The Beginning
of Empathy

In the summer of 2013, I started becoming aware of a movement to boycott the as-yet unreleased Grand Theft Auto V specifically because you couldn’t choose to play as a female character. In particular, there was a Jezebel article that articulated this rather loudly, but I also recall talking about it with an acquaintance on Twitter. We were talking about both GTA V and Saints Row 3, and my friend refused to even consider playing GTA V:  “I only need one open world gangland sim in my life, and GTA won’t rate for me unless it adds a female PC.”

At the time, I found this line of reasoning profoundly pretentious, ridiculous, and ultimately misguided. For one thing, I found it preposterous that people were getting outraged over something that had never been promised or even hinted at in the first place. For another, the idea that you would actively choose to not play what by all appearances looked like the greatest game ever made solely because you couldn’t choose to play as a woman—in a franchise that has historically gone out of its way to treat women as horribly as they can be treated—seemed ludicrous. (Indeed, as of this writing, there are only two games in all of Rockstar’s catalog where you can choose to be a female character: the original Grand Theft Auto and Table Tennis.)

Of course, this hullabaloo took place long before the game had even come out.  Once I finally got my hands on GTA V, I found a host of reasons to be offended that had nothing to do with the treatment of women, even as the game’s treatment of women was somehow even worse than I’d anticipated.

*     *     *

I feel silly calling myself a feminist, even though I would consider myself very sympathetic and aligned with the feminist cause. It’s partly because I’m a man (and I’m not intuitively aware enough see through a woman’s perspective), and it’s partly because I have no grounding in feminist theory (beyond reading links posted by friends); but it’s mostly because I can’t in all good conscience call myself a feminist when I’ve done nothing to earn it.  I’m reluctant to open my mouth on the internet and say something that is intended to be supportive of the cause for fear of it coming out disastrously wrong and hurtful. I mean, I’m having trouble right now writing this very essay, explaining why it’s difficult for me to write it.

And it’s also that I’m not sure I’m the right person to say anything, anyway. Like:  just a few months ago, Louis CK received a whole heap of praise for the “Fat Girl” monologue. But a number of people also pointed out that women have been saying the exact same things for years and nobody’s noticed. Why does Louis CK suddenly become a paragon of virtue, and not the actual victims of this situation who’ve been speaking out?

As it stands, there are any number of smarter, more eloquent people who say the things I want to say, and they say those things to much larger audiences, and I suppose I’ve been content to favorite their tweets and repost their Tumblr articles, thereby disguising my apathy as public empathy. I mean, I agree with these things; I’ve just never felt comfortable to find my own words to say them out loud.

If nothing else, I am merely self-aware enough to know that I am profoundly ignorant.

*     *     *

Every once in a while, I’ll take a personal inventory and examine my consumption of media, specifically to see who’s making it. Am I listening to any non-white male musicians? Am I reading any non-white male authors? Am I watching films written and/or directed by non-white males?  The number is usually on the low side, and then I feel guilty, and then I feel dumb because I realize that part of the reason why I do this thought exercise in the first place is to see if the answer is “enough”, and then a smaller, cynical voice in my head wonders who exactly it is that I think I’m trying to impress.

I bring this up because my original pitch for this article was to write about my experiences playing as a female character in a game. Now, I’m well aware that the world does not need yet another “think piece” about a white heterosexual male playing as a female character in a game. My angle instead was to do one of these personal inventories and look at all the games I’ve ever played, and see which ones only featured female characters, and which ones gave you the option to customize your character and which of those I’d chosen to play as a woman.

And I’d actually gone ahead and looked at the total number of games in my Steam library (370), and then I looked at the games that specifically starred female characters (which I could count on two hands only if I included things like Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Part Two and Vella’s side of the first half of Broken Age).

And then I incorporated my console games and could only come up with a few more titles (and I felt weird including games like Bayonetta, since I didn’t finish it—partially because I found the game juvenile and absurd and also batshit insane).

I remembered that I played FemShep throughout my multiple playthroughs of all three Mass Effect games (because Jennifer Hale totally kills it, and she kills it on both sides of the paragon/renegade spectrum, and basically her performance is one of my all-time favorites), and that I rolled a female Monk in Diablo 3, and that when I succumbed to yet another Steam sale and bought Skyrim at a deep discount (after beating it and not really liking it on the Xbox 360), I decided to reroll as a female mage (and found that a change of gender did not really change my overall opinion of the game as a whole).

