Female Shepard – why is she a secret?

Working on a project this week, but I can take a break to spit some fire about Female Shepard.

I love Female Shepard, or FemShep as she is known to her fans. A lot of girls love her, and some guys love her too. I’ve seen a few articles about how great and under-appreciated she is, and it’s true. The released stats say that 80% of players play as male.

That statistic raises a few questions: does it count people who have characters of both genders? Multiple playthroughs? Unfinished games? But those questions don’t really matter. The more important question is this: How many more people would play as female Shepard if they knew she was an option?

How many people have overlooked Mass Effect because marketing primarily shows a single generic male face for the main character? If I go to the Mass Effect 2 homepage right now, there is no indication that I can play as a female, or even that traditional RPG dialogue is part of the gameplay. If I click on “game info” the features list doesn’t even reference character customization at all, not even as a bullet point. There’s not even a reference to “gender’ or “female” in the FAQ. Now let’s go to ME1′s slightly clunky and outdated page. The Game Information page at least acknowledges the concept of Roleplaying, but still fails to mention anywhere that you can play as a female. You have to find your way to the gameplay videos section to find any evidence of her existence. Even then it’s not explicitly stated, you just happen to click on one video and hey, there’s a girl. The evidence is pretty well hidden; it took me almost ten minutes to find it again to post that link, and I knew for sure that it existed and what I was looking for!

The main Mass Effect 2 site also doesn’t do a great job of conveying the aspects of Mass Effect that might appeal more to female players: the incredibly well-written dialogue and character interactions. On the front page the only hint that Mass Effect is an RPG comes from this single line: “Control your conversation with physical moments of intense action,” If I saw that page without foreknowledge of Mass Effect, that would sound like a description of quicktime events rather than a fully voiced dialogue and personality system.

The fixes for this are easy:  add a picture somewhere on the website front page that has a big, easily visible picture of the primary male Shepard and a smaller picture of femshep with the caption “customize your character” or “play as male or female.” Add a bullet point to the Game Info section that says “Customize your class, gender, and background!” The focus would still be on the iconic male version of Shepard, but right now there’s no clear reason for someone interested in the game to even suspect that a female version of Shepard exists.

Beyond updating the game’s website, and hopefully giving the ME3 box the same treatment, I would also suggest a small, intensely targeted advertising push designed to raise awareness of Femshep’s existence among female-friendly gamers. It could incorporate banner ads that feature a female Shepard, with those ads linking to a page on the ME2 site that includes some description of the character customization process and a gameplay video similar to those ME1 ones, featuring a female Shepard. This push could be focused exclusively on webcomics and blogs whose readership has a decent female population, like Girl Genius or Johnny Wander. I was personally inspired to finish ME1 and buy ME2 by Johnny Wander’s ME2 Romance parody comics. The comment thread accompanying that blog has a particularly telling post: “I used to think that Mass Effect was just one dumb shoot-em-up which unfortunately wasted the gorgeous graphics. Thanks to you I can see there’s a lot more.” If it takes a fan comic two years after your game’s release to showcase major features of your game, something is terribly wrong, and some targeted web advertising may be the way to fix it.

Some fans of Female Shepard made a thread about promoting her more on the official Bioware boards. There was a lot of back and forth arguing because hey! it’s the internet! One poster responded to the ruckus with this: “I see you guys really wanting this, but it seems more like if it were to be done, it would be to please 30-70 people.”

I don’t want Bioware to make people aware of FemShep to please me. They already have me. I already believe that Mass Effect 1 & 2 are, collectively, the best game ever made.

FemShep fans don’t want Bioware to publicize Female Shepard in order to feed our egos, or validate us in some way. We want their campaign to reach people like us, who are, as yet, unreached. I am completely serious when I say that I feel poorer for having spent three years of my life not knowing the wonder that is Mass Effect. I have never loved any game as much as I love this one. I have never fanned this hard over ANYTHING, in the history of me, and I fan really hard over a lot of things.

I think there are probably thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of girls out there who play RPGs, but don’t realize that Mass Effect is a heavily story-and-character-based RPG where you can play as a female commander who saves the universe (with optional romantic adventures). And yes there’s some shooting in there, but it’s actually not-that-scary. It’s totally do-able, even if you’ve never played a shooter before. I used to be a big anime fan, and having that background helps. I’ve been in a convention center with 10,000 other girls, most of whom play games. I’ve seen them with my own eyes. talked with them, so I have evidence of their existence. I’ve been on a panel where two girls and a guy teach a mix-gendered room about the history of the Megami-tensei series. I’ve seen a girl spend hundreds of hours on a fan translation of a falcom RPG. These girls are hungry for stories.  They are hungry for heroes.

And they don’t know about Mass Effect.

And that makes me SAD.

5 Responses to “Female Shepard – why is she a secret?”

  • Steve:

    Leah, Great rant!!

