Feminist gaming blog with a heaping dash of science and politics

Breaking the Binary – Character Design in MMOs Part 2

The really beautiful thing about science fiction and fantasy is that it lets us explore ideas and circumstances different from our every day realities. They let us explore new places, meet new people, and live lives we could only dream of. It also lets us play with and push back on the ideas and values that our own society instills in us with heroic stories and epic sagas. And these stories are always at their absolute best when they make the alien familiar and the familiar alien to us, reflecting and refracting what we think we know. Our imagination is literally the limit when it comes to these kinds of story-telling.

So why then, in the vast majority of MMOs, the ultimate in interactive science fiction and fantasy story-telling, do we find ourselves meeting again and again races that are restricted to a gender and sex binary? And why is it always the same binary gender and sex system no matter if they are inter-galactic aliens, elves, dwarves, or beast races? Especially when we humans aren’t actually a binary species either?

Such tasty learning!

Such tasty learning!

This lovely little gingerbread denizen is a wonderful way to illustrate just how non-binary humans are with respect to both sex and gender. And even more so how sex, gender identity, and gender expression are not necessarily all tied together. Humans come in all shapes, identities, and modes of expressing themselves. That this is not a more commonly known concept is not because its rare for humans to fall outside of the “masculine man in a male body” and “feminine woman in a female body” circles, but because the mainstream culture does not do a good job of representing anybody but those who fall squarely into those circles. And this lack of media representation is very harmful. It makes their plights easier to ignore, their existence easier to gloss over, and their humanity easier to attack. Which is exactly why interactive science fiction and fantasy games, like MMOs, should be pushing the boundaries of what we can collectively imagine as ourselves being. If we can create and relate to goblins and wolf-people and zombies, we can and should be able to create and relate to non-binary characters as well.

Sadly, few games, and even fewer MMOs, have attempted to create character races that break either the sex or gender binary. Even more unfortunately, those that do have non-binary appearing races, seem to do so in problematic ways. Take for instance, the Dwarves of Lord of the Rings Online.

Also, can we please stop calling humans "Men" as a race/species name? It's really sexist.

Also, can we please stop calling humans “Men” as a race/species name? It’s really sexist.

In Tolkien cannon, Dwarves are a race with a sex binary, they have males and females and no mention of any other sexes. However, their gender identities and gender expressions also go largely unmentioned. The only thing we really know about Dwarven genders or sexes is that female Dwarves look so alike to male Dwarves that only Dwarves are able to tell the two sexes apart. Which, in the most gracious reading, could be seen as a race with two sexes, and only one gender identity and one gender expression.  In a less gracious reading, it was just Tolkien’s excuse to not have to write about female Dwarves in his overwhelmingly male-centric story. When it comes to LOTRO the game, the same two readings can be applied. However, there is the fact that female Dwarves do appear in game and are referred to as ‘she’, but a player character dwarf is never given the chance to choose a gender identity. With this execution in-game, the concept of the Dwarven race seems to fall back to a gender binary, although one with a convenient excuse to not design a second set of models or write code that let’s players choose their preferred pronouns.

There are also a couple of examples of mono-sexed race, as well, in MMO cannon. The first is the Greenskins from WAR. These lovely asexually reproducing fungi are the lore’s version of Orcs and Goblins.  Much like with the Dwarves of LOTRO, there is no mention of Greenskin gender identities or expression in-game. Now while its entirely possible, and an absolutely interesting concept to explore, that a mono-sexed race like the Greenskins would have no way of even conceiving of what gender is, it’s doesn’t seem to have been an avenue the game designers explore. Also, it seems, again much like with the Dwarves, awfully convenient that the Greenskin’s very masculine bodies match up with their very stereotypically masculine personalities and hyper-masculine society to give the impression of an all-male, man’s man kind of race.

They're a bunch of fun-guys. (Sorry, I had to.)

They’re a bunch of fun-guys. (Sorry, I had to.)

But what about a race that is mono-sex, but has a diverse enough spectrum of appearances to have the possibility of multiple gender identities or expressions? This might just be the case with Wildstar’s Chua race. They’ve only recently been announced and not much is known about them other than that they are being described as “genderless”  or “mono-gendered”. However I think this maybe that the persons doing the describing may be conflating gender and sex, or perhaps there are two sexes, but much like the Dwarves we can’t tell them apart and also don’t have a concept of gender. Like I said, it’s difficult to tell because of the lack of information out there at the moment. The exciting part about this new race, though, is that from the few pictures of them out there, it seems that they have access to a wide range of physical appearances that allows for different gender expressions and identities.

Of course we do seem to be running into the male as default and female as other problem in this picture.

Of course we do seem to hitting up against “male as default, female as marked other” type of gender expression.

Now, I know that might seem a bit contradictory: you ask for non-binary races, but when given such a thing you turn around and start wanting to take it in a whole different direction than what was intended. But that is because it’s not only what the game designers have written into their game that matters, but also what tools they’ve given players to express and explore within those parameters. When we play as non-binary races, we are not only getting the opportunity to play as a character that potentially pushes our boundaries of what we conceptualizes as gender, but for those of us who are already non-binary in real life it presents the opportunity to play as a character that represents them in a way they maybe haven’t gotten to before.

So, what could some of these non-binary races in MMOs look like? What about a race with 3 sexes and 5 genders? A race with 2 genders and 4 sexes? A race with 2 sexes and 2 genders but that can change or swap at different life points? A race with a highly customizable arrangement of sex characteristics and a nearly infinite array of gender identities and expressions, kinda like real life human beings?

And how would this look in game? How do you show a gender identity in game, or a gender expression, or sex? Well, gender identity can be a very complex concept, but a good place to start would be with allowing players to chose their preferred pronouns at character creation. And to not just offer ‘he’ or ‘she’ (or another human language equivalent), but offer non-gender specific pronouns or entirely made up ones to go along with an entirely made up race and it’s gender system. As for the other two, gender expression and physiological sex, those will be tackled in the next two parts of this series.

Before we get to those, though, I’d like to open the floor to some community brainstorming on the possible non-binary races we’d like to see in our MMOs and how you would like to see the non-binary-ness be brought to life in-game. Or even existing races who you’d like to see get fleshed out more and burst out of the confines of the binary box.


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