Computer games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve loved them from when, under parental supervision, I stuck a cassette in my much mourned C64 and then had to find something else to do for an hour while it loaded up (with the ever present fear that the load would fail and I’d have to start All Over Again – an hour was a very, very long time in Toddler Days), to my latest purchase: the fabulous Portal 2 that I was told by virtually everyone I know who plays games that I’m a terrible, terrible excuse for a gamer for not having played it yet. (Yes, they were right, it’s bloody fantastic.)
One thing I managed to avoid with games for a pretty long time was the sexism, the overt sexism anyway. The gaming shelves of my childhood were filled with RTS and turn-based games, and point and click adventures. Sure, I remember getting annoying in the original Civilization that the only female leader of a civ was Elizabeth Tudor, and I didn’t want to play the English (partly due to my youthful Scottish nationalism, mostly because I loved playing on the world map and getting to Alpha Centauri first wasn’t easy if you started on a teeny tiny island); and Age of Empires made me role my eyes with all the villagers being male. Still there tended to be some pretty decent female representation in the games I played.
Instead of Mario, I had Jill of the Jungle, a fantastic trilogy of platformers about the eponymous Jill saving said Jungle from vague threats of menace (the fact that the jungle’s saviour was a white, blonde woman went over my head for years). She could throw daggers and shurikens, take down giant ants and devils and, um, frogs. She transformed into a teeny wee whale that shot bullets, a firebird that shot…fire, and a frog that shot nothing at all, but it did jump a lot. For many years it was The Best Game Ever, and I spent a worrying number of hours exploring every nook and cranny of each level, searching for their Easter eggs. At the end, she rescues The Prince; her response to his marriage proposal? “…Okay.”
Another much beloved game was The Secret of Monkey Island, which I blame entirely for my desire to become a pirate, or governor of a pirate island. While you play Guybrush Threepwood, wannabe pirate, and go through a tremendous amount of puzzle-solving and smashing humour in order to save Governor Elaine Marley from the ghost pirate LeChuck, Elaine has already rescued herself. The idea of this Whole Other Game going on at the same time as mine, where Elaine was the hero, fascinated me. And, okay you didn’t get to see it or play it, but the implication of what had been going on elsewhere during Guybrush’s adventures was enough to cement my very fictional, very romantic notions of piracy and Elaine as one of my favourite computer game characters.
In the second iterations of Age of Empires – Age of Kings – and Civilization II, things got better. Age of Kings had female villagers, hurrah! No more worrying about how, exactly, my precious civilisation was procreating, and in Civ II there was an aesthetic difference to the game that delighted me: for all the civilisations, you could now choose to be a female leader. It made no difference to the gameplay, except that you were represented by a picture of that woman and referred to as “she”; it doesn’t sound like much, but it mattered. Sadly, this was lost with the more recent Civs, where there are far more male than female leaders available. (“But in reality, there were lots more male leaders then female, blah, blah…” Yeah, cause more female leaders is unthinkable in a game where I’m discovering spaceflight in the twelfth century.)
Now, course, I have to buy my own games. And finding games that suit my taste is tricky, dammit. These days I like RPGs, a genre where even my favourite company makes headdesk-worthy choices on occasion: after the joy of Mass Effect, it was disappointing and infuriating to see where they’d decided to go with the main female NPCs in Mass Effect 2. If I didn’t love fem!Shep so much, and the first game hadn’t hooked me in, I’d’ve switched it off thanks to the killer combination of absurd clothing and embarrassing female character back-stories.
In an RPG, I don’t care if it’s got the best storyline and most compelling characters ever rendered onscreen, if I can’t play as a woman, I’m not playing. If all the women are ridiculously dressed, I’m not playing; if there are only token women in the cast, I’m not playing. If, in short, the game designers made no effort to remember that women play computer games too, I don’t bother. There’re a lot of games out there, and I’ve still not finished my female City-elf playthrough of Dragon Age.
So the representation of women in computer games matters to me. It should be better. I want it to be better. I want more games that appeal to me and I don’t want to roll my eyes so much at sexist bullshit.
And I’m far from the only one. After a bout of bloody awful harassment, Anita Sarkeesian’s Kickstarter project Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games has received a fantastic amount of support and raised over $150 000 when she was originally looking for only $6 000 to create a series of videos critiquing women’s representation in video games. The video on her Kickstarter page explains why this sort of thing matters, but briefly: computer games are a part of popular culture and whether we like it or not that influences what our society considers right and proper and good. So when women’s roles in games are restricted to a handful of tropes – and those tropes often come with a lot of sexist, even misogynistic, baggage – there’s clearly a problem. It accustoms us to those limited roles, the gender stereotypes, the sexism; it normalises them and makes them seem just fine when, no, they really aren’t.
I want to play games with female characters that are interesting and fun, inspirational and complicated, that are lawful good through chaotic evil, and that when in an armour-wearing situation, said armour is of the sensible, protective variety.