Playing FemShep

In the past I used to only play male avatars in videogames, when I was given the choice. I’m not going to lie: That choice was, as a young man literally connected to fear of sin. Like, it was in my mind somehow voyeuristic and wrong to command a woman in a videogame space.

Don’t try and unpack what ten-year-old-me thought of videogames. Just know that I was so afraid of sin that when you presented me with a choice to play a man or a woman, I would always take the man because I thought that was the only moral option.

When I started playing MMOs – particularly, City of Heroes, where expression and character design were prominent, I had hold-overs of this. I felt that anyone making a female character was probably a guy, and probably doing it to voyeuristically ogle their character. And that was screwed up and stupid, and thankfully amended in no small part by women who played the game talking to me. But around the point I decided I shouldn’t play women – a point in my path that’s embarassing to reflect upon – I made a resolution.

I liked looking at attractive women. I liked playing men. Therefore, as a character designer, it was very important to me that I make attractive men. I operated on the assumption that the interest cut both ways. How to do that? Well, I tended to ask women and gay men what they thought of how my characters looked. Concept could flex around design, and I could adjust what they had going on visually.

Then, City of Heroes shuttered, and I went back to mostly playing single-player videogames. In this space, I went back to old unexamined choices, crystallised with the moment where I sat down, looking at the Mass Effect character creation screen.

I had made a guy Shep four times, and gone back to restart character customisation over and over again.

I still had a lot of that guilt swirling around. A lot of that holdover. I thought about it long and hard, but I realised, in all the lead-up to playing the Mass Effect games, I had never imagined the protagonist as being a guy. So… glancing over my shoulder in case someone would make fun of me, I made a female Shep.

I played her pretty chaste, truth be told. What wound up coming of this was the woman I know now as Adrian Shepard. Adrian is a woman who has an unrequited love; a flaring temper that she only unleashes when she can put it to some use; she has a workplace where people who know her personally respect her, but the people with authority over her don’t. I don’t think her story – of respect, and power, and rage – would have been as interesting if she was what I’d almost made at first – some white dude. I’ve seen that story before. I don’t see stories like that typically told about women.

I still struggle with these weird marks from my childhood on my brain. But I’m glad I resisted it.

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