These are the feminist video games you need to play right now
Two years ago, I RSVP’d to a lecture on video games at Utah State University. I wasn’t an avid gamer then, but I was fascinated by the way feminist media critic and Youtuber Anita Sarkeesian (who was scheduled to speak) dissected video game culture under a feminist microscope. In punchy, unapologetic videos with titles like Women as Background Decoration, Sarkeesian drew attention to the way video games could sexualize, objectify, and victimize women — with female characters often being insignificant and non-playable, serving no purpose other than satisfying the male gaze under the premise of making a plotline “edgy” or “racy.”
I was excited to hear her elaborate on her videos, and geared up to take the two-hour drive. But days before she was scheduled to hit the stage, Sarkeesian abruptly canceled the lecture out of fear for her own life and the lives of others.
USU received an anonymous email threatening to “massacre” students on campus if Sarkeesian showed up, promising in a vile and graphic letter “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” After USU announced it wouldn’t change its policy and ban firearms, Sarkeesian (understandably) dropped the event.
The incident was a painful metaphor for the video game community as a whole, which has a long and controversial history of vitriol and violence toward the women who take part in it. It was also my baptism-by-fire into the world of gaming and feminist criticism.
As I read more articles and played more games, I began to understand the analysis of Sarkeesian and others in the same way I look at discussions about any other art form. And that’s what video games are, to be sure: An art form. Just like with movies, books, and TV shows, some games are vapid and violent, while others feature mesmerizing tone and style, well-written storylines, and breathtaking visuals.
Cultural criticism about art has existed for as long as art itself, because art says as much about the society it was created in as it does about the artist who did the creating.
But when that socio-political discourse began to take place in the gaming world, the women involved were attacked in droves with threats of rape, violence, and death. “Anti-feminist gamers wanted their hobby to be treated as an art form, but were not willing to allow the scrutiny that came with that distinction, wrote Matthew Scribner for the Mary-Sue.
Listen. I get that women are outnumbered in the gaming industry. According to the Boston Globe, women account for 11 percent of game designers and three percent – just three percent! – of programmers. (I will pause to allow you, the reader, the appropriate “WTF” this statistic calls for). When straight, white men are making most of the world’s video games, the games are going to feature straight, white, male characters for a straight, white, male audience – and good luck trying to do anything differently.
“We had [some companies] tell us, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,’” said developer Jean-Max Morris of Remember Me, a cyberpunk game featuring a woman who hacks the minds of others and steals their memories.
But when game designers refuse to create or acknowledge compelling narratives for women, they risk alienating the 48 percent of gamers who are, believe it or not, female as f*ck – which is why the power to make the gaming community better for women rests in our delicate, feminine hands.
We need to show the industry that games featuring women as actual humans can sell. We need to create the demand, so the supply can follow.
So pull out your credit card. Buy games made by women. Play games with female characters. Discuss games that ask important cultural questions. Social change doesn’t always happen on a picket line: It can be as easy as picking up a controller.
Here are some amazing, feminist-friendly video games to start with:
This action-packed side-scroller game follows Nuna, a young girl who is part of the Alaskan Iñupiat tribe. Created by Upper One Games, who call themselves America’s first indigenous game company, Never Alone (Kisima Inŋitchuŋa in the Iñupiat language) does not only serve as a beautiful representation of a community almost never portrayed in media. It also acts as a real way for the Iñupiat to preserve century-old oral traditions that risk extinction as society modernizes and indigenous population dwindles.
Child of Light
Much like Never Alone, Child of Light is a side-scroller game featuring a young, female protagonist. Set against a visually stunning backdrop of sketch and watercolor, Child of Light plays on classic fairy tale tropes, turning them on their head and proving a princess is capable of rescuing herself.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
Hear me out on this one. Laura Croft has been a controversial figure in the video game world since her creation, jockeying back and forth between sex object and feminist hero. In the latest installment of the game, Croft is tenacious, smart, and (praise the Lord) gets to wear actual action-appropriate clothing (i.e. real pants) this time. Who woulda thought?
The Last of Us
If you need proof that an action-based video game can be successful, here it is: Zombie thriller The Last of Us was met with an explosion of praise after its 2013 release, winning over 200 Game of the Year awards. It follows teenager Ellie, a girl forced to adapt to a new apocalyptic world filled with zombies and living people — who can sometimes be worse.
Sarkeesian labeled Gone Home, which tackles sexuality, familial love and the pain of coming-of-age, as “one of the most genuinely moving, meaningful and emotional video games” she ever played, which should be reason enough to give this one a go. Gone Home is different than most games in that it doesn’t feature any action or combat. After the female main character arrives home to find her entire family vanished, her only mission is to comb through every room and attempt to piece together her family’s story.