It was a sweaty morning in a small apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. My aunt had gone to yoga, leaving my hapless uncle to tend to me. After a few minutes of poorly sunken jokes, a few more of stalemate, he finally presented an option that pleased me.
“I’ve heard you like video games.”
I nodded my head.
“I’ve never been able to understand this one. Maybe you can help?”
He slotted Morrowind into the Xbox. It was the first time I had touched a gaming console. I was ten years old.
Morrowind defined an era of my life, and I played it with the incessant and furious concentration that is characteristic of youth. My gaming partner was typically my younger cousin, and we would hand each other the controller when one of us died. This was confusing because we had different play styles. By “different play styles,” I mean he persistently refused to read, which meant I was deprived of narrative, explanation, and any form of guidance.
I had been raised within the cabal of PC “education games,” dabbling in everything from Madeline to titles from The Learning Company. I still have an IBM laptop running Windows 98, on which I play Mulan: Animated Story Book (1998), Kid Pix 2 (1994), Zoombinis (1996-2002) and Roller Coaster Tycoon (1999), but this background meant I also entered Morrowind with no framework for how to play it.
So, my cousin and I did what any child would do. We decided to kill everyone. We always started with Ra’Virr, a merchant in Balmora, in order to sell his possessions and co-opt his home. The RPG became—and remains—a rare venue in which I could do or be anything, and I sunk hours into Morrowind’s imaginary landscapes. In doing so, I grew a love for games in which non-playable characters could die—in short, a love for the games that were never prescribed for children, and as I have come to understand it, the games that aren’t frequently prescribed for women.
I’ve always enjoyed being good at gaming. In grade school, the boys would hand over their Game Boys during precision boss battles. I’ve beaten every boss in Super Mario Bros. 3 several times over. I would dodge obstacles in Frogger and strategically plant bombs in Bomberman. When I was successful, people would tell me I was “like the boys.” I was a tomboy, partially from genuine interest, partially to prove to the adults that I was different than their expectations of me. The first birthday gift I ever asked for was a Tonka truck. I regularly pulled the heads off of Barbies.
By the time I became a young adult, I realized my obsession with stereotypically masculine activities stemmed less from the desire to be contrarian than from a desire to be recognized as powerful. To be masculine was to be powerful—to be powerful, you had to like boy things, I told myself. Eventually, I learned: to be powerful, you had to be a boy.
The zeitgeist has made it very clear: gamers are boys and men. If I forget this delicate fact, the regular doxing and trolling of female gamers reminds me—made more brazen by the way our president and the alt-right have normalized harassment. Much like the thousands of silent victims of sexual assault for every high profile victim who speaks out, for every Zoe Quinn, there are dozens of female gamers whose harassment goes unnoticed. There is this pervasive culture that even if women game, such games aren’t “real”—the collective reputation of women is so poor that we culturally degrade the popularity of the products we consume.
Compelling arguments have been made for the reason gaming culture grew to be so male-dominated. One of my favorites simply documents the power of male-oriented advertising in shaping game-demand: “it was, after all, the Game Boy, not the Game Girl.” But the full spectrum of theories is a different subject altogether. More interesting are the series of recent findings that identify the preferences of female gamers and debunk common theories about female game consumption.
I have pored over the numerous studies that have come out of Quantic Foundry, led by Nick Yee and Nicolas Ducheneaut, in the past few years. My favorite is called “Female Gamers Want To Kill You, Just Not With Guns.” The study surveyed 1,266 participants (you can read more about the research methods here) about their weapons of preference. Women simply prefer killing you with magic, swords, and bows. Admittedly, this is also my preference. I fall within the data set.
Quantic Foundry also ran a study about the importance of female protagonists in the video games, on a five-point scale of “not important” to “extremely important.” More than 50% of survey takers who identify as women cite playing as a female character to be extremely important. A whopping 75% list it as at least very important. If that sounds unbelievable, think about Overwatch, a game with twice as many female players as other FPS games. Overwatch is also one of the few multiplayer online FPS games with the option to play as a woman—several women, in fact.
