Character Selection: From Princess to Dwarf

Bill Loguidice's picture

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.