More puns! The praise train for Splatoon and Nintendo keeps going!
For many of us, video games are a form of escapism. This can come in a few flavors, either by having equal standing in the game’s society, being able to perform outlandish feats, or just experiencing a world unlike your own. Another form of escapism is getting the chance to roleplay as something other than yourself. One of the most common ways to roleplay in gaming is to take on a character of another gender. In light of this, I want to discuss Splatoon and Super Smash Bros. some more.
One of the things that Splatoon handles well is its treatment of gender. Most non-playable characters are male (such as shop keepers and the battle judge), and there are no explicitly stated nonbinary/trans characters, but half of the relevant story characters are women, more if your player character is a squid girl. Really, the player’s avatar is where it gets interesting.
As I said in my review, you pick your inkling’s (the squid species) gender when you start the game, and you can change it at any time. There is no difference in the genders besides cosmetic attributes in their body, “hair”, and a few clothing options. In this way, gender is 100% performative in Splatoon.
The most useful aspect of this flexibility is the addition of representation. Add in that an inkling’s skin color is customizable, many options are quickly available. For instance, I’m able to be a little Black squid boy that isn’t a stereotypical caricature! I can sort of see myself in my player character. In the same way, the roughly 50% of gamers that are women/girls can see themselves in their avatars as well. In a non-sexualized way, to boot!
But I noticed something while playing this game and interacting with the fandom. There is a sizable chunk of girl inklings in battles and the lobby. I’ve noticed that while there seem to be many women playing and enjoying the game, there’s also a great deal of men and boys using the female inkling, which I’ll get to in a bit. This is interesting for a few reasons. The chief point is how this flies in direct opposition to a lot of marketing speak. More than a few publishers have given the impression that more women don’t show up in games because either a) women aren’t interested in games, or b) the target straight, white, male audience doesn’t want to play as a girl character. Splatoon, and Nintendo games in general, seem to disagree.
See, when playing Splatoon or watching reviews, I’ll often see a decent mix of both boy and girl inklings. It seems to be more of the girls, but this is just my perception. However, some of the girl avatars will have “boy” names attached. You’ll see inkling girls with names like Matt or Jim. Overall, this combination shows that either girls are playing in large numbers, or boys are comfortable playing as girls in large numbers. Again, this is anecdotal evidence. But if boys are comfortable playing as girls in large numbers, this, again, means that the belief that men don’t want to play as women is patently untrue.
Similarly, Nintendo’s other offerings give players the chance to play as some of the (unfortunately small) female cast members, such as in Super Smash Bros. This is a slightly different case, as each character in these games has various skills and abilities—there is a competitive reason to choose the women, if a player cares about that. Nonetheless, gamers of all genders feel comfortable choosing them because it’s fun. It’s extremely common to see people using Zelda, Sheik, or Rosalina to get that competitive edge. However, since many players aren’t in it just to win, they could be playing as female characters for other reasons. This ties into the performance aspect. When choosing a character, many people care about how that character feels to them: either their aesthetic, or how they move around. How does controlling them feel? Fluid? Stiff? Beefy? Elegant? All the characters feel very different to match the kind of character they are (except where this is purposefully not done). For this reason, someone could pick a character of a different gender to see how it feels to move through their lens. You can pick someone who moves how you want to move.
But to bring it back, why do some players choose to play as a different gender in Splatoon? I’m not quite sure. Again, the characters’ genders have zero effect on gameplay. Anecdotally, I’ve seen/heard discussions saying that the girl’s character model is simply better. The long tentacle-hair is cute and is visible in most headgear. The boys’ updo is typically obscured. It’s also possible that players of all genders are just tired of the avalanche of dudes that we get every year. Maybe it’s just that the girl is the default option and primary marketing focus and some fans choose it for that reason.
For me, there’s was a bit of performance involved in my choice. In Splatoon, I just want to play hipster-dress-up with a squid version of myself. I don’t own the clothes available, so that’s the extent of the projection I personally need. Plus, I can never be a squid. But for others, this may be a prime chance to experiment with femininity, or using a female character in a comfortable setting. Or, again, just experiencing a game without an overbearingly male gaze. Any dabbling into gender performance in my personal experience with Nintendo games has been in Smash: I almost always use Rosalina. In the Smash series, I was always a fan of the Ice Climbers (a boy and a girl team, in fact), but their removal in the newest entry left a gap in my playstyle. Luckily, Rosalina, and Luma, were a similar replacement.
But it doesn’t stop with just competition, although I’m lucky that she’s skilled; I enjoy her character’s aesthetic. She’s floaty despite being very tall, has a spacey demeanor, and has a star motif. Her taunts and facial expressions are a bit goofy, and always make me smile. These traits feel relatable and, rolled up into a feminine package, this is a character I find very cool. I’m not sure if I outright identify with her so much as her aura fascinates me. Playing as her gives me a chance to dabble with femininity (at least by my rough estimation) in a safe way while still performing the traditionally masculine activity of fighting.
Maybe this is what many of the male-bodied people playing as girls are doing in Splatoon. Since the fast-paced battles are a level playing field in terms of gender, there is no reason not to experiment if you’d like. It’s a safe space, especially coupled with the game’s lack of voice chat and ability to choose teams. And it’s never permanent, so there is no pressure to stick with your decision. Or, if you choose to be fluid, you can.
In closing, again, I want to applaud Splatoon and Nintendo for providing the opportunities to perform different genders. As games can provide such a strong sense of learning, escapism, or performance, having gender as a changeable option is incredibly important. As gamers, we’re able to experience something worlds different than we ever may get the chance to live. In Splatoon, the curiosity to experiment is nurtured by the fact that the various options are equal—a player won’t have to lose anything to try a different experience, and for that, we’re all better off.