I recently started replaying Dragon Age: Origins. It’s a personal favorite of mine for a lot of nostalgic reasons. As RPG veterans are wont to do on the millionth playthrough of an aging game, I decided that this save was the right time to install some mods to spice things up. Partway through the process, a friend asked what site I use to gather mods for Origins. Upon visiting and browsing the site for himself, he said (and I’m paraphrasing) “Looking at the top mods list, it’s very clear who the intended audience is”.
The fact that I knew without him specifying that he was implying that Dragon Age mods are largely for women says something. It’s a fact I’d accepted based on my own anecdotal evidence with other fans for a long time. It just seems like the fan community for Dragon Age is largely populated by women. Many of the most well-known fan content creators are women. Apparently the modding catalogue appears directed at women. One of its most active fan communities can be found on Tumblr, which, dare I say is mostly for women.
The top downloaded mods on Nexus for Dragon Age are largely makeup variations, additional hairstyles, companion additions, romance scenes, etc. Meanwhile, browsing the Nexus top downloads for Skyrim is notably littered with nude mods for female characters. There is one worthwhile mod for nude male bodies but it’s easily outnumbered by several variations on naked women. (The fact that we all accept and perpetuate the myth that naked ladies are the sole interest of straight male gamers is an uphill battle for another day.)
This certainly isn’t to say that the gaming community is made up entirely of cis-gendered straight players. There’s a glorious spectrum represented in gaming whose interests cannot be so easily categorized by interest in male or female genitalia. As a lens for discussing gameplay mechanics, I am going to commit the sin of over-simplification. Whether or not makeup and hairstyles and romance should be predominantly female interests, I think we can all agree that our culture has socialized them to be that way. The same goes for naked ladies and pointy weapons being male interests.
If we assume that the modding community is an accurate portrayal of the audience most actively engaged with a game or franchise—which I will be for argument’s sake—why is a game like Dragon Age skewed so heavily female while Skyrim is decisively male? They’re both RPGs in which you can create your own custom main character. Both games offer a veritable buffet of customization options compared to the peers of their year. With so many choices, a player of any gender, identity, or sexuality could create a character they relate to reasonably well. If anyone has the opportunity to self-identify with a personally designed protagonist, why is it that both games elicit a gendered bias?
A 2009 study called “Men and Things, Women and People: A Meta-Analysis of Sex Differences in Interests” analyzes male and female interest in vocational categories as a way to explain the sex disparity in STEM careers. That’s “Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics” for those not hip to the acronym. To sum up the publication for those less interested in dense research texts than I, here is an excerpt from the analysis:
Except for a few variables, such as quantitative reasoning and spatial ability (Austin & Hanisch, 1990; Wai, Lubinski, & Ben-bow, in press), past research on individual differences domains other than interests has generally suggested that sex differences are small (Hyde, 2005; Maccoby, 1990). The present study, however, revealed substantial sex differences in vocational interests. The largest difference between men and women was found along the Things–People dimension, with men gravitated toward things-oriented careers and women gravitated toward people-oriented careers. Men generally showed more Realistic and Investigative interests as well as stronger interests in the STEM areas; in comparison, women tend to have more Artistic, Social, and Conventional interests and to express less interest in the STEM fields.
Although the study itself is largely related to vocational interests, I think that this fundamental difference in engagement can explain, at least in part, the masculine vs feminine skew between games who occupy even the same genre. What is it about Skyrim that makes it fundamentally about “things” and Dragon Age about “people”?
Skyrim has a story. It may even have a good story, but I would hazard to guess that its plot is not the primary motivator for most players. Common Skyrim knowledge suggests that it is much more about acquiring than experiencing. You acquire money, weapons, armor, rewards, skills, and items. Nothing about Skyrim suggests to the player that the characters or the story are intrinsically rewarding. Instead, they are a pleasant set-dressing to the treadmill of acquiring things in order to acquire more things. I imagine that anyone who has played both games can easily pick out their most prized weapon in Skyrim, though the same task would be more difficult in Dragon Age. Meanwhile, everyone has a favorite companion and romantic partner in Dragon Age. The same sentiment does not hold much water in Skyrim.
But why? On paper, they’re fraternal twins. You acquire and equip gear in both games. You are encouraged to find better gear, by questing or purchasing it, in order to be more effective in combat. Both games have companion characters. You can have relationships with your followers in both games. They both have stories, quests, currencies, and branching quest lines based on NPC dialogue. If they have so many of the same systems, how can they have such opposite intentions? Dragon Age and Skyrim differ at a base level in what they consider rewards. The activities that a player is encouraged to pursue are vastly different.
