kim-style voice to (my choice) a macho Guy Ritchie accent. In addition, you are allowed to pick any hairstyle you like from long, luxurious, flowing locks; to a high pile of dreads; to a short military-style haircut. Finally, as I mentioned before, this is the first damn game that will let me buy a skirt for my (male) character.
Actually, it gets better--I\'ve been playing more, and I just discovered that you can visit a \"plastic surgeon\" to change your character model at any time, for $500. Oddly, this is the price just to get a new hairstyle, but it also covers a complete sex change. Even cooler, though, is that one of the settings (completely independent of the \"sex\" setting) is labeled \"body type\". If you move the slider all the way to the right, your body type become stereotypically \"male\", if you move it to the left you develop breasts (and a bra magically appears to cover them!). So for one thing, paging John Stoltenberg. For another, the game allows you to play as in in-transition trans person holding up liquor stores and fighting gang battles to earn money for another operation or two. (Although apparently that opperation only costs $500 in this world, and is instantaneous).
Politically, the gameplay itself is interesting. Now, it\'s important to understand that the most salient (and least laudable) element is the violence--although the game doesn\'t require you to do anything (and this is very rare for video games) the vast majority of things that it\'s possible to do are extremely violent. Essentially this game is calling Jack Thompson\'s bluff. You can play the game as a non-violent racing simulator, driving your car around, but sooner or later it is likely that you\'ll run someone over on accident. At which point it\'s highly likely that someone will pull out a gun and you\'ll shoot them to death (and take out a few cops, as well).
Given this violent premise, the game had a more-or-less free pass as far as the rest of its politics are concerned. If they had wanted to make a game that was as sexist, racist, and generally unpleasant as it was violent I doubt that it would have cost them anything. They\'d already alienated any audience that would care, so why not stock the game with offensive Chinese stereotypes and degrading depictions of women?
For some reason, however, they decided to go (more or less) the opposite direction. The writing is hardly Faulkner, but it compares favorably to any action movie I\'ve seen as far as characters are concerned. All of the characters, regardless of ethnicity or gender, are treated as characters--your gang lieutenants are Carlos, Shaundie, and Pierce, not \"hispanic guy\", \"white girl\", and \"black guy\". The central cast thus manages to seem diverse (especially because the gang leader can be whatever phenotype you choose) without seeming too heavy handed or tokenist. The only supporting female role, so far, is an assertive and capable (and very wealthy) black woman.
From a gameplay perspective, there are characters with speaking lines (usually in cinematic cutscenes) and then a bunch of people walking around the city: enemy gang members, cops, and lots of innocent pedestrians. The gender of the gang members and police officers is random, so you\'re as likely to get your ass kicked by someone presenting female as male. It\'s certainly true that the female pedestrians are much more likely to be presented as sex objects (the game is gynephilic, it turns out) but are as likely as the male pedestrians to either run away or attack you if there is a conflict. So that\'s nice.
Another surprising thing: one of the few non-violent activities that you can do in the game is to visit the sex workers at the pier. In Grand Theft Auto this activity was illustrated by a long shot of your car, rockin\'. In this game, however, you have to play a DDR-style mini-game (behind closed doors--there\'s no visual accompaniment) to satisfy her--I find it odd that such a cold blooded sociopath would be so concerned with sexually pleasing hookers, but it\'s certainly nice of him to do so (and, again, far from the misogynist angle that the game might have been expected to take).
As I may have mentioned, it\'s a very violent game, and it doesn\'t have much that\'s good to say about any of the characters. They are likable, but male or female, no one in the game is a good person. Stereotypes are tricky, and it feels weird to applaud when they are countered in such a negative fashion. However, it\'s cool that the game can portray an skinny, effeminate man in a skirt beating the crap out of people; or a latina chick in a wife-beater and combat boots with an M16 and a gruff voice; or even a macho, over-muscled black guy who (unbeknown to anyone else) is wearing pink panties. Personally, I\'d much rather play a game that allows women to be mass-murdering drug dealers than any game in which they are forced to be wholesome and maternal, and the pink panties are just a bonus.
One more surprising thing about Saint\'s Row 2 is that, for all that it\'s marketed (and designed) as a gangland shoot-em-up \"murder simulator\", one of the mechanics at the very heart of it is simply earning enough cash to buy better clothes. I\'ve spent a lot of time in-game just buying and customizing them, and then trying them out on my character. As you can see form the really bad photos below (bizarrely, this game has no \"screen capture\" button!) I\'m rocking a nice black blazer and an awesome skirt, just like real life (actually, I\'d love that skirt in real life--Kate?). I just need to save up and get some better shoes...
It isn\'t just me, by the way--a lot of the forums I\'ve been on have folks (who seem male to me, whatever that\'s worth online) bragging about their outfits and enthusing about how much time they spend on their \"look\". In a way, it seems that Saints Row has created an environment in which is is culturally acceptable for boys to play with dolls (on account of all the macho violence that also gets done), and they love it! I would really like to see this replicated in a scientific fashion (with custom software, obviously, not Saint\'s Row)--how likely are young boys to play dress up with dolls in a \"standard\" virtual environment, and how likely are they to do so in an environment in which this aspect is presented as secondary to a culturally acceptable (or hyper-masculine) activity. Also, how much time would young boys spend on dress-up, compared to time spent on the \"acceptable\" activity? Given the same setup, how much time would girls spend engaging in whatever hyper-masculine \"cover\" activity was given? And the reverse--a pink dollhouse environment that also allowed, \"secondarily\", players to engage in some non-feminine behaviors--crashing trucks or something.
The second surprising thing is that the vast majority of the stuff I\'m all excited about here--the whole separation of sex and gender thing, the fact that men on women on the street have the same reactions to conflict, &c.--could well be the result of laziness on the part of the game designers. They didn\'t do anything extra to make the game gender agnostic--they actually did less work. Typically the programmers would have to add a whole bunch of lists and checks (\"Player wants to buy item: skirt. Player sex is: male. Is this item on the list: Male-acceptable clothing?\") that these folks skipped. This means that in every other game I\'ve played, programmers have had to work harder to enforce gender stereotypes. Surely this is a metaphor for day to day life, as well?
And here\'s my unnamed gangster, with and without automatic shotgun. Note the stylish hat, and hopefully I\'ll get some better shoes.
* See, GTA was a game with a strong \"inner city gang crime\" story. It was very good at letting you ignore that, however, and you could simply explore the world. Sure, you could gun down a bunch of rivals, but you could also steal a sports car and drive out into the desert. Or steal a plane--it was actually a really fun flight simulator! I don\'t know if Saint\'s will have the same kind of depth.
* So far as I can tell. I\'ve only played as male, and there has already been at least one mini-game involving screwing female sex workers. I\'m curious about whether the game is heteronormative or simply gynephilic, although for all I know there are also male sex workers. I strongly suspect that both male and female characters prefer women, however.