Nov 21, 2022 - Technology

Big video games are dropping old gender restrictions on character creation

Video game screenshot of the character creation tool in Hogwarts Legacy. Options on display allow for changes to the character's voice and whether they will dorm with witches or wizards

Hogwarts Legacy. Screenshot: Avalanche Software, Warner Bros. Entertainment

Developers of some of the world’s most popular video games are expanding the tools players use to create characters: downplaying gendered terms and untethering options for body types, voice and other characteristics from gender selection.

Why it matters: The shift is part of a trend by the industry to be more inclusive to a wider set of players by letting them see themselves in the games they play.

  • Such changes are making these games more welcoming to trans and non-binary players and those who want to have such characters.
  • They also allow more deviation from gender stereotypes.

Details: A pre-release update for next week’s World of Warcraft Dragonflight, which expands the Activision Blizzard massively multiplayer online game that launched in 2004, renames “male” and “female” terms in its character creator for “body type 1,” and “body type 2.”

  • Earlier this year, EA’s The Sims 4, which plays out like a virtual dollhouse, began to let players customize pronouns — ”she/her,” “he/him,” “they/them” — for the Sims characters they create.
  • SquareEnix’s Harvestella, a recently released game that mixes farming with sword-fighting, gives players three options for their character’s gender: male, female or nonbinary.
  • The upcoming Harry Potter game Hogwarts Legacy is in the spotlight for its association, however distanced, with Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has repeatedly made transphobic comments. The game has such open-ended character customization tools that players can create trans wizards or witches. Its character creator, shown publicly earlier this month, lets players choose body types and voices independently of each other, then lets them select, without restriction, whether their character dorms with “wizards” or “witches.”

What they’re saying: “It’s undeniable that there has been a recent inflection point in the way developers approach character creators, particularly in games with higher fidelity graphics and character models,” Blair Durkee, the associate director of gaming at GLAAD, tells Axios.

  • She attributes this to “the growing recognition of gender diversity in society, led by younger generations” and cited a 2022 Gallup poll that found that one-fifth of Gen Z Americans identify as LGBT.
  • “A game that requires players to choose between rigidly binary gender options [man or woman] simply no longer reflects the world that we live in,” Durkee said.
  • Durkee, who consults with game creators, has seen the changes driven within studios by a spectrum of developers, including more senior developers who value diversity and believe more character options broaden their games’ reach.

The big picture: Video game character creators are often considered the measuring tool for how inclusive a game is.

  • For decades, some games have let players choose at least some basic options, often coded as male or female, with limited choices for body size, skin color or hairstyle.
  • Customizable hairstyles have historically lacked options for Black characters, prompting one Twitter user to track whether new game releases do.
  • Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series had long supported flexible clothing options for characters of different genders. But the series originally only offered players light color skin, forcing those who wanted their villagers to have darker skin to exploit the games’ system for suntans. (When Nintendo offered darker skin tones in the series’ Switch installment, a GameSpot critic wrote: “Finally I can be me.”)

Flashback: Game designers have faced challenges and opportunities of representing their players since the medium started.

  • The text adventure Zork, developed in 1977, intentionally didn’t state the player’s gender or any other characteristics, co-creator Dave Lebling said in a 2014 postmortem.
  • Character creators in games loosened restrictions about bodies, clothes and voices in fits and starts. Durkee said the 2014 game Sunset Overdrive, from Insomniac Games, was influential, giving players a wide range of non-gendered body types and letting them wear any type of clothing without limitation.

Yes, but making games more inclusive requires work and a commitment at all levels from game makers.

  • “Adding more diversity takes not only rethinking but also reengineering,” Durkee said.
  • That could involve crafting a storyline that better accounts for how the player’s character is identified or making sure animation systems can support a wider array of body types and clothing.
  • For game producer Daisuke Taka, the work his team did on Harvestella was worth it. “Using gender-neutral pronouns takes a relatively small amount of effort,” Taka told Eurogamer. “Yet the positive impact is huge, as it means you are making the effort to include everyone — and our game is for everyone."

The bottom line: The goal for developers isn’t to remove options, but to add more, Durkee says, and build a character creator that “understands all aspects of gender diversity.”

  • “We'd like to see an approach that continues to recognize men and women while including authentic options for trans men, trans women, and nonbinary characters at the same level of customization and quality,” she said.

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