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Character Selection: From Princess to Dwarf

Character Selection: From Princess to Dwarf

Author: Christina Loguidice
Editing and Images: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout and Image Formatting: David Torre

Super Mario Bros 2: The 'Please Select Player' screen, with four selectable characters
The Nintendo family on the Super Nintendo, including Princess Toadstool, Toad, Mario and Luigi
Super Mario Bros 2: Princess Toadstool standing in front of a red door in the side of a green hill.
Playing as the princess in Super Mario Bros. 2 from Super Mario All-Stars (SNES)
The first videogame system I was introduced to was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) when it appeared under our Christmas tree in 1986. It actually wasn’t even something on our wish list, but it is something my parents thought would be fun. Sure enough, it was a hit. My sister and I spent countless hours playing many games on the NES, but our favorites were the Super Mario Bros. games. Of course we always fought over the characters and who would be what. While Super Mario Bros. only offered two choices, Mario or Luigi, both of us always wanted to be Mario simply because he was the first player and we were both eager to go first. Then, when Super Mario Bros. 2 came out, we were excited to have the option of playing a female character and fought over who would be Princess Toadstool. After all, doesn’t every little girl want to be a princess? We also loved how when she jumped, she would gracefully glide across the sky, which gave her an advantage over some of the other characters.

Excerpt from Top Spin manual explaining character design
Microsoft's Top Spin features a robust character creation system that has become a staple in many of today's sports games
Videogames have come a long way in terms of character options and development from my Mario days. I was impressed when I was introduced to Top Spin on the Microsoft Xbox, where I could build a character from scratch, choosing everything from weight and facial features to hairstyle and accessories. That aspect alone was a game in itself to me and I thought it would be neat if one of the action role-playing games (RPG’s) had such a feature. All of the RPG’s I have played are limited to rather stereotypical character choices where the women are usually thieves or elven characters. Unlike when I was a child, however, I no longer care whether or not I’m playing a female character. In fact, I seem to prefer playing men, and as far as the Dungeons & Dragons RPG’s go, it’s always the dwarf. So where has my desire to be a princess gone?

When you observe children at a videogame kiosk in any store, you will in most cases notice that little girls tend to prefer female characters and boys tend to prefer strong male characters. Children tend to pick characters they can most readily identify with and sex is the biggest defining characteristic. From babies on we are all defined by sex, hence boys generally are not encouraged to play with dolls and it is rare to find a little girl choose a toy car or action figure above a stuffed animal. There is certainly no mistaking the boy and girl aisles in any toy store, as a young child’s world tends to be gender-centric. Once children mature, which generally occurs with puberty, things change considerably. Adolescents often develop an interest in something that is important to the opposite sex in order to impress the individual they are interested in. So as children mature, a videogame character’s sex is no longer the only criterion as far as the selection process goes. Complex and interesting characters become key to fun and meaningful gameplay.

In an article titled “Genderplay: Successes and Failures in Character Designs for Videogames”, the author briefly discusses the tension between alienation and identification. She writes:
When designing characters, it's important to keep in mind the tension between identification and alienation, because the player is both actor and spectator. This is a good tension, it drives a lot of gameplay and innovation. Without identification, you create a game which has little emotional impact, little drama. That's okay in a characterless game like Tetris, but in games with characters, the characters should probably function as vehicles for something greater. Similarly, you need to allow some players some room for a certain amount of alienation. You want to preserve player identity. How many boys would have played Tomb Raider if they really felt that they were somehow taking on a feminine role? Or what if a kid identified too strongly with the protagonist in GTA3? Maintaining distance is a way of being able to play characters who are not you, and being able to inhabit that genderspace comfortably, without the risk of a split personality.

Manual excerpt from Fallout, describing characters in the game
Fallout's comely Nadia is in sharp contrast to Cain. Nadia is certainly no mutant!
As the author correctly points out, a balance between alienation and identification is key to building a successful character. I was drawn to the dwarf or dwarf-like characters because they had attributes that I liked, such as being strong (ability to carry a lot of weight and deliver more devastating blows from the start) and the ability to heal (Dungeons & Dragons Heroes, Xbox). Although I did not feel less feminine playing a rugged, manly character, I did feel more confident in this role than I did playing Nadia in Fallout Brotherhood of Steel (Xbox). Granted, that was a slightly different RPG.

