I Want To Play, Too

by Shaker Selasphorus

I'm a gamer; by this, I mean I love playing video games.

After visiting our friends and seeing their NES with Super Mario Bros 2, Mega Man, and the shiny gold Legend of Zelda cartridge, my brother and I begged and pleaded until our parents bought us a used NES out of the classifieds. We then graduated through consoles as next gens came out, pooling our money and bickering about which games to purchase.

In those pre-internet days, we had to use trial and error and the tips section of Nintendo Power to get our way through tight spots in games, and we'd stay up late (on the weekends) working through the games. I've gone from the original Game Boy brick through the rest of Nintendo's handhelds, up to my blue and black DS Lite. Now I live with a gamer husband who plays on the latest consoles and gets lots of the new releases.

I've played video games for most of my life. I can play most basslines in Rock Band on Hard, I've gotten all the possible endings in Chrono Trigger, and I can do a Super Metroid speedrun in under two hours. I'm someone who has devoted many hours, angry curses, and thrills of achievement to video games.

But I really don't play video games as much as I used to.

I've discovered that what interests me now are rarely the games touted as brand new and groundbreaking, but the games that are reiterations of the familiar and beloved. Even then, I have to be choosy. I'll play new games in the Metroid series, but I won't play Shadow Complex, the game that imitates the classic side-scroller Metroid games in every way, except in replacing the strong female protagonist of Samus Aran--the futuristic defender against the alien manace--with some guy whose girlfriend got kidnapped. (Apparently there's more to the plot and the girlfriend than that, but I really couldn't get past the initial objective of "rescue girlfriend.")

When I look closer at my choosiness, I see that I am avoiding a lot of the big name amazing new releases that are supposed to change the face of video gaming forever. My husband buys and rents a lot of video games, and most of them I never touch. I used to be excited about upcoming releases; now I find a game I want to play maybe once or twice a year, and stumble onto just a few more by accident. Why is that?

I think it's in part because what I want in a video game just isn't important to the developers. Sure, there's plenty of games that don't seem tailored specifically to the 18-34 dudebro demographic, but that demographic is generally at the forefront of developers' minds when it comes to The Next Great Gaming Experience. I find myself uninterested in all of them. The games that do appeal just don't seem to be on same radar as "real" video games. And even the developers that are consistently innovating in new ways beyond that dudebro demo? I just don't find myself drawn to most of their products either, maybe because they are also emphasizing the dudebro demo in other games and other ways.

See, there's this thing about video games that's been made fairly obvious to all of us girl gamers: Video games are for guys. Well, okay, they used to be for kids, I guess, and some still are, but "real" games, the ones with the huge budgets and hardware-pushing awesomeness and the most amazing graphics you've ever seen and midnight release parties that turn into cultural events? Those are for guys. Dudebro guys, too, not gay guys or bi guys or straight guys who aren't dudebros. They almost always feature straight male protagonists sneaking around or blowing things up or saving the world. And the women are an afterthought. Or sometimes worse than an afterthought.

It was my husband, reader of video game related news that he is, who brought my attention to this article: Women Aren't Vending Machines: How Video Games Perpetuate the Commodity Model of Sex. (Beware: the comments are the usual cesspool.)

The author, Alex Raymond, references Thomas Macaulay Millar's essay "Toward a Performance Model of Sex" and the concept of sex as a commodity (which encourages rape culture), verses sex as a performance model (which encourages cooperation toward a mutually-desired outcome). The author then takes this and applies it in scrutinizing video games. And what do you know? Video games do perpetuate the commodity model! (Shocking, I know.) An upcoming game called Alpha Protocol, with a James Bond-esque protagonist, is used as an example. In this game, the player can get one of those bonus-points achievements for sleeping with every woman NPC in the game; this is called the "Ladies Man" achievement.

Naturally, there are a lot of things I can find wrong with this, but the author manages to lay it out very nicely and in much better wording than I can manage:
It is seriously problematic to have a game where the male player/avatar can have sex with any and every woman in the game. On top of reinforcing the commodity model of sex, it is desperately heteronormative. For all the player's "choice" of with whom to engage, there's no possibility that the player might want to have a relationship with another man. It also shows that lesbians just don't exist in this world, if every single woman is open to a sexual encounter with a man. In addition, it perpetuates the narrative of the Nice Guy (described in Millar's essay, and elsewhere): that men are entitled to sex from women if they follow the rules and do the right things, or in the case of Alpha Protocol, "select your responses wisely." It is not only dangerous but just plain unrealistic to portray a world in which every single woman is a potential sex partner: in the real world, there are lesbians, and there are straight or bisexual women who won't sleep with you no matter what you do, because they are human beings with their own preferences and desires and interests.
It is rather eye-opening to see it laid out so obviously and well-spoken; it's one of those moments when something snaps into place and you realize what's made you feel so uncomfortable has been put into words and given a name. Why yes, I am made uncomfortable by the way that video games promote sex as a reward and the problematic things this says about sex, women, and men!

Give the article a full read, but as I warned, most of the comments are the usual nastiness about how it's "not real life" and excuses along the lines of "but this is how video games have always been." You know what I say to that? Developers are continually pushing the boundaries of what we understand to be possible in video games. Why can't we have video games that present a more realistic and more inclusive world view?

While it's true that when you have a multi-million dollar project, it's going to be developed with an eye toward maximizing profits, and that's done by tailoring it to the demographic developers (and marketers) determined to be most likely to eat up what they produce, that nonetheless further marginalizes all these other groups who would desperately love to play video games but keep being told that video games, or at least "real" video games, are not for them--unless they're willing to compromise their self-respect.

And there's more of us than they know, because we just aren't playing the games that make us feel like we don't exist, or that we exist only to further the plot, or even just to further some sideline bonus points that isn't even required to complete the game. I'm really tired of being told that if I don't like Grand Theft Auto, I can just go back to playing Pokémon; while it's true that Pokémon games are among the few I do feel free to play without feeling like I'm compromising my self-respect, I don't like that my options are that limited, especially given the problematic association that "a game I feel free to play" is also a game marketed primarily at kids. It's not a "real" game (despite the overwhelming success of the series) because "real" games come rated at least T for Teen and with plenty of guns and explosions on the most cutting-edge consoles.

I know it's not impossible. Even though it's hard to get an alternative game out there, and it involves all sorts of marketing dollars that are usually going to The Next Great Gaming Experience, some of you are managing to do it right. Last year I played World of Goo as downloadable content on the Wii. I loved it and its zany Tim Burton-esque art style, the innovative game mechanics, and overall sheer addictiveness. I even got through it using only one of the three available skips for challenging levels, and even then I went back and cleared that after I finished the game. But that is one of the only original games of last year, one that wasn't newest in a series I trusted, that I played and loved and recommended to my friends. Out of all the video games last year released on all consoles and handhelds, that was pretty much it for me. I'm sure there were more games I could have played and enjoyed; I just didn't hear about them, or get them presented to me in a way that made me interested.

So, I have a request of game developers who are trying to swim upstream: I know some of you out there are actually listening and innovating and making games that don't make me feel invisible. Tell us what we can do to help you do more. To get these games developed and then to get our hands on them.

To the game developers who are making more of the same sexist dudebro explosionfests, I have a very important question: How are these games amazingly groundbreaking and sure to change the very way we see video games if all they're doing is repeating the tired old turf with Amazing Action Man? It doesn't seem very groundbreaking to me if it's just an update on a very overdone formula that only includes a significant but very select group of gamers. We're here, the gamers that don't fit into your sexist, heteronormative worldview, and we'd like to play without handing over our self-respect.

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