Sex/Gender in Character Creators, and How to do Better


OP, I have to say that I honestly see a lot of conversations like that; I’m sorry you’re not seeing a lot of them in your own personal space, especially if you may need to hear them as a trans or intersex person. (Your post didn’t make it clear, so I’m not making any assumptions.)

I do just want to add that the work of archiving, streamlining, and coherently 101-friendly’ing conversations between (for example) trans and intersex people about gender in games for the consumption of cis and non-intersex audiences is a lot of work, moreso than you might be assuming.

Let’s say that I say I comment publicly on finding fault in appearance sliders where the label is “sex” (or even “gender” sliders that impact physical appearance between two “opposites”), because to me as a trans intersex person I often find those to be a troubling reminder of how intersex bodies are viewed medically by non-intersex people. I don’t like that a slider essentially amounts to “are you busty or are you muscular”.

A friend of mine who’s not intersex but is a nonbinary trans person could counter that they find those appearance sliders personally empowering, particularly if you can adjust them at any time, because for that friend it represents a fluid gender presentation. I say that the game should’ve just included body options with more specific appearance sliders, because I don’t like the sliders; my friend says they like the “sex”/“gender” slider as a point to build their character on and are happy to feel represented.

Who’s right there? Who would you tell the game developer to listen to, and how would the game developer know who to listen to if they’re fully crowdsourcing opinions from people they’re not paying? If they’re just trawling Twitter posts offering our different solutions, are they even going to be equipped to unpack our different relationships to things like those sliders?

To coherently explain that context of our discussion to a cis, non-intersex team of game developers that are totally out of their depth, you’d need… Well, you’d need to explain a lot of things to them. And if we were going to constantly cater our posts to those audiences potentially seeing them, half the Twitter thread would be links to sites like interACT or the Sylvia Rivera Law Project!


I recently spent quite a lot of time making a character creator for my game in the Waypoint Community Game Jam AKA New Jam City… so much time, in fact, that I didn’t get very far in actually making the game, but I digress. I will also add the disclaimer here that I am cis and the result is far from perfect, but I think I still learned a lot from making it.

The route I went in making my character creator was to allow all features to be mixed and matched however the player chooses, but also added buttons to roll male, female, androgynous, or completely random features. I tried to choose the language for this carefully to specify that you’re rolling for gendered features as opposed to rolling a character of that gender, since there’s a separate selector for pronouns (which I never used in the game as none of the implemented dialogue required the player’s pronouns).

Deciding what features to include in the male/female/androgynous rolls was… tricky, and if anyone looks at my source code they’ll find a mess of ad hoc rules that suggest some funky gender norms, but my justification for that was that the gendered randomization is intended only to provide a basis for characters. I didn’t want players to have to engage with a complex system of feature customization to set their preferred gender, but I had customizable hair styles, body types, eyelashes, noses, facial hair styles, and earrings, which are all gendered to varying degrees. Gendered randomization sets all of these features at once which gives players templates to work with (which is convenient but comes with plenty of arbitrary nonsense).

I think there’s always going to be some trade-off between making it easy for players to access common character archetypes versus allowing full, expressive customization.


Hm, whyso? It is possible to have some “preset”-type things available for the former while also permitting further customization for the latter, isn’t it?


More than character creators, I would rather have more games that don’t allow you to change the character but star a non-white, cis-gendered, straight male. Even though that’s me, I never create my character to look myself and would love to have more games with diverse characters. After all, why can’t a GTA star a woman? Why can’t the next id reboot star a person of color?

I really do think there’s a fear around young men that they have to control an avatar that looks like them, otherwise they might lose some of their masculinity, or whatever. When I worked at a GameStop, I even remember parents looking at Tomb Raider and not getting it because they didn’t want their boy to play as a girl. It’s really fucked up that anyone would care about that, but they do.


I’ve got mixed feelings about “character archetypes” being represented in a creator. Especially supposed gender archetypes. You’ve got to be careful of turning them into reductive stereotypes and mistaking them for authenticity. That, in addition to accidentally reinforcing narrow gender roles. For all genders.

As per the entire discussion above, people don’t think someone is “woke” because they play with what Tanya DePass calls paper doll OCs. As she points out, there are no stakes for a white player creating a black character, or a cis player making a trans character. It’s not necessarily the same as gleaming any kind of insight or having in-depth representation.

I could be misunderstanding you and majugi, but doesn’t the Saints Row series do just that? You’re given preset models as a foundation upon which you can deeply customize your character.


I dunno, I haven’t played SR. It just seemed like the obvious solution to the question majugi had posed.


Yeah, you can definitely provide both preset characters and further customization options. I suppose what I was trying to say is that providing presets requires selecting specific identities to represent, which may feel exclusionary even if players can adjust the preset into something more representative.

Having all the presets be male, or female, or binary, or non-binary, will all send some sort of message to players. The obvious answer to that is “make your presets diverse” which is reasonable, but that’s where the trade-off comes in because you can’t make every possible output from your character creator a preset. You could try having presets for all combinations of “important” traits, but between gender and race there’s already an uncomfortably large amount of possibilities and that’s prior to considering height, weight, fashion sense, or a number of other characteristics that could be important to someone.

