“Mommy, when are they coming out with a Gamegirl?”
I posed this question to my mom when I was six, holding my prized red Gameboy in my hand. I’d noticed the “boy” in the title and wondered why on Earth my new favorite device came with a gender—did that mean it wasn’t intended for me? I couldn’t understand the reasoning behind it at the time, except that it made me feel left out. My mom responded that she didn’t know, but that she hoped they would start selling a Gamegirl eventually.
The Internet is teeming with controversies surrounding women and the gaming world right now. Feminists who discuss video games, such as Anita Sarkeesian and her fantastic online web series Feminist Frequency, have been the target of harassment ranging from name-calling all the way to rape and death threats. This is all because these women critique the sexism and lack of female representation in many games and gaming communities, and members of said communities have responded defensively. Most famously, this issue spawned Gamergate, a movement that many claimed related to “ethics in [video-game-related] journalism” rather than displeasure with the people who have called attention to the misogyny omnipresent in gaming.
One way this has impacted my life is that if I make a public observation about, say, a female character in a game, or attitudes about female characters in games, defensive gamers like these pop up in my mentions on Twitter. It’s startling. When I mention, for instance, that I enjoyed getting to play as a woman in the recently released Fallout 4, I get attacked for privileging diversity over a game’s plot (as if those two aren’t interconnected), creating an issue when there isn’t one (there is), and being a “feminazi.” The impression that this all gives me is that these members of the gaming community seem to think I, as a woman, am invading their space. That I suddenly heard other women want to see women in their games and I jumped on the bandwagon because I like causing problems for people.
That’s laughable. I’ve been playing handheld and console games since 1999 (computer games since 1997), and I’ve been desperate for more female representation in them for just as long.
Disclaimer here: This blog post is meant to be personal. I am here to talk about why I, as an individual, want to see more women in games and my history with that issue. I do not speak for other women—other women’s opinions about this may be similar or dissimilar to mine, depending on who they are. This post isn’t meant to prove once and for all why more women should be featured in the gaming community. It’s just meant to show why this inclusion is so important to me.
Let’s head back to 1999, when I received my first games for my Gameboy Color. Originally, my sister and I were given Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue, but they were corrupted and unable to save, so I consider my first real Gameboy game to be Pokémon Yellow. I looked at the back of the box and saw that I was to play as a boy in a baseball cap. All right, whatever. But then I started the game, and here’s the first question I was asked: “What is your name?”
Before I continue on, let’s return to that earlier complaint I heard about people forcing diversity into games without any thought for the plot. I understood, and continue to understand today, why allowing for a female protagonist in a game does not always make narrative sense.
When I was nine, one of my favorite games became Kingdom Hearts. I felt like there was no better game on the planet. I played it every chance I got. And even though I desperately wanted a chance to play as the main female character, Kairi, I understood why I was playing with Sora. Shifting the narrative to focus on Kairi would have changed the entire plot, and thus the entire game. Playing as Sora didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the game, and I certainly didn’t hold it against him. I loved him. I still love that guy.
With Pokémon, however, they weren’t asking me, “What is the name of the character you’re playing as?” They asked, “What is your name?” It literally asks you to step into the shoes of the character on the screen, or in other words, to play as yourself in a fictional reality. To add to this, your character in Pokémon doesn’t speak, meaning that whatever personality they have is whatever you project onto them. It’s an invitation to be part of the game—an invitation that fell flat for me, a girl.
I could’ve typed in “Morgan,” since it’s a gender neutral name, but playing as some boy named Morgan didn’t feel like the same thing as playing as myself. Sometimes, I pretended I was a girl with short hair, but that illusion always shattered when the characters in the game referred to me as he/him. This was made even more difficult in the Legend of Zelda games, which also ask you for your name. The character onscreen is more than just a few tiny pixels, so it is very clear the character is male.
Some people might be wondering why the hell I struggled to connect with a character so much if they weren’t the same gender as me. I still don’t have the complete answer for this—it’s something I felt as a kid, and I haven’t yet figured out the words to fully explain why I felt this way—but I will propose one idea. There’s a difference between liking a character and identifying as one.
Did I like male characters as a kid? Definitely. I adored Ash and Brock from the Pokémon anime, and Tuxedo Mask from Sailor Moon, and Simba from The Lion King. But because they were boys, I didn’t feel like I could be them. My ability to identify with characters regardless of gender (as well as race, sexuality, etc.) has become much more complex over the years, but whenever I play a video game there’s still some part of me that’s wondering, “Can I be a girl?” That’s partially related to that old feeling coming aflame again, and partially a result of my awareness that women are represented in video games far less often than men are, and I find the message that exclusion sends to be hurtful.
