essay, teaching

“true” equals man?

The slides and archived stream for Robert Yang’s talk on “Queering Game Development” have gone up. It is full of important points about gender representation and the current state of first person games (gun equals penis). And, although it deals primarily with gender encoding, it also includes a great lesson on other representations of self in games too.

Yang does a great job of reducing the enforced binary and often troubling representation of gender in many games into the following single line of code.

myGender = true;

The myGender variable, assuming this was a property of something like a Character object, is set to the “true” Boolean value. And on the surface, it seems innocent enough too. Yet, what it hides is something deeply problematic.

What exactly does “true” mean here?

Is it that “true” equals man? If that is the case, then does the system (and even potentially the programmer) privilege men over women? Is “man” the default value — the assumed normal?

For example, consider the following simple if-else that would test for the value of myGender.

if(myGender) {
} else {
}

The code for testing for “man” (assuming the simplest coding practice) would be first. The other — actual, Other — would be the else. The conditional would look for “man” and then handle anything else secondly. The “woman” (false) would be literally not “man” (true).

It is just as problematic for the inverse Boolean setup too. Encoding myGender to be a “true” Boolean value for a default of woman is equally troubling. Using a Boolean, then, just doesn’t work here. It restricts the value to an either-or with a programmer or team deciding which is the most important — either “man” or “woman”.

Of course, this is a rather simple (but common) example too. As Yang mentions, such encoding on a system-wide level can be seen in other places as well. Skills like “FeministWhore” from Dead Rising (clearly not an “obscure debug function” as stated by the developer) is one major example from a shipped game.

Yet, these problems persist. We, as players, are told to pick: one or the other. You cannot be both, or even neither. You must make this decision and it will affect everything else (we are told). Men over here. Woman over there. Don’t move.

Never mind that, as inculcated into such a system, we are quicker to accept Men and Women as irreconcilably different afterwards too. Once we “pick,” we are off to make another decision. Buried in menus and options, we forget to ask (or code) a reason for any of it. Based solely on the words (and thus our personally cultural understandings), we pick, choose and then name.

All of which comes from the choice to even include “gender” in the first place.