Growing up my mother told me to respect women:
“If a woman hits you don’t ever hit back.”
The rest I was going to have to figure out on my own.
As a child, I was always more comfortable in the company of girls. In those early years when identity is at its most fluid, I felt more relaxed in with the opposite sex than I did with my own.
I suppose two things drove me to that point:
1) A fair amount of bullying from other boys.
2) A lack of judgment when hanging out with girls and older women.
It wasn’t until I really got into video games in elementary school that I began to find other boys like me, the outliers.
One of my problems in relating to damn near anyone has always been my attraction to complicated ideas.
Even though I am often struck by starkness and elegance, my mind tends to get lost in the larger picture of things. I would say this has granted me the ability to see very tenuous links between objects or ideas.
In a family of engineers, this has done me no favors.
Games, though, that was a shared narrative. Myself and anyone else in that group could talk about them without the fear of being misunderstood (a big frustration of mine to this day).
So that was my company as a child: Gamers and girls…and girl gamers.
Some of the best afternoons I had living in southern California in the 90’s was playing Double Dragon on the NES with my friend Nadine while talking about Salt-n-Pepa.
I discovered Kirby’s Dreamland while attending one of her swimming competitions.
One of the things that we lose as we grow older is that fluidity of identity and culture that leaks across gender lines.
It was never considered weird or abnormal to see girls on the playground with Gameboys, plugging away at Metroid.
It was never considered out-of-place for a boy to play made-up imagined games with a girl.
But something changes somewhere and the Gameboys are stowed, the imagination falters and things get serious for a while, I suppose somewhere around the time when romantic love becomes a thing.
The outliers remain, but they are not as abundant. From sixth grade on, games become overwhelmingly male-dominated.
This is where things get strange.
After spending the entirety of my childhood gaming and reading, I had absorbed the hero’s narrative. I decided at some point that I could be the savior to all the women that I met. It was almost as if I wanted to repay an imagined debt from my youth, that I owed women something for making the fringes in my life a little more comfortable.
Everytime I became involved with a girl to any degree, my foremost thought was “I have to protect her.” It was such a deep part of me that it felt like instinct.
In my childhood I had seen girls as my peers, I treated them the same as I treated my male friends, but things changed.
The fundamental problem of the hero’s narrative (especially in that dawn of modern games) is that you store the morals of the narrative without realizing it in those formative years. Much like fairytales are told to children to teach them morality and gender roles, games operated in a similar way then and operate that way today.
I was always uncomfortable with the assertive male dominance of Lebanese culture. Assertiveness in general is a strange feeling for me because I see the world as a stark and fluid place with little room for certainty.
In spite of this, I became patronizing. I became a ‘White Knight’.
The problem centers around not viewing women as fully formed people, but rather as stereotypes that either need saving or protection. By the fact of their gender, they cannot function well without a male around.
I’m not putting the blame solely on games for this, that would be ridiculous. Societies and cultures all over the world are coded with this message and I was simply the latest sponge to absorb it.
I didn’t used to understand the problem with my approach towards women, I genuinely thought that I was one of the good guys, a real feminist.
I read Sylvia Plath.
I read Nawal El-Saadawi’s novel ‘Woman At Point Zero’ and rather than really analyze what was going on, I leaned on the idealistic crux that ‘men are jerks, women got it rough!’, missing the deeper points and nuance of a story about a woman choosing to die as a final act of freedom after being pushed around by circumstance and difficulty in patriarchal Arab society.
Fundamentally, being a ‘White Knight’ is really not so different from being outright dismissive of them.
You’re never really listening to them, you’re simply waiting for them to say something where you can jump in and help or ‘correct’ them.
You’re erasing women as people.
Narrative games propagate this. To this day, the narratives simply have not expanded. There are some interesting things being done by the likes of Bioware and Bethesda in the mainstream, but for a vast majority of games, it’s the typical male hero narrative/power fantasy.
I recall a young woman released a game a few years ago that dealt with some of the darker issues of her life (can’t remember the name). It had gained some attention online and I read about it on some gaming sites. Despite what she was trying to do, there was so much hate directed at her mostly coming from male gamers.
They kept deriding her for making some garbage game that talked about ‘girls’ emotions. Some of them went so far as to question the experiences she lived through. They attacked and marginalized her without even giving her a chance.
The darker extension of the ‘White Knight’: Women can’t have a voice, especially not in games.
In college, I was fairly lonely. No place to fit in.
I took literary and poetry classes where I felt everyone’s writing was bloated, over-reaching garbage. The new attempts at intelligentsia.
