I’ve been thinking a lot about gender, and particularly how it works in gaming culture and is portrayed in games. For background, I encourage you to check out any of the many great projects and calls-to arms that have dragged into spotlight some very real issues and tendencies that range from the slightly ignorant or oblivious to the downright hostile (look up @FemFreq or search Twitter for #onereasonwhy for instance).
This is a massive subject, and there is a lot of historic baggage to deal with and many things to consider and change. But here’s one simple thing to start with.
What we should do is to question the choice of gender whenever we can. Meaning, whenever we create a character, we should question whether the character has to be male, female – or have a specified gender at all.
There are a number of games where gender is not present at all: “Lemmings” is one example. The important point is that “Lemmings” would not benefit at all from an added gender perspective, so it made sense to let the character design reflect that. Similarly, you can probably find examples where it made sense to make a character male, female or transgender, but very often a different choice would make as much or even more sense. (The original Alien script has all characters written as generic males with a note in the script explicitly stating “The crew is unisex and all parts are interchangeable for men or women”)
When we make our decisions on gender we have to look closely at what our characters’ roles are in the particular context. The context defines how our characters’ traits and actions will be perceived by the player. It is possible to create characters that even express sexist opinions – given that you have a context where you deal with the subject properly. (On the realism of sexism is a good post on this matter)
So, questioning the gender choice will require awareness about what we are trying to achieve. If we lose track of our core idea, it could go wrong. The LEGO figurine is an example of a design that was previously unspecified in terms of gender but that no longer is. (Most) LEGO bricks are designed to allow the child to use them in a million ways. A brick works as a brick in a wall, a part of a tree trunk, a loaf of bread or as a rock outside of a moon-base. It was the same with the iconic LEGO figurines. The same little humanoid played the role of astronaut, mother, robot, corpse, James Bond – pretty much whatever the playing child could imagine.
Unfortunately, later LEGO designs invalidated this core design principle of unleashing imagination by locking the figurines into distinct roles: females, males, robots, Harry Potters, Darth Mauls. I believe this not only helps cement oppressive and square ideas about gender in our society, it also makes LEGO a worse product. There is definitely an appeal in including well known, popular and iconic characters, and I guess there is good business there, but I don’t see why all of LEGO had to be gender specified – there really is no point.