I have been a boy. I have been a man. I have been a voluptuous vixen with pistols poised on either swaying hip. I have been a zombie, a pokemon, a pants-less ninja. I have been a plump, pink, vacuum-mouthed ball.
But I have never been a little girl.
I was 10 years old when a game first swallowed me whole; still a real-life child, of sorts. On the screen of that megalithic Mac, the pixels huge as candy dots, I was an underground explorer, an Indiana Jones – my body a jumble of square, stumpy parts that together made something like a man.
Soon enough, I was a plumber, then the backside of a beauty on a bumping bike. The list, over time, went on. Still, it took years to realize I had never been me. And of course, by that time, me was someone different entirely: a little girl in sensibilities and candy preferences alone.
Now, all grown up, I can see eye-level with the quandaries of a grownup world – adult questions without adult answers.
Beauty, Puppet, Monster
How do you depict women in videogames? How do you do it fairly?
Let’s consider the prototypes. The smiling skin-flaunter? She’s the tool of “the man.” Sure, she can search and destroy. But for her popularity, look to her generous curves and her “realistic physics” – without which she could never have worked her way into so many hearts, and so many wandering minds.
The subtly sexy female heroine? She walks the precarious line between radical role-model and mere predictable puppet. Be her, or simply watch her tempting tail wiggle under trip wires: For better or worse, the two are a package deal.
How about the female monster who sidesteps social expectations and harnesses her sexual powers to inspire fear in the unsuspecting heart? Unfortunately, the idea of a monster who’s scary because she shatters gender preconceptions may be too controversial for many developers to successfully work into their game design. And besides, her potency is still dependent on the perceptions of a boys’ club society. If she wasn’t “othered,” she’d just be a chick with fangs.
Short of neutering our game characters and embarking into some gender-ambiguous brave new world (which might look surprisingly like an old “Pat” sketch) we seem to have exhausted our choices. If we let our characters stay gendered, will they always cause trouble? Is there a way to remove sex from gender?
The Peripheries of Gender
We seem to forget, sometimes, that women exist before and after their sexual potency.
Old women have always been forced out to the fringes of society. When they no longer became socially useful, we used to get rid of them by calling them witches and burning them at the stake. Today, we come to a strikingly similar end by marking them as comic, disgusting and essentially non-human – the octogenarian bundled up in her armchair in Florida, gumming at a bowl of pudding.
Old men, on the other hand, are allowed to retain their dignity (and, perhaps not so coincidentally, their sexual potency) well into their later years. Still, there’s no female equivalent of a “silver fox.” The only elderly woman I’ve ever played in a videogame is the Granny bomb from Worms, who waddles along on a walker, signaling imminent death to my unlucky adversaries.
Personally, I’ve never been an old woman – not in real life or on screen – though I hope to be one someday. For me, at least, it’s much easier to relate to life on the other end of the spectrum, to the world of little girls.
In the West, playable little girl characters are almost non-existent – especially in games with clear protagonists. Full-grown women get to battle flesh-eating dogs, wield semi-automatic weapons and work on their wicked tans while playing beach volleyball. Little girls, meanwhile, are nowhere to be seen.
Where have they gone? Are the little girls of the videogame world too busy hosting stuffed animal tea parties to make their presence known? “Excuse me, Mrs. Murphy, but I heard about this bitchin’ new game. Couldn’t little Susie please come out and play?”
Goodbye Pragmatics, Hello Barbie
Inevitably, someone is bound to make the argument that having little girls in videogames just wouldn’t make sense. Duh, an 8-year-old couldn’t lift a machine gun. A middle- schooler wouldn’t have enlisted in an international Earth army assembled to fend off alien forces. And a child in a race car … It’s just not pragmatic.
But what is? Videogames may strive for graphical realism, but that’s usually where the true-to-life card calls it quits. Most of the things you do in-game couldn’t be done in real life, period. Pigtails and a set of training wheels aren’t going to change that.