I tried taking mathematics and programming to try to strengthen my weakest fields, only to feel alienated.
I attended philosophy and political theory courses where I was most comfortable with the professors, but the students either didn’t care or didn’t think enough about the world.
I wrote for a newspaper, but people really didn’t like what I had to say.
I saw the Dalai Llama speak. That was fulfilling, but unsustatining in the face of the blank confusion lurking in the corners of my life.
It wasn’t until I wandered into a Gamestop in Downtown Madison on a dark, rainy day looking for something to play on my PSP.
I saw the box art for Guilty Gear and I thought: “Hey! Yeah! I remember that game!”
I used to hang out in arcades a lot in my youth, spending a lot of time on STGs and fighting games. While I understood at that time the nuance of scrolling shooters (one-cc, high score, multipliers, etc.), I hadn’t really thought too much about fighting games then.
I bought Guilty and that became a haven for me. I sat outside my classes just practicing all the motions on the awful PSP nub.
Eventually, I bought all the fighting games I could for the PS2.
My first stick was an X-Arcade.
Around this time I met a girl from France: Elise. She had come to UW-Madison to study law for six months.
She was very sharp. She wouldn’t let me get away with my usual bullshit. When I tried to ‘White Knight’ her, she would deflect until she got to my real face.
She made me deal with her on mutual terms, as equals.
Along with that association, I had discovered a professor on campus: Dr. Moneera Al-Ghadeer, a prominent middle eastern feminist and academic with a mind sharper and clearer than many of the Zen masters I read today.
Moneera forced me to come to terms with my identity. She forced me to find my own voice instead of reciting narratives that I had digested. She forced me to synthesize my own views.
While I was still uncomfortable being outwardly assertive, I decided I needed to dig into myself and see what’s in there.
I began to see all the mistakes I had made with myself.
In high school, after 9/11, some other kids would call me ‘Bin Laden.’ Some classmates started making terrorist jokes.
My closest friends didn’t though.
Still, for some, I was the token brown kid.
As if it wasn’t enough that I was a different race, I was also just a weird kid reading Lovecraft and Nietzsche, playing Neo-Geo Pocket at school.
I should have made the connection sooner between my marginalization and the way I had been acting with women.
I don’t know why it took me so long.
So, there I was, learning fighting games and digging into myself all at once.
The greatest beauty in fighting games is the telling. You can tell so much about the player based on how they play and what character they pick.
Fighting games provide a window into a person’s mind. They showed me something I was beginning to become aware of: I lived on autopilot. I accepted information without any critique or analysis.
I had been a sponge for as long as I had been alive.
As I dug further into the FGC (Fighting Game Community), I began to see a place that accepts all kinds.
I began to see a place full of talented, devoted people from a whole host of backgrounds. I was a brown kid among other brown kids, I wasn’t on the margins anymore.
Fighting games, by the nature of their design, also touch on the fluidity across the sexes that all of us experienced when we were young. You have males, females, different races, different ages.
However, the most interesting thing is after awhile, you no longer see them that way. You see the characters as sets of tools, you judge them based on what they do, not where they come from or look like.
You try to find a character that is mechanically and aesthetically an expression of yourself.
While the FGC might be the most inclusive community in gaming, it still has a sexism problem which has reared its head on more than a few occasions in the last few years.
Star female players like Kayane have to work so much harder at getting respect in the FGC, often being viewed as either a novelty or being judged by appearance.
Here again we find the dark extension of the narratives that marginalize women, even in a place driven by multi-racial communities.
My life since college has been a slow, agonizing process of deconstruction.
Deconstructing language, deconstructing beliefs, deconstructing myself, and deconstructing my view of women.
There are times when you can’t start something on your own, but at some point, you are in charge of your own momentum: Fighting games and some insightful, brave women were my trigger.
Its amazing to me how much effort it takes to unclog the mind, to remove all the passive garbage that society and culture dump on you.
I am married now and still looking for that fluidity of my youth. I see the small changes being made by the games industry, I hear the discussions taking place in the fighting game communities, I wish they would grow faster.
I wish people would stop being so damn defensive when confronted with another perspective.
There are some things a person just does not have the tools to understand.
Ever since I stopped my own awkward and dangerous thinking on women, I have become more open to the world as a whole. Things are less rigid for me and through my wife, I am able to gain even more insight into my own interactions with women.
It’s impossible to say that a person can ever understand someone else completely. Language does a mediocre job simply because it is colored by experience.
I think the first step towards growth is the willingness to march alone into the darkness of the self.
Will the games industry as a whole be willing to do that? Are people in general even willing to do that?
I hope so.