More than Representation

“What got you into games?”

Simple on its face, I’ve heard the answer multiple times and it tends to be somewhat similar for people like me around my age. Our parents, for me, my father, was into technology in someway or another, and had early video game consoles and computers around the house. Being children with time on our hands, we spent hours upon hours playing games and in virtual or text worlds, and grew up with the video game industry. Usually the story ends around there, and jumps into the person’s current career and projects.

For me, and likely for others, there is a second part, what got us into Video Games, to seek employment in it, or to create in them, or to go into a new field of study. By college age, I mostly gave up on games, except for one or two here or there. I felt like I grew out of them. It wasn’t until I took a class in fantasy literature, with a professor who noted a lot of students’ interest in fantasy and myth comes from not just books, but video games, and took us to a computer lab to show us some games for critical analysis. It was there that I got back “into” games, as I played through two that affect me to this day: Galatea by Emily Short, and The Path by Tales of Tales. Upon doing research on gender and sexuality stereotypes in games, I came across Leigh Alexander’s column at GameSetWatch, The Aberrant Gamer, that reminded me of visual novels I liked in the past and how it seemed like it would be fun to do public critical analysis of the things I liked. I could say very distinctly, these three things got me back into games, both revisiting older games that I enjoyed when I was younger, and contemporary games. I could say with a lot of confidence that if those things didn’t come across my plate, I might never have dwelled in games at all.

Why is this important to note? For one, when people ask me “what got you into games,” they aren’t just asking me as someone who likes games, they are asking a person who is marginalized and often excluded and attacked, who rarely shows up and even more rarely sticks around, what is it that got me so we can get others. It wasn’t Final Fantasy VII, it was a woman professor who choose games made at least significantly in part by women, and following the trail to find writing by another woman, and on top of all of that, some of the women involved have particular issues with race and feminism that I relate to. I really don’t think it’s a coincidence that, having consumed games made largely by and for men, it took work by people similar to me to get me interested in the field again, and also to approach it in a way many have described as different and unique.

But straight-up diversity of bodies is too simple of an answer. It’s not that I saw that these people weren’t WASP men and then felt welcome. Seeing women put into the same roles as men to do mainly the same old video game thing (and not without contingencies) doesn’t actually speak to me much. Rather, their life experiences drew them to different ideas and inspirations, exploring topics and sensations that hit my wavelength because we might share some more in common. I admit that seeing people and characters more like me plays a part in why I gravitate towards that work, but it’s more that there is a higher chance to engage with issues and experiences that are relevant to me, because someone with a body like mine is present. How often do games give time and space exploring a relationship between a poor, minoritized woman caught up in the harmful ideals and affections of a privileged man? There’s such little material out there to help me reflect on certain aspects of my life, both to feel heard and then responded to, providing catharsis or temporary motions for healing.

This is why people should be panicking that creative marginalized people burn out of games so quickly. This is why Tale of Tales possibly becoming less visible in the games world is tragic. A studio that would probably respond to a lot of hot-button social issues with “duh.” If people find my work in any way valuable, it’s in part because games by Auriea and Michaël made me feel like my experiences were interesting enough to express. That there was room, however small, for dialogue in a place I assumed was stuck in a conversation from the past. I liken my time with Tale of Tale’s games as I do with Hayao Miyazaki’s films, where the prevalence of complicated women makes The Gender Issue™ invisible. I didn’t see Nausicaä as a “strong female character,” I saw myself or someone I wanted to learn from. I also didn’t have ‘takeaways’ about environmentalism or war, rather added in memories and feelings that would, sometime in the future, be used as a reference when I had to think of those topics. I open up the box in Vanitas every time I’m about to step off the train, because I need a reminder that every moment is magical, every object has something to say to me.

Just because a game decided it’s a woman shooting a dude in the face doesn’t change why I feel disconnected from this medium. When using the same reference material in the same contexts with the same conventions, the move to make characters not a white man is often a commercial one, or a one-dimensional response to feminist critique in the media. We are not going to get the nuanced and challenging material by keeping the system in place while placing different bodies in there, though that is its own particular topic. Instead, it is artists like Tale of Tales, giving us things to work through our own discomfort. If games continues this revolving door, taking the culture from those who come in and sending them right out after, the issues we care about are just going to play into hype and fad cycles, continuing down this ‘why does everything still feel the same’ path, reading the same think pieces until we just stop caring and settle for what little we can get.

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