Photo by Emilio J. Rodríguez-Posada
As a video game-bred child of the 90’s, when it was still PC to save princesses and have a five-to-one ratio of male to female characters on Maniac Mansion, I was pissed off. My favorite game was Street Fighter—I could play until my thumbs were sore and my eyes dry from forgetting to blink—but I resented having only one suitable choice: Chun-Li. She had a few kick-ass moves and I didn’t always mind playing her, but I did mind having no other appropriate options. Cammy, Elena, Juri—they didn’t come until later.
I dreamt, I waited, and sometimes prayed (recovering Catholic here) for Nintendo to change things up. To let Princess Peach fight alongside Luigi and Mario, or without them, whatever. But not even Toad was a real player. I figured they had something against short folks too.
I didn’t care if I got the up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-B-A-select-start cheat. I didn’t want 100 lives. I wanted a badass, machine gun-toting, fatigues-wearing, muscle-sporting chick to play with. Sure, Sheena came along in the fourth version, but I still don’t know how the hell she kept it together with that bathing suit armor, those thigh-highs, and that long, luscious mane of hers.
I hated Donkey Kong and his brutishness. Despised the Ninja Turtles and their pseudo-surfer lingo. Where were the girl skaters on Skate or Die? Q*bert didn’t have a penis, but why did all the gamer mags refer to him and he? Zelda was the name of the game, but why did Link get all the fame and glory?
I was confused. Annoyed. But determined to make it to the end credits anyway.
When they—brother, cousins, Dad, boys at school—were busy identifying with the characters, learning all the cheats and hoarding them like tokens, weapons, lives, I had to stretch my mind just a little further, just a little harder, thinking, repeating:I can play, I can win, I’m going to win, that’s me in there.
When I think back to that knot I’d get in my stomach when we’d buy a new game and I’d have only one girl player to choose from in a sea of overtly masculine options and, of course, the requisite beasts and monsters (I’m talking about you, Blanka). I feel sorry for that girl, but I also feel proud. Proud that she made the best with what she had like so many other insistent girls, proving the unlikely to the game developers and their marketing teams. That we didn’t want to comb Barbie’s hair anymore. That we found Cabbage Patch dolls boring. That we burned every recipe in the Easy Bake manual because the kitchen was simply less appealing than the TV room.
We didn’t just aspire to be gamers—we were gamers. And some of us still are.
I’m not saying that today’s world of gaming is the best it can be. There are still sexualized characters like Ivy and Sophitia in Soul Caliber and straight up misogyny in the Grand Theft Auto series, so to say there’s room for growth is an understatement.
But I’m an optimist, and I like to think we’re getting there. Portal’s Chell doesn’t need saving. Neither does Clementine from The Walking Dead or these other badass warriors. The progress is slow and steady, and male characters still outnumber the female, but so long as we keep fighting, we’ll also keep advancing to the next level.