Randomization is helpful, because it lets players quickly sample from the full range of possible characters, but it has its own issues. For one thing, if I randomly set all variables for my characters, I’d give everyone a 50% chance of having a moustache which would be a problem for someone hoping to roll a gender-conforming woman [edit: to be clear, the issue here is not that some women would get moustaches, it’s that rolling a character with majority female-coded features is very unlikely; there is a strong tendency towards the center of the spectrum]. It would also overrepresent moustaches in general. That’s mostly a technical issue and can be fixed by updating probability distributions, but that leads to the question of how you want to distribute features in the virtual population. Do you want the odds to reflect the global human population, a regional area, or some constructed idealization? Once you’re happy with the distribution of your random traits, you’d still need to consider things like the clustering illusion which can make randomization appear non-random and non-diverse.

Much of this is academic, since in practice player expectations are so low that enabling anything beyond a default dude is a bonus. I’ve also been assuming we’re talking about a game in which you’re playing as a blank slate character, but as @bronson points out, games can also forego character customization altogether and deliberately create characters with nuanced predefined identities.


Personally I think I would rather see games walk you through picking general character traits then at the end say “alright go customize them more to what you want”. That way no one feels like they are being steered towards an archetype.

  1. Start by having them pick a body type. Do not call it a gender or sex. Do not have any defining features on it. You know those poseable wooden figures people use to help them draw human shaped characters? Something like that but give them the skin tone of a default material from 3DS Max so you can see lighting on it as well as make other features stand out.

  2. Move on to the head. Choose eyes, nose, mouth, hair (facial and head), and ears.

  3. Let them pick an underwear style (even if it will never be seen) followed by allowing them to make adjustments to everything in the lower region.

  4. Do muscle tone next for arms, legs, chest, etc. Do not tie one to the other as it’s normal for people to actually have one toned more then the other.

  5. Now let them pick skin tone, most engines these days I feel like should be able to handle a dynamic material so just give the player a color picker widget that looks like it was ripped from photoshop. Give people an option to actually enter a hex value if they want (worst thing to happen to Terraria was not being able to set the actual values). If you really can not do that then you better have a wide selection of skin tones.

  6. Finally let them go back and make more fine detail adjustments as they see fit (tattoos, scars, etc).

I’m sure others could refine this process more but I think avoiding archetypes is an important thing to avoid as it just feels shitty when you go through what the game thinks are normal and your ideal character isn’t close to being on that list.


I’ve been trying to find examples of existing games that have extensive character creation without categorical genders, but there doesn’t seem to be much out there. This article pointed out the game The End which does indeed not specify gender while having a variety of hairstyles and facial features. The End only has a single body type and shirt style, which makes many of its characters look similarly skinny and androgynous, but it’s cool as a proof of concept.

Adi Robertson wrote an article for The Verge praising Oculus for not labeling their avatars with genders, which is another interesting example. Despite all the understandable reluctance to embrace archetypes in this thread, I’d say this is an example of an archetype-based character creator, since each face is completely predefined. However, there are a lot of possible faces, and those faces are chosen independently of hair styles and colors, so it’s still striking a balance between predefined parts and modular parts.

On a completely different note if you want an extreme example of faces being constructed from component parts, police composite sketch software does that (here’s one YouTube example). Operating at that level of detail requires more time and skill than games could reasonably ask for in a character creator, but it shows how much room there is for diversity within facial features alone.


Remove Gender restrictions on body type selection. Just make it 2 different options, add more body types/ allow deeper individual part customization, and make the Gender input a text box, like your name. It doesn’t seem that complicated to me.


Anyway, I personally don’t care for super detailed “ADJUST THE SIZE OF YOUR PUPILS WITH THIS SLIDER” type character creators myself. I just can’t be bothered. Speaking for myself, all I want is:

  1. no pointless gendering of the appearance options – I don’t care if it’s two hairstyles/voicepacks/outfits or two hundred, just don’t go around arbitrarily calling some “male” and some “female”
  2. no pointless gendering, period – if it’s something that can be handled by unlimited appearance-selection plus a pronoun set, there is no need to limit that to a particular character gender
  3. if a pronoun set is called for, permit at least a “they”
  4. consciousness about the optionsets – again, I don’t care if it’s two skintones or two hundred, but if all two hundred are shades of peach, what does that say? (now if all two hundred were like, medium to dark brown, that would also say something, but it wouldn’t be saying the same thing, see?)
  5. relatedly, if a gender is actually called for – that is to say, if it would actually affect the way that the game plays out, in ways beyond word substitutions or cosmetic customization – this ought to be a thought-out narrative design decision
    • (A) what does it bring to the game to have branching/alternate experiences based on character gender?
    • (B) would this branching really be based on the character’s gender identity, or should the choice be put to the player as “how do others gender my character?”
    • (C) what genders exist at all in the world of this game setting? why those?


To me, the problem is not as plain as “too few options [in a single game]”. To me the problem is that many character creation processes thoughtlessly reproduce blinkered worldviews.

(Incidentally, I think Pyre addresses 5B in an interesting way – it is phrased as what the other characters presume your gender to be [male/female/no assumption], despite the effect being limited to word substitutions, but any assumption is called out in-game by one of the characters, and you can change the pronoun in the settings at any time. I like to imagine that in some playthroughs, perhaps the other characters assumed incorrectly, and the player-character had a quiet offscreen word with them after recovering from the initial ordeal.)

…okay, done with the word dumping :'D