The earliest games I remember playing were always about saving a princess. Admittedly, a great number of games I played were centered around defeating some faceless evil, stacking shapes, various feats of skill an athleticism, and in one notable case, simply amassing material wealth. But in most of the games I remember best, the objective was simple: cross this dangerous world, fight monster, solve puzzles, and defeat the nefarious villain all in order to save the kidnapped princess and restore order to the kingdom. Substitute “girlfriend” and “neighborhood” for “princess” and “kingdom” if you like, it mostly amounts to the same thing in a slightly different skin. However it looked, I ate it up. I’ve always been a voracious consumer of stories and gaming has always catered to that need for me, even when it wasn’t really trying to. As I believe I’ve made mention of before, the opening sequences for some of my favorite games as a child were light on the storytelling element. Super Mario Bros. had none that I can recall, and The Legend of Zelda presented one opening scroll (like Star Wars) and sent you on your way. But in the first few minutes of gameplay (it doesn’t take too long to get through to the first castle in SMB) I knew what I needed to know- there’s a princess out there needs saving, and she’s depending on me to save her. Maybe it’s because my last name rhymes with Kenobi, but I’ve never been able to resist a call that sounds like, “Help me, you’re my only hope.” And I’m not saying that games should be like this, only that they were and something within me responded to that. I was all-in to assume the role of the kingdom’s last chance, the princess’ only prayer. That premise alone tied me to these unfolding narratives, however sparse they were, and the associated gameplay. But even as I say that, I suspect that as much as there can be no way around the tint of nostalgia in this work, that I may be misrepresenting the past in a way that is beyond the bounds of the haze of nostalgia. I was very young when I played those early Nintendo games. The Legend of Zelda itself was released the year before I was born, so my first experience with it was at a very young age. The same is true of SMB. While it is true that I’ve always been a sucker for all the things already stated, and big part of my enjoyment of and participation in those games came from exploring. What a new thing we had, and how exciting it was! A rousing score, the barest bit of advice from an old man, and then we were on our own out in a world that was ours to run free over until dinner time or whatever. I was conscious of the princess and her peril, but was mostly driven by adventuring.
It wasn’t until I got a little bit older that I was able to digest the themes presented to me as part of the games I was playing and fold them into my lived experience, both in-game and in real life. This first really got started with Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, both released before I turned ten, and which I got as hand-me-downs at some point when my cousin Mike, featured earlier here, gave me his Super Nintendo. The compulsion to return innocence to the world, or rescue Princess Zelda from the clutches of evil was strong. I felt like what I was doing, I had to do. That I needed to see these characters to safety. To save them. When I say, as I’m about to, “it all changed when…” everybody who grew up playing video games will each think of a game, a game that was significant and had meaning for them. And of those people from my generation, the overwhelming majority of them will be thinking of one of two games. I’m sorry my brothers and sisters, but for me, it wasn’t Final Fantasy VII. For me, it all changed when I first played The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The flat 2D environments from when I was a little kid were gone, and I could run and swim and shoot arrows (in first-person perspective!) all in 3D. It was amazing. And at the center of it, despite the game being named after a magical musical instrument, was the princess Zelda, who was forced to flee for her life ahead of the evil king Ganondorf. The realm was in despair, and the princess was in peril. I had to save her. This is what I remember as the strongest connection of this kind of my youth. I felt a part of this world, and I felt able to make a difference in it. And, I felt compelled to use that ability to do good.
