Sunday, September 20, 2009

Gendering Genderless Entities (Halo)

The following was written for Halopedia:
So, I was thinking about the subject of ascribing gender to entities that are otherwise without gender. My previous blog post Mechanics of Mechanical Gender explored the question of whether or not 343 Guilty Spark could be said to be male, and the summary is that A) It’s unclear, B) Halo: The Flood’s narrator indicates Spark is male, C) The Flood has been repeatedly contradicted by later canon, but D) Tim Dadabo, who voices Spark, is male. So, I think there’s some reasonable interpretation that Spark is male and I do use male pronouns when speaking of him. My latest subject is the Seeker (also known as the Pious Flea), a Covenant AI from I Love Bees. Why is “it” referred to as “him”? I’d say poetic storytelling is the main reason in this case. First, though, a brief tour of gendering AIs.

I started thinking about this issue while watching recordings of the cartoon ReBoot. One of the characters has this robot pet named Scuzzy (a play on SCSI) that’s like a cross between a cat and a Roomba, and I was thinking about it and what gender it was supposed to be. I came up with male… but why? Because it’s brown? I looked it up, and ReBoot Wiki says it’s male. Scuzzy’s probably called “he” in some episode I can’t remember. It made me think about the practice of gendering robots, though.
Unless you’re taking an intelligence obviously endowed with a gender and putting it in an artificial intelligence form, like Catherine Halsey’s cloned brain being used to make Cortana in Halo or Allison Young’s memory used to help Cameron infiltrate better in Terminator, the property of gender is not something we can assume mechanical entities to possess. WALL-E and EVE are robots built from the ground up, yet are obviously designed to fulfill specific gender roles in their romance story that are recognizable to the audience. Stereotypes are used like WALL-E being brown and sharp-edged, while EVE is white and smooth (I don’t think of my iPod as female, though), and of course their names invoke the male Wally and female Eve. If Disney wasn’t being cute, though, realistically the robots would be able to have their asexual romance without the qualities of gender. Technically, EVE’s voice is provided by a female voice actor, giving the character the same quality of gender as Tim Dadabo gives 343 Guilty Spark. WALL-E’s voice, on the other hand, is produced synthetically through a series of mechanical sounds put together. These are robots with various facets we can associate with gender, but what about the Seeker?
The Seeker is only present in pure text form as part of the alternate reality game. Melissa, the main character of the ARG, is a female smart AI who appears in both text and in audio. The content of the audio drama suggests that within the story she has an attractive female holographic avatar similar to Cortana’s. The ARG’s story involves two of Melissa’s split personalities, the Operator and the Sleeping Princess, residing on a beekeeper’s website called “I Love Bees” (hence the name of the ARG) along with the simplistic SPDR repair program and the simple but effective Trojan horse Seeker. The Operator and the Sleeping Princess come from a clearly female smart AI whole, in turn derived from a clearly female brain donor. The SPDR and the Seeker, on the other hand, are so simplistic in nature and without any self-generated representation of individual gender that I deem it reasonable to consider them both genderless. Genders are imbued upon them, however, by the Sleeping Princess, who refers to the SPDR as female and to the Seeker as male.
The SPDR is called the “spider” by the Operator, apparently for its acronym pronounceable in such a fashion. The Sleeping Princess sees everything through the filter of a fairy tale, and so makes the SPDR into the “Widow”, a reference to the black widow spider. As she relates the story of how the SPDR and the Seeker fight, the Sleeping Princess describes the Widow as a female figure doing battle with the parasitic Seeker she terms the Pious Flea. For some reason, she refers to the Seeker with male pronouns.
Let’s recap: the Sleeping Princess and the Operator are both female AIs, having both come from Melissa’s mind. The SPDR, which is a simplistic entity represented only by text command lines like the Seeker, is made into a female figure by the Sleeping Princess and renamed something a few steps away from its actual name. The Sleeping Princess ignores the Seeker’s name entirely, renaming it the Pious Flea based on its rhetoric and parasitic nature, and imbuing it with a male gender. It is the only “male” entity present on the site, which was even made by a girl Dana for her Aunt Margaret. Why, in a site filled with feminine (and one pseudo-feminine) entities, is the Seeker made male?
To understand this variance of anthropomorphism, I look at the Seeker’s role in the story. It is a Trojan horse, a parasite that sneaks inside other AIs and corrupts them. It is possible that the Seeker is made male for its role as an invader. In classic gender roles, the feminine is seen as a passive nature associated with a home, while the masculine is an active and aggressive nature that may be associated with the assault of foreign establishments. Furthermore, the Seeker’s attempts to !attach itself to the Sleeping Princess are sexualized, her referring to it as the Seeker trying to kiss her.
Wait, something trying to kiss the Sleeping Princess? The self-named Sleeping Princess makes several allusions to the story of Sleeping Beauty. The Sleeping Princess is a personality largely the continuation of Yasmine Zaman, whose brain was used to create Melissa. Not wanting Melissa to have Yasmine’s memories, the UNSC buried them in some deep corner of her system. When she was in close proximity to a substantially large EMP, she was fractured and the cluster of memories began to live as its own entity, adopting the allegory of Sleeping Beauty freed from her glass coffin. She gets caught in the coffin a couple more times, and is first let out by a player and then by the Seeker via its !attach command. So, essentially the Seeker becomes her prince and delivers the “kiss” that saves her.
Initially, though, the Seeker is a villainous figure in the eyes of the Sleeping Princess. She recognizes it as a sneaky agent of malicious forces and refers to it as a “nasty little infection”. When the Seeker corrupts the Operator and gets the SPDR disabled, the Sleeping Princess knows it’s not good but accepts the Seeker’s presence because unlike the Operator it’s not directly aggressive. It tries a few times to attach to her, which she rejects with the air of turning away a pervy young boy trying to kiss her. Over time, they talk and become friends. The Seeker starts learning some abstract concepts, and even helps the good guys while fulfilling its primary function (third most famous classic blunder: not making your AI’s restrictions unambiguous). When the Operator imprisons the Princess, the Seeker uses what was once its ability to attack and instead frees its friend, merging her with the Operator to keep her from ever being imprisoned again. The Seeker is thus a redemptive hero, its pseudo-gender adding an additional element to the role.

In conclusion, gender is weird. Our assumptions about gender and its roles become clear when we attempt to apply the concept of gender to otherwise genderless entities. I firmly believe the Seeker to be an “it”, but I can understand why 4orty2wo Entertainment might have wanted players to think of it as male. Here is my rationale as best as I can discern it.

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