Portal – is it genderless?

For those of you who haven’t played it, Portal was a video game released in 2006 that revolutionized the way people thought about gaming. It gave players the opportunity to manipulate space by using a portal gun, for which you had to use to solve various puzzles by thinking creatively. The game is a first person perspective, which meant that you never saw your character, apart from the brief glimpses of them through a portal. That being said, you could go through the whole game and not realize your character was, in fact, a woman. The main character in both Portal games is Chell, a young woman of Afro-American/Japanese decent. However, unlike some games, the fact that you play as a woman does not change the game play at all. Chell never speaks, and (especially in the first of the two) it is rarely mentioned that she is a woman. You could easily replace Chell’s character with a male version, and no-one would notice the difference. Or would they? Does merely knowing that you are playing a female character change the way you view the game? In Portal 2 (released in 2011), it is much more clear that you are playing as a female character. Although Chell still does not speak, and you barley get a glimpse of her from time to time, the other characters in the game make specific references towards her that confirm she is a woman. GLaDOS, in particular, calls her “fat” on multiple occasions, which a stereotypical insult from one “woman”(GLaDOS is a robot) to another. However, in the first game, where these clearly feminine references are absent, could it be argued that Portal (1) was a genderless game?

Portal Gameplay:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SeZwo_7KdHY

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2 Comments

  1. In your class presentation about women gamers and their perceptions of the gendered self, I found your discussion about Portal to be very interesting. In reading your post about it and independently researching the game more, I would argue that Portal (1) is not quite genderless, but rather gender ‘neutral’. By gender neutral I do not mean to say that no genders are represented, but that the game does not overly exaggerate the representations of either gender, and instead deemphasizes gender altogether.

    What is interesting about Portal (1) is that the game’s cover does not explicitly illustrate a male or female character, but a simplified ‘stick’ figure instead (http://www.productwiki.com/upload/images/portal_1.jpg). I believe this is symbolic of the notion that gender and character identity is unimportant in the game. While the stick figure may be argued to be the figure of a man, I think that the very concept of using a simplified figure instead of a detailed graphic of a man or woman entails that the figure is not a ‘man’, but simply a ‘person’. The video game cover alone conveys the message that in this game, gender is not a focus.

    As well, as you stated in your post and in class today, the game is played in a first person perspective and you hardly ever see the full bodied character of the player. To reiterate, the lack of this visual directs focus to the objective of the game rather than the objectification of any particular gender. However, can a game that uses character players ever be completely genderless? If you are looking for gender types and implications in a video game, I’m sure you can always find them.

  2. I was going to say that a game’s player characters can be made genderless by transforming them into animals, but that’s often not the case, is it? The Kongs of the Donkey Kong series are heavily gendered, and even characters such as Yoshi and Spyro are assumed (if not outright stated) to be male. Why is it that this gendering takes place?

    I won’t answer the Portal question directly, but I will through another element into the mix. Take a look at this blog: http://www.heroine-sheik.com/2007/10/17/portal-is-for-lesbians/. The author is not only arguing (with her tongue somewhat in cheek) that Portal is sexualized, but that it has a homosexual identity, and makes some very interesting points on gender relations. Quote: “But if we’re sticking with the idea that [the Companion Cube] is a “man,” we could call it commentary on the usefulness of men: they’re cute, but they’re a burden.”


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