I’m digressing some, allowing that this whole thing is some form of digression or other. The point is, I felt these games that I’m describing, and I felt them at a young age. Admittedly yes, the 1998 release date for Ocarina of Time begins to approach puberty territory in terms of my age at the time, so it’s possible I’d have been driven to rescue the princess partially out of some increased hormonal activity? That sounds like science to me, but I’m not an expert. Still, even LoZ: OoT aside, I felt these things playing earlier games, just perhaps not so strongly as I did when Ocarina came out. And that’s not saying nothing. There are plenty of things that happen in my daily life that are supposed to be important that I don’t feel about nearly as strongly as I feel about that iteration of the Zelda franchise. Birthdays, milestones, accomplishments- whatever; it takes a lot to match the satisfaction and thrill of breaking Epona out of the ranch, or wielding the Master Sword against the King of Evil. That might seems a little crazy. Let me pull up for a second here. These aren’t just lonely nerd obsessions. After all I didn’t even know I was a lonely nerd when I first started rescuing princesses. I’ve been playing video games for like 25 years, which bums me out to say, but these haven’t been 25 idle years of mindless violence, cartoon boobs and wasted daylight. Like, not just those things. I’ve also learned things from video games, and I think I’ve been learning steadily this whole time. And not just how to beat this or that level, or how to get your game system to work when its on the fritz. But rather a host of problem-solving skills and ways of making connections, how to make trial-and-error work, how systems work, how to work with them, and how to work against them. More important than any of these, I learned values. I didn’t go to church much growing up, and I thought CCD was a joke, an inconvenience that kept me out late on Monday nights instead of watching 7th Heaven. I didn’t have an institutionalized value system in place. A lot of what I internalized about how to be a person came from The Little Mermaid and Aladdin and the X-Men and The Legend of Zelda. I learned to be curious, to be brave, to be respectful. I learned that it was not just ok but good to be weird, to stand up for those in need, and to never, ever leave a princess hanging. I learned there was value in being a hero. And a great deal of the heroism was centered on rescuing a princess, a woman or girl of varying degrees of helplessness, not for any gain of my own or because she owed me something- rather, it was just because she was in trouble, and she needed my help. That was always enough for me. And the thing is, I know there are millions of people out there in the world, none of whom are reading this that were out there with me: fighting off skeletons and sea monsters and running through fire and death, all to get to the same place I was going- to save the princess. These were my friends, my brothers and sisters, even though I never knew any of them. I had like 5 friends growing up and 3 of them played video games. But I knew (because I’m not an idiot, not because of a magic connection or something) that all those people were out there, and they felt the joys that I felt when I did something awesome because they had to do the same awesome thing to continue their journeys. Their quests all began and ended at the same places as mine. And through all that what I thought we were learning, what I thought we were learning together, was to be brave, was to be kind to each other, was that when we saw a person, a woman in trouble, that our “princess rescue” instincts should kick in, and we should get in there and save her. And my heart breaks to write that this hasn’t turned out to be true. That there is a vocal and vitriolic and angry set within the gaming community, I pray a minority, that has decried the inclusion of women in the discourse surrounding gaming, has opposed their voices and their work, and has done so to such a degree as to force some women out of the industry, taking lengths that I can only assume must be criminal. Threats of all kinds and hateful language have been leveled at these women, who are not only innocent women but our own people, just because of their input to and criticism of the gaming industry.
It’s 2016. I don’t feel the need to gender everything. I let my girlfriend pay for dinner a lot. I don’t have, I hope not, and backwards concepts of how I need the world to be as far as how men should behave versus how women should behave, etc.. That said, here’s something that’s definitely gendered and maybe sexist and if it is I’m sorry, truly, but I don’t take it back. As much as our early games, and throw in there your sci-fi/fantasy tropes (Star Wars), made women (as princesses) objects and gave them no agency to act on their own, they taught US, the PLAYERS, regardless of our own gender, that they were to be CHERISHED. That they were to be PROTECTED. That you, I, we, were to risk life and limb, to cross the world, the galaxy, to stop at NOTHING to save them from danger. And now you’re telling me that we have a new legion of people, who have the audacity to call themselves gamers, that are going to attack a bunch of women who FINALLY have found success in this industry, in this medium that we have so loved, that had given us so much, and they’re going to try to silence them, to drive them out? On whose authority do you speak? And what is your end, what goal do you have in mind? Cementing the old tropes of women-be-quiet-and-get-rescued, or are you just a proponent of more boobs/skimpier costumes and you don’t want to get in trouble for throwing the word rape around like it’s a fucking Will Ferrel movie reference. You ever had a girlfriend? Hell have you ever made a friend that was a woman? Let me ask you: do you daydream about a girl with smooth skin and a nice rack who is going to sit quietly and wait for you to get her out of trouble for the rest of your life, or do you want the kind of girl who’s going to use your blaster to shoot out a grate and jump down a garbage chute? The kind of girl that’s going to disguise her royal self and lead you through every danger until she finally gives you the only weapon powerful enough to save the world? The kind of girl who trades in her scepter for a frying pan and fights next to you to take her kingdom back? Let me tell you, cousin, you want the second option. It doesn’t even have to be in relationship terms like that. Women occupy other roles than romantic partners. Did you have a mother? A teacher that you respected? What do you think they would think is a good direction for games to go in? I know that these examples are fictional people, but if we’re valuing a trope of helplessness over agency and power (that goes beyond sex appeal) there has to be a reason why, and I can’t think of anything but to ground it in the real world. If that’s your fantasy, a quiet, helpless sex-thing to empower you, I guess my question is, why do you want that? And why are you looking for it in video games? Video games (many video games) are about courage, and drama, and magic, and love and light striving against darkness and fear. Why are you looking here for these things in this place that was never about them?
