Yes, yes, I know… I have 0 right to put forward any opinions about this. I’m not going to disagree. Seriously, I’m not. If you’re waiting for a “but” it just isn’t coming. For me (and I mean that, just me, this isn’t a manifesto it’s a personal preference) games (video- and otherwise) are a really cool medium because they don’t have to be characterised by gender at all.

There are plenty of counter-arguments to this of course and I’ll get them out of the way here so you don’t think I’m an idiot. What I consider “non-gendered” others may consider gendered or, even worse, “male”. In this case, I could be unable to conceive of this characterisation because of my restricted (read, gendered male) view. This would suck, but if what I consider to be “un-gendered” is not so, that’s not my fault. If, in a patriarchal system, the default space is patriarchal, I have a feeling that attempting to make this overtly feminine would only worsen the situation. Consider this: you decide to set a game on a white piece of paper – the semiotic implications of the white sheet encourage some viewers to think of my game as male. If I was to attempt to set my game on a pink sheet of paper, believing this will somehow change the game’s association to be in some way more feminine, only those who agree pink is feminine are appeased. And given the history of pink and its social normalisation as both masculine and feminine throughout western history, this would be particularly troublesome. If I attempt a colour with neither race nor gender implications – say… purple? – then my move to orient myself within some social framework will, undoubtedly, have some ramifications and cause someone offence somewhere. Essentially, I can’t win. I could, of course, allow the user to tweak the colour scheme of my game, and that is why games are amazing, but for the minute lets just adhere to the assumption that nothing is neutral and therefore best intentions to be neutral are the closest we can get to not offending anyone.

The other aspect of this is that the game itself may not have a gendered aesthetic or gendered characters but the player will always be gendered. Well, in this aspect I would have to take a Butlerian, “gender is performative” stance and argue back that we lose our gender and possibly find another one in the act of play. Turing once argued that during the process of mental arithmetic humans function as machines. Well, I would argue that during the process of playing an as near to non-gendered game as is possible, the gendered human loses its original gender and is augmented by the need to perform specific actions as the game intends rather than as you would like. Your new gender would be a fusion of whatever you brought to the game-table clashing with whatever the game was sending back. When you step away from the machine – well, maybe you’ve changed a little forever, but – honestly – when the majority humans aren’t just part of a machine, they kind fall off my academic radar.

A last counter-point would be that you could say the same about animation or possibly abstract theatre. I agree, and would love to see more animation and theatre go in that direction. Wall-E springs to mind as a kind of example and disappointment all in one. I like Wall-E and Eva’s interactions in the film. I think both of the robots (and they do appear to be robots, not cyborgs) display a spectrum of gender traits, sometimes being typically “Martian” (invoking Mars, all that is studly and war-like in the world) and in other moments being “Venusian” (flowers, blushing and all that). However, there is just something about the square/circle, rough/smooth dichotomy between them that I think a western child would perhaps too readily say, “Wall-E is a boy robot”, not recognising how ludicrous that is. So, really, I think you’d always be making an argument for, in those cases, rather than witnessing the lack of gender being self-evident.

By contrast, and drawing from videogames, I’ve been playing a lot of games that have a focus on puzzles and physics. Their narrative or meta-narrative could be summed up as, “things behave in certain ways because of defined rules. But these rules are not beyond change. This is cool.” I’m talking here about Portal (in which, this is the meta-narrative) Anti-chamber (in which, this is the primary narrative) and Relativity (I have a press copy, ha). Portal is a bit special and deserves more rigorous discussion and I will get to that. However, with Anti-chamber and Relativity, the gender of the on screen avatar is entirely irrelevant. Gender as a whole, including the player and the world represented, seems to just take a back seat in these cases.

For me, this ability to be genderless is a good thing. A really good thing. When playing through Anti-chamber, it’s cold, inhuman world seems to ask you different questions than those we have become familiar with. There is no mention of fate, no reason for questing. Rather, the point of the quest, the world of the game and the mechanics of play seem to be the unravelling of our assumptions about the world we inhabit. What are dimensions? What is colour? What can we see and should we trust it? The same goes for Relativity which, in its current build, is kind of a less oppressive, more sand-box feeling Anti-chamber successor. Using the looped, Pac-Man like space that only videogames allow, it successfully creates a world in which concepts like direction and orientation can be imploded.

Which brings me to Portal. It is perhaps unfair to judge Portal by the same standards as its off-spring. I’m not going to mention Portal 2 here as I think it is actually, largely in the same bracket and Anti-chamber and Relativity. However, Portal really does deserve to be discussed because it dares to be both gendered and non-gendered at the same time in a way that makes it avant guard today but has also future proofed it for the more racially and gender diverse future. The protagonist of Portal is a black, female scientist that is exceptionally physically capable, utterly fearless and entirely silent. Of course, much of this characterisation comes from the player’s control of the character and, if we took play experiences as narratively canonical then she is also immortal. Leaving that aside, however, this “casting decision” for lack of more appropriate phrase, is one too overtly exceptional to not, currently, consider it political.

Portal asks, what I feel, is an obvious question: why, when gender is not an integral part of the narrative, do we default to making characters white males? Why not black females? There is an inherent danger here, making the black female a seemingly oriental body, but that so completely validates the point. Why is the body of Portal’s avatar exceptional? With the film and television industry there is a whole myriad of factors to take into consideration. But when something like Portal has already paved the way, showing that audiences will completely accept and celebrate the casting of a black female as the protagonist of a game, why have other designers still set on using human forms as their avatars remained so cowardly and unimaginative. I was about to mention how I haven’t seen a game whose protagonist was female but not still in peak physical condition (i.e., a media-praised body weight and height) but then I remembered Fat Princess. Then again, it maybe isn’t the kind of body diversity representation we’re looking for.

Games, I believe, have the ability to create a non-gendered paradigm more acutely than any other preceding medium. What’s more, they may have the ability to help normalise what are persistently, offensively underrepresented body types and ethnicities. When we default, when we create a character who is neither male, female, white or black within the narrative, I would always stray towards “neutral” or “abstract”. But perhaps that isn’t the most positive move? Maybe the best action would be to look around you? Too see what forms are represented on the Steam marketplace and think how an hour or two in your chosen model creation platform, even a texture wrap, can help to represent a minority in some small way in western media. But if that makes you feel uncomfortable, please do anything other than Marcus fucking Phoenix.