It's a balmy spring day in New England, almost certainly in 1988. It's late April, probably; the air smells of mud and grass and growing things and we unruly kids have been sent to go play outside. I'm at Tommy's house, on the next street over from mine, and some other kids -- one each of our two neighborhood Matts, Brians, and Corys, and Brendan (my later first crush) -- are there too.
We're on the swing set, playing Ghostbusters until we get bored and someone announces we should play pirates instead. I pick up a well-balanced stick and give my mightiest "ARRRR," until one of the boys says: "No, you're the princess. Girls can't be pirates! We need to rescue you."
I hit him with my stick for a while and claim it's "fencing." Eventually a truce is reached and a compromise made: I'm the Princess Pirate. Childhood harmony temporarily restored, we take to our "ship" with gusto.
You know what "princess pirate" gets you by the time you grow up?
|(Not even close to the most risqué costume image I could have chosen.)|
Also sometime around 1988, these friends started to get NES systems as Christmas and birthday gifts. (I got mine in very late 1993.) One day, I asked for a turn at Mario after one of the boys botched a jump and had to restart his level. It was a no -- but rather than "it's my turn still" I got, "Do girls even play Nintendo?"
Well, this girl would have. And years later, when I could buy my friend's used NES for $25 with my saved-up babysitting money, I did.
This past month has seen a lot of social justice talk in the broader, mainstream game-sphere. Kotaku, whether through a desire purely for pageviews or through a desire actually to engage with the world-that-is, has (re-)published must-read, knockout pieces by Denis Farr, Leigh Alexander, and Mattie Brice that collectively have stirred up nearly all of the bottom-feeding muck and slime to be found in the gamer community. On top of all that, this week writer Tom Bissell is in the news, first for having been offhandedly sexist for no reason and second for having issued one of the better public apologies I've ever read.
Naturally, there's a lot of push-back. Any discussion of gamers who are female, any kind of queer, any race other than white, or indeed any other non-dominant population tends to kick up a fuss. Some of it just goes under the heading of trolls, or "haters gonna hate." But what's most disappointing and frustrating to me is when gamers who could, in theory, be allies say: "Why don't we just talk about the games? Whatever happened to having game sites just be about games already?"
|A selection of Kotaku comments|
It's not necessarily done as an intentional derailing tactic (though it is above), but the effect is just the same. In short, it tells a whole set of players that our experiences don't matter.
|For clarification from Dennis, see below.|
Because for many of us out there who aren't the "right" sort of gamer? It has never, ever been "just" about the games. From age seven, in second grade, when the boys in my class asserted that girls don't play Nintendo. To age seventeen, in high school, when despite using a girly alias and telling everyone I was a girl, the guys all called me "he" when I won science-fiction trivia games. To twenty-seven, when I started to understand that just because my Lone Wanderer looked female, didn't mean the game's design treated her that way.
"Can we just play the video games?" Sure. As soon as conscious and unconscious sexism vanish from the stories, the art, and the reviews.
Culture exists, and we all must live in it. Our culture means that if you're the girl at the party, you might have a really hard time getting the guys to let you in on GoldenEye. It means that if you're the girl behind the counter at the GameStop, you have to deal with a constant level of leering and commentary that your male co-workers never get. And if you're the girl, it means that any time you try to talk about the uphill battle, you're going to get smacked right back down.
The end result is exhaustion. Swimming upstream against culture is tiring. And journalist Tracey Lien is right: it's not just one incident, or just one joke. It's every last one of them. For many of us, life is a pile of these. There are no "simpler days" to go back to.
The ability never to be alienated by the games we play or by the people who play them is the very core of privilege. Bust out that p-word and gamers get riotous, but there's no way around it. Despite all of the crap that's been handed to me over the last three decades, I have privilege by the metric ton. I'm as white as white can be, identify perfectly well with the sex and gender I was born with, and have almost exclusively heterosexual attractions. In those senses, I'm pretty thoroughly represented in game worlds, plots, narratives, and characters. Further, I have two good hands, two good eyes, and two good ears -- so I'm pretty thoroughly catered to in terms of game mechanics, audio-visual design, and control schemes. For a number of my friends and peers? The layers of crap to deal with just never end.
The golden days of everyone being able to "just play a game," if any such days exist, are ahead of us still, not lying dormant in some sepia-tinted past. They are the same as the golden days of all our other pop culture and pop art: lying in a society that's come to terms with understanding sex, gender, race, and a whole lot more.