Third Person Singular: Gendering the Player

Discussion on how to address the player. Does using 'he' exclude female gamers?

Reposted from

I’d like to talk about women in games for a moment. Not the usual discussion about female characters in games, but about one particular character: the player. I am both a gamer and a writer. As a woman who plays games, when the story makes an implicit or explicit assumption that I am male, I lose my imersion. This means that as a writer, I am conscious of the need to include all possible players in the story when I am writing the script. This can be very difficult due to an annoying facet of the English language: The third person singular pronoun. He or she?

We’re starting to work on our script for Particulars. It includes some voice acting directed at the player, and we keep running into the same problem. How should we address them? The Xbox version of the game is currently planned to have two NPCs that need to talk in reference to the player and it is incredibly hard to avoid using he or she. One alternative we are considering is giving the player a non-gendered title (like Dr), which skirts around the problem but leaves another facet of characterisation to deal with. Other ideas include giving the player a (non-gendered, obviously) name or coming up with sentence structures that avoid gendered pronouns. Much harder than it sounds.

This is less of a problem in third-person games, or games with a strong player character. It seems perfectly natural to have Duke Nukem referred to as he and Lara Croft as she, especially when you can see them right there on screen. The issue tends to be in scenarios when either the player has some control of customisation over the player (remember how the early Pokemon games only had a male avatar? 8 year old me named him Chloe anyway) or when the character is ill defined and NPC dialogue directed towards them tends to assume the player is a young white heterosexual male*.

Some games have dealt with this fantastically. The Mass Effect series has essentially two different games within it for each gender** with completely re-recorded voices. I personally hold up the Myst series as a favourite example which uses it’s fantasy steampunk*** setting as an excuse for convoluted speech patterns that remove all references to anything specific about the player. Gender, age, race – ANYTHING. Sometimes when I’m drafting Particulars I get jealous of the writers of Myst and their beautiful catch-all phrase “my friend.”

So do you notice when a game makes an assumption about you? Does it pull you out of the story? Or are you not bothered when a game assumes something about you? And to the writers out there, what do you think is the best way to avoid the dreaded he/she problem?

*There is also a discussion to be had about assumptions as to a player’s age, race and sexuality. So consider my musings about gender to be somewhat similarly applicable.
**Obviously they lack an option for anybody whose gender identity lies outside the traditional male/female binary. But it’s a start.
***Myst did steampunk before it was cool. It was like early experimental steampunk.

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