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Male normalcy in character selection

If you're raised in a male-normative society, it can be hard to realise when things you do as a matter of habit have sexism ingrained in them. Here are a few small things I've done to try and not be part of the problem while working on indie games.

Much has been made of Ubisoft's all-male cast of characters for the upcoming Assassin's Creed: Unity, or perhaps more accurately, of their lacklustre justification for it. Whether or not the amount of time it would've taken them to create a female playable character for the co-op game was too hard or not is really only known to Ubisoft, but it did throw into sharp relief a little something about our second game.

Our first, TownCraft, had two playable characters - a female and a male. I mention female first (where usually that would be expressed as 'a male and a female' deliberately because I also made the choice that the opening screen for TownCraft would have the female character on the left at the opening character select screen.

The reason for this choice harked back to my days in university, where I vaguely recall studying visual communication. There are a few basic things about two-dimensional layouts which stuck with me. One of those was that the present/normal/expected/standard is usually on the left-hand side of the page, while the future/unusual/exception/unique is on the right. This comes from the way we read text (in most Western cultures, I mean). The basic or original is followed by the variant or the alternative.

So while it was a simple switch to make, subconsciously it was designed to subvert the notion that the male was the standard. It could, of course, be argued that all I've done is swap the sexes around, and within the microcosm of my one game, that's true, but when I consider TownCraft as one of countless games out there, the vast majority of which consider the male to be the 'default' (if there's a choice at all) and the female to the be 'alternative', it's more about redressing a huge and pervasive imbalance.

At PAX Australia, where we launched TownCraft, we had a mixture of female and male avatars selected on our playable devices. After day one, we spoke about the general feedback and noticed that both my brother (and co-Director of our indie studio) and myself were receiving the same kind of praise regarding the inclusion of a female character. Some were thanking us for simply having a female playable character at all, several were pointing out how rare that made our game at that particular show, but perhaps most importantly, no one at all complained.

People were either grateful for the option, or didn't care either way.

It's easy, however, to have a female and a male playable character in a game with minimal or no story. All it took was a new sprite sheet, really.

So with our second game, Metrocide, which we announced earlier this month, we decided to again leave the choice of sex up to the player. Metrocide is a top-down pixel-art action game, so the character was so non-descript that we figured it'd be ten times easier to allow the character to be female. It was simple - they wore a trenchcoat and full-brimmed hat already, so we just gave them a gender neutral name by using first initials and a last name (T.J. Trench, incidentally) and just kept on coding.

When we announced the game, we did so on the cover of Indie Game Magazine. Our artist did have to do a little creative gymnastics to make the character's face non-visible so as to keep up the ambiguity, but he pulled it off and the art looks great.

The problem we found was that by virtue of it being an action game with old-school graphics, designed for hardcore players, with straight-white-male(tm) creators and a character who, while not sporting a gendered face one way or the other, was still wearing typically male-worn clothes, we had created a male character. Because the default expectation of most people for all the reasons listed above is that the character would be male, and because we didn't explicitly say otherwise, he was a male.

It comes back to the male being the default, the expected, the basic. Especially in the sci-fi action genre. The cover for the game was strongly based on the likes of Blade Runner for instance, as well as a handful of other 80s action movies. How could anyone not assume Trench was a dude?

So, with the help of a character select screen before the action begins, we're going to once again allow players to pick, with no real consequence for the gameplay at all, whether T.J. is female or male.

And again, the female button will be on the left-hand side.

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