Gender Swapping Heroes

This is another one of those hot button issues that’s making its rounds today. Again, leave it to Twitter to make me aware of another bit of outrage that the gaming community is up in arms about. I don’t make it a habit of talking about every single big deal on the Internet, but I have some thoughts on this particular issue. Be warned that this is a touchy subject, but you all should know me well enough by now that I don’t shy away from controversial topics. It’s political, it’s got some feminist angles, and there are most definitely two sides to the story. Let’s try to remember that I’m just one person full of opinions, and that doesn’t make me right or wrong, it just makes me a member of society and a person who thinks about big picture issues, even when they pertain to something as insignificant as gaming. With that said, let’s get into it, shall we?

Every year it’s the same story. Some game developer says or does something at a gaming conference, when all of the media is paying attention, and things get reported. Once the denizens of the Internet get their hands on the story, it’s game over. This time the developer in the fire is Nintendo, and the subject at hand is the fact that there won’t be a female version of Link in the new Legend of Zelda game. Here’s a link to a story that I saw on Twitter, where this conversation first developed and the issue was first brought to my attention. Read it here. I’ll wait.


I get part of the issue. Women want representation. So-called Minorities want representation. LGBT groups want representation. There is nothing wrong with wanting representation, to having someone you can relate to in the games that you play. A hero to look up to, no matter who you happen to be. I also have no problem recognizing that there are plenty of White Male “CIS” characters, and I am totally on board with a level playing field. That said, I do think that the gender swapping of iconic characters is wrong. Here’s why.

Remember Anita Sarkeesian? Yeah, you know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, a cursory google search will give you all the information you need. She has this little YouTube channel called “Feminist Frequency” and on it, she critiques video game design while looking through a feminist lens. At this point in time I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Sarkeesian, mainly because she has let the spotlight go to her head and I do believe that she’s more in this for the money than the actual betterment of society. However, she has played an important role in my life. Believe it or not, there was a time when I was a little less open-minded and a little more nonchalant about being an asshole towards anyone who was different than me. Between several blogging friends, Sarkeesian’s work, and some of my own research and desire to be a decent fucking human being, I feel like I’ve come a long way towards being a nicer and more tolerant person. But let’s get back on point.

Sarkeesian created a video nearly three years ago called “Ms. Male Character,” in which the main point was that creating a character that was a tweaked version of the male character is detrimental to the “new” character. The most prominent example was that of Ms. Pac-Man, which was simply Pac-Man with a bow affixed to his head. I’m paraphrasing here, and there was much more to that video, so I suggest you head over and watch it with the link provided above.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. Wouldn’t a female version of Link then, be exactly the same sort of concept? You’re merely changing the gender of the character, while the game remains the same? During the discussion on Twitter, points were made about how Link was always “gender-neutral” or that Link isn’t a character but rather a “postition,” so gender doesn’t even matter. I would argue though, that the original Legend of Zelda game was merely a version of the oldest trope in the book – the “damsel in distress,” and that Link is clearly a male in that instance. He felt pretty male in all of the games I played, but that could just be me projecting. Either way, it’s not just about Link here. If we zero in on the minute details of this one particular story, we’re ignoring the big picture, and that’s where Twitter conversations tend to derail. Hence, blog post.

We can look at more real life situations too; take for instance the recent Ghostbusters movie. In the original movies and even a cartoon show, all of the ghostbusters were male, and in the new movie, they have changed them all into females. For me, this wasn’t that big of a deal because I’m not a fan of Ghostbusters. On that same token, I’m not a fan of Zelda games or Nintendo in general either, so that has little affect on my mood either. Still, these examples correlate because you’re taking iconic, classic characters with lore and a fanbase and then turning them into Ms. Pac-Man. Ghostbusters with a bow affixed to their heads. You see where I’m going with this.

There… I fixed it.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like people are arguing for and against the same thing. I think the larger point here, is that there are games being created, games coming out in the not so distant future featuring awesome female leads. Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of them; one look at that gameplay trailer and I was floored. Not only was this a strong and capable woman, but she was dressed sensibly and fought like a bad ass to boot. I’m not complaining that it’s a female lead, I’m embracing it. Wouldn’t you prefer developers who are taking risks and creating new and wonderful things over developers who affix bows to the heads of their male characters? I’m not a woman, but I imagine that’s what I would want.


24 thoughts on “Gender Swapping Heroes

  1. Great read. Personally, I think people are making a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t identify as Anglo/white so does that mean I get to tell the game developers to cater games specifically to me?

