Thursday, August 27, 2009

Adventures in Transition: Faster, Evil Space Pussycat, Kill, Kill, Kill!

I am a child of the video game era.

Like most white, middle-class kids of my era, we owned an Atari 2600 (the real thing, not the cheesy Sears version.) And while we enjoyed the hell out of the system, we also sucked.

Plate 1: This was once considered cool!

Like I said, we lived in the golden age of video games, and arcade games--with their superior graphics and gameplay--were all around us. Things weren't helped by how poorly most arcade games were ported over to the 2600--the infamous Pac-Man port is widely credited as causing the North American video game market crash of 1983.

Plate 2: You've heard the legends, but I actually played it--and it was really that horrible.

I didn't care that much for video games.

You probably think that it was because I was some high-falutin' intellectual, with my nose in a book all the time and too much of a nerd to be any good at sports. But that wasn't the reason...well, it wasn't the only reason.

The reason was that I generally stank at them. I have a rather low eye-hand coordination, so most of that generation of video games were full of FAIL for me--I didn't have the reflexes to be any good at them, or rather, I just got too frustrated to actually learn how to play through my difficulties.

So I watched a lot of other people play video games--hell, I just hung out for weeks while a buddy of mine played Ultima IV, which is about as interesting as watching people play D& a language you don't speak.

Once I got to college and had a computer of my very own, however, I got interested in games again. There were actual genres that didn't require me to have the fast-twitch reflexes of a chihuahua who'd drunk too much coffee, and I played those--SimCity, Civilization (I racked up insane hours conquering various planets), baseball games where you only had to "manage," and even less-athletic, more strategic games like Sid Meier's Pirates.

So when I was finally out of college, and got a "real" computer (well, a Packard-Bell--26% new parts!), I made sure to pick up a few games to go with it. One was Doom, which I had played in multi-player mode and enjoyed. (I didn't get too far in that one: have I mentioned my reflexes?) The other was Wing Commander IV. And that one hooked me.

I'd heard about the Wing Commander series for years, but never owned a machine powerful enough to run them--the closest I'd come was playing on a friend's Nintendo once. But the third and fourth versions of the game were really different--they used movies to forward a plot line between missions, and you could actually make choices in how to respond during some of the movie sequences. It was like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book! (Yes, I am a child of the '80s.)

It certainly didn't hurt that Mark Effin' Hamill played your character.

Plate 3: Hey, isn't that the guy from Star Wars?

While I understand while this kind of video game (usually called Full-Motion Video or FMV) didn't catch on (costs were high, graphics got good enough to do all the stuff inside the game itself), it was extraordinarily compelling for the time--they really managed to come close to the state objective of making it an interactive movie. I ploughed through WCIV in about a month, and for my birthday my girlfriend gave me a boxed set with the first three games. Which I slogged through as well, even though the first two were more standard video games--no movies, but there was an overarching storyline for both. I started playing WCIII, the climax of the series...and stopped.

I was changing computers, I had a girlfriend, I was taking aikido--I had a bunch of reasons. So I never finished the third game, never got past the third mission. And I mostly stopped playing anything resembling shoot-em-ups; I had the occasional game of Civ going on, but for the most part I didn't have any time to play videogames. I did reload Wing Commander I on my machine a few months after my wife and I separated, played it all the way through again, but didn't bother to play the next game.

And then I transitioned.

Now, obviously, video games are a huge minefield of misogynistic crap. (Just check out the ongoing saga of Fat Princess over at Shakesville.) Most games are marketed for men, often in the crudest, most sexist way possible--and then you play the game, and it just gets worse when you see how women are depicted inside the games themselves. Plus so many video games are filled with non-stop, wall-to-wall violence, domination, and macho posturing.

So it makes sense for me to avoid video games, and for the most part I've had no interest--not even in my beloved Civ. Until recently.

Because on a whim I dug out my copy of Wing Commander III, and after wrestling with Windows for a few days, have been flying missions again. And loving it.

This is full of irony for me. First, aren't I the person railing on about kyriarchy and how we need a culture freed from the evils of domination? Aren't I generally opposed to violence of almost any kind? And don't I love cats? Hell, don't people call me Cat?

So why in the hell am I zipping around space blowing up evil space cats and following a plotline that ultimately ends with a shocking act of genocide?

Plate 4: I'm sure with a big enough lap to cuddle up in, he'd stop trying to DESTROY ALL HUMANS.

I have no idea. I'm sucked in, again, by the storyline, and the gameplay remains challenging but not impossible even for a slow-fingered person like myself. There are even female characters in the game, and they're not decoration--two are highly competent fighter pilots, and one is the ship's chief mechanic. (Of course, one set of choices leads you to have a relationship with one of them, which is a bit squicky, but on the other hand it is remarkable to have a video game that was a combat sim even mention the word love.)

