Joystick Envy

Being a Gamer Girl

I’ve been a video game fangirl since I was 5 years old and my parents bought me my first system: a boxy gray Nintendo, fresh from Japan. Having no concept yet as to the vagaries of assembly-line production, I imagined that it had grown on some mystical tree, its trunk live with blue electricity, harvested by big rounded robots like the one in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though I was later introduced to the concept of factories, I never lost my vision of video games as a link to a strange, futuristic, fantastic world.

The games I preferred were the ones where, instead of jumping on the heads of colorful monsters, I could take them out with a clever incantation that would cause them to drop dead on the spot. When I got Rare’s Wizards and Warriors as a gift, I narrowed my preference down to those games in which my onscreen avatar was encased in a suit of armor like a silver chestnut shell, peeking out from behind a sturdy visor and swinging a sword twice as big as he was. Then Enix released Dragon Warrior, a game with a story, and I had fallen in love for the first time. Here was everything I wanted: an interactive fairy tale in which I could, through the power vested in my own fingertips, defeat the slimy bad guys and save the world from ruin. Though I often felt voiceless and ineffectual at school and at home, as children on the cusp of adolescence often do, I could defeat a huge, brawny dark knight that held a city hostage. To a disenfranchised 10-year-old, the power to save the world, even a digital one, is a self-esteem booster indeed.

The playable characters in these earlier games were the strong, silent type. They rarely spoke and had no motivations beyond saving whatever person or city or feudal institution needed saving. Though the characters were usually male, the interactivity of the medium allowed me to inhabit them without any sense that because I was a girl, I somehow could not do these things. It was fundamentally I, not the character, who was fighting the good fight. Though male by avatar and pronoun, the fact that a girl could pick up the controller and inhabit their personas without any confusion made them essentially genderless, unlike the medieval conventions upon which the games were based. There was also Samus Aran, the heroine of Nintendo’s classic Metroid series and many young boys’ first brush with rudimentary feminism, whose identity is hidden behind a futuristic suit of bubbling red armour until, in the last shot, her lack of helmet reveals long brown hair and a smile. Her fluid gender identity, as she was assumed at first to be male by nearly everyone who played the game, has not stopped Metroid from continuing to be a popular series with both male and female players. These main “characters,” then, were not true characters, but empty vessels into which the player could pour him- or herself. It was not Samus who defeated Mother Brain, nor the nameless hero who slew the Dragonlord and restored peace to the land, but I, a young girl grown somehow greater than herself, sitting in my pajamas and staring raptly at the television. Not only that, but I didn’t especially care about the heart of the princess or the edict of the king. I just wanted to make sure the townspeople, the everyday civilians, could live without threat of monsters, a stance that even today informs my views on war and conflict.

The male main characters, personality-free and therefore unthreatening, were also the perfect candidates for a young teenage girl’s first crush. They were chivalrous and brave. When they saved the princess, they were unlikely to pull her hair or kick her chair over. They were The Good Guys, ideologically simple, morally pure. Even the Bad Guys were much better choices as crushes than the real-life “bad boys”: all of the intrigue and deliciously guilty feelings of subversive rebellion without any of the real risk. An awkward adolescent, at the time I bemoaned the absolute lack of interest in me from boys my age, but in some ways I’m glad that I had these fantasy men to tide me over. It saved me from having to deal with the complexities of real romantic relationships until I was older and better emotionally equipped to do so.

This is not to say that being female was, or is, always easy in the video game culture. It is less male-dominated today than it was when I was young, but there is still a definite gender bias. Gaming was seen as an almost exclusively male pursuit; for some reason, the entire concept of video games was lumped in with dump trucks and robots as a “boys’ toy.” Many of my female friends played the earliest Super Mario games when they were very young, but by the time most girls reached early adolescence, the desire to game was socialized right out of them. Even today, in a time when gaming is far more gender-neutral, games for younger children are often grouped into “his” and “hers,” with Barbie and Olsen Twins shopping simulators shrink-wrapped neatly in Pepto-Bismol-pink packaging sitting alongside camo-green army games featuring anthropomorphic animal characters, presumably to make them seem less harsh to parents. Even more gender-neutral titles like Nintendo’s Kirby series are marketed mainly to boys: the advertisements rarely feature girls. This stark gender divide has had a major effect on the development of gaming.

