When I was younger, I never thought about gender in video games. It was as if I didn’t care and could project myself into whatever was going on. For the longest time, I thought Link was a girl and that he wanted to save Zelda because they were going to hang out and learn how to shoot arrows or something. The same thing happened when I was playing as Mario. Even though he was a man with a moustache, I never thought much about gender when it came to him. Mario had a moustache and was a little plumber dude, but I could totally see myself in him and channeled my inner moustache to jump on Bowser’s head a bunch of times.
It was when the graphics in games began to get better that I started noticing the differences in men and women. With the more retro graphics, it was harder to pick out the difference between genders. I know now that Link was a man and that princesses got captured. This was despite the fact that they could run around volcanoes while dressed up as a man and disappear into thin air. I still didn’t think much of it, though. I enjoyed the games and would just pick female characters like Zelda when I was playing Super Smash Bros. When I couldn’t play as Zelda, I would play as Marth because it never occurred to me that Marth might be a man. Since I didn’t understand androgyny at the time, I decided that Marth was a female.
Roy was so obviously male that surely Marth was female. She was badass and strong and they protected each other. That was as far as my thought process went at the time, and I still didn’t feel like things were all that bad in gaming. After all, how could I feel weird when there were awesome women like Marth who could easily knock down people with a single blow of her sword? Or what about Alex from Eternal Darkness who, despite the increasing craziness of the world around her, was brave enough to risk madness? What about women like Saria who was a goddess in her own right and Zelda who could run around as Sheik?
It was a slow realization process and one that stuck with me as I grew up, but the fact that women weren’t the same as men in video games really became clear when my brother brought home a fighting game. On the surface, SoulCalibur looked like it was going to be great. There was a demon sword and everyone wanted it, but once I got into the game and started looking at the character creation screen, I got this sinking feeling in my stomach. Ivy was the first character that I can remember seeing in that game. Ivy with her ridiculous, fetishized costume that left me feeling uncomfortable and confused (no, not for those reasons).
I didn’t look anything like Ivy. She sounded like an adult lady, but she dressed in a way that my mind couldn’t quite process. Maybe if she had been in some other location, I would have ended up assuming that she was in a bikini, but in a place that was so devoid of any water or sand, I couldn’t understand it. She was jumping and running and fighting while dressed like that? It didn’t make sense, I thought. If Ivy was going to dress like that, she should have left the boys to do the fighting. From then on, I would only choose Link to play with since I could at least understand that character. I avoided the female characters in a way that I had never done before, not because I didn’t want to play as a woman, but because these women confused me and made me feel uncomfortable.
Eventually, I came to accept that this was going to be a part of gaming, but I should never have had to. When I was playing Final Fantasy X and Lulu stepped out in her ridiculous, gravity-defying outfit … I noted the strangeness of it, but tried to come up with reasons to explain it in my head, like saying that she used magic to keep her boobs in that exact, back-breaking position. I remember thinking many times that if she bent over too far, her boobs would fall right out of her dress.
Similarly, when I was playing World of Warcraft, I wasn’t surprised to have characters coming up to message me about the sexual things they wanted to do to my character. It made me incredibly uncomfortable in a way that drove me away from the game. I could be doing something as innocuous as waiting for the Zeppelin and characters would come up to me to whisper innuendos, rape threats, or even to just start RPing that they were having sex with my character without any kind of word.
And that was just something I was supposed to expect. In my mind, it made sense that I left WoW rather than trying to demand that there be some kind of change or reporting the players. This was a guy’s world, after all, and I felt like I was trespassing by being in it. I was a second-class citizen in this world and worst of all, I thought it was right that I be treated like that because of my gender—as if I was straying into a space that I had no right to. It didn’t matter that I was underage and people were saying sexual things to me. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t feel safe joining any kind of guild without my brother joining with me. It certainly didn’t matter that I would see people tossing around slurs against women and joking about rape. This was not my world, I thought, and since I wasn’t a man … I wasn’t really meant to be a part of it.
Thinking back on it now, I can recognize how uncomfortable I was to see the way that women were portrayed in games and how the hyper-sexualized fantasy women that were constantly being pushed into my face detracted from games rather than added to them. It sucks to have your gender be over-sexualized for no purpose other than to satisfy some strange kind of bare skin quota. It sucks to feel like there’s no one in the game who can represent you properly or feel so turned off by certain characters that you don’t feel comfortable picking characters of your own gender.
Why would anyone ever think that this distorted and one-sided view of any gender is okay? The truth of the matter is that they don’t. Even the hardcore jerks that you see being asses in comments everywhere don’t believe in feeling uncomfortable with the way that gender is portrayed in games. They don’t express it very well and they don’t realize just how deep their dislike of hyper-sexualization goes, but if you ever want to see it, you need to find a game that portrays men in an over-sexualized, barely-clothed fashion. Seriously, find a scantily clad and over-sexualized man to find out just how “gross” these all too sexual images are to them and how impractical armor shouldn’t be allowed.
In the end, one wants to feel comfortable about the way that their gender is represented, and more recently, there have been many more positive representations of women within the gaming sphere. There have been efforts made to make the gaming environment less toxic and more accepting, but it is a slow process. There are still games in which I have to be careful about who I reveal my gender to and the games in which you can find some of the worst hate are surprising.
Some of the most vile conversations that I have seen in an MMO chat in a while was on a phone game called The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle Earth. I had been specifically warned by my brother to not let on that I was female or else I would get attacked or insulted. I’ve also seen some terrible things in the Clash of Clans chat, and was again warned not speak about my gender. It’s still strange to me that there’s a requirement that a person be a man in order to count themselves as a gamer. Certainly, there are spaces now where that’s not the case, but the overwhelming majority of gaming spheres could not be considered safe spaces for women.
It’s important to be able to game and not feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t realize just how uncomfortable we are until we step into a safe space and realize that there’s no one here who will heckle us or make us feel like we’re less simply because we identify female. Until then, we’ll have to create our own safe spaces, but that can be just as illuminating and rewarding as any other experience I’ve had within gaming culture.
There are a lot of problems to still be looked past, but I think that we’re on the right track. For now, we can take comfort in the fact that there is a whole new generation that won’t have to struggle to find characters that can represent them quite like we had to. As much as I loved playing the shit out of Marth or imagining myself as Zelda in her Sheik phase, it would have been nice to have different kinds of women that I could look up to. While I had a blast putting myself in Mario’s shoes and stomping on Koopas while twirling my moustache, somehow going into the end game screen and seeing that dastardly plumber stealing my kiss from Princess Peach felt like a betrayal. But if things keep going the way they’re going, I have hope that one day there will be a series as iconic as Mario that is headed by a female character. And on that day, little mushroom man, I will be avenged.