Teaching Feminist Media: A Perspective
By Claire Graman, Girls’ Voices Matter instructor
Bertie the Brain, Video Games and Ada Lovelace: Teaching Feminist Media
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began teaching a class about feminist media and video games. The gaming industry has been notoriously hostile to women and girls at all levels, but I, like many women, love video games. What would this generation of girls think?
As any historian will tell you, beginnings are difficult to pin down. Fortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I found an amazing woman to begin with. Ada Lovelace, a British mathematician, born in 1815, is considered to be the world’s first computer programmer. Though computers were still a hypothesized dream of gears and cogs, she designed a way to make those cogs compute. One girl in my class wondered why schools don’t teach kids about Lovelace.
Women Were the First “Computers”
We moved on quickly. From to the female “computers” (mathematicians who were instrumental during WWII and later worked on the first computers, like ENIAC) we reviewed the earliest computer games, like Bertie the Brain, a space-age machine that played tic-tac-toe. We also discussed the popularity of pinball and arcades, into which electronic games will fit very nicely. Even in this early time, representation was difficult. I dare you to find a vintage pinball machine that doesn’t have ample breasts painted on it somewhere.
Pink Bows and Lipstick: Ms. Pac-Man
Yet, women succeeded in the early game industry, designing classic games like River Raid (Carol Shaw), Centipede (Dona Bailey), and Gorf (Jamie Fenton). Still, simplistic games often had simplistic portrayal of women. The girls in my class laughed at the idea that adding a pink bow and lipstick to Pac-Man transformed the yellow pixels into Ms. Pac-Man. Together, we broke down the damsel-in-distress trope seen in Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. and how it made women into objects, even possessions, to be retrieved by men.
The girls were excited to discover retro games on emulators. One student and I bonded over a love of the NES game Crystalis. However, the girls were also very knowledgeable. One proudly told me that she informed her dad that Samus Aran, the space-suit-wearing protagonist of the Metroid series, is a woman. He hadn’t known this, despite playing the game when it originally came out. This, to me, is the best video games can offer—a way for people to connect. We’ve now reached a time when parents and children can bond over games, while reflecting on the goods and bads of the industry’s past.
The Night Trap Controversy
One such moment came when we discussed the controversy over the 1992 game Night Trap which led to congressional hearings over censorship and video games. To modern eyes, the game looks incredibly cheesy, but my co-teacher, Erica, remembered it vividly. This caused us to consider the very real problem of violence against women in video games.
Lara Croft, Lucca, Jill and Jade
We moved on to Lara Croft, the buxom heroine of Tomb Raider. The girls had a good laugh over her cartoonish proportions. We explored strong portrayals of women too: Lucca, the girl genius from Chrono Trigger; Jill Valentine, the brave “master of lockpicking” from Resident Evil, and Jade, the determined photographer from Beyond Good and Evil.
GamerGate: Women in the Online Gaming Community
Finally, we ended with a tough discussion on “GamerGate,” an online harassment campaign against women in the video game industry. Fortunately, there are many amazing women in the industry today and increasingly progressive portrayals of characters, particularly with the rise of indie games.
Not Just For Boys!
With the lecture part ended, we programmed our own games in Scratch. The girls were excited to create their own games and undaunted by mistakes made in coding or limitations of the software. On reflection, one thing is certain: we can no longer pretend that video games are just for boys. Passionate, intelligent girls, like the ones I taught, are the future, and that future is bright.