Take, for instance, the representation of women in video games of every sort. The most well-known game girl is probably Lara Croft of the Tomb Raider series by Eidos, a buxom collection of rounded polygons that would put a Playboy centerfold to shame. It is somehow more difficult for me to play as an impossibly beautiful woman than as a man or an indeterminately-gendered suit of armor. I know I’m not male, nor do I have a suit of armor, and so playing as those characters is firmly and comfortably in the realm of fantasy. It’s harder, more fraught with standard contemporary social pressures, to slip into the skin of someone who visually epitomizes the media’s ideal woman; there is the familiar feeling of not being able to measure up. No longer genderless, these modern characters, male and female, have definite personalities of their own, and are, despite the strong-woman surface, too often roped into following gender stereotypes. Take Tecmo’s Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, for instance. The fact that these female stars of the popular fighting game series can kick the butts of anyone they choose is not enough. They must be squeezed into skimpy swimsuits and paraded before the approving gaze of male fans, and be festooned with “hobbies” like aromatherapy, obviously the logical choice of pastime for a woman warrior. Oh, and they can shop for new accessories! Isn’t that fun? Giggle giggle!

When I was 17 years old, a job opened up at a small, independently owned video game store near my house. I was to become a member of that small sorority, which has since grown but remains the exception: a female video game store employee. I would be right in the trenches of the video game industry, challenging gender stereotypes as I stocked shelves and sold merchandise. It sounded like fun at the time.

The owner of the store was a stocky, serious man, with a condescending manner and a slight mocking smile. The manager was a tall man in his mid-20s who had a baby face and took great care to tell me that the only female he really cared about was his dog. The other salesperson was a wiry guy of about 20. I was not only the only girl who worked there, but the only girl who had ever worked there.

It was interesting to observe the selling techniques of these men. The neighborhood was generally well-off and was full of young families, and so the clientele consisted mainly of children with their parents. When young girls came in, my coworkers would coo over them and direct them immediately to the “pink section,” which contained such options as shopping games and horseback-riding simulators. Delighted, they nagged their mothers until the game was safely in their hands. Perhaps they would have directed themselves to the same section of their own accord, if given the opportunity, but my colleagues did not even give these girls the opportunity to look around. I did my best to be an equal-opportunity saleswoman and give all the kids exposure to all the good games, but I was often overwhelmed by the subtle and not-so-subtle misogyny that permeated the store. The one time a boy, sandy-haired and big-eyed, asked to see the new Olsen Twins game, the manager guffawed. “Come on, sport,” he said. “That’s a girl game. You don’t want a girl game, do you?”

In some ways it was easier when video game characters were crude, boxy approximations of the human form; they were free to go about their dragon-slaying, spell-casting, gun-toting business unburdened by the modern weight and body image debates, blameless for occasional tragedies. Open to interpretation, requiring imagination and an active player to bring them to life, they were available in equal measure to male and female players. Like any firmly entrenched gender divide, the one in the video game community needs a lot of work to close. But efforts are already being made on all fronts: every gaming magazine now has at least one female staffer, and websites like www.gamegirlz.com and www.gamegirladvance.com are making sure that the female gaming community has a voice. Most importantly, though, in this age of technological wonders, the oldest members of the gaming generation are starting to have children of their own; we can start from the ground up in obliterating these notions. We can make sure that girls know that they can kick butt like Lara Croft even if they don’t look like her, and we can make sure that boys know that as much as it’s okay for anyone to like an Olsen Twins game, it’s okay for them. And we can teach them that video games are fun and a great way to act out fantasies, but in the end, they don’t need a controller in their hands to be in control of their own destinies.