When I was young, I loved to play Spider-Man and the X-men Arcade’s Revenge on our Super Nintendo. I was spectacularly bad at it, but I loved to play it anyway. Mostly, I loved to play it because I could be Storm for a few levels of the game. And her levels were both more difficult and more fun.
Storm was a badass. I liked her character in the animated series that I’d seen–she was strong, beautiful, and she could control the weather. And she was a playable female character at a time when playable female characters were even scarcer than they are now. In the game, she jumped higher than the male characters, ran faster than they. This was very different from the princess-rescuing of Super Mario and Legend of Zelda, games that I enjoyed but wished had more character options.
Even now, playing games with Little Jedi, I find myself choosing female characters when I can, getting excited when they show up and are awesome. I’ve been glad to see that in the popular Skylanders franchise there are some really cool girl characters, and all of the Lego games we’ve played so far (the Batman games, Lego Movie game, Marvel game, and Harry Potter games) have had a variety of girl characters to choose from.
Last week, Little Jedi was playing video games with a friend’s children. My friend’s daughter was far more interested in joining the game when she realized there were girl characters who weren’t Princess Peach and didn’t need to be rescued. And I was reminded, of course, of myself, of my own experiences playing video games at her age.
I wasn’t very good at video games, but I did like them. They were like interactive books, each with their own story and illustrations, even when the story was a rather thin one. But not being very good at them was also frustrating, so I’d play for only short amounts of time, and I didn’t often play around other people—I was embarrassed by how bad I was. When I played the Super NES, it was my brother’s console at home, and I was generally alone. I’d been poked fun at before, and I wasn’t eager to be poked fun at again, so I just watched others play when I was at a friend’s house That was fun, too—like watching a book being interacted with.
I convinced my parents to spring for a Nintendo-64 a year or so after it was released, but I hated the new style of controllers, and I wanted to spend my extra cash on clothes and books instead of video games. I lost interest in the N-64 fairly quickly, and I didn’t play many more video games until I was in college. By that time, video games had changed quite a lot, of course. I still noticed, though, that I rarely got to choose a female character to play the story-line. Women were faces in the crowd, or they were prizes to be one, or they were princesses to be rescued—or they weren’t there at all, sometimes. There were a few notable exceptions (like playing Fable and being able to customize so very much of the character or the uber-popular Tomb Raider games), but they were few.
And so I didn’t really play again until Little Jedi was old enough to want to play video games. His grandparents gifted him a console 2 Christmases ago. Naturally, the kiddo didn’t want to play alone—and he had difficulties reading instructions—so I sat down and played video games, too. We still play together, and just a few weeks ago, we bought a 3rd controller so we can play together as a family. I find myself enjoying them more now, even if Little Jedi is already better at them. I even have a few games of my own, quirky games with beautiful art and odd story-lines.
And I choose the girl characters. I choose Hermione and She Hulk and Harley Quinn and Wyldstyle. I choose them because they’re more like me, and part of the fun of interactive fiction is in imagining myself as the character, really experiencing the story. It’s a fairly simple concept–representation matters. It matters on a personal level, and it matters on a cultural level. Our girls, and our boys, need to see varying representations. And they need to be able to interact with them.