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Rocking the binary

November 2, 2010
(c) Harmonix, Lego, and Queen.

Animated Lego versions of Queen. L-R: Lego John Deacon, Lego Freddie Mercury, Lego Roger Taylor, Lego Brian May, Lego Brian May's Lego Hair.

So Rock Band 3 came out this week, and because I do not care to spend a pile of money to get it new when I can wait three months and get it for about half price, I’ve been satisfying the need for shiny rhythm games with Lego Rock Band and RB2. They are fun.

Something I’ve been particularly enjoying is the opportunities for gender-play afforded by the games’ character creation systems. In all the Rock Band games, you and your bandmates – whether played by friends or controlled by the computer – are represented on-‘stage’ during the songs by 3D-animated avatars; there are some preset characters, or you can generate them randomly, or you can build custom ones. What I’ve been finding interesting is the contrasting ways that Rock Band 2 and Lego Rock Band handle the gender aspect of character creation, and what you can do with that.

Lego Rock Band differs from the other games in the series in that the character avatars aren’t animated as (cartoony) real people, but as moving Lego minifigures. Lego minifigures, being two inches tall and made of mass-produced plastic segments, are scarcely true to life: you get a fat cylinder for a head, a flat-fronted trapezoidal torso (narrower at the top) with detachable arms, and a separate pelvis-and-leg unit that just about lets the figurine bend at the waist. Complicated they are not. Animation allows them a slightly bigger range of movement than the physical version, but they are still blocky, jerky and Simpson-yellow.

Lego minifigures’ actual physical parts are identical, and so historically the Lego company have relied entirely on tertiary sexual characteristics to distinguish ‘male’ from ‘female’ models. Most notably, they’ve used faces with added eyelashes and lipstick, and ponytailed hair; occasionally you’d get a torso patterned with a necklace or strappy top, or maybe even (gasp!) a v-shaped mark hinting at 2D cleavage. Now, when I was still of an age to be playing with Lego nearly constantly, we kept our stash in a pair of enormous crates, in which finding a particular piece you wanted could take forever – so, populating my rickety spaceships usually consisted of digging out as many torsos, heads and sets of legs as I needed and putting them together in some vaguely aesthetically pleasing fashion. Naturally, I ended up with a lot of lipsticked pirates and long-haired skeletons.

This is just what kids do with Lego. The de- and re-assemblable nature of them makes it all but impossible to draw a clear line between male and female minifigures; gender-bending seems a natural consequence of that kind of recombinability, as is evidenced by the plethora of sci-fi settings wherein the easy availability of body-modification and/or body-swapping technology makes (what we would now call) transsexuality and gender-variance utterly commonplace – to the point where, in Iain M. Banks‘  The Player of Games, male Culturnik Jernau Gurgeh is considered a little unusual for never having been female.*

When it comes to games, though, historically the range of gender options available to the player-character has been radically more restricted – even in games where it makes not the slightest difference to gameplay, like Rock Band, where the player avatars are purely cosmetic. And, given that in RB 1 and 2 your options are male and female, and clothing options are restricted to one sex or the other (for no practical reason; J points out that it’s actually more work to code in that kind of sorting than just to leave all options open to everyone), the precedents for LRB did not seem to be great.

Happily, though, they came through. Just as with real, physical Lego, your Lego Rock Band avatar can be made of any combination of tops and bottoms that you can get your hands on: my current avatar sports a lumberjack shirt, purple top hat and white emo fringe. The possibilities are endless, and the freedom to lurch wildly between consistent, off-kilter, and totally ridiculous presentations feels entirely natural for a game in which your road crew can include witches, zombies and pirates and in which you defeat ghosts and aliens with THE POWER OF ROCK. I imagine that it was built this way with children in mind – what child doesn’t love dressing up, as one thing or another? – but it is hella fun as an adult as well. Not just because adults also enjoy dressing up, but because (on a slightly more serious note) it’s depressingly rare that I as a masculine-of-centre woman can build a game avatar whose presentation resembles something I might actually wear. (I would totally wear a purple top hat if I owned one. All the time, probably.)

The fun to be had gender-wise in Rock Band 2 is of a slightly different nature because RB2, as mentioned above, does impose – or attempt to impose – a gender binary on player avatars. You can tinker with the body proportions (which depressingly range only from ‘medium-big in a muscly way’ to ‘exceedingly thin’) to get something fairly androgynous, but the clothes options are still confined to one sex or the other. And the womens’ options tend to do that thing that female clothing in videogames does of having every garment show acres of skin, regardless of practicality or plausibility. (Personally, I would not want to be playing any instrument with sharp, snappy metal strings whilst wearing a bikini. Oh hell no.)

One fun thing that you can do, though, is exploit the way the game handles setlists. Basically, if you are the only human player, the game will assign avatars to the other instruments, and mostly it does this at random. The only exception is that it’ll choose the avatar of the vocalist based on the sex of the person who recorded the actual song: if you pick a Blondie track, you’ll get a female virtual vocalist; pick a Queen track and you’ll get a male one. So far, so dull. However.

When you create a setlist – that is, pick a number of songs to play back to back rather than coming out to the menu between each one – the game uses the same set of avatars throughout, and picks the sex of the vocalist based on the first song only. So if you make a setlist that opens with a song sung by a man, you’ll get a male avatar singing all the songs in that set, regardless of the sex of the original singer.

This throws up some really intriguing juxtapositions. Sometimes it’s just incongruous to the point of being funny, as when you end up with the enormous bearded lumberjack character Moosejaw Boudreau singing Debbie Harry’s vocals. But sometimes the effect is more subtle: it’s amazing how much a different vocal line colours one’s perception of a basically sexless cartoon. Earlier this evening I played a set where the singer-avatar was a skinny punk in a ripped black T-shirt, blond/e fauxhawk, and eyeshadow – a combination that invited wildly differing readings depending on whether the voice was Joan Jett’s, Freddie Mercury’s, or Dexter Holland’s. An earlier list had a long-haired, slim-waisted avatar which was quite clearly female – until she started singing in Michael Stipe’s voice, and then suddenly the character seemed equally clearly a fem guy.

Considering how many of rock’s greatest stars also messed around with gender and costume in their own inimitable ways, it seems only appropriate that a game about pretending to be a rockstar should also let you do that. It’s just unfortunate that, in the case of Rock Band 2, you have to do this by working around the game rather than with it. It’s not clear from the material surrounding the Rock Band 3 whether they’ve made the game’s wardrobe gender-neutral or not – I hope they have. The devs have made a big deal out of wanting people to relate to and feel for and live through their characters; and if they insist on a rigid binary they’re preventing whole segments of their fanbase from doing that.


*As well as Banks’ Culture novels – which are excellent – there’s also Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe, where recreational sex-changes, though mostly the preserve of the rich, are still common enough to be unremarkable; some intriguing bits in Charles Stross’ Accelerando; and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon and sequels, which is one of the few ‘verses to feature body-swapping that touches on the possible dysphoric consequences of so doing. There’s also the tabletop RPG Eclipse Phase, as discussed in this excellent post at The Border House.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 12:33 am

    You’ve probably read it, but on the off chance you’ve not, Changes by Neil Gaiman (in his collection Smoke and Mirrors is another great story about recreational sex change – initially the unwanted side effect of a cancer drug – and its effects on society. (At the same time though, I can understand why some people do find it problematic)

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