by Latonya Pennington
The other night, I was playing the mobile game Kingdom Hearts Unchained X on my laptop using Bluestacks Player. I had completed a level, leveled up, and had unlocked a mohawk and a formal hairstyle for my avatar, which was black and female. When I tried to put the mohawk on my avatar, the game changed my already customized female avatar to an uncustomized male one. Apparently, mohawks were only for boys and sparkly formal hairstyles were the only options for girls.
This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed gender norms enforced in the game, nor is this the only problematic aspect of it. Every customizable hairstyle, clothing, and accessory is coded blue for boys and pink for girls. You also have no choice in body type and hair type choices are limited. The only positive aspect of the avatar customization besides the cute outfits and hairstyles “for girls” is being able to play a black female character.
Prior to playing this game, I had never played a black female heroine in a video game. In fact, there have only been 14 playable black female characters in the history of gaming. While it feels awesome knowing that a black girl could exist in my favorite video game, this doesn’t excuse the problematic aspects of the game or video games in general.
As a gender diverse female, I enjoy a mix of things considered male and female, like t-shirts paired with perfume. Despite the fact that 48% of gamers are female, video games are still considered hobby for white males. If you don’t fit the typical image of a gamer, then things are even worse. The existence of gamers who aren’t white, male, straight, cisgender, skinny, rich, or able-bodied is so incomprehensible to some people that it has resulted in the ordeal that is Gamergate. As a gamer who is a gay gender diverse woman of color, I risk dealing with misogyny, homophobia, and racism from fellow gamers and video games themselves.
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Last year, the company Greenlight Skaldic pulled down a video game called Kill The Faggot, a game in which the player would be rewarded for killing gay men and trans women. If I’m not dealing with terrible representation like this, then I’m dealing with barely any representation at all. There are currently only a small handful of mainstream video game titles with positive portrayal of queer characters, some of which aren’t human characters. The first transgender video game character is considered to be Birdo from Super Mario Bros. 2, a dinosaur-like creature who was originally described as a boy who thinks he’s a girl. While she has since been referred to as female in North America and some may have no problem playing her, transgender gamers deserve to be more than dinosaurs.
While Gamergate has amplified the problematic treatment of players and characters, it is important to note that these issues already existed before this. As a kid, I remember being at a summer program at a local elementary school and walking up to some boys who were talking about video games on a certain console. When I told them that I too had the console, one of the boys reacted with disbelief. I was so annoyed that I stormed away without another word.
Before I knew I was queer, I already noticed problematic depictions of female characters and the enforcement of gender norms in video games. For a while, the early designs of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft was one of few human female characters I played without any issues. Besides Lara Croft, one of the first female video game characters I played was Coco from Crash Bandicoot Warped. As the sister to Crash Bandicoot and a secondary character, she had only one or two levels where she was a playable character.
Other games I played had female characters in exchange for an eyebrow raising characteristic. In the strategy video game Kessen II, I was able to control Mei Sanniang, a female general who could fight on horseback, use magic, and served as one of the advisors to the game’s protagonist Liu Bei. However, in some parts of the game, she is reduced to comic relief when the male generals stare at her breasts.
Kingdom Hearts Unchained X is the first game I’ve played alongside other players. Despite the various restrictions on avatar customization, the experience has been pleasant. Using the game’s chat feature, I’ve been able to ask questions and receive helpful advice for playing the game without getting racist or sexist comments. Since other video game players aren’t so lucky, I’m thankful that I’ve been able to enjoy playing the game despite the restrictions on my avatar.
While the game itself isn’t centered around my gender expression, being able to experiment with it would’ve provided as much of an escape as the rest of the game. In real life, I am told statements like “Girls should have long hair” and “Girls don’t wear tuxedoes”. In addition, I don’t have the extra money to experiment with my hair and clothes as I would like. Therefore, playing a free video game with an avatar as customizable shouldn’t be too much to ask for. Studies show that customizable avatars can help players create their ideal selves and have their avatars impact their real life selves. If playing a free video game can help me figure out my gender expression as well as give me a break from reality without getting rid of the usual gameplay, then those already represented shouldn’t get so upset.
People can say video games are just games, but they can have an impact in real life in helpful or harmful ways. Video games can bring out people’s hidden prejudices, but they can also bring people together. Every gamer deserves to feel they belong, especially if they don’t feel like that in real life. If reality is bad enough for so many of us, then the fictional world of video games should be an improvement, not an insult.
Latonya Pennington is a queer freelance writer and blerd. She specializes in entertainment and pop culture and has written for Revelist, Panels, Black Sci-fi, and more. When she isn’t freelancing, she can be found on Twitter, streaming shows, listening to music, reading, and writing poetry.
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