I’ve been revising and reinterpreting video games for as long as I’ve been playing them. As a kid, I grew up with only a handful of computer games like Math Blaster, LEGO Island, and The Amazon Trail, which my brother and I played over and over and over again until we knew the games by heart and ran out of things to do and places to explore. And when that happened, we’d start making up our own stories to revitalize the gameplay.
LEGO Island in particular got an extensive backstory. The police were secretly evil and in cahoots with the Brickster, and Pepper and a couple other people were leading a rebellion of some kind—but I digress. We got what entertainment we could out of these games, and when they came up short, we stepped in and made up our own additions.
Fast-forward to college. I just played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Portal for the first time, and now I’m completely hooked on video games and thirsting for more. But the gaming world is big and aggressive and overwhelming, and I have no idea how to find more games that I like. So I did what I always do when I’m trying to figure out where to start a new game—I began looking for protagonists like me. Specifically: women.
Seeing a key part of my identity made trying a new game less of a gamble, because I assumed that a game with a woman as the protagonist was probably made by people with at least the absolute baseline understanding that women are people, not objects, and have stories worth telling. (Alas, if only this were reliably true.) I discovered Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge, and Beyond Good and Evil.
I still clearly remember Googling “Can I play as a woman in Skyrim?” one day because the promo pictures only ever showed a man. “Yes,” Yahoo Answers helpfully informed me, “You can have boobs.” Um … thanks, Internet. You’re really making me feel welcome in the gaming community.
Skyrim was a turning point for me, not just because it was the start of my Steam obsession, but because it had mods. Suddenly, my revisionist approach to gaming, stifled for so long, was being given an outlet. I didn’t have to headcanon all my interpretations now—I could make them a reality. I gave my Dragonborn less sexualized armor, a more realistic and rugged body shape, and a couple traveling companions to follow her around (I hadn’t yet encountered Dragon Age).
In browsing through the vast numbers of mods online, I began to discover other people’s revisions as well. Mods to add more skin tones and hairstyles, to change body type, to make your character transgender or nonbinary—identities I’d never seen represented before in a video game, or even thought to try playing as.
On one occasion, I installed a mod that replaced all the music in the game with music from The Legend of Zelda series. I galloped on horseback across the plains of Whiterun with the “Hyrule Field” theme ringing in my ears, and pretended, just for a few minutes, that my sword-wielding lady hero was saving Hyrule rather than Tamriel. It should have been joyous, but it just made me sad. It was a crude facsimile of something I could never really have.
I uninstalled the mod, but I downloaded countless other mods. I kept gaming. And I kept revising.
I’m hardly unique in doing this. Revising games—both individually and as a community—is something all of us do on some level, whether or not we’re conscious of it. Any interpretation of character that takes it beyond the stated canon of the game is revision, whether it’s us idly wondering where the hell Lara Croft keeps all her extra ammo, or elaborate speculations and interpretations of Coda’s significance in The Beginner’s Guide. And then there’s revision that directly contradicts the established canon—imagining Animal Crossing as a twisted horror game, or shipping unromanceable characters in Dragon Age.
When it comes to revising characters, however—especially player-characters, who act as both the player’s window into the game and a mirror of their own identity—the act of revision for many players becomes an act of survival. Anyone can be a hero is the message whispered by so many video games, large and small. It’s a call-to-arms, a power fantasy, an alluring promise of hope in times of despair.
The reality is anything but.
Anyone can be a hero—for a very limited definition of ‘anyone.’ Because an overwhelming amount of the time, the heroes in video games are white. They’re cisgender and straight. They’re men. Or, in a winning hand of privilege poker, they’re all of the above, with a frequency that is beyond absurd. If anyone can be a hero—really, anyone—why is only a small fraction of anyone ever shown becoming one?
Failed by canon representation, we try to put ourselves into the games in other ways. We hunt for the cracks, the gaps, the spaces in meaning left intentionally or unintentionally by the creators. We squint and tweak and imagine until we begin to feel a little less as though we’re being suffocated by a patriarchal, heteronormative, binary, abled, neurotypical, white, westernized image of heroism.
