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A love letter to video game vixens

As kids, my friends and I would often sit in a semicircle around the Nintendo 64. My eyes would quickly scan the screen for the woman in a video game’s character select menu. Friends asked me why I always chose “the girl,” and I anxiously replied that her skills best suited my playstyle. Of course I was a brazen liar. Choosing “The Girl” was just my way of dealing with it. As a gay man, it felt more authentic to choose the less commonly chosen (and often underappreciated) character from the crowded list of aggressively straight men; an experience I could relate to.

In 1996, a certain leading lady in gaming stole my heart forever: Jill Valentine. The Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance’s special operations agent (let’s say that three times fast) made her debut in the original resident Evil Play as one of two playable characters. Her counterpart, Chris Redfield, had all the complexity of a saltine cracker. But Jill was unique. But only in the sense that she was a woman. Still, she seemed like a more enticing fantasy to explore.

The game (which featured zombies, monsters, and other combustible nightmare fuel heavily) scared me to the core, but I felt braver and more confident as Jill explored the horrors of Spencer’s mansion. I think it’s because women felt more relatable in my day-to-day life and I felt more comfortable; whether as friends, teachers – or bioterrorist agents. In the real world, women generally supported me for my eccentricities while men teased me. Choosing Jill also upped the ante of the game as I felt more connected and desperate to keep her alive.

For me, Jill’s role in the game played into the horror genre’s “last girl” (when the female protagonist outlives everyone else and is often left behind to confront the killer) that I always adored, and – for some weird and possibly twisted – Reason – fantasizing about it. I’ve always appreciated something about female supremacy over males, as women and gay men are often underestimated when physically challenged. Seeing a woman assert herself was always a “You go girl!” moment for me, and I always wanted to feel that validation for myself. The game also felt a lot more interesting (and rare) when told from a woman’s perspective.

At no point in the game does Jill’s gender hinder her or play with stereotypes. While many video games make the female character faster and weaker compared to males, Jill was just as physically and mentally capable as Chris. Luckily for me, Jill has appeared in numerous resident Evil title since its debut and has even been a playable character in other popular gaming franchises (including Fourteen days and Dead by daylight). I am grateful for that and will happily shell out the money for any opportunity to be in their company. It’s like seeing an old friend again.

Like me, Jeff Brutlag, a writer and popular Twitch streamer, is attracted to female characters in games. Brutlag is most in love with Nintendo’s umbra witch Bayonetta. “She does everything so stylishly, and she’s funny in a way that leaves men speechless. She has an attraction I’ve always dreamed of,” they explain. “She’s also incredibly powerful, being both feminine and overtly sexual, which feels like a huge ‘fuck you’ to the patriarchy.”

Bayonetta and other feminine characters informed a great deal about Brutlag’s non-binary identity – as a child, they explored their gender through the fantasy genre. The Fire Emblem Series (which have become explicitly queer in recent years) are having a particular impact. “I’ve always imagined being the beautiful dancers or magicians who might look petite and frail, but with just a few words of incantation the tall, burly men would burst into flames,” they say. “It showed me that being a man is by no means the only way to be strong and capable.”

“I will very rarely play a video game where a female lead is not an option. I’m just not interested.”

In gaming, the typical male dominance of playable characters was something individuals like Brutlag could never relate to, making it difficult for them to immerse themselves in that world. I still feel this way today: To be honest, I’ll very rarely play a video game where a female lead isn’t an option. I’m just not interested.

Like Brutlag and I, Sofia Perez, a 26-year-old web developer, found that video games allowed her to explore her sexuality and gender identity alone and in a safe space. Perez, a trans woman, used games to explore the life she craved and used video games’ customizable character options to choose the body type, hair, clothing, names, and pronouns she would use in the real world dreamed.

“It allowed me to experiment with different aspects of my identity without fear of judgment or rejection,” says Perez. “Gaming has helped me develop the confidence to come out as trans to my family and friends.”

The character that particularly influenced Perez was Cortana, the prominent AI construct from the Halo series. “She’s strong, beautiful, independent and able to take care of herself,” explains Perez. “I also appreciate that she’s not defined by her relationship with the male protagonist, Master Chief. Instead, she is her own person with her own goals and goals.”

For Perez, playing online as a female character was also an escape from transphobia and discrimination. Coming out as trans to loved ones in real life had the potential to lead to painful rejection. “But if I tell a random anonymous player online that I’m trans, it’s not that big of a deal because they don’t know who I am and I’ll never see them again. This aspect has helped me open up to others online about my identity.”

Remarkably, when Perez revealed her gender identity while playing, her peers accepted it. It gave her the courage to tell people in real life. “Without the anonymity of gaming, I might never have had the opportunity to explore my trans identity in a safe, low-risk environment,” she says.

Gaming isn’t perfect, of course: plots are still plagued by heteronormativity, and queer characters and relationships are still relatively rare. Admittedly, there is progress. Example: This year The Sims 4 introduced customizable non-binary pronouns and Apex Legends, a popular online battle royale, features a cast where six of the 17 characters are openly gay or bisexual and 50 percent are non-white. However, a recent analysis of the best-selling video games from 2017 to 2022 shows that we still have a long way to go. The results showed that 80 percent of the main characters in video games are male and 54 percent are white.

For many queer and transgender gamers, female characters remain our window into another world, allowing us to feel desired and experience relationships, love and affection from men while exploring the nuances of female desire through the male gaze. These experiences often occur when we are most curious, and perhaps most anxious, about our sexuality. Only these women know our secret.

“I remember playing minigames in the original God of War so Kratos could have sex with the woman, who waved at him and thought, ‘I wish that was me,'” says Brutlag. “In retrospect, those roles were dated and reductive, but for a gay kid immersing themselves in their sexuality, it was incredibly formative.”

In a world that suppresses the growth of our community and condemns our desires, gaming is a place where we can finally be ourselves. By choosing to play these women, we come into our identities in small ways, flirting with gender and sexual identity from afar in a context that is as safe as it is empowering. It was an honor to learn from her.

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