In Skyrim, the gear, the skills, and the numbers are all the reward. Why do you carry a Daedric Battleaxe in Skyrim? Not only does it have the highest damage rating of anything you’ve found so far, it looks awesome. Why does it matter that it looks awesome? Unless you’re a masochistic maniac, you play Skyrim in first-person. That axe is in your face constantly. And damn you look like a badass cleaving skulls with it. Which companion do you take with you in Skyrim? Why? Is it because your character has formed a special relationship with them or because their weapon choice perfectly complements yours? It’s because they are effectively another piece of gear you’ve acquired. The things themselves are their own reward in Skyrim. They look cool. They make you feel awesome. Carrying that Daedric Battleaxe reminds you of how you got it and how awesome that was.
The ultimate reward in Skyrim at the end of a lengthy quest is a lump-sum of gold and a chest with gear that you can’t buy at the local trader. Maybe you come across a locked chest deep in a dungeon you didn’t even mean to be exploring. It’s an Expert Lock but you’ve spent a lot of time levelling your lockpicking skills and, unwilling to be caught unprepared, you’ve got fifty-six lockpicks stuffed in your trousers. The sense of accomplishment you feel when it springs open is the reward for all the numbers and possessions you’ve accumulated: your numerical lockpicking skill, the lockpicks in your pocket, the diligent pilfering of every barrel in Skyrim to find them, and the fully-enchanted gear that carried your sorry hide this deep into the cavern. Skyrim rewards a player for carrying the best gear, maxing their stats, and amassing the most cash.
Dragon Age, by contrast, is all about the people. It’s about the story, the dialogue, and the companion side-quests. Who is your favorite party member in Dragon Age? Is it Alistair? Is it because when you flirt with him he makes that awkward joke about licking a lamppost in winter and seriously how adorable is that? Why do you romance Alistair every time? Doing so doesn’t make him more useful. It changes the story. It opens up conversation options that you wouldn’t have otherwise had. It leads to your favorite ending. Dragon Age gives little acknowledgement to the player who’s gotten the best gear. It’s useful, sure, but the real reward is that after you’ve mowed through darkspawn in the Deep Roads you can finally discover what’s happened to Paragon Branka. And when you get there, you’re rewarded with additional dialogue, more options, and more choices if you’ve done enough interacting and exploring beforehand.
The ultimate reward in Dragon Age is the pinnacle moment in a questline in which you are asked to make a judgement call. You carefully weigh each choice in the dialogue tree. What will each of your companions think? What would your character do? What would you do? The reward is an emotional pat on the back. “Sten approves” is an achievement in anyone’s book. In the end, the game is about characters, about people, morals, and social skills.
There is of course, no black and white. Plenty of players choose to play Dragon Age on Nightmare difficulty, placing a much higher priority on min-maxing and weapon choice. Plenty of Skyrim players love the lore of Elder Scrolls. Some diligently read every book they pick up and weigh quest choices based on a conviction to accurately roleplay the character they’ve created. Plenty have a favorite quest line. Dark Brotherhood, am I right? And yet, I’d argue that these players are the outliers. Those parts of either game are not what the mechanics themselves encourage, regardless of emergent player behavior.
That’s all well and good but who cares? Developers do, and so should you. The AAA market is competing for an audience of gamers increasingly vocal about representation and inclusion. Understanding the fundamental motivation for players in a game and whether or not it’s of interest to a major part of the population is extremely important. We’ve seen a shift happening already in major releases.
Fallout 4, in an unprecedented move for the series, included the ability to become romantic partners with certain companions. These relationship mechanics were relatively bare-bones, compared to a game like Dragon Age. However experimental, they existed because Bethesda recognized that a significant number of RPG players want some emphasis on emotional investment in characters. They recognized that their competition has capitalized on players who place a high value on that experience.
Consumer pockets aren’t limitless. To stay competitive, the AAA market, RPGs and otherwise, will have to continue examining which mechanics appeal to which segments of their audience. Those who effectively and efficiently include gameplay most rewarding to the largest population of players will win out in sales.
Do you feel that you conform to the sex-distinction between Things and People as it relates to your gaming habits? For our trans and queer players, do you feel that you relate more to Things vs People based on your sex or gender identity? Is it all just complete hogwash?
As our community of gamers becomes more openly diverse, it grows harder and harder for us to classify ourselves in convenient boxes, let alone for developers to do the same. That being said, I think that conversations about how identities intersect with interest become even more important. There are no easy answers, but when have there ever been?
This opinion piece is 100% open for discussion. If you have something to say, tweet at me or leave a comment below!