These people, these angry advocates, have turned from the values that I hold are central not to the gaming industry, which is a thing that exists to make money, but of what it means to be a gamer, an outcast, a nerd. Don’t you remember what it was like? Don’t you remember, before they started making superhero movies twice a year, before it was cool for every guy to play call of duty online, don’t you remember what it was like? Don’t you remember the only world where you could be who you felt like you really were being a world you found in a cartridge or on a disc? Don’t you remember feeling attacked, disrespected, alone? What unholy thing has happened to you, you fallen, that you can turn such anger, such hate on another person, let alone one of us, who is trying to make gaming new again in the 21st century? You swore to save the princess, to defend the realm, to protect the light. Have you forgotten? Even if writers like Anita Sarkeesian are 100% wrong, even if you have no respect for Zoe Quinn’s work, the hate? The vitriol? How do you think these things are ok to use in defense of this medium? How can you anonymously send threats of death and rape in defense of the very thing that was supposed to teach us courage and honor? This isn’t where we’re supposed to go, and I’m ashamed that the only group that I’ve ever felt I really belonged in is also claimed by such bigots, and such cowards. In times like these, when megalomaniacal bigots, fascists, misogynists and racists vie for leadership of the United States, it would be a reassuring thought that my people, the nerds, the outcasts, could stand together against such messages and be of one mind for a better future. From Super Mario RPG to Final Fantasy XII to Ocarina of Time I learned that diversity made us better. That a bustling marketplace with people, creatures, of all different colors and shapes speaking all kinds of indiscernible languages was the sign of good times, of cooperation and success. That someone’s gender mattered as little as someone’s race or customs, as long as they weren’t hurting anyone, in terms of a functioning society and everyone getting on with their lives. But I fear that implicit in the gender bias and related hate speech that has recently come out of the gaming community is the opposite of those ideals of equality and inclusivity and diversity and cooperation. It seems instead like something that wants to be segmented, restrictive, exclusive.
I talk a lot about saving the princess. About the epic quest, the fight, stopping at nothing for the one, her. But in reality, I never risked anything. I’ve always been safely on my couch, at the edge of my seat maybe, but never in more danger than the possibility of falling the 18 inches from the couch to the floor. In the years that I’ve been wired into the games that I love, women have been working to get into this industry and make an impact on it, make it a place for people other than me. My friends, my girlfriend, my nieces, I pray one day my daughters. I have had to do nothing to consume this media, but some others have had to risk a lot to make it and put it out there. Somehow I have internalized the struggles of my in-game avatars and felt their journeys’ ups and downs, and come out of it with a set of values that I think are good, sustainable, positive. Be kind first, fight last, be smart always, be courageous but not reckless, don’t let fear give way to anger, always look twice at an unguarded treasure chest. And always come to the defense of someone in need, princess or peasant. I might be full of shit, and these might be a naive set of garbage values. I hope not, but I’m too close to the story to be objective. But I’m thinking, maybe in all this, the princess saved me. Because I see these people on the internet spewing hate, talking about my games, my experience, and there’s a little part of me that looks around at the set of circumstances and thinks, “there but for the grace of God go I.” I don’t know what path these people turned down that led them to where they are now, but I know that in at least a couple places, our paths overlapped. For whatever reason, I don’t think the same things they do, and I’m grateful for that. And I wonder if maybe, if I wasn’t always looking for a princess to save, if i wouldn’t be somebody different. So thank you, my princesses, for seeing me through the darkness, that we may live to fight another day, together.