Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Boys Drool (Gauntlet, Gauntlet II)

Gargoyle Quest is being held back a few entries, since its so close in the alphabet to the other NES game in its series.

Gauntlet and Gauntlet II represent in many ways the ultimate in arcade games - a steady march towards death as your body decays around you, limited health items, and a lot of buttons to mash. And there are great entries to be had about death and mourning and shooting the food. I mean, shooting the food. How good is that? Limited health items in a game where your health steadily falls no matter what you do, and you can shoot them!

But that's not what I want to talk about. Because the thing I remember about Gauntlet is this: I always played the Valkyrie.

Actually, this is true of a lot of games. Diablo? Always played the Rogue. Knights of the Old Republic? My character was female. Wing Commander III and IV? Always picked the female wingman. In pretty much any game where the option is available, unless playing the girl is an infuriating process (I am looking at you, Super Mario Bros 2) I picked the girl.

I assumed everyone did. It's always been, for me, "Valkyrie needs food badly," not the Elf or the Wizard or the Warrior. They could bloody well starve. Who wanted a slow-moving brute that just hit things, or a weakling magic user, or a fast-moving elf that really just mostly ran into things. (I remember with an avid lack of fondness the one time I did play the Elf. I tried to run and gun, and was disturbed to find that I passed my arrow.) Though the appeal of Valkyrie wasn't just her defensive capabilities - the tank was never my role of choice anyway. It was that she was the girl.

We're talking about video games I was playing in the first and second grade here, so the obvious reason of "scantily clad women are nice to have on screen" doesn't hold water. And I'm pretty confident in the chaste nature of my character choices through adulthood. I've just always felt more comfortable with women avatars.

Part of this is my stated discomfort with masculinity. I played video games because I was a scrawny geekboy, and I play them now because I'm a fat geekman. The rippled shirtless Fabio muscles of the Warrior were never going to be for me. A far better fit might have been the Wizard, but I was never fond of the idea that intelligence was necessarily bonded to physical frailty - a conceit of game balance created by Gary Gygax with, to my mind, unfortunate overall implications. And the Elf... I mean, look, the Elf was cool. But why would I play the Elf when there was the Valkyrie? I didn't even know what a Valkyrie was. All I knew was that she was blue, a woman, and the coolest character in the game.

The male options all seemed to offer some commentary on me - some sense of selecting my identity. If I picked the Warrior over the Wizard, I was committing to some sort of ideological selection about brains or brawn (though how, exactly, brains and a capacity for unleashing massive fireballs were linked - either my second grade education was seriously lacking, or, more likely, there was something not quite right about the ideology of the Wizard. There's a post in that someday). Playing the male characters meant making some sort of claim about who I was. Playing the Valkyrie, on the other hand, was a step towards alienation. I'm usually loathe to link Penny Arcade, as I've been reasonably persuaded by the incomparably brilliant Anna (whose previous entry on Faria is a must-read and a major inspiration, in its own way, for this one) that it too often crosses the line from funny to just plain mean (the fact of the matter is that their handling of the dickwolves controversy was flat-out appallingly bad), but the fact of the matter is that Tycho's post of a few days ago (made well after I'd already decided on this entry topic) captures it brilliantly.

I've never played video games to put myself into an imaginary world. I have my fucking imagination for that. I play video games to see other things. I don't need to project myself into a dungeon to be chased by ghosts. I'd rather, as with any work of fiction, see an interesting person do it - to see the Other on the screen, and to connect to it without being it.

And the fact of the matter is, I have always found femininity preferable to masculinity.

It's not that I have gender dysphoria. I am definitely male. It's just that, if I were given the opportunity to design myself from scratch, I'd pick the female character. Life just doesn't work that way, so I'm a boy, and I don't care nearly enough to change it. I'm male less because it's a meaningful part of my identity and more because it'd be an awful lot of work to be anything else. I have enough trouble with laundry and keeping a fresh roll of toilet paper going. I have a beard because I realized eventually that with how rarely I remembered to shave I might as well just give in to follicular entropy. Maintaining a different gender presentation is way out of my league.

And, I mean, I'm not stupid enough to treat this as some sort of awful cross to bear. I recognize that I have it wildly easier than I would if I were a woman. The fantastic scene in Queer as Folk where Nathan accuses his best friend of being "part of the fascist heterosexual orthodoxy," and she replies "I'm black. And I'm a girl. Try that for a week"? Yeah. I get it. Being a man who thinks girls are cooler than boys is really, supremely, utterly not that hard.

The term, as coined by people like Joss Whedon, is apparently "male lesbian," but there too I find myself unsatisfied. I mean, surely masculinity has already done enough damage co-opting lesbianism as a fetish designed for the male gaze. We don't need to actually co-opt the entire concept too, do we? A male lesbian is just a straight man. I mean, I'm never going to be one to knock Joss Whedon on feminist grounds. But...

The problem with the term is that it needs paragraphs of explication and disclaimer to work. But thankfully, we've got Greg Rucka, who has done so in a fantastic interview. (Incidentally, Greg Rucka? Amazing writer, and one of the best writers of female characters in action/adventure type genres working. If you have not read Batwoman: Elegy then get thee to Amazon, preferably through that handy Amazon Associates link, and buy it. I promise you that you will not regret it.) So let's get Block Quoty.

It's two-fold. I've said this before and people don't actually take me seriously when I say it – there's that joke about being a male lesbian, but I female-identify, and I always have since I was very young. I am not transgendered; I'm not looking for gender reassignment. I clearly have more testosterone flowing through me than most men need, and you can tell just by looking at me. I'm comfortable with my maleness, but for whatever reason the way I'm wired, I have always female-identified.
And I'm loathe to take the male lesbian route specifically because I'm loathe to make this some matter of pride. But at the end of the day, I'm more socially comfortable in a room full of women than I'll ever be in a role full of guys. And that's been true since I fired up Gauntlet on a Commodore 64 years and years ago.