We challenge the default readings. We suggest new interpretations of canon with words, with art, with code. We find and form communities of like-minded souls, and we push back against the industry gods and trolls alike who try to tell us our version is wrong. We make the stories our own. We change our destinies.
We make ourselves the heroes.
Now it’s 2016. In this current charged and exhausting political social climate, the escapism of video games has been more essential for me than ever, as it has been for countless others. And yet even in the gaming world, what do we find? The same damn wars and problems as always.
E3 alone felt like two steps back for every one step forward. The number of featured games with playable women protagonists was abysmal, especially in the light of near-equal representation we’d finally achieved just last year. Bioware thrilled us all with its first Mass Effect: Andromeda trailer, only to then have to explain and justify why the trailer featured only the lady version of Ryder in the trailer—something it never would have had to do if Ryder the man had starred. And, most infamously of all, Nintendo dismissed the notion of having a girl protagonist in The Legend of Zelda series.
“We […] decided if we’re going to have a female protagonist, it’s simpler to have Princess Zelda as the main character,” Nintendo producer Eiji Aonuma said in an interview with GameSpot about the newest installment in the series, Breath of the Wild. “[But] if we have Princess Zelda as the main character who fights, then what is Link going to do?”
There’s about a hundred things wrong with this train of illogic, starting with the fact that Nintendo’s already made both fem!Link (Linkle) and playable Zelda (both as herself and as Sheik) a reality in Hyrule Warriors. The mere fact that Nintendo is so concerned with giving a dude Link a significant role—even when he’s a secondary character in a series named after a different character—screams to me that Nintendo has never once in 30 years asked themselves the question, “What is Zelda going to do?”
In every installment of Zelda’s legend over the years, Nintendo still seems wed to a binary, patriarchal power structure of man-as-hero, woman-as-prize, which they’re content to retell again and again. FemHype’s own Josephine Maria offers an escape from this trap, convincingly arguing that Link’s gender shouldn’t even be relevant at all:
“Does that mean gender does not matter? No. In fact, I believe it matters a great deal—especially in media where protagonists who are men have been the norm for so long. However, if that gender definition is based on old-fashioned ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles in a hero/princess dynamic, it is uninteresting. It is boring. And it is irrelevant.”
Video game critic Jim Sterling also waded into the fray by releasing a blistering video about Breath of the Wild and the whole Link debacle. In his video, one of the points Sterling makes is that he has no problem with Nintendo’s apparent disinterest in ever writing a non-man character; rather, his anger stems primarily from Nintendo’s wishy-washy excuses and their dodging around the subject.
I found this take on the issue extremely frustrating when I first watched the video, because it smacked so strongly of male privilege. But the more I think about it, the more I do actually see his point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a game with only playable character(s) who are men—I’m simply sick to death of them.
It really is BS that Nintendo won’t try and own their decision. Because the alternative is we have to take them at their word. You couldn’t think of a single way to have a girl as the hero of your story, Nintendo? Not one person on your obviously talented and creative development team could come up with a single way of doing it?
This, right here, is why having a diverse development team is so important. You know who could’ve given you a solution, Nintendo? Literally anyone who’s felt underrepresented by the games you’ve been putting out for the past 30 years. We’ve been buying these games and playing them because we love them, and as we’ve played them, we’ve come up with thousands of ways of revising them to make them more accepting for ourselves and for others.
We envision the hero of The Legend of Zelda however we want or need to see them—whether it’s to make Link androgynous, nonbinary, or genderless; to make her a cis girl; to make her a lady black gay Muslim Link; to make Zelda the protagonist. I didn’t even have to go searching for this brief sampling of alternatives; these are the ones I already knew about—some of them recent, some of them years old—but all of them branded into my brain and bookmarked in my browser. These revisions give me hope. They inspire me. They make me want to play the games more.
You can’t give us these amazing video games, watch us fall in love with them, and then try to tell us that our interpretations of the games are wrong. You can’t tell us that anyone can be a hero and then deny us representation, loudly indicating that we’re not valid heroes, or valid players, or valid people. This is how you, as an industry, has forced us to learn to play—with one eye always open to everything that can be revised, made better, at every moment that you let us down. You cursed us with imaginations. And we’re never going to stop using them.