Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, yes, we’ve all probably read that somewhere at some stage in our lives, but as if we needed a book to remind us that men and women are different from each other, but it’s the differences that we celebrate. Having said that, however, there are those among us who feel that it needs to be settled once and for all which of the sexes is superior. So like an empty Slushy cup, mutual respect for each respective gender is cast aside and what ensues is this seeming never-ending battle of the sexes, and who is the victor? Is it the man with his raw strength, ability to lift heavy things and apparent knowledge of most things mechanical and technical? Or is it the woman with her unique ability to multitask, give birth to a child and balance the books once again saving the family from the dreaded red line? Could we not just call it “even”?
Last week in Funcom’s Friday Update for ‘Age of Conan’, we learned more about the women in Conan’s world, Hyboria. If you’re familiar with the works of Robert E. Howard, you’ll then know that his literary depictions of women in contrast with more contemporary literature were not all that flattering; it was the 1920s and 30s when he wrote his stories after all. But that does not give credence to say that there did not exist any strong female characters in Howard’s Conan stories at all. While few in number, they were around – Valeria and Bêlit spring to mind – and made their impression(s) on Conan, and not just in the physical sense either. But more to the point, your “average” woman in Hyboria was nothing short of the archetypal “damsel in distress” who would, on frequency, come to Conan seeking a strong arm and sharp blade to help rid themselves of their respective predicaments. Howard’s Hyboria was certainly a “man’s world”.
So Funcom comes along and has a look at the Conan license and decides that, while paying all due to respect to Howard’s works and bearing in mind the social contexts in which his stories were written, we’re in the twenty-first century now, and obviously things have changed. It’s not right that players be deprived of the opportunity to play a female character in any game these days, so naturally, players in ‘Age of Conan’ will be able to choose the gender of their characters (it’s a given in any MMOs on the market today). With that, it was important also that Funcom allow female characters to be just as strong and able as men in a given role despite what it written of women in Howard’s stories:
“The world circa-2007 is very different, in most places, than the 1930s in which the original Conan stories came around. Early on in our development, we therefore made a very clear and conscious choice: Namely that any female player in Hyboria should be just as strong and able as any man! The strong, fierce and independent female is perfectly in line with the lore of Howard, however, we have expanded it to include ALL the female players.”
Funcom has stressed the point that their goal in ‘Age of Conan’ was to make female playable characters in Hyboria just as strong and able as any man, because, let’s face it, it wouldn’t be fun to play a female character that is completely Conan lore-accurate. In a game like that, a female character would be endlessly “lfg” (“looking for group”), be “perma-feared” (a constant state of fear, i.e. “status effect”), and constantly telling the male members of their group, “You go first!” Thus it’s great that women are going to be just as able and strong as men in ‘Age of Conan’, but as eluded to in the opening paragraph, we know that men and women are distinct in their own strengths and abilities. So in a game that’s aiming for “magical realism”, how real can Funcom make this game?
It has been argued especially over the last week on the official ‘Age of Conan’ community forums that these differences between men and women should be iterated in the game. For example (and please keep in mind I’m being very general here and so I apologise in advance if this comes across as being sexist or chauvinistic – that’s not my intention), men are generally physically stronger, so their base statistics (Strength rating) should be inherently higher than a female’s. On the flip side, females are generally more flexible and agile, so this also should be reflected in their base statistics with an inherently higher Agility and or Dexterity rating. But why stop there? It has been scientifically proven that, on average, a man’s brain size is larger than that of a woman’s, so that could be a suggestion that men are more intelligent and perhaps are deserving of an inherently higher Intelligence rating than that of a female character, but at the same time, women are practical thinkers and in general are more creative, so perhaps that’s a suggestion that female characters are deserving of a higher Wisdom rating than that of a male character. But why stop there? Men, in general, are favoured more towards lines of work that involve the craft, that is, hammer, wood, nails, etc., so male characters should receive an inherent bonus to crafting abilities, but then again, women, in general, are favoured more towards lines of work that involve numbers and macro-management, so female characters should receive an inherent bonus to trade and mercantile skills. Can you see how ridiculous this is getting?
The point I’m trying to get across here is that “realism”, or as precise as you can make it, does not translate particularly well in the MMO setting. What you would get as a result of “realism” are players who would favour a particular gender over the other because it is more suited for a specific role in-game. Let’s look at the Rogue archetype, for example. Traditionally, rogues are known for their agility, dexterity, and ability to get out of a tight situation without relying [too much] on brute force; they would rather rely on their skill, nimbleness, and cunning to overcome an opponent, overcome an obstacle, or make a getaway if necessary. Using the “rules” set in the previous paragraph, you would find more players playing as female rogues simply because the gender is better suited to the role, but that’s not to say male rogues would be useless, no, but not as effective, and what gamer today would settle for something that’s only second best or under the benchmark? We, of course, want to experience things are their fullest potential, and so the “cookie-cutter” or “FOTM” (“flavour of the month”) build concepts comes into play and what we’re left with, eventually, is something predictable, recycled, and unimaginative. But of course, and thankfully, not everyone goes down this path, but why create the potential for it to happen in the first place?
To speak hypothetically again for a moment, let’s assume that because of their superior strength and natural ability to pick a fight anywhere at any time, that male characters are suited better to the Soldier archetype. The poor lad or lass that has rolled a female soldier you can imagine would struggle being picked up by a team because the mindset of the gamers in general would be that male Soldiers are better, and would perhaps leave the player thinking, “Why did I roll a female Soldier and not a male one? What a mistake!” And take competitive gameplay: in a world where min-maxing is gospel, to play anything that is non-optimal and not suited to a given role would be like shooting yourself in the foot, or, in gamer terms, “nerfing” yourself. A player should never feel like they’ve made an error in judgement in creating their character simply because they did not choose to play the “right” gender.
In terms of gender selection, using a “world-realistic” model in a game like ‘Age of Conan’ would be substantially difficult for developers to balance and would only encourage a culture of exclusivity in the game’s setting, or any other game for that matter. For the sake of gameplay and the player’s own personal enjoyment, males and females should be equal in ability as Funcom have made it their aim, and it shouldn’t matter whether you pick a male or a female for a particular archetype or class. Essentially, it should only come down to one question when selecting your gender at character creation, “Do I want to play a male or a female character?” and not a matter of, “Judging by their base stats, [insert gender here] are better suited towards [insert archetype or class here], so it would be better if I played that”. Okay, so matter of opinion is important too; you are entitled to think that men are better suited to this and women are better suited to that, but no one should feel limited by the game’s mechanic and design, and this is the heart of the argument. A player should be given the freedom to play either gender, and be confident in the fact that they are going to be just as able, strong, and effective in their role(s) as they would be playing the opposite.
The more you think about it, “reality” actually screams the fact that men and women are just as well suited to roles in society that are traditionally mantled by their counterparts, but this is mainly thanks to the fact that we have transcended the world that Robert E. Howard himself lived in and the one he creates in his Conan stories. We live in a world of equal rights and equal opportunities, so why shouldn’t this also be reflected in the games that we play, namely, the MMOs we log in to? We no longer live in a “man’s world” but nor do we live in a “woman’s world”. No, we live in a people’s world where every person is (or at least should be) treated equally in dignity and rights. So on further reflection, and perhaps they’ve done it unintentionally, Funcom in allowing female characters in ‘Age of Conan’ to be just as able and strong as their male counterparts, have mirrored that just like in real life, there is no job a man can do that a woman can’t do or do just as well.
Whether you be male or female in the Hyborian Age, be prepared to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their… significant others.
Until next fortnight, this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,
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© Stephen Spiteri, October 2007