Besides, the let’s-get-practical line of thinking shouldn’t just apply to little girls, but to little boys, as well. Yet, little boys in videogames are a dime a dozen. Or, if not quite so cheap, many have been elevated to cultural symbols. Young Link alone overshadows the entire history of female children in games. He’s identified with and adored by gamers across the world.
So, why have little girls been so consistently overlooked in the search for new and unique characters – a search that has brought us everything from amorphous, gushy sacs to assassins with the ability to bleed through walls? Enter another likely argument: Because little girls just aren’t any serious game’s target audience. But honestly, are spandex-clad women the audience for Perfect Dark? Are hedgehogs super-psyched over Sonic on the Wii? And more importantly, will they be able to hold the new controller with such tiny hands?
Obviously, as complex and multifaceted human beings, we don’t need mirror images of ourselves to identify with the characters we play.
Even so-called “girl games,” which are designed specifically with young girls in mind, rarely feature children. Instead, their protagonists are Barbie, a tight-sweater-clad Nancy or the Bratz, those cool girls on the block who all seem to have had their noses surgically removed. Much like the women of adult-oriented games, girl-game characters are sexualized through dress and physical design. They prove that the issues surrounding the depiction of grown-up women extend far beyond the grown-up world.
A Non-Sexual Creature?
What a little girl could provide, what might just be revolutionary, is a wholly non-sexualized female character – a character free of the moral complications that plague her older counterparts, an answer to the dilemma of how to represent femininity without reducing it to eye candy. Thanks to her age, this girl would be entirely outside the realm of sex.
Or would she?
Uncomfortable as the question may be, it needs to be asked: Can there be such a thing as a completely non-sexualized little girl? Real life aside, young girls have never fared so well (or at least so platonically) in the arts. The surrealists lusted after les femme-enfants, and we all know how things turned out for auburn-haired preteen Dolores Haze.
An example perhaps more pertinent to the videogame industry is Lewis Carroll’s Alice. She is, in many ways, the quintessential child: her blond ringlets, her troublesome curiosity, her forthright nature. To be sure, a careful reader will find hints at her sexualization in Carroll’s original text, but for the most part, her tale has been accepted as a classic for fellow children – a safe, if not wholly sterile, read.
But Alice in Wonderland fans may (or may not) be surprised to hear that Carroll himself is believed to have been a pedophile. The small girls on whom he based Alice were also the subjects of his nude photography. The quintessential child was simultaneously the quintessential object of sexual desire.
Whether or not it was intentional, American McGee’s Alice picked up on that sentiment perfectly. Outgrowing her shirt frills and Mary Janes girl-child image, she became a darkly sexy teen. By recreating Alice and avoiding the issue of a sexualized little girl, McGee reasserted the unspoken sexual associations we already bear.
Slipping on Those Mary Janes
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we could remove sex from the picture – that the designers of our groundbreaking game would avoid curvy hips and in-game romance and everything else that draw our minds straight to the sack. Given all that, what would it mean to play as a little girl?
It would mean, first of all, overcoming some of our stereotypes about masculinity and gaming. For many male gamers, playing as a woman is justifiable because it entails watching a buxomly female behind. Playing a little girl … well, things would be different. It would never be macho – not in a traditional sense. Not only would you be identifying with a girl, but a child at that.
Beyond our cultural hang-ups about gender, the larger question remains: What does it mean for an adult to play as a child? For us, children represent many things – naivete, openness, a sense of adventure – and they bring all these traits to the table each time they walk on screen. Stepping into a child’s shoes also means stepping into these attributes; it alters the experience.
Perhaps the most important characteristic of childhood is a sense of exploration. And that is exactly what it seems to me a little girl character could do best: explore. Dropped into the scenery of an interactive world, she herself might be unique enough to stir things up and break other molds, like expectations for game logic and linear storytelling. The gamer, the game, the act of gaming: All might be changed with her help.
Bonnie Ruberg is a sex and games writer, a MMOG researcher and an all around fun-loving dork. Check her out at Heroine Sheik.