Girls and Games: The Importance of Gender

I remember the first game I ever played on a Gameboy Color – Pokémon Red. For those who might not have played this game, it belongs to a group of games which started the long line of Pokémon games, and it revolves around the story of a young boy from Pallet Town. At the beginning of the game, you are asked to give your name and the name of your rival (which your rival’s grandfather somehow can’t remember). After this, there is a tutorial built into the storyline and you receive your first Pokémon, a little animal that will fight by your side. You then go on a lengthy adventure throughout the rest of the game, battling your rival and defeating gym leaders to earn badges. There’s admittedly a lot more to the storyline and gameplay than that, but that is the basic plot.

Like most children my age, I loved this game. In fact, I loved it so much that I have owned at least one of every generation of Pokémon games since then (they are always released in groups with slight variations between games.) I actually purchased a Nintendo 3-DS specifically so I could play the Generation V games (in French, no less!) with my husband, and I don’t regret it at all. These are my favorite video games.

However, the first group of games had one very obvious problem that it unfortunately shared with many games at the time: you could not chose to play as a girl.

This might not seem like a big deal. After all, it doesn’t actually affect the way that the game plays, does it?

Well, yes and no. No, of course it does not alter the story, the pokémon, the difficulty, or even the speed that your character walks. The program does not care at all whether or not your character has pigtails.

…But I’m willing to bet you do. Why? What’s a few more pixels anyway? Why does it matter how your character looks?

It matters because it is your identity. Because you get to pick your name at the beginning, it feels as if the game is asking you to consider your character as being an extension of yourself. It is asking you to put yourself into the game. As a girl, this is very hard to do when the character is a boy.

Conversely, if I play Kingdom Hearts (another fantastic game), I don’t mind playing as the main character, Sora, even though he is a boy. He is his own character, with his own story, and I am just following along. I don’t feel awkward because I know that he is not meant to be me at all.

When I play games like Pokémon Red, though, an awkward undertone follows me everywhere I go in the game. The fact that my character is not really mine reverberates through everything, distancing me from the world in which I would so like to immerse myself.

The creators of Pokémon, Nintendo, quickly realized their mistake and made a huge announcement when they released the next generation of games. This time, players could choose to be girls. I remember being so excited. I suddenly felt so included – this game was meant for me to play too!

It’s funny still, because it shouldn’t really matter, but it does. When the way others see me matches with the way I see myself, the harmony this creates resonates throughout my being.

This is why there are more girls who like gaming now than ever before. With the rise of awareness of this previously neglected audience, companies have made a concerted effort to depict strong women of great character and more realistic clothing in their games. Of course, they are still attractive women, and sometimes there are exaggerated parts, but it is clear that there is a serious effort put forth to include women in games.

Take the card, Banisher Priest, for instance.

This is one strong chick. Not only is she modest, she is also a strong card. She is elegant and attractive and guess what? She doesn’t even need to wear completely useless armor like a metal thong!

Her gender doesn’t affect the way that the card plays or how good it is, but it does promote respect towards women in a community that doesn’t always acknowledge the equality of both sexes. There are so many examples like this now, but every now and then we still see fantasy art like this:

Not only does this outfit make no sense in any practical way, it is extremely revealing. Sure, she’s casting a spell. I understand that she’s doing something instead of just sitting there and looking pretty, but that doesn’t mean she has to wear a suit of armor designed in a torture chamber to make up for her magical prowess.

Thankfully, this kind of art has fallen by the wayside, and games (both digital and physical) are constantly finding new ways to connect with women. When over half of the super cool Dragonlords on Tarkir are female, it makes me feel included in the same way that being able to play a video as a female character makes me feel like that game was intended for me. It makes me feel empowered and respected.

This leads me to another thought. If I feel wrong playing a video game in which I am forced to play as a boy, is that how other people feel in real life sometimes? Take Alesha, Who Smiles at Death, for instance. You can read more about her story here.