(Sony Computer Entertainment; US: 18 Jan 2011)
LittleBigPlanet 2 might have unintentionally oriented itself toward a more elite playerbase than it realized, but you can’t mistake the good pedagogical intentions of its developers. These games are meant as Western child-rearing in a nutshell, deliberately multicultural and gender-inclusive, actively encouraging self discovery and mutable identification.
There’s just the little problem of its execution. Or rather, how it sets up and fails to deliver where it counts.
Let’s begin by considering LittleBigPlanet 2‘s approach to character design compared to more “mature” titles, like a BioWare RPG. If gender isn’t the very first item that you select, it’s certainly up there near the top. By contrast, LittleBigPlanet 2‘s character customization (which has not been altered terribly much from the original) stresses a sort of free play with gender and expression. Certainly you can gender yourself and dominant references to the series mascot as “Sackboy” enforce a specific interpretation, but there is nothing in the text itself that says a player can’t freely decide to be one thing, then another, then both, then neither. She can add an afro to her wedding dress, give the Raiden outfit Meryl Silverburgh’s wig, or whatever else she fancies. Not only can the player do this, the game wants her to do it. Experiment is what it encourages. Be playful with your identity.
Character customization is also traditionally the first “create” feature that the player experiments with, as it’s introduced front and center in the opening tutorials. During that period, Stephen Fry’s helplessly good natured narration (keeping in mind that Fry will also be known by British children as the reader of the Harry Potter audiobooks) will make some open comment on player-decided gender identification, mumbling to the effect of “Sackboy, Sackgirl, Sackperson” before moving on.
This “personhood” is important. It’s the first thing that I found largely missing in Media Molecule’s new release. It was only later on that I discovered that the writing’s former overtures toward gender inclusiveness were quickly unraveling as well and that became one more reason that I’ve taken issue with the game’s self-styled pedagogy.
Part and parcel with the sequel’s enhanced take on NPCs—developing them into more substantial personalities—the cast apart from Fry all have their unique vocal quirks, down to their specific nicknames for the player character. Showman pilot Avalon calls you, “Ace.” Flirtatious asylum nurse Eve sticks to “Sackboy.” Eccentric genius Larry da Vinci bypasses gendering entirely and calls you, “Sackthing.”
Let me reiterate that: “Sackthing.” To be clear, this is not the equivalent of calling a player’s character “Sackperson,” the previously designated gender-neutral term that the series has had no trouble utilizing in the past. There are plenty of other ways in which Larry comes off as subtly sociopathic, but at the end of the day, he’s still an ally character, not a villain, and to openly call the player a “thing” does not really need to be his manner of address. And yet it is. Combine this with Eve’s insistence on the male term (you can bet that not a single character refers to you in the feminine) and you have a situation where either male means neuter, neuter means male, or at any rate, your personhood is not a particularly big concern to anyone.
This is a problem specifically because the game otherwise frequently and deliberately directly addresses the player, making the intended player-avatar connection quite clear. If we weren’t asked to relate to our Sackpeople, being forced out of associating with them would not be an issue. But we are, so it is. That is my contention.
My own Sackperson is rather gender-neutral in presentation. I would not say that I’m more heavily invested in the look of my Sackperson as, say, my Lady Grey Warden in Dragon Age: Origins, for whom every attitudinal decision carries significant personal weight, but I don’t enjoy being told that I’m a boy when I haven’t assented to that description. I’d similarly take issue with being labeled a girl without my input. And I would strongly object to the label of “thing” when I’ve previously been asked to think of my avatar as possessing personhood. The game’s writing can’t have it both ways here.
I cannot imagine that there were no other directions that the story mode’s script could have taken in establishing a few NPC’s speech quirks. Defaulting to gendered terms for Eve and words connoting sub-personhood for Larry do more than annoy the player; they alienate the user and signify a distinct lack of caring. This is a big step backward, arguably in the direction of losing the intended message entirely.
This troubles me because, while not a parent myself, if I were to leave any game to babysit my hypothetical children, it would probably be this one. I might demand a working analog calculator from them by bedtime, mind you, but I’d know that it’d be a safe space for my kids until then. For as much as the LittleBigPlanet series has enjoyed plenty of crossover appeal among older and more experienced players, the series makes no small point of being a child-targeted virtual wonderland of exploration and discovery (so long as you have a fast connection and a big TV). To have to add yet another caveat to that self-touted ideal—you can be anything you want, as long as you’re a boy or you don’t actually expect anyone to respect or acknowledge you as being anything else—seems to take the whole experience down yet another notch away from its aspirations.