When I was younger, I adored Star Trek: The Next Generation. At age 13, my parents were going through a divorce, and I really enjoyed the comfort of a show that projected an image of peaceful solutions and a hopeful future for humanity. In reruns, the show came on each night, so it also provided some routine and stability. My mom was probably going through a difficult time at that point, and I’m sure it helped her to let me learn about space, science and humanity under the careful guidance of Captain Jean-Luc Picard.
There’s another thing about Star Trek: The Next Generation–the show features female doctors, admirals, scientists, engineers and mental health professionals. Why wouldn’t a single mom want her daughter to watch that kind of show?
As I was learning more about my own identity and looked to expand my interest, I started watching the SyFy Channel. (Back then it was more sensibly titled the SciFi Channel and it featured a low-budget set with Soledad O’Brien talking about Verne and Heinlein.) This channel was really accessible–it offered an introductory glimpse to Trek and beyond, but also appealed to my more literary, analytical mind. Most of the shows featured a male and female host. I had many friends, but only one of them was a geek, so this was kind of a geek haven for me.
When we went to the bookstore, my mom wouldn’t usually limit me at all. As long as I would read books, she would buy them. Any of them. All of them. It was amazing and helped me become who I am. I was allowed to read “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl” long before my classmates and read “Princess” when my school teachers questioned it. (“Princess” is a biographical account of a Saudi Arabian princess who experiences abuse and female genital mutilation, also known as FGM.) These books helped me understand my place in the world–as a woman and as an American with a privileged private school education.
However, there were a few books that my mom wasn’t too keen on me reading–in the sci-fi and fantasy section. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the genre was dominated by male authors. Many of the book covers depicted half-naked women. And let’s face it, there was that whole ‘Dungeons & Dragons makes kids satanic’ thing on Oprah.
As a result, I ignored such literature for a while. Since we were familiar with Star Trek, I was allowed to read the TNG books. I’m pretty sure I read every possible book involving Commander Riker (of course). In college, I got into Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Marion Zimmer Bradley (author of “The Mists of Avalon”). At the same time, my interest in video games grew–but not as much.
Maybe it was because I was majoring in English and I liked to read. Perhaps it was because the artwork on the Magic: The Gathering cards was just more breathtaking. Or maybe it was Leisure Suit Larry.
Guys have always liked boobs and sex. So it makes sense that video games included boobs and sex as soon as the graphics could mimic a reasonably lifelike bouncing motion.
I played Grand Theft Auto (GTA). I was more into the game dynamic than I was with the Sims 2, for example, but a Sim was customizable. Back in 2003, customization in stores, online and in video games seemed primarily directed at a female audience, while video games like GTA directly targeted a male demographic. Now if I could have painted my car tie dye and played a chick getting with a dude in the back seat of the car, I might have had a lot more interest in GTA.
(While I grew up with two male brother plumbers who saved a helpless princess on my Nintendo, somehow I’d missed Metroid–you find out she’s a chick at the end of the game…)
As time progressed, I found that more video games appealed to me because they simply offered more choices, such as female characters. For a while I exclusively stuck to text-based RPGs online because I was free to create my entire character. Unlike two-thirds of female gamers in 2006, I almost exclusively played (and still play) female characters.
For the record, I did play a male character online. I have to say that there’s a real difference between playing a woman with a sword and a man with a sword. When you play a man with a sword, people just assume you can fight. With the woman, people expect you to prove yourself constantly. It’s like Xena on constant rerun.
In 2008, author Jess McCabe suggested that women play males online because they don’t want to deal with sexism and harassment–especially after already experiencing that in real life. McCabe and the study she cites are definitely correct about one thing: behind the online curtain of anonymity, people become jerks if they want to. Women bring out the claws and men say the sexist things they might normally think but keep to themselves. No wonder it’s easier to play a male character–especially if you’re there for the actual game and not social hogwash.
Recently, this has become a pressing issue. While more games have become customizable and include female characters, people are speaking out against violence against women in video games. A new Duke Nukem game reportedly lets the male lead character “abduct” women and “slap them on the ass.” While I don’t think games like this should be banned, it disturbs me that I found out about this game from the mother of two young boys. I hope that the game is appropriately labeled–but I know not all moms are as conscientious or web savvy as the friend who gave me the info.
Furthermore, Lost No More recently highlighted a complaint and response between a ‘straight male gamer’ and BioWare. Apparently the ‘straight male gamer’ didn’t like that characters in DragonAge 2 can have non-straight relationships. I think this guy needs to suck it up or go buy Duke Nukem if he’s not into DA2. (A BioWare rep, incidentally, basically told him to get over his bigotry towards homosexuals–and for the record, this idiot makes most straight male gamers look bad when they don’t deserve such a reputation.)
While there have been serious improvements in video games–in particular, console games–it bothers me that it took games like FarmVille and Angry Birds before game developers realized the importance of the female segment when it comes to gaming demographics. I’m into empire-building and RPGs–and while it’s fun to imagine my life as Princess Toadstool on rare occasion, my favorite character has always been one Mairi, a fierce Celtic warrior with a penchant for gratuitous violence and throat-slashing (book about said character is in the works).
So when it comes to be 2 a.m. on a Saturday night and I’ve come home from a night out with friends, why is it that I still gravitate to good old Star Trek: The Next Generation or the more contemporary shows like True Blood and Spartacus? There’s more to hold my interest. Beyond the eye candy, each of these shows features strong, realistic, engrossing female characters, making me more easily imagine myself in their worlds.
While video game developers like BioWare have caught on, some gamers and game manufacturers haven’t. It does bother me to hear a boy in an arcade setting (accompanied by his mother) pissed off at a video game because “half the character picture slots are taken up by girl characters.” Listen, little boy, ten minutes ago you were crying out loud about how you couldn’t catch all the Pokemon. Female characters are the last of your worries–and get this–they’re here to stay.