    I have never played, and probably never will play, a game that features a protagonist of my race, so does that mean I should just abandon gaming altogether? My 5-year-old-self didn’t give 2 shits that none of his games featured Armenian characters. And neither does my 31-year-old self. That doesn’t mean I’m blind to the appeal of playing a game with characters you racially/genderally (so I invented a word, bite me) identifty with.

    When I played Metro: Last Light, I was keenly aware that the main character of Artem was very similar racially to me and that did help create a stronger connection (it helps that Artem is the Russian version of Artyom, the name of my younger brother). But that doesn’t mean I’m going to go on a crusade to change Captain America into a Russian.

    Frankly, as a male that will frequently play a female character when given the option, I find the argument “you need to design game protagonists that represent me so I can identify with them” to be specious. The gaming character I have ever most identified with is my WHITE FEMALE Sith Warrior (from Star Wars: The Old Republic) who speaks with an English accent no less. Why? Because Bioware are exceptional storytellers and they gave me to tools to shape my character’s personality.

    Personality. Something infinitely more important than my character’s looks.


    • I purposely avoided the race card, but you’re absolutely right, there isn’t an equal amount of representation among the races either.


  2. I don’t demand that developers include character options that reflect my gender but it is appreciated. Because I play mostly MMOs, this usually isn’t an issue for me, but if I were a more omnivorous game player perhaps the game play of Witcher 3 would be compelling enough that I wouldn’t mind the male protagonist or perhaps I’d resonate enough with the female protagonist of Mirror’s Edge Catalyst to power through the parkour environments and mediocre storytelling.

    The games that attract me are the ones with fully-formed main characters, e.g. Konoko (Oni), Max Caulfield (Life is Strange), Me (MMOs). Girl Link and Bow Pacman are unconvincing as feature-complete protagonists.

    Grace Nakamura from Gabriel Knight? Yes.
    Gabriella Knight? Hells to the noes.


    • That’s exactly my point. Throwing a bow on a males head and calling it female is lazy design. More fully formed female characters please.


  3. I am not sure I get what you are arguing. Anita was right about Ms. Pacman and this would just be more of that?

    I have no problem with Ms. Pacman. It is an arcade game with zero story.

    I don’t have a problem with the idea of creating new IPs and new characters either.

    My issue is this: there is no compelling reason to keep Link male. None. You haven’t even argued that here other than “he was male in the first game”.

    There is nothing gendered about the character. He never speaks. He is often a young boy, so he already looks gender neutral. The character of Link varies from games to game.

    I don’t care if Link is male or female. I just care about the flimsy arguments being presented to limit him to only being male. I think it should be up to the designer, but I want them to defend it as an artistic choice if asked because it is still a choice.

    I will leave you with Pokemon, another Nintendo game with a hero that doesn’t speak and changes from game to game. The first Pokemon game was male only. They have since added a choice. Why? Because it is the easiest thing in the world to do and there is no argument against it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re too hung up on Link. The details of his lore isn’t the issue, it’s the ms. Pacman issue. Also, pokemon isn’t about the trainers, but the lil monsters themselves. But you got my point right there at the beginning. Better to make LoZ all about Zelda than making an iconic male character into a girl. I got the outrage over Assassin’s Creed, there isn’t a main protagonist there. Link has always been male and the main protagonist of LoZ. Just like the Ghostbusters, it’s better to leave well enough alone. I’d much prefer new IPs to lazy design.


      • “I got the outrage over Assassin’s Creed, there isn’t a main protagonist there. Link has always been male and the main protagonist of LoZ.”

        It is a different Link in every game. They aren’t even directly tied to one another in most cases. There’s not a line of succession. How does that differ from Assassin’s Creed, a series where each game has a different assassin in name doing the same assassin’y things in very similar assassin garb?


      • That whole Link being different every time was only recently brought to my attention. But it’s semantics. A new female is still better than a copy of a male character.


      • That sounds like a dodge.

        Let me also remind you that from the very first game, it was possible to change the name of the character. That implies that it is inherent to the Legend of Zelda experience that the player take some ownership of the character.

        Every Link is different. Legend of Zelda games are only loosely related and are closer to Final Fantasy games in that they reinvent the same mythos over and over.

        It is a fact that Link has always been male, but other than being described as male from beginning, what makes him male?

        He exhibits no personality. He does not speak. We never once hear him talk about himself. He is often a child, which limits him from taking on any engendered roles in society. He is not some romantic hero.

        I am not saying Link SHOULD be a female, I am just saying there is no sound argument to say he should never be a female. You have provided no argument whatsoever to make that case. You mention that female Link would be a copy of male Link, but to me, female Link would not be any less a Link than any of the dozens of Links are now.