Box Cover for Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes
The epic artwork of Atari's Dungeons & Dragons Heroes, featuring the seemingly requisite scantily clad females and male dwarf
As a non-gamer, I do not have many points of comparison, but based on the RPGs I have played it seems that the female characters, especially the wizards or those who rely on magic, tend to be more advanced and therefore more difficult to control. Just as I was impatient as a child by wanting to be the first player, I do not now have the patience to become proficient at playing a more complicated character, even if it is one that is princess-like. In contrast to my preference for the dwarf, my husband Bill enjoys playing female characters. He generally plays the wizard in the Dungeons & Dragons RPGs. Since he is a gamer, he can successfully play this character, and she’s eye candy to boot.

The videogame industry is clearly male-centric, which is why there probably aren’t any female dwarfs or more realistic female characters. Nevertheless, videogames offer players something that is crucial to making gameplay fun, namely a level playing field where the only real limitations or advantages are those programmed into each character. Granted, an experienced gamer will do better than an amateur or a non-gamer, but even a non-gamer can become proficient at a game relatively quickly. At the same time, there are characters that are more non-gamer friendly. For the hack-and-slash RPG’s I’ve played, it was the dwarf, which is mainly why I’ve been drawn to this character. The female characters tend to be more complicated to play, but since the audience is generally male gamers in their 20’s and 30’s, this is not a hindrance.

Although character options have come a long way, it is clear that the industry is still pretty much developing characters that will appeal to its main audience of young and middle-aged men. One can’t blame the industry for that as this core audience is their bread and butter; however, once the community of female gamers grows and more women get involved in the videogame industry, the face of gaming will change again. For now, as far as the Dungeons & Dragons RPG’s go, it would be nice to find one that allows you to build a character from scratch where I could become a princess, dwarf, or both, depending on my mood.

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Comments ...
bullet davyK | 10 Jul : 19:44

Comments: 76

Registered: 19 Jan : 08:40
My two daughters (5 and 6) will insist on picking a female character (and insist I do too if they are watching me play!) I'm quite used to playing with pink characters since my eldest is mad about the colour.

They get great entertainment value from games where there are plenty of characters to choose from. Mario Tennis is a favourite. They start out selecting what you'd expect (Peach and Daisy) but usually end up trying them all - but they still gravitate to the girl characters. They will play with male characters, but their cousins (boys aged 6 and 9) would NEVER select a female character - don't know what that says about males!

bullet Fighter17 | 10 Jul : 21:20

Comments: 64

Registered: 05 Nov : 06:31
I'm with davyk, I always picked the males most of the time. If people saw me pick a female, they'll think I'm gay. :lol

bullet Bill Loguidice | 10 Jul : 21:38

Comments: 307

My wife is right, I'd rather look at females in a game, so that's why I play as them. I used to play as females in my pen and paper RPG days too. Of course I also played as and play as males, but there's nothing wrong with mixing it up. When I create my own characters in classic computer RPG's like Phantasie, I always throw in a few females in the party. Why not?

bullet crcasey | 10 Jul : 22:11

Comments: 25

Christina, you need to take a shot at a MMORPG like World of Warcraft, you could play as a Dwarf Princess if it tickled you fancy.

I think you hit it out of the park with this article. Good reading, and nice insights. Thanks!

bullet deshrill | 10 Jul : 22:20

Comments: 72

Very interesting article, and well written too!

I remember when Street Fighter II came out, you had a bunch of guys picking Chun Li-- probably more because of the fact that she was hot and Asian than anything else.

bullet Christina Loguidice | 10 Jul : 23:16

Comments: 2

Registered: 10 Jul : 17:55
Thanks for the feedback. I hadn't written anything since 1998 so it was good to get back into it.

I definitely think that age has a lot to do with character selection. Once boys hit puberty and they have expressed an interest in girls, their selection of a female character is no longer perceived as them wanting to be a woman (that they are gay), but actually affirms their masculinity because they want to watch this pretty woman kick butt.

