I played traditionally feminine games, too. I had as many Barbies and Tenko princesses and My Little Ponies as I had She-Ra dolls, and I invented romantic tales just as often as violent wars. I loved to create stories, and when I played dress-up, I remember pretending to be a princess as easily as I pretended to be a warrior or huntress. I played with "girl stuff" along with "boy stuff," and I played with both girls and boys, too, in spite of schoolyard claims of "cooties." Throughout, I was dimly aware of the differences between my toys and styles of play, not least of which because my Game Boy said "boy" on it. I also knew that I didn't see myself the same way that other people saw me: the cute little Maddy of the real world didn't match up with the person I hoped to become.
The author at age 11, at age 19, and at age 25 (cosplaying as Brick from Borderlands).
I wanted to get taller, to get bigger, and it just never happened. The day I got my period, I sobbed and sobbed, because it meant I'd never be as tall as I had hoped. In middle school, my mother had taken me to see a special doctor about my height, since I wouldn't stop obsessing about it. That doctor had X-rayed my hand and told me I'd be "lucky" to reach 5'2 (I still haven't), and that after I got my period, I would only grow two more inches, tops. He was right. I only ended up getting another inch and a half, after that day of tears.
Given my lifelong history of playing at war, and my desperate wish to feel strong, big, and powerful, it made sense that I would gravitate towards Counter-Strike and its ilk around the age of 15. But Counter-Strike, with its all-male selection of avatars and predominantly male player base, allowed no room for princesses — and the guys I played with didn't either.
I developed some traits during that time that I regret now — the belief that I was "special," and that I was "better" than other women I knew because I liked playing violent games and they didn't. The guys I played with encouraged and reinforced this behavior, assuring me that I was "different from those other girls," that my liking violence made me "cool." Girl stuff is stupid, I told myself, as I bought pants from the men's section, told sexist jokes, and mocked all the "girl stuff" that I'd liked, not so many years prior. Soon, "girl stuff is stupid" turned into "girls are stupid," and that road led me to being a teenage sexist, to being an honorary guy in my gaming clique, to mocking Women's Studies students to their faces in college.
But eventually, I began to wonder why there were so few women in these games — as characters, or as players. Being "special" had started to feel very lonely, and even though I was "one of the guys" in theory, I often still felt like my new friends were talking down to me. There were more than a couple gaming get-togethers that they "forgot" to invite me to. This led me to ask more and more questions, like, why did I have to tone down my femininity in order to be taken seriously by my guy gamer friends? And why, even after I had tried to change to fit in with them, did I still get excluded? Why did these gender categories exist at all? Why did I have to pick one or the other? Couldn't I wear a tulle petticoat and play violent video games at the same time?
As an adult, I realized: yes, of course I could. I only wish I had figured it out sooner. I could have saved myself the emotional anguish of fretting that my interests didn't fit neatly into one gendered box or the other, and instead realized that the real solution to my problem was to find some new friends.
I also began to wonder even more about those gender demarcations — the ones that I'd rather ignore, but that seem to follow me everywhere, in the media I consume and in the questions that people ask me. The idea that talking about feelings and enjoying dress-up and role-playing are "feminine," that violence and karate and having strong sexual urges are "masculine." I don't like this narrative. I don't want to enforce it.
So, this question still troubles me: why do I enjoy Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Gears of War, Power Rangers, and even Fight Club? All of these games and movies and TV shows indoctrinate us all with the idea of what "masculine" means, by showing men (and a token "special" woman, or two) on the battlefield. Shouldn't I hate these reinforcements of those gender demarcations, as a liberal/progressive feminist/gender egalitarian/bleeding heart/whatever? Shouldn't I hate violence anyway, even just depictions of violence, since — gender-role indoctrination aside — violent media keeps enforcing the narrative that hurting other people is okay, and maybe even cool and fun?
I know that many of my female friends can't find anything to relate to in these games, that I am still a little "weird," a little "special" for enjoying violent video games and power fantasies. Especially since most of my friends are also progressives, feminists, gender egalitarians, people fighting the good fight against the sort of crap that I'm not "supposed" to keep on liking if I want to roll with them: the fetishization of gun violence, of masculine-oriented violent behaviors, of violence apologists.
And yet, here I am, engaging in a power fantasy and loving it.
Is there something wrong with me?
There does seem to be something wrong — but the problem does not lie in my taste in games, so much as in my real life. I seem to have been given the short end of the stick, in the real world. So I'm making up for it elsewhere.