The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Where do Women Fit in Video Games?

4 min read

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If you’re a fan of the critically-acclaimed video game “Mass Effect,” then this summer you were probably caught up in the excitement over the new look for the default female half of the franchise’s customizable protagonist, Commander Shepherd. I certainly know I was.

The female Commander Shepherd, or FemShep as she’s called on the Internet, is possibly one of the greatest female characters in gaming, in my humble opinion.

Like many other video games, you can choose the gender of your character, but this choice changes hardly anything about the game aside from the pronouns used in dialogue. Both FemShep and BroShep, the male half of Commander Shepherd, share the same dialogue as well as the same physical movements all throughout gameplay, so gender does not make a difference in characterization.

For once, there’s an awesome female character who isn’t standing in the background wearing stripper clothes or a chainmail bikini. FemShep is the one in charge, saving the day and representing the human race as the first human Specter, a sort of intergalactic special agent. She’s a strong, take-charge female leader, and we need to see more of those in both the fictional world of gaming as well as in the world we live in.

I was very happy to hear that FemShep was finally going to be a part of the advertisements for “Mass Effect.” Up until now, ads for the game all featured BroShep. Showing off the female half of the main character not only acknowledged her existence, but also the existence of the lady gamers. For once, I felt like the game’s creators were thinking of me just as much as they did their male players.

I began to feel apprehensive when I heard that Bioware was going to let people vote on Facebook to decide the new face of FemShep. I knew they were just trying to get people involved and excited about the upcoming “Mass Effect 3,” but I knew the Internet too. Voters were going to choose the one that was “the most bangable.”

My predictions turned out to be correct. The winner of that contest was a foxy blonde with a fancy haircut. I couldn’t believe it, but how could I have expected anything else? Of course they’d pick the blonde. Dudes dig the blondes. They’d all vote for the one they’d want to get with the most.

It seemed so wrong, though. A player has so many options to choose from when creating their Commander Shepherd, whether male or female. Why does the default have to be a blonde, white space vixen who makes me worry that her hair or her makeup or both will get in her eyes and distract her from the Geth Shock Trooper getting ready to shoot her in the face?

Luckily, Bioware gave players more choice in the design of FemShep by creating a second contest in which voters could choose the hair color of the winning design. The redhead won, which is pretty exciting for gingers and is also great because she looks a little more unique now, but only a little. This character that can be anybody is instead exactly what you would expect to see: an attractive young white woman. What price has been paid for the sake of getting FemShep out there for everyone else to see and enjoy?

I did find something that made me feel a little better, though. On the website The Mary Sue: A Girl Guide to Geek Culture, I found an article with a new way to look at the situation. In the article by Becky Chambers entitled, “The Ongoing Saga of Commander Shepherd’s Hair (Of All Things),” she brings up two perspectives to the FemShep situation. I could find the idea of a “sultry blonde Commander Shepherd” to be outrageous. Or, I could see a sexy FemShep as a statement that pretty girls can save the galaxy and wear their favorite shade of lip-gloss. Certainly Commander Shepherd can be a hot redhead and defeat the Reapers? Looks don’t control what one can and can’t do.

And one important thing to remember is that no matter what she looks like, Commander Shepherd’s characterization hasn’t changed a bit. She’s still the determined defender of the galactic life we know and love. The one in all the ads just looks like she’s going out for a night on the town. In space. With robots shooting at her from all angles.

As comforting as this notion is, though, it still does not help the fact that the FemShep that’s going to represent “Mass Effect 3” looks like what we always get: a pretty young white girl. If this character can be anyone, why couldn’t we get someone of Asian, African, or Hispanic descent? Why is she flawless? Why doesn’t she look a little older?

I certainly understand that Bioware wants to attract people to the game with an attractive character, but they could have achieved this by thinking more outside the box. Maybe in the future there will be more diverse characters in videogames, but for now players who are unhappy with the new face of FemShep will have to be content with the fact that they can make her look however they please inside the game.

“Mass Effect 3” will be released on March 6, 2012.

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