    I, quite by accident, dove into the Mass Effect Universe as FemShep and never looked back. I tried, on subsequent playthroughs, playing as a male Shep but it hurt to much, cringing and ears aching from the monotone, emotionless voice acting. But to your point. It is disheartening to observe the lack female protagonists/heroines, proportionately speaking, in video games. Even though I am a male I can relate (on a different level) as I am outside the usual demographic/target group of the gaming industry’s marketing strategies. I am 50 years old and have yet to find other serious players around my age. And, like the low number of outstanding female characters in gaming, so too is the lack of “mature” heroes somewhat unsettling. Elderly wizards and comic relief types just don’t cut it. And as a player, having grown up before the expolsion of mass media, I relied on scifi novels and Sgt Rock comics to vicariously live out my fantasies. Now, vid games are a wonderful means of allowing me hours of escapism. However, I digress. Perhaps your voice will become louder collectively with other female gamers and the game devs and marketing types will hear your cry. I certainly hope so. After all, diversity expands new worlds and maybe even new plot lines. I think we can agree on the need for a greater choice in gameplay.

    Thanks for your blog…good stuff, although admittedly I came in just to read your ME posts.

    Good luck with your project.

  • Typhaeon:

    This is more in reply to most of your smudboy-related posts on BSN, but please stop calling hypotheses “theories” when there’s a clear difference (that of evidence) between the two.

  • jose:

    Typhaeon, we’re not talking about science. ‘Theory’ has a meaning in vernacular English, too.

    About the post, this is probably a case of miscommunication between the guys who make the game and the guys who publicize and distribute it. Making an excellent protagonist only to keep her hidden from potential customers is nonsensical. Likely the distributors knew little about the game, and publicized it as a standard, mainstream shooter, which usually don’t allow players to customize their protagonist. You can’t see any mention at all to RPG features in the cover. Instead, you get this: “Wage intense shooter combat with a wide range of devastating weapons, tech attacks, and biotic powers customisable [sic] for each team member.”

  • Brand:

    Well, this is the kind of crap I think about a lot too, not just in terms of Mass Effect but games in general. When given a choice, I will always play a female character. I don’t even consider myself that feminine. It just feels right to be a female avatar.

    Unfortunately, I think marketing teams are afraid to even mention a female main because that might scare male buyers. Same goes with the RPG tag. RPGs are those weird Japanese games, with girly looking men, battles are a boring turn based affairs, and the plots are almost non-nonsensical crap, right? You and I know that isn’t always the case but I think marketing teams are scared to mention RPG because of labels like that.

    Back to female characters and just some annoying oddities, I remember back when I was playing Fallout 3, I remember fan being very angry that Bethesda has spent the time to add in a choice to be a female lead instead of fixing bugs. In Fallout, the main character’s don’t talk so it’s not like it’s a huge investment like it is for Mass Effect. Also, man dudes on the internet can be douches.

    But I do agree I think if more games where you can customize the gender of your character, you know actually mentioned that bit, that more females would be interested.

  • Jashkar:

    I am a male and I have played a female shepard through Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2.

    I absolutely LOVE my Jasmine Shepard. She’s the woman I’d love to marry and I’d definitely kill or die for. She’s smart, tough as nail and beautiful as a goddess.

    http://img202.imageshack.us/img202/7538/jasmineshepardiii.jpg

    I don’t think that there are fewer people play a female Shepard than male Shepard because she’s under-represented in media and marketing. The problem is this:

    In general female heroines seem “absolutely unlikely” and “lame”.

    If you look into movies and TV series there are very few heroines who sound “credible”.
    May be Ripley in Alien or Aeryn Sun in Farscape…if I look into all the movies and TV series I’ve ever seen I could only name those two as “credible”…

    In my opinion none of them could be deemed “sexy”…

    I don’t like Sigourney Weaver as a woman and I find her too little feminine, while Claudia Black is feminine, but I’d not call her “sexy”…

    …but definitely they were credible as “tough women”.

    However, if you look at those two (Claudia Black), one has ended becoming the “happy wife” for the other main character of the serie, John Crichton. Honestly I was hoping that those two characters “get together”, but well…becoming the “good wife” Aeryn Sun lost much part of that “special force feeling”. So we have two credible tough heroines and one ends up becoming “the wife of …”!

    Honestly Mass Effect is probably the first CRPG who *succeeds* in building a credible tough heroine. You could make her as beautiful as a top model, but, given the right choices, the plot will make her tougher than steel!

    However the problem is with the typical portrayal of the heroine:

    99% of them are lame and of the remaining 1% about half become “the good wife of …”!

    So probably a female Shepard is under-represented out of fear of this general perception of such a kind of character. Moreover you should consider that female players are definitely fewer than male players and how many male players would like to be represented by a female character?

    I did it as a whim…instead of playing someone “I could really feel like”, which would mean to have a male character, I choose to play someone “I could really like”! I have no idea of what could be like being a female Shepard…I am not tough as Commander Shepard in first place and I don’t have the “strange way of thinking” of a female…but we’ll…in the first Mass Effect
    I didn’t allow her to proceed with any romance because I was jealous…Kaidan was the nearest thing to romance and I had him killed because I was jealous. In Mass Effect 2 I let her romance with Jacob, but, apart from the fact that he didn’t look like me in any way, I though he was so much inferior to her…he really lacked character and his dialogue speeches in romance were so lame! But I was sad for her to be so alone and having no sex with anyone, so well…I choose the “most acceptable option” (at least he doesn’t look like a monster!). But well…how many male players do you think would make such a “weird choice” for character??

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