“What’s your favorite game?”
That question, whether asked in a face-to-face encounter, or online in a forum thread, is a constant in the lives of people who play video games. We judge each other based on what games we say we love. We praise people we agree with and ignore or admonish those who don’t share our opinion. Sometimes we even get into the really interesting bits, the reasons why people love the games they love.
To explain how I feel about games and gaming culture today, I went back and reevaluated just what my favorite game is and why. I mulled over how games affected me. I even tried to pinpoint the events surrounding my first experiences with the game, and I tried to see if things beyond the game itself had changed my perceptions.
My favorite game, one that I always return to, is Super Mario Bros. 2. Logically, I understand that it is not as revolutionary as the first or third games in the series, but it made a huge impact on the younger me. It showed me something that I didn’t think was possible at the time. It showed me that I could be a female protagonist in a game, and it showed me that a female protagonist was just as capable, maybe ever more so, than her male counterparts.
What an amazing thought that was! At 6 years old, I was too young to have known about movies like Alien. My morning cartoons were filled Ninja Turtles and GI Joes. And my games, the games that I had loved since my brothers had first helped me get them running on the Commodore 64, had been filled with burly barbarians and scantily clad slave girls, knights defeating evil wizards, and plumbers braving evil mushrooms and turtles to save a waiting princess. All of these things had been shaping my life. To that point, my heroes had been men and the people who needed saving had been women. That’s not a complaint, it was just the way it was.
Then, my father borrowed Super Mario Bros. 2 at some point in 1989 from a family friend. I can’t pinpoint when, but I remember holding the cartridge in my hand. The label had an exciting shot of Mario jumping against a sky blue background, turnip in hand and a smile on his face. I put the cartridge into the NES and after pressing start, I got a screen that prompted me to select my character. And that’s when I first really remember being able to choose to be girl.
I now realize that this was something that would forever change my expectations of games. Not only could I choose to be a girl, but the girl was doing everything that the guys were doing, and she even had her own gameplay benefits. She may have been slower pulling up vegetables, but her floating jump was great for passing over large gaps. I found myself, after I was introduced to this game, gravitating towards other games where the player could choose to be either a boy or a girl. Alien Syndrome, Zombies Ate My Neighbors, Mario Kart, Diablo, Diablo II, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and on and on. While I also played games with only male protagonists, my favorites allowed for the choice most of the time to be a female character.
Now, I know that people will be asking how this applies to the controversies we are seeing more and more of today. I will begin by saying most of the things that have come up don’t bother me. In fact, I didn’t really feel any need to speak up until the Dead Island Riptide Pre-order story hit over a year and a half ago.. It was a moment that crystallized a desire to put words to what I was feeling. At first, when I saw the piece and read about it at various gaming news sites, I thought it was pretty tasteless and wondered to myself why anyone would want something like that. I certainly didn’t, and I was trying to figure out just what was so off-putting about the whole thing. Then I read some of the comments on the story and I admit I was kind of astounded by how many people were defending it. A lot of people weren’t defending it by saying it was a perfectly fine pre-order bonus and saying that they wanted one. They were just saying that they may not like it, but someone might and we shouldn’t be upset that the people who made this made it in the first place. It was made to create controversy, a lot of commentators said, and I agreed. But that shouldn't have absolved the creators of their bad decision. It shouldn’t be a mulligan; it should have been talked about for any number of reasons.
Since that story, we've had Bros before Hoes, the Hotline Miami: Wrong Number rape scene being talked about and eventually amended, and conversations in the forums about myriad other stories, blogs, and video series. I've always tried to join these conversations as a participant who may have a slightly different point of view, someone who comes at it from a female perspective and also as a person that loves to play games so much that Diablo II seriously effected her GPA as a college freshman. All of these issues and stories are of varying degrees of importance to me. Some seem too silly to spend much time on, while others, usually ones that involve real people dealing with real issues such as treatment at gaming conventions, should be talked about and acknowledged as more than just someone complaining or trying to gain attention. It's a continuum of issues, and while we may not want to take time to sift through and talk about them all as they come, we shouldn't ignore them in their totality either.
I can sympathize with the desire to defend games and gaming culture. I remember vividly the shootings at Columbine and how I felt being a junior in high school at the time, and how I was angry when certain media talking heads tried to blame music or Doom. I remember the surreal happenings surrounding the first Mass Effect and how certain conservative bloggers were calling it a sex simulator and how Fox News was airing that as fact, and again how mad I was. These are the things we should, as reasonable people and people who play games, be pushing back against. These instances were obvious attacks on video games by people looking for an easy talking point instead of looking at broader and more complicated issues. But those serious and egregious allegations, which later proved to be invalidated, should not harden our minds to real and concerning issues that come up from within the gaming industry and culture. It isn’t kill or be killed, totally black and totally white, it’s shades of gray. We can all have different opinions at the end of the day and we should be talk about them, even if we can only agree to disagree.
So, I go back and think about those first years when I was just being exposed to games and I realize that everything I have seen and played has changed me, but also how a changed me has come back to games. The girl who grew up coveting the Atari 2600 that was locked away in her older brother's room has become an adult with a disposable income, an abiding love of games, and a desire to have those games speak to her. For the most part, the games are beginning to deliver on that decades old promise. It's the stuff around and outside that lags behind sometimes.