My preferred phrasing is that I have a feminism fetish. I find feminism a major turn-on. And I take pains to make a real investment in that. Which is touchy in spots, as that involves recognizing the importance of spaces I am not a part of. It involves accepting that the male privilege I don't particularly want in the first place still means I have to be excluded sometimes to create female spaces. It involves an investment in the fact that women have stories and narratives, and an investment in learning to listen to them. The really good bits of the Rucka interview aren't the bits I quoted. They're the five paragraphs that follow about him learning to translate that into writing female characters, and about the life experiences he'll never have that he had to learn to write anyway. 

But I love those stories. They're moving and funny and insightful in a way that no story about male identity I have ever seen is. It's the old "Ginger Roberts did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels" observation. Give me a female protagonist over a male one any day of the week, because the female protagonist starts off with a dozen more problems with being a hero than a male one does, and is immediately more interesting for it. It's why Wonder Woman is by miles my favorite superhero. Because find me an iconic male superhero with that many ambiguities and contradictions that is still instantly recognizable and iconic the moment she steps into frame. There isn't one. I see the complaints about the upcoming Wonder Woman TV series and the fact that Wonder Woman has body image issues, a ridiculous costume invented for PR purposes, and sometimes pigs out eating ice cream in front of the television, and I don't get it. Of course Wonder Woman does those things, and of course they sit in contrast to her strong and powerful female character, because that's what's interesting about her. The fact that she doesn't just get to put her hands on her hips and be Superman. The fact that even though she's the third best-known superhero in the DC stable, she hits the sales glass ceiling and never gets the promotion she deserves. (And incidentally, as soon as this or TARDIS Eruditorum wraps up, I am so starting a Wonder Woman blog.)

And over time, I learned what may be the key part about always picking the girl in video games. The girl isn't an identity. Compare the irritating dilemma about which vision of masculinity to pick to the even worse dilemma faced by a female gamer who wants to see a character who looks like her on the screen. We get to pick the strong guy or the smart guy or the gay guy. They get to pick the girl - the one size fits all identity for 50% of the world. An identity with a chain mail bikini.

Border House has a fantastic send-up of this problem they did for April Fool's, switching real explanations for why games don't have female characters over to why they don't have male characters. And it's true. Both because female gamers deserve to have a choice if they (as apparently most gamers do) choose to play a representation of themselves in games, but more importantly, because male gamers need to see women as more than the third tickybox on the character creation screen. 

Growing up, I knew that women's stores were better than men's stories, and that most men's stories got better if they were women's stories. I deserved better though. They deserved better. Nobody should ever have to take until high school and college and a lot of smart and patient female friends to get that there's no such thing as the female perspective, and that if you're going to append the definite article to a gendered approach, the male gaze is a far saner phrase. I should never have been allowed to play the girl, as if that's a defined identity in and of itself. (And the fact that in Gauntlet II I could be a Valkyrie of four different colors doesn't count. Everybody knows that Valkyrie is blue. Red Valkyrie is just Valkyrie dressed as Warrior. Although Blue Warrior is, by extension, satisfying.) That, more than anything, was male privilege.

But lacking that option, I played the girl. Not for the chainmail bikini, or for the defense, or for anything other than the simple fact that the Other was preferable. And for all its flaws, Gauntlet was the first and defining game where I got to do this. My initial interest in Norse mythology wasn't based on Thor or Loki or anyone I knew from Marvel Comics. It was based on the fact that it was where Valkyrie came from. The imcomparable, beautiful, amazing Valkyrie, who introduced me to the Other, and to the idea that the best stories might not be my own.

In the end, it comes down to this. Girls never shoot the food.


  1. I was with you until your final line essentialized.

    Great post.

  2. I intended it less as essentializing and more as a desperate attempt to have the post end in a way that at least pretended it was still about Gauntlet. And "Valkyrie needs equitable representation of gender in emerging media badly" just wasn't working for me,

  3. Excellent post. The female/Other identification is something I can, uh, identify with, as well. "Valkyrie" is such a fascinating string of letters.

  4. I, too, always picked the girl. My reasons were different from yours, though. I *was* looking for a representational character that I could relate to.

    As a trans girl, this was also a form of escapism. I used video games to escape the ill-fitting social expectations and, as I grew up, the increasingly jarring feeling that my body was betraying me. I escaped into video games, where I could be someone who, honestly, often represented me more closely than the person I presented to the world. In games, I could be closer to the girl I felt I was supposed to be.

    And, increasingly, I grew frustrated with the same lack of options and objectification that you describe here. The Male Gaze-tailored women I saw in games embodied an impossible standard that I, with my masculinized body, felt I could never reach. This feeling played a significant role in keeping me from thinking of transition as an option. I felt that if I fell short of the goal of (at the very least) being conventionally attractive, I would be ridiculed.

    So, the chainmail bikini ruined my childhood in a far more direct way than Faria's attempts to kill me.

    Also, as an aside, the Valkyrjur are a fascinating topic, and are a very often misunderstood element of Norse Mythology, thanks in large part to Wagner.

  5. wow i seriously thought i was the only one who had this behavior, picking the girl, feeling more comfortable with a feminine identity. this makes me feel much better about myself

  6. please consider reading this essay, for a more in depth and probably at times mind-bending exploration of why girls make the best avatars, in games and irl:


    I like your video game writing! I came across this post when I was looking for Gauntlet source images for a Minecraft Texture pack I am making ^_^

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