I've noticed a few things different this time around. I'm not any better or worse a pilot than I used to be--I always played the game the way I thought my character really would fly, so I don't try to run up my score if the mission can be finished otherwise. My adrenaline reactions are...different nowadays, though. After a long session at the game, I can get a bit twitchy, and somewhat spatially disoriented, like I keep expecting the constant motion the 3D sim provides. I don't recall that stuff happening the first time around, and I wonder how much my current endocrinology has to do with that.

Of course, playing a video game--playing a violent, combat-oriented video game--brings up all sorts of gender crap for me. (But then, getting the paper in the morning has the potential to do that.) Mostly it's societal stuff that I, of all people, should know better than to listen too--women aren't violent, women don't play video games, women should sit down and watch the damn Lifetime Movie Network and keep careful notes of the cleaning products they must buy next trip to the store. Like I said, mostly crap.

But on the other hand, I haven't talked much about this with other women I know. Maybe because I fear that the women who know about my history will view this as one more way I'm not like them--and the women who don't know about my history might get ideas.

Silly. But there you have it.

In any case, I'm close to the end, and I'll drop The Big Bomb on Kilrah and win the game pretty soon now. Maybe with more qualms than the designers might have expected their players to have--they may be evil space kitties, but that doesn't make me happy to blow up their home planet, for goodness sake. And then maybe I'll head over to Women Gamers; I'll be needing a new fix soon.


  1. We play a lot of video games at my house, too, except we're Nintendo fans all the way. My mom adores Tetris, and my sister and I love Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, Super Smash Bros., stuff like that, which I haven't found to be too bad in terms of misogyny or super-fast reflex requirements. I mean, Nintendo's advertising irritates me, especially with things like Cooking Mama, but overall they seem a step above the other console games.

    Can't help you with computer games, though - I've never been able to get into them.

  2. I love video games :3

    But I have a feeling that awful ET game played as large a role, if not an even bigger one, in the great game crash.
    Haha I had that PacMan Atari game too... haha I knew something was messed up about it even though I'd never even played it in the arcades at that age. The sound effects, oh god.

    I just bought Final Fantasy Dissidia for the PSP.
    I want very much to be able to say that, nothing reveals the sexism in video games quite so much as a Character lineup, when the woman characters are just tokens. There's not a lot of female characters in this game. Or in lots of other games for that matter. Rarely in the lead; Terra's an exception.

    But the thing is, I know that there are much worse examples of sexism in video games than even this character lineup.

    The marketing all too often is sexist or outright misogynist. The games themselves can be designed to be objectifying right from the bat. Then there's the whole unrealisitc costumes, and questions of violence and stereotypes and it goes on... And there's so few women involved in producing games to begin with. Maybe all these problems serve to keep us out, plus the field of engineering and the glass ceiling and it goes on again...

    Yet I just, I can't, stop playing. I keep on playing. I'm good at them or else I get good at them real quick. I have to play this game. I love the storylines, I love the music, I love getting drawn into the action, out-thinking opponenets in two player games, and I enjoy parts of the gaming community online (which still has problems of its own. I don't love all of it.)

    But PC games...
    EHhhhh not so fond of PC games...
    I could steer you over to some portable games you might like but I don't feel comfortable controlling a character with a keyboard. I really need a d-pad.

  3. I'm a transfemme video gamer and total nerd. I'm even composing this message on my PS3 that's currently booted into Linux. I only got my PS3 last summer, one of the first things I did was install Linux on it. My favorite PS3 games are Oblivion and Fallout 3.

    Me, I've always had reasonably good reflexes, my gaming buddy I play Diablo-clones with is SLOOOOW by my standards. Watching him play Oblivion was a shock! He simply can't manipulate both sticks at the same time, and can't manipulate the right stick well at all. He often has to ask me to not zip through menus so fast so he can see what I'm doing.

    I can't stand sexism in games, which ticks me off in JRPG's where the healer is some fragile staff chick in a pink dress who is supposed to cower in back and toss a heal now and then. I want to play a battle cleric in plate armor and a big hammer who smites her enemies holy goodness while fighting alongside the warrior. A Lady of War:

    And I really dislike the homophobia of the gaming community, came damn close to getting removed from a FFXI linkshell when I complained about it.

  4. I recommend the Iris Network forums as a cool place for female/feminist/progressive gamers to hang out and chat about the awesome but frequently also headdesky stuff that goes on with our beloved hobby!

  5. Ultima-IV! I floved that thing. Sparkly magical swords are my Achilles heel.

  6. Oooh, what's your handle?

    --Leah B