        Link is heroism itself and any one can be a hero. Who gives a shit whether a blank slate is male or female? Why can’t we have both like in other RPGs or Nintendo games?


      • Again, I was looking at the big picture. Not solely Link. You and a few others aren’t grasping that concept. Fuck link, fuck nintendo, fuck assassin’s creed. Making a pre established and long running character the opposite sex isn’t the best way to go about it. Creating new characters is. That’s MY opinion and that’s the point. Arguing semantics doesn’t do anything for the discussion.


      • At the end of the day, I just find it funny that the same people outraged by the lack of a female Link are the same ones who ranted against uncreative put a bow on it “diversification.” It’s one or the other, can’t have both. Link was just a jumping off point for the larger topic at hand. I don’t like Nintendo or it’s products so this really affects me very little. But I still stand behind the idea that creating new and fleshed out female characters is the right answer for the future.


      • I don’t see those two ideas being opposed. Ms. Pac-Man was uncreative trash. It’d be like slapping a bow on the Galaga ship and calling it Ms. Galaga just to pretend its an all new game.

        Slapping a bow on Link and still calling it the Legend of Zelda is a powerful idea. It isn’t a different game, the main character is just a different female. As I pointed out, nothing would change about the series either.

        Plus, the very first Zelda lets you name the character. That implies some since of ownership. I’m not naming my Pac-Man avatar and roleplaying around town.


      • I equate them equally. But I’m also one of those people who doesn’t really role play so that could be where our disagreement lies.


  4. I’m kind of tired of hearing that a character that historically has been male should always be male. In this case, this is a world where magic abounds and musical instruments allow you to move back and forth through time. Is it that much of a stretch of the imagination that a character can change gender too? Murphy is right about the arguments being very flimsy.

    Izlain is right about how changing Link’s gender would be filing the trope of “Ms. Male Character”. I would still consider it an improvement but it would still be a trope. So how about this then: at the beginning of the game, the player can choose to be either Link or Zelda. Whichever one you don’t choose is the one that needs saving. Or better yet, don’t make the game about saving anyone in distress but make it about trying to recover an item to save the world (like, I dunno…the Triforce maybe?). Zelda has already proven that’s she’s capable of protecting herself, why not give her a game where she can do that from beginning to end?

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  5. I’m a girl gamer and I think Link is fine just the way he is. I can enjoy a Legend of Zelda game while playing a male protagonist, just as I have since I was a kid.

    Fans play the LoZ, but we don’t OWN the LoZ. Some seem to forget that it’s the devs’ game, their character, and their right to choose the character’s design — pandering to the whims of every little SJW outcry is getting tiresome. Seems no dev can as much as sneeze wrong without people jumping all over their case, lighting fires of “justice” on the Internet.

    They want good female representation in LoZ games? We have one. Just give us a strong, smartly-written Zelda character. I thought the whole Linkle thing was really silly, honestly, and just a way for someone at Nintendo to say “Look, we have a female Link! We’re PC!”

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      • Which is absolutely silly because that’s them limiting their design mindset on purpose. They could do both Link and Zelda (gasp!) as characters in one game. I’ve played plenty of games with more than one protagonist and that have systems that allow you either switch between main characters or for main characters to work together in some way. Or maybe have the option of choosing which protagonist you play and get to play the game from a totally different viewpoint – replayability!

        Just look at their new Always Oasis game coming out with parties of character who each have their own important skill sets work together in an adventure RPG. Not saying it’d have to be that way, but just saying Nintendo is developing games that allow for character switching already.

        Zelda doesn’t have to be the main character for a whole game or anything. You can show that a character is strong even if you only play them a little while. Heck, they can be strong even as an NPC.

        Nintendo’s answer is just a cop-out IMHO.


      • Exactly. This kerfuffle is more about the bullshit answers that devs come up with as reasons to not do something like genderswapping or giving female NPCs the spotlight. It’s not really about SJW’s and their crusades of “justice” at all. I bet the outcry would be minor at best if Nintendo had just said “no, we aren’t going to make Link explicitly female, Link is gender-neutral” and left it at that. But they had to take the “we thought about it (which shows we listen to our audience yay!) but it’s too haaaaaard” route.

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  6. To me, the changing of an iconic character would seem more like a grab at grassroots publicity through controversy than it would a genuine attempt to change social attitudes. There’s no reason you can’t both cultivate diversity in games and carry on some form of tradition and nostalgia.

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