The end of August contained a couple of the worst weeks of my life in about three years. It was surprising, just how awful they were. It was a whole combination of things: I had been working a lot for the past four months with no holidays, I was worried about a number of personal things, and then I received the news that my grandmother had died.
My grief didn’t express itself properly in the week before the funeral. In fact, I was dry-eyed and almost completely functional. It was just that everything was a little bit harder than usual. It all took that much more effort. And to my surprise, no, to my utter astonishment, I found myself crying in frustration over the relentless sexism in video games. I’d never done that before. I’ve always been highly critical of the prejudices ingrained in the video game industry, but it’s usually a rather sardonic exhaustion, a roll-my-eyes-and-move-on attitude. I prefer to focus on games that do things well than to harp on the many that do them badly. This overflowing frustration and anger was so out of character for me that even those closest to me didn’t seem to understand.
How could I explain to them that faced with a tidal wave of exhaustion and sorrow, it seemed bitterly unfair that games, which were supposed to be my hobby and my place of escape, could be so alienating. This was the week when my entire twitter timeline seemed intent on mocking the stupid justifications Metal Gear Solid V had created to give Quiet a reason to wander around in a bikini at all times. I enjoy the Metal Gear series and consider Metal Gear Solid to be one of my early formative gaming experiences, but I couldn’t generate any excitement for a game that so clearly had no interest in my perspective. And between the intense excitement for the game on the one hand and the endless repetition of its mistakes on the other, I felt only exhaustion and disinterest.
It was Fire Emblem Fates that really broke me though. I love Fire Emblem, and I shudder to think how many hours I’ve sunk into Awakening. I follow a lot of people on Tumblr who are excited for and posting about the new game, and though I can’t match their excitement, I was prepared to be mildly intrigued by what I’d heard of the new title. Frustrating as it was that the developers had version-locked the gay romance options (as though they were legendary Pokémon), and doubly frustrating as it was that the potential femslash option was a recolour of a character from the previous game, I hadn’t yet lost interest.
Then I saw a picture of the main character, with the male and female design side by side, and something in me snapped. The male avatar stands with his feet planted firmly on the ground, his sword held out in front of him. By contrast, the female avatar is on her tippy-toes, her sword behind her head and her body arcing up and back to show off her boobs, her butt and her narrow waist. To make things worse, her armour has a gap where the male avatar’s does not—on the upper inside of her thighs. The male avatar’s design invites the reader to embody themselves in him, to imagine themselves in his position, while the female avatar is designed to be looked at, a sort of weird titillation that positions the player as vicariously living out their attraction to this avatar through the game.
The truth is that I’ll still play Fire Emblem Fates when it comes out here. I like the battle system and characters enough that I know I’ll have fun. And yet, when I play it, I’ll play it with the knowledge that the team that designed brought a particular perspective on women to the game that I can never engage with and relate to.
None of this is news. Not to me and undoubtedly not to anyone reading the site. I bring it up, though, because I think there must be something crucial that keeps me engaged with games and gaming in spite of the sometimes tedious and sometimes excruciating choices that big game companies keep making. There is something in this medium that fascinates me, that draws me back again and again, no matter what.
Some of that is simple mechanical pleasure. I ascribe to neither the category of reviewers who value mechanics above all, nor to those who think that mechanics are entirely optional. Good mechanics do not always make a good game, but they are part of it. There are a lot of games—from Tetris to Threes to The Binding of Isaac to Civilization V—whose mechanics are the focus of my play. I think Civ V and The Binding of Isaac account for about ninety per cent of the hours I’ve logged on Steam, actually. There is a great deal of pleasure to be found in engaging with a complex system, embedding yourself in its rules and responding to them accurately. I sometimes even find it meditative. As someone who fidgets a lot (my school and college notes were endlessly covered in doodles) it can be a good way to distract my hands while I think. And more complex systems absorb me, taking me away from my own mind when I need a break.
Some of that is simple mechanical pleasure. I ascribe to neither the category of reviewers who value mechanics above all, nor to those who think that mechanics are entirely optional.
If this were all there was to games, I suppose I would technically still be a gamer, but I don’t think they’d pose much interest for me. I’ll gladly play Threes on the bus home from work, but I don’t really think about it in my spare time. I don’t need to. That’s where narrative and theme and emotion become crucial for me.
I was raised by artists, people who taught me to be thoughtful and considered and critical about the media I engaged with, whether that was books or movies or theatre. None of my parents are interested in video games themselves, but they exposed me to a lot of culture growing up. I spent my childhood at arts festivals and exhibition openings and book launches and poetry readings. And I was always encouraged to express my feelings about the things I saw and read. For me, to like something is to like it critically: to think about what a piece of media is trying to say; to consider its author’s intentions and the results; to set it within its historical and cultural context.
When I was a child games were simply another way into the realm of the imagination. I was always a fast reader. I tore through fantasy and science fiction stories, and pretty much anything else I could get my hands on. What I wanted, what I have always wanted, was to be shown worlds that were bigger than my own, that contained within them the possible and the impossible. I might enjoy Tetris, but when I think of a game that was important to me growing up, I think of Sword of Mana.
For years after I played it, I resented that game. It was a wonderful game, with an interesting battle system and a story that, though full of fantasy cliches, had a lot of compelling emotional drama. It also allowed you to play it twice, as either the heroine or the hero, and it gave you a slightly different story depending on the version. In both versions, though, the ending is the same. I won’t give all the details here, but suffice to say it’s not a purely happy one. The world is saved, but at great cost, and there is much that is lost and cannot be restored. It’s a powerful ending, but it took me a long time to accept that. I was furious that these characters I had grown to love were denied their happy ending. It left a painfully bitter taste in my mouth. But that very bitterness, that residual resentment, is exactly why I still love Sword of Mana. It stayed with me, became part of the permanent fixtures of my heart, in a way that few enough stories, from games or other media, really have.
It’s a powerful ending, but it took me a long time to accept that. I was furious that these characters I had grown to love were denied their happy ending.
This is where I get to the part of the article that I didn’t really want to write. I could leave it here, and say that I love games for their engaging mechanics and beautiful stories, and that would perhaps be enough. It would certainly be honest, but there’s more to it than that. So this is where I have to talk about Gamergate.
I have very little interest in the movement itself, and no interest whatsoever in justifying my position, which should already be clear enough. I have to talk about them for two reasons: because I think there is a tension in games at the moment (and by that I mean among makers, critics, and the wider culture) around what games are and should be, and because it was Gamergate that drew me into indie games and games criticism, however, inadvertently. It was through the early media commentary around the harassment campaign that I found some of the critics who inspired me to start writing about games. And my own choice to focus on small indie and alt games is the direct result of my desire to foster a community that encourages diverse expression in the medium.
I play games because I love them, because they are to me all the things that art can be: entertaining, complex, engaging, weird, expressive, moving, challenging, and thoughtful. I play games for the pleasure of seeing what other people have to say, so that I can experience things beyond my own life. And I write about games, I talk about games, I champion games because I want other people to recognise the medium’s potential. Games are art, and art deserves to be valued, criticised, discussed, and enjoyed.