And then I remembered that there’s a female class in Borderlands 2, but it’s a class that doesn’t appeal to my play style, and so I never tried it. And that there’s also female characters in Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, but gender (and color) don’t really factor in the play experience; the urgency of the L4D games means that there is almost no time to role play in those games anyway.

I even rolled a female Titan in the recent Bungie beta, specifically just to see if anybody treated me any differently. Nobody noticed, but that could very well have been because everyone was wearing a helmet.

Here’s the point, which I am slow to get to:  the numbers in this thought experiment were profoundly depressing. I wanted to discuss my experiences playing as female characters, or to explain why I’ve chosen to play as female characters when given the opportunity, but I found that in both cases I had such a minuscule sample size that I had absolutely no idea where to start.

I mean, the two Portal games are among my all-time favorites, but does the fact you play as a woman mean anything in the same way that playing as Lara Croft does, beyond the simple fact that it’s a significant franchise that happens to star a female character?  As Chell, you’re given no dialogue—hell, you’re not even given a last name—and you only know you’re female when you happen to see yourself through one of your own portal. It’s cool that Valve made her a non-white male when they could just have easily not, but is Chell a relatable, three-dimensional person?  Can you identify with her?  You can cosplay as her, but does that make her anything beyond an empty vessel?

Or is the more relevant question: does she have to be?

When I think about all the games I’ve ever played, and the characters I’ve inhabited in those games, I’m not sure I’ve ever related to any of them. I’ve never fired a gun, I’ve never come close to saving the world, and with my anxiety disorders and stomach problems it’s a wonder I even leave the house most of the time. I can appreciate the escapist fantasies that these games present, but I can’t empathize. The vast majority of games I’ve played aren’t interested in telling the types of stories I can get lost in; they are content to hang the barest of narrative threads that justify me going from Point A to Point B and blowing shit up along the way. I suppose that speaks as much to my choice in games as it does to the types of games that are offered, but in any event the end result is the same.

And yet after all this reflection, I can’t help but note the terrific irony that the closest I’ve ever come to relating to a character in a game is when I played as Kaitlin, the older sister/player character in Gone Home. I’m an older sibling, too, with a close relationship with my younger brother; Kaitlin and I are almost exactly the same age; and I’m more than intimately familiar with the feeling of being lost and alone in the mid-1990s. And I, too, came home from college to find myself somewhat of a stranger in my own house—perhaps not to the same extent that Kaitlin did, but I understood her trepidation.  And even though Gone Home is not Kaitlin’s story, it’s still her experience of exploration and discovery that enables the narrative to proceed. By the time the game was over, and the tears streamed down my face, I felt like I’d done a good thing. Gone Home felt true to me in ways that other games never had before.

*     *     *

As I started to fret about this piece, and the limited amount of experiences I’d accumulated, I suddenly remembered the aforementioned GTA V boycott. And, just as suddenly, I started to see the point.

Leaving aside the fact that you can create a female character in GTA Online (and that, in my opinion, GTA Online is an intriguing first draft of something potentially amazing, but isn’t quite there yet), the point of the boycott (as I understood it) was that the Grand Theft Auto franchise is a spectacle unto itself, a marketplace behemoth that even the Halos and Call of Dutys can only hope to aspire to; and that when you’re literally the biggest game in town, you have opportunities available to you that nobody else has. A GTA game that starred a female character would be unprecedented on so many levels that it’s impossible to keep track of them all.

But a GTA game that starred a female character would require a radical rethinking on Rockstar’s part. Rockstar’s storytelling style has always been focused on crafting a character-specific narrative—the stories they tell are absolutely 100% dependent on the characters they give you, and while they’ve experimented in narrative choice, they’ve never allowed you to create your own character from scratch. (And this is partially why playing as a mute woman character in GTA Online is not necessarily getting the job done.)

GTA has always prided itself on its satire and its subversion of pop culture. The irony here, though, is that Rockstar creating a female-fronted GTA game would be the most subversive thing they could possibly do.

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I'm a musician, a proud father, and a long-time gamer. I write about video games at Shouts From The Couch and Gamemoir, and I'll occasionally tweet from @couchshouts. You can find me on XBL, PSN and Steam as JervoNYC.

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