Anyway, back to Pokémon. Soon after my first journey into the virtual Pokémon world (RIP to my level 100 Tentacruel from Pokémon Yellow), Nintendo announced Pokémon Crystal, a new Pokémon game. Well, not exactly new—it would take place in the same region as Silver and Gold (I’d played Gold by this point as well), and would have more or less the same plot and kinds of Pokémon you could catch. Except that this time, you could play as a girl.
I absolutely lost my shit. Ironically, I got so excited that I created an entire persona and backstory for her (she was Arina, the twin sister of my real-life sister’s version of her, named Lucy), so I didn’t end up self-inserting myself the first time around. But the point was, I could if I wanted to. The point was, if I typed in “Morgan,” I could easily see the character as myself if I changed clothes and dyed my hair blue. No more walking around the Johto region looking desperately at all the female sprites and wishing I could switch places with them. Arina was someone I felt like could be me.
From that point on, self-insert games in which you couldn’t choose your gender felt like a disappointment, even if I enjoyed every other aspect of the game. I actually ended up liking Legend of Zelda games more than Pokémon (and still do), but it continues to feel weird to type in my name when this obviously male person is staring back at me. To Nintendo’s credit, they just announced a female version of Link named Linkle, whose name makes me thankful that you get to choose your own in Legend of Zelda games. Maybe she’ll be an option in future Legend of Zelda adventure-game titles?
Because of this lack of female representation, I also never expected that a game would exist in which you had to play as a woman. I figured if you weren’t given an option, you were a man. I still remember how I gasped the first time I played Portal and happened to catch what my character looked like through one of my portals while playing. It’s a first-person game, so I’d played for about an hour already assuming my character was male. I froze for a second, turned to the friend who was showing me the game and went, “Wait. I’m a girl? I’m a girl?” I seriously wanted to cry.
So, this isn’t something I’ve recently noticed and starting having a problem with. Female representation in games has been a concern of mine since before I’d ever heard of feminism.
To finish off this post, I will provide a sample of what gender demographics have looked like in gaming throughout my childhood up until now. Below is a photo of most of the games in my house. I haven’t played all of them, as they’re a combination of games belonging to me and to my fiancé. Underneath that is the gender of the character(s) you play as in each game. I will be skipping repeat games, such as the multiples of Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Note that almost every title with the description “option between male and female” is developed by the same company, Bethesda Softworks. I will also include a couple of games downloaded onto consoles but that we don’t have cases for.
- Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 – male
- Kingdom Hearts HD 2.5 – male (with one female exception if you play Birth by Sleep)
- The Last of Us – male (you play briefly as a female at one point)
- Fallout 4 – option between male and female
- Rock Band 4 – option between male and female
- Forza 5 – male
- The Elder Scrolls Online – option between male and female
- Oblivion – option between male and female
- Skyrim – option between male and female
- Viva Piñata – no gender
- Left 4 Dead 2 – option between premade characters (3 males and 1 female)
- Halo Reach – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
- Halo 3 – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
- Halo 4 – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
- Fable II – option between male and female
- Fable III – option between male and female
- Gears of War – male
- Bioshock – male
- Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – male
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – switch back and forth between premade characters (2 males and 1 female)
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – male
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince – male
- Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories – male
- The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker – male
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – male
- Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 – switch back and forth between 200 premade male and female characters
- Super Smash Brothers Brawl – option between premade characters (28 male, 6 female, and 6 of unknown gender)
- Mario Kart Wii – option between premade characters (16 male, 7 female, and 1 of unknown gender)
- Halo 5 (not pictured) – male if you’re playing solo (there are female options if playing online main story/online multiplayer)
- Grand Theft Auto V (not pictured) – male (except online, where you have the option between male and female)
- Portal (not pictured) – female
- Portal 2 (not pictured) – female
Out of 32 games, 17 of them (which you might notice is more than half) require you to play as male for either the entire game or the majority of it. Of those 17, 2 include sections where you can play as women (Ellie from The Last of Us and Aqua from Birth by Sleep) and 5 only let you play as women under certain circumstances, mostly having to do with online multiplayer (Halo Reach, Halo 3, Halo 4, Halo 5 and Grand Theft Auto V). 12 allow you to choose. Of those 12, 4 provide you with more male character options than female ones (Left 4 Dead 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Super Smash Brothers Brawl, and Mario Kart Wii. The astute will notice that Super Smash Brothers Brawl provides just as many characters of unknown gender as female ones). 2 require you to play as female, and 1 doesn’t specify a gender.
This is coming from a household where both gamers who live there prefer to play as women, meaning we’re more likely to pick up progressive games, so this is a very generous list.
Again, I can’t speak for every woman. There are probably plenty of women out there who don’t care about identifying with the main character or having the main character’s gender match their own. I’m just here to share my story, explain why it’s important to me, and emphasize why this is an issue I will continue to talk about. In the end, it all comes down to exactly how I felt about my Gameboy when I was six: left out.
*Avatar by Charlavail