I remember, quite vividly, when Halo first came out–though I suspect it might be for an entirely different reason than you.
Prior to the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, I had the luxury of never once considering how my gender impacted my favorite hobby, which is both beautiful and hilarious in retrospect. I, quite simply, played video games. That’s how it should be, right?
I played everything from Harvest Moon and Banjo-Kazooie to MediEvil and Diablo. I longed more than anything to be like Tifa Lockhart and Lara Croft and slept in Pokemon pajamas under a Pokemon comforter in my Pokemon-themed room. As far as I was concerned, I loved video games not just as much as the next person, but even more so. However, around the time Halo came out was also when I learned there was a secret gaming hierarchy–and my position on it was significantly lower than I would have presumed.
Though Halo wasn’t the first “boy” video game, it was the first game that made me feel like a girl, which quickly became synonymous with “outsider.” There was a shift in how my male friends spoke to me, as well as each other. A shift that, while perhaps mostly due to puberty, felt exacerbated due to the rise of the shooter genre. And after I grew tired of attempting to find the correct level of femininity–the proper way to present myself in order to be one of the guys while also being wanted by the guys–I decided the best way to navigate life was to simply resent the genre, along with any others that prided themselves on their gunplay, top-of-the-line graphics, or difficulty. After all, if you can’t join them, beat them.
Over time, it became incredibly easy for me to criticize games I knew only by name as shallow, devoid of emotion, and all style over substance purely because they were masculine. How did I know they were masculine? You can thank marketing for that. While it might have taken me some time to understand society had gendered video games, I was already well aware that the girls’ aisle–the section I was meant to shop in–was pink. I knew that good girls played house, brushed hair, and imagined what their future husband might look like. And even if I, at times, resented being made to feel like I had to have those interests, I partook in the feminine rituals with some delight, hoping my Mr. Right might look a bit like Link or perhaps even Zelda.
The boys’ aisle, in contrast, was camo–hard to see but impossible to miss. It was filled with machines and weapons, complex devices that got things done and would mold complex men who got things done. The advertisements and box art for “masculine” games resembled the boys’ aisle, with action figure-like men caked in dirt and sweat standing front and center. They were the ones doing things, while the women in these games waited for things to be done unto them–to be saved, kissed, or inspired to achieve greatness. Men killed aliens, women were alienated.
Nintendo games and RPGs, particularly JRPGs, felt like neutral ground–a place where women almost felt equal both within the games and communities, even if the women who played these titles were oftentimes pushed to develop what you might refer to as a “pick-me” mentality. And I get that mentality; I’ve been there myself. It develops as a result of the constant praise you receive for not being “like other girls.” This, of course, makes you feel special… until you realize not only is it often nice to be like other girls, you are like other girls–these girls just don’t feel comfortable sharing these parts of themselves.
Even as I grew older and began to care less about societal constructs while the games industry simultaneously made greater strides towards inclusion, this mental block regarding male-marketed games remained firmly in place. Until I played Mass Effect.
The first I heard of the series was while watching my boyfriend play it in college. I took one look at it and quickly dismissed it as a sort of Halo clone, which is hilarious in retrospect. However, my boyfriend insisted it was different. The first two times I tried Mass Effect, I set the controller down and scoffed. The third time, however, I got past Chora’s Den and shortly after, something in me clicked.
I beat Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 in about four days. I blew up an air mattress in front of my TV and was filled with glee each time an Achievement popped on my off-white Xbox 360. I was blown away by the characters, the combat, the stakes, the romance–I was a kid in a candy store, shoveling sugar into my mouth in disbelief that I had ever deprived myself of the substance. I fell head over heels for a seven-foot-tall dinosaur-like man who was, essentially, Batman in space–though, god, was Thane tempting too. However, beyond being enamored by these characters, I was enamored by these games. And I began to think maybe, just maybe, there might be something more to these “boy” games.
So I played Skyrim. The Witcher. BioShock. Assassin’s Creed. Resident Evil. God of War. Borderlands. Uncharted. Halo. Devil May Cry. Bloodborne. And, perhaps my favorite of the lot, I played Metal Gear Solid. Despite their appearances–and elements I’d be remiss to give a pass–all of these series had some beauty to them, and shocked me with how they defied my preconceived notions.
In most of the above games, there is romance and moments of tenderness. Despite being “high-octane,” there are moments of reflection and isolation. For being violent power fantasties, I found that in many instances, I had no control. I had to sacrifice, survive, and rely on others more often than not. In fact, in games like Gears of War and most multiplayer titles, companionship and teamwork are essential, and the rush of working together to succeed is unparalleled. Sure, not all of these games need to be perceived that deeply, but for those of us who elect to, there’s a lot of magic to be found.
Metal Gear Solid in particular shocked me, as the camo-clad hero Solid Snake led me to believe the game championed war, while discourse about the series’ female characters left me rolling my eyes. However, Metal Gear Solid is an incredibly tender series. At its core, the games are pacifistic and inquisitive. They also establish that true patriotism–true heroism–is when you are dedicated to people, not institutions. They touch on the idea of determinism and rising above what was intended for you, and examine love–most notably whether it can bloom on a battlefield. Even the series’ silly movie references come from a very sincere and emotional place. Don’t get me wrong, I still think there is very valid criticism to make about these games, but there is also an abundance of good to be found.
Nearly all games cater to our fantasies–particularly those fantasies associated with power. But I’ve come to realize so many of the games we label as “feminine” often offer players a great deal of power, choice, and control. And, interestingly enough, the games we consider “masculine” often focus on the opposite: self-sacrifice, teamwork, and connection. At first, this realization seems shocking, but it very quickly makes sense: These are concepts each group is often deprived of, despite every living person, regardless of their gender identity, craving them.
It’s safe to say that, much like in real life, the way we perceive the gendering of video games is a construct, manufactured through marketing and socialization. For years, so much time and effort was spent perpetuating the idea that boys liked Video Games™ and girls, well, they liked Animal Crossing. Or Farmville. Or something else with pastel colors, doe-eyed characters, and little physical strain. Something we could easily dismiss as lesser, regardless of the amount of work developers put into making them, the amount of joy they brought audiences, or the individual meaning players got out of them. But in both instances, the outer layers of these are often a facade in order to be more palatable–to allow these games to act as a vehicle that delivers these deeper messages and fulfill subliminal desires.
In life sims and dating games, I can be the perfect woman and have it all. I can explore my sexuality and express feelings without worrying how others might perceive me. I can control how I am treated and the behavior I accept. In these games, we are given the space to shape our environments to make ourselves feel welcome and carve out our own space–to add some beauty to the world. And I firmly believe everyone would benefit from playing them. But similarly, I think we all would benefit from playing “masculine” games, too.
The recurring idea of forging connections as a means of survival found in “masculine” games is universal and apt. After all, as the world grows more worrisome, and we, more weary, many of us find it is our bonds to others that keep us going. There is also something particularly inspiring about how these games celebrate resilience and boldly proclaim that one person can make a difference. While there may be some issues in regards to how these games deliver these messages–with the heroism at times misguided and the representation lacking–the attempts these games make, and the emotions they inspire, are largely genuine.
The presentation of these games is meant to hit a target demographic–but they don’t have to be limited to that. We can embrace things that we might think are not meant for us in an effort to learn and find meaning–even when we’ve been convinced by ourselves and others that there is no meaning for us to find. We can play these games and seek to understand people, places, and ideas we might not otherwise be exposed to. The world is filled with so much to be fascinated by to be restrained by gender or arbitrary binaries. And if you get anything from this piece, I hope you know you have the freedom to explore it all.