I think davyK also makes an important point about his daughters generally selecting females, but playing as males too. It is definitely more acceptable for little girls to play male characters. Girls are not considered less feminine for choosing a male character. I think more parents would worry about their sons having a tea party and playing with dolls than about their daughters climbing trees and racing cars across the livingroom floor.

bullet Mark1970 | 11 Jul : 14:54

Comments: 114

Christina, Sie haben einen sehr nettes Artikel geschrieben!
Hmmm I spielte durchaus mspacman.... ai ai ai

Christina, you wrote a very nice article!
I used to play mspacman a lot.....ouch...

bullet Christina Loguidice | 11 Jul : 17:29

Comments: 2

Registered: 10 Jul : 17:55
Vielen dank! Mein Deutsch ist leider nicht mehr so gut denn ich kaum noch spreche. Na ja, hoffentlich gehen wir mal nach Deutschland und dann kann ich ueben. Mspacman ist ein bischen anders. Sie ist eine gelbe Flecke mit eine schleife...nicht wie was wir heutzutage haben.

Many thanks! My German is unfortunately no longer that great because I rarely have a chance to speak it. Anyway, hopefully we'll go to Germany one day and I'll have the opportunity to practice. Mspacman is a little different. She is basically a yellow dot with a bow....not what we have this day and age.

bullet Rowdy Rob | 13 Jul : 19:26

Comments: 21

Registered: 18 Jan : 13:02
Interestingly, the choices (or lack thereof) for female characters in videogames begs the question: what kind of character(s) should be available to females? With men, it's fairly easy.... we generally want to play tough, fearless he-men. Unless there is some subtle romantic/sexual fantasy involved (i.e. eye candy), men will generally avoid playing female characters.

However, females do not seem to have such basic tastes. Does the average young girl or adult woman really fantasize about being a weapon-toting Amazon with exaggerated proportions, or a cute angelic sweetheart with some special magical powers? That seems to be the main choices available to women, and even these choices seem to be driven by male desires.

What kinds of characters DO women want to play, beyond these choices? I confess I draw a blank here....

bullet Rowdy Rob | 13 Jul : 19:31

Comments: 21

Registered: 18 Jan : 13:02
A cool article, by the way!

bullet Ejji | 16 Jul : 12:02

Comments: 2

Registered: 25 Jun : 01:14
Well, I certainly would not buy a game so I could see some scantily clad woman jump about kicking male ass. I thought the most woman-degrading game was that with that WWF game with all the woman and their "realistic panty stretching". You could bet a girl would go no where near that game.
I agree with Bill Loguidice, I'd rather look at a bloke instead of some oddly dressed woman, because game developers seriously don't expect her to be chosen by some middle-age woman, unless of course, her boyfriend intervened..
Nice article by the way! I like them all.

bullet Bill Loguidice | 16 Jul : 22:17

Comments: 307

Did you do a typo there, Ejji? I'm a bit confused about your "agree with Bill Loguidice" part, as it's unclear based on my prior comments. Can you clarify?

bullet Ejji | 17 Jul : 02:16

Comments: 2

Registered: 25 Jun : 01:14
Oh, I'm sorry. I meant to say,... I agree with you on what you said, "I'd rather look at females in a game, so that's why I play as them.". As I usually choose male characters, and my reason being "would you rather look at a woman or a man all day?".

bullet forcefield58 | 17 Jul : 10:04

Comments: 34

Registered: 23 Nov : 22:54
Excellent article Christina.

In my youth I'd try all the characters in games, but would typically pick the male, as one of you said, "He-man" type character first.

Both my daughters would pick female characters in games first when they were growing up and would look for and select games that featured female characters. Since my daughters prefered games without a fighting or military slant, their choices were few and far between.

Nowadays, since I'm a bit older, hahaha, I'll go for female characters. Such is the case with Mercenaries for Xbox. I started with a male but went to the female character to see if the stealth aspect made a difference. The only reason I swiped my son's copy of Dead or Alive3 was to see the exagerated females in action...and in slow motion to boot!! It was fun for 3 minutes and then I had to go back to Mercenaries.

It is certainly an interesting topic. Is it upbringing, in the genes, taught after birth by parents or other kids? Who knows. The good thing is people are playing games and the lesson for game developers is make games with options for both genders to select male or female characters with a purpose.

bullet uniognen | 03 Oct : 22:09
Comments: 1

Registered: 03 Oct : 21:35
Great Artical Christina....I would like to see you tackle the MMORPG to cover the wide world of Character Development as you can do in WOW, EQ ect...

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