I've been a gamer since I was a nameless, genderless, adventurer in games like Zork and Myst. I then moved on to the Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights, Icewind Dales series of games and I always had the option to play as a female. I didn't even realize that being a woman who played video games was something unusual, because I always managed to find games that accommodated playing as a female or alternatively they were simplistic games where gender wasn't present (pacman was pretty genderless, aside from the name, until Ms. Pacman came along!) . These WRPG games all had wonderful male and female characters and even the occasional romantic interest for those choosing to play as female (though I still dislike Anomen... such a whiny, high maintenance boyfriend he was!). Eventually I moved onto console games when my husband bought me a Dreamcast one Christmas.
D2... I remember feeling sooo cold!
I could still continue to be Lara as I raided tombs and shimmied along ledges, I was a woman surviving a plane crash in a creepy arctic wasteland in D2, I could be a girl rescuing the President's daughter by hitting bad guys over the head with a giant tuna in Dynamite Cop, I was a female in Phantasy Star and other games like Carrier... but gradually an odd thing happened... and an odd appendage started to appear more often on my avatars... I was growing a digital dick. I was Claire or Jill in much of the Resident Evil games, but occasionally I morphed into a male character. In TimeStalkers I had to play much of the game as a spiky, blue-haired boy until I could switch out to one of the 3 playable female characters. In games like Shenmue, Blue Stinger, Shadowman and the early Tom Clancy games... well it was a full on twig and berries show.
When I moved on to the PSP and PS3, things actually got worst. Increasingly I found myself with stubbly facial growth and pant protrusions. I guess part of the issue is that my interest in various genres had grown and I also had the time to play more games... so increasingly my option to play as a female was more limited, because I was simply playing more games. It's actually somewhat astonishing, given the historical demographics of a very strongly male audience for video games that for so long in gaming, there has so often been the option to play as a female character. I'm not sure if this was a nod to the very small number of females who have always played video games, if this was simply an option that males seemed to like having, or if devs have generally just tried to keep games somewhat "genderless" in hopes of attracting broader audiences. Regardless of the reasons, it's still pretty awesome!
I could probably have continued to play as female if I had limited myself to various specific games or genres like WRPG's, but as I came to accept my digital dick, an interesting thing began to happen... regardless of the gender of the character, it was still "me". I was the one crawling through the grass with my sniper rifle following Captain Price in Modern Warfare, I was the one fighting off hordes of Chimera in Resistance... and it was "me" free running though cities, saving civilians and assassinating Templars in games like Assassin's Creed. When we speak of books or movies, we refer to the characters, but when we speak of video games, we are much more inclined to speak in the first person: "when I killed Visari" in Killzone 2, or "I was shocked to find out Atlas had betrayed me", in Bioshock. The first person perspective in current games is even more of an immersive factor in erasing the gender barriers between the games protagonist and the player. I AM Gordon Freeman... and "Gordon" has boobs.
More so than any other media, gaming has the capacity for men and women to be truly equal, however there is a small caveat in that many games tend to view the world through a male lens, and in particular the alpha male hero archetype. We are physically strong, courageous, independent, inclined towards violent resolution, protectors of the weak, attractive, and dominant. Now there's nothing wrong with men or women aspiring to most of those qualities (though in real life violent resolution isn't usually the best recourse!), but the view of most any story where there is a choice of male or female characters is still mostly told through a lens of what has historically been a male view. Many video game female characters are essentially men in a dress with boobs. It should be noted though, that being a real-life female, I often find to this be gender-freeing and it usurps me from the more typical female role often found in women's forms of entertainment. I don't really mind seeing the world through a male lens.
Do note however, that I said "many" games show us the world through a male lens, certainly not all. Interestingly, some video games also provide a uniquely female lens in unexpected ways. As a female, I have a reluctance to walk in the downtown core of most large cities at night. There is a small risk that I will be assaulted, or worst... raped. While men too should fear for their safety, I don't know that they can experience the same fear that a female does. In some ways, games like Dragon's Dogma can allow men to see the world through a female lens. When night falls in the game, it's black. If you have some lanterns, you might feel a bit safer... but not much. Male or female, most of us stick to the roads and very carefully walk along - fearing the night and what might lurk within. You will be assaulted, and on your first play through before you know where the enemies are... you will at some point come across a particularly large, nasty beast or larger horde of beasts... and they will kill you. It's not much... but this is somewhat of a female lens on the world than men can experience for themselves... in a video game. Another aspect of this female lens can be found in the Dragon Age games. Historically in our society, men make the sexual overtures and women can accept or decline. In Dragon Age, even if you are playing as a male, you have to wait for the female to signal their interest... but then you have the option to accept or decline. This is a subtle thing... but men have the option to accept or decline a sexual invitation.... from a woman. This aspect is more a recognition of how much our society has changed in recent years, but it's still a tiny insight into a traditional woman's perspective that men can experience. Video games reflect our changing culture in other ways too... just as women are stronger and more violent (a male lens)... men spend much of their in-game money to not just acquire a house... but many spend hours decorating it in order to make it feel more like their "home". They cook potions and food, they can use charm instead of violence to get information, they sort though chests and chests of clothing that serves various purposes and sometimes wearing a certain outfit just makes them feel good.
More than any other contemporary form of media, video games are wonderfully non-gendered. Whatever gender you currently are, in many video games you can sprout boobs or a digital dick and play as the opposite gender by choice. Even when there is no choice, the immersive and active (rather than passive) nature of video games allow us a unique lens on the world that combines the gender of our character with our own gender. I do hope that gaming progresses in it's character development to show more unique characters... so different from us, that we no longer see them from a first person perspective, but I also hope that gaming continues to provide us with the generic, gender-swappable, faceless characters that we can imprint our own experiences onto... because that's a very unique aspect to video games and something to be treasured and not disparaged.
.. and in the meantime, while I do wish that there were more options to play as a female character, particularly in online multiplayer FPS games... I've become a bit fond of my digital dick.
... and now to get back to getting my ass kicked in Call of Duty and Dark Souls... because regardless of my character's gender... it's still MY ass getting kicked. :(