I like playing Call of Duty because I can do in the game what I can't do in the real world. I liked playing as Brick in Borderlands even better, or as a female barbarian in Diablo 3, or as the Heavy in Team Fortress 2. I like using shotguns and rocket launchers and axes and maces, and I like heaving a huge, muscled arm into someone's face. It doesn't just make me feel powerful — it makes me feel relieved. One word resonates through my every fiber when I play these games: finally.
That response stems from being a tiny woman and not being taken seriously. My physical appearance tends to make people think "adorable!" rather than what I'd prefer: "towering, Wonder Womanish bad-ass who can crush you with her pinky." I started lifting weights in high school, but I have a lot of trouble building muscle. And although I lift more weight now than I did back then, I've never "looked" like I could pick up much of anything, and I still can't lift as much as I'd like. I'm also still short. This is all genetic, of course, along with the blue eyes and blonde hair, which adds up to be an ideal appearance for, well, someone else with a different personality than mine.
I've cultivated a standoffish personality, so that once people get to know me, they know not to fuck with me. Most people also know that I continued taking karate until I got my second-degree black belt at age 20, and that I've taken boxing, that I still work out and lift weights almost every day. But none of that shows. I'm still barely over five feet. I don't look like the bad-ass that lives inside my head. Sometimes when I see pictures of myself — especially pictures of myself performing, speaking, acting — I feel baffled and disconnected by how small and unassuming I look. So you might say I always have an axe to grind, something to prove, a chip on my shoulder.
I've done a lot of soul-searching, in the past few years, to re-embrace my "feminine side" without feeling ashamed of it; I'd still like to gain muscle, but I don't see why that has to contrast with anything else about me. I now own more pairs of stockings and skirts and wedge heels than my high-school or college self would ever have dreamed possible, I've modeled in a Lolita fashion show and enjoy wearing Lolita-inspired outfits on occasion, and I will proudly admit that I love Porpentine's CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA Twine game (you play as the pop star Ke$ha, but with magic powers — seriously) more than any Call of Duty.
Not all of the stories that I love seem antithetical to my progressive gender politics, either. Most of my favorite heroines have managed to have feminine sides just as well as masculine ones: Samus Aran, Xena, Starbuck, She-Ra, and Snow White from Once blend lots of different kinds of heroic qualities, from motherliness and protectiveness, to raw physicality, to knowing when and when not to compromise. Samus Aran in particular fooled gaming audiences in the same way that I and many other female gamers still do online; most players assumed Samus was a man for the entirety of Metroid, but she ends the game by taking off her huge suit of armor to reveal long blonde hair, breasts, and hips. Her "I'm a woman, deal with it" attitude still resonates with me every time I reveal my gender to someone online, or when I "come out" as a gamer to a group of surprised faces. Like Samus, I've had to deal with the condescension of other people's "surprise" at my abilities or interests given my physical appearance, over and over again.
As for the male heroes that I like, I've added new personality traits to several of them — feminine ones. As far as I'm concerned, Gears of War's Marcus has a secret soft side, and he and Dom are dating, even if their squad-mates (and the men who created their characters) aren't aware of it. I also have imagined a far more complex bromance between Alex Mason and Frank Woods than what's actually present in the cut-scenes of Call of Duty: Black Ops. I like characters that act like I do, ones that pick and choose both masculine and feminine traits and reject societal expectations. And if they don't act quite like I do, I just imagine that they do. I imagine that they have feelings, and love stories, and baggage, in addition to a need to feel physically powerful. Sometimes, all of that is present in the narrative already, and I don't have to invent anything. That's the best.
But what about my guilt over enjoying violent power fantasies, given how judgmental the media and politicians and Americans everywhere have been about violent media lately? What is it that I love about holding an imaginary gun and shooting hundreds of avatars in the face? Am I just acting out some Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy on the daily micro-aggressions that I feel from strangers, and even friends, who talk down to me because I'm a wee little baby-looking girl who must need help, who can't do anything on her own?
Maybe I am really trying to fight against society's expectations, and my unfortunate internalization of some of those expectations, that someone who looks like me cannot ever be powerful.
I am trying to prove to myself, by way of these games, that I deserve more.