I’ve been playing a lot of Overwatch. That’s not a shocker: not only is it a ridiculously fun game, it also feels like the team-based FPS I couldn’t have dreamed would happen five years ago. Not only does it have a number of female characters with really cool designs, who are all really satisfying to play in different ways, it also makes it clear that all the characters in the game are from different places and backgrounds.
It feels like rewarding, quiet change that has snuck up on the games industry, and I greatly enjoy playing Tracer, Ana, and Mercy. I want to learn Pharah next. In almost any category, or with almost any play style, it feels like there’s a female character I could learn to play, each with an engaging backstory, and I’m genuinely enthused about that.
Which is why I was surprised to realize that my favorite is McCree.
I still play other characters, but when I was checking my stats and saw that I’d played McCree for about three hours longer than anyone else, I had a response that may be odd to some of you but familiar to others: a little twinge of shame. I advocate so much for the inclusion of more varied and important female characters in games, but when I’m given a game where so many cool women are playable options all the time…the cowboy becomes my favorite. As irrational as it is, a part of me is worried someone is going to call me on that, come barging in, and tear up my feminist card.
Those of you who have read my other articles know that, for me personally, women often make or break games for me. It’s frequently harder for me to connect with male characters, and I feel as though current options for playable female characters are somewhat limited, as much as I’ve managed to find some that are deeply, irrevocably formative and important for me.
In this way, I feel as though I’m fairly on brand with the Feminist Gamer stereotype.
But when I like a male character, I tend to really, really like him. A lot of narratives that I like exploring are easier for me to think about when they are “separated” from me somehow, and the truth is that men are sometimes a safer lens for me to do that through than women (such as: narratives about the loss of bodily autonomy—super interesting, but often too personal for me when a female character is involved. Or, in the case of McCree, his “trouble with the law” backstory).
I know this also matters, but a part of me has this intense gut reaction of, well, shame when I’m playing a game and one of the guys is my favorite.
A part of me worries that I’ll be used as an example for why having more female characters doesn’t matter—women love playing the men and men love playing the men, so there’s no need to go out of our way to come up with more character models! Right? Right? (Wrong.)
It’s this little nagging fear that I’m letting down other lady gamers by not aggressively, only playing female characters. Ever. I feel like there’s some hard line, some bar I’m not meeting, because I am able to put that aside sometimes.
I wonder how ingrained this has become for me: the pressure to loudly complain about needing to play dudes, versus the pressure to loudly complain about being a woman playing a dude, versus the pressure to loudly complain about other women playing dudes. It’s something I’m trying to unlearn, as I genuinely don’t think that progress hinging on shaming other lady gamers can be effective, but I feel like the combination of call-out culture and frustration from a lot of well-meaning people has led to a lot of us self-policing. I don’t actually need anyone to call me out, because I’ve realized that my gut reaction to really, really liking a male character is to write it off as “internalized misogyny”, feel bad, and then move on.
And I don’t think that’s healthy.
A lot of the women I know feel a similar misplaced fear when they play male characters—it’s a special kind of hell when you’re aware enough about issues of representation to know how those have impacted your personal choices, but you’re still trying to find a way to enjoy your favorite pastime. No one I know is unaware of the conversation, and almost everyone I know is actively participating in it.
I’m no longer comfortable dismissing these trends as passive internalized misogyny.
I mentioned the idea that some narratives are simply safer for some women when told through a male lens. Bodily autonomy is one that leaps to mind for me, but there are certainly others. Some women got in the habit of playing male characters as a way to avoid harassment in online gaming spaces. Other times, it may be that a favorite character archetype is rarely depicted as a lady. The list, if you talk to women gamers, goes on and on.
The reality is that there are a lot of reasons why women play male characters in games, like them, and identify with them. Simple as that. It’s still important to interrogate our own choices, but at a certain point, we have to look at all the first-person descriptions of “why” and acknowledge that there’s something there.
On the flip side, I want to emphasize that it is also perfectly okay to only like playing female characters. I believe anyone and everyone who is sympathetic and has the spoons/energy/bandwidth should advocate for more varied and diverse roles for female characters in games. That’s also legitimate. We are all in a constant process of unpacking our likes and dislikes, but I feel as though there’s a line between criticism and a lack of listening, when we hear someone describe their experiences and write them off as “excuses”.
Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “This has never been a problem for me.” I’m glad! However, it is an issue for a lot of women.
Or you may be thinking to yourself, “Look at this long excuse for internalized misogyny in games.” This article probably isn’t for you, either.
This article is a reminder to myself as much as it is to anyone else who finds themselves who are kind of caught in the middle, who feel that little “am I being a good feminist right now” twitch: it’s okay to participate in conversations about representation while not being able to embody them 100% of the time.
It’s okay to like playing dudes. Sometimes, being a woman playing games—or even participating in the conversation around those games—is enough.