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Playable female characters are gaining traction in the video game community, even in AAA titles. Sure, these leading women get parsed and critiqued ad infinitum to a degree male characters never do (see: Horizon: Zero Dawn, a game that I incidentally really love), but at least they exist. Now think about how many video games have passed the Bechdel test.
Where are the female friendships? Where are these relationships that I have plied my life with—the relationships that have weathered me through some of my toughest times, and have generally made life worth living? I ate all four of Elena Ferrante’s dazzling Neapolitan novels, and now I am hungry again. I have the purchasing power to make my preference known in the marketplace, regularly spending money on incredible games (that I love), despite quietly fuming over the limited options that offer relationships that approximate anything in my own life.
There are a handful of female friendships present in AAA titles, but lately, independent games have swept me away. Night in the Woods, released in early 2017, is one of my favorites. It appears I’m not alone—the game recently won the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Narrative at Game Developers Conference. Night in the Woods follows an anthropomorphic cat named Mae, and her adventures at home after dropping out of college. The town is small and you are deadbeat, jobless, and unrooted. Only your fellow anthropomorphic-Animalia friends—Bea, Gregg, Angus, and Germ—keep you from becoming completely unmoored.
The game is episodic; every morning, you wake up and go through the motions of checking your computer for messages, before bounding about the small town in search of something to do. Before the plot really “picks up” late in the game, you spend each day in this same routine. The narrative is fairly structured, but there’s a bit of wiggle room in its open world. You make minute dialogue choices—choices that don’t actually influence the trajectory of the story, but rather reinforce this feeling of being trapped by Mae’s shitty choices (more on that later). You decide who you want to talk to, and you decide who you want to spend your evening with: Bea or Gregg.
This is the game’s most powerful mechanism: There aren’t a set number of hangouts that you can eventually 100% run through. By choosing to hang out with one friend, you’re willfully forgoing the experience of that evening with the other. Mae is not a particularly likable character, but her friends evoke emotions in her that make her more palatable. Though Gregg is easily the most lovable (just check r/NightInTheWoods), I found myself continually drawn to Bea, nourishing myself with their friendship as a proxy for my own. As Bea’s financial struggle becomes apparent, Mae begins to trust Bea enough to divulge more personal information. We become closer to the protagonist we’ve been playing as we help her become closer to her only real female friend. It is to Bea that Mae eventually admits the reason she dropped out of the college.
My other favorite character in Night in the Woods is comparatively minor. Her name is Selmers, and she’s a poet. She sits on the stoop in the neighborhood, and you always have the option to speak to her on your way to visit your other friends. My favorite scene in the game—Poets of Possum Spring—comes as a gift to those who listen to all of Selmers’ (excellent) poems. I won’t spoil what happens. Instead, I’ll give you a buy in. Selmers utters my favorite line in the game (it is also a poem): “My heart is/ A dankness/ But when I see you/ I feel a thankness/ When I feel/ A blueness/ All I need/ Is a youness.”
Night in the Woods is one of the most important games I’ve played in the past year, one that has evolved in purpose and mission as I’ve played it. It feels relentlessly 2017 in its economic despair and dry wit. The game espouses a self-contained emotional vastness that emerges from the strength of the deep relationships it forges. My favorites of those relationships happen to be between women. Bea’s friendship makes sense of Mae and her histrionic struggles, but more than that, it forces me to reflect on the state of my life, and the state of my own friendships. Finishing the game was like lifting my nose from an excellent book—wistful and deeply sad. I say it with immense gratitude to the team who created it. I look forward to what they make next.
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It is a reprieve to be alive in an era where representation is approaching a norm. In creating nourishing female friendships in games, we move even further from tokenization and deeper into the realm of narratives that actually approximate the experience of living. I’m excited to openly praise games for both their technical strengths and their authentic representation of human emotion and interaction, without feeling the need to hedge my excitement. I spent my entire childhood wondering what it would feel like to get to play a game as a woman who forms meaningful relationships with other women. Increasingly, I have been getting my wish.
Nicole Clark is a freelance writer and editor whose work has been featured in Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Bold Italic, and Femsplain. You can find her looking for stories in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter, or read more of her writing here.
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