Video games have been a haven of the male power fantasy for as long as they’ve existed and it’s not a difficult image to conjure: the same grizzled brunette white guy seems to headline every other high profile game. I struggle, though, to describe what a female power fantasy would look like. It’s a question that pops up on video game forums when (usually) men pose the question in response to criticisms of female character designs. The answers vary wildly, and the threads go on for pages and pages, then devolve into feminism 101 debates on whether women even crave power. The answer to that, of course, is hell yes: power fantasies are the imaginative longings of the powerless and women are disenfranchised in a dazzling number of ways.
When Wonder Woman (2017) came out, women all around me were talking about it and talking about how powerful it made them feel. This tweet by @megsauce was retweeted 83,000 times and screenshotted on instagram, tumblr and buzzfeed:
NO WONDER WHITE MEN ARE SO OBSCENELY CONFIDENT ALL THE TIME I SAW ONE WOMAN HERO MOVIE AND I’M READY TO FIGHT A THOUSAND DUDES BAREHANDED
In psychology there’s a thing called “schema” which is basically your brain’s autocorrect function – you expect to see what you’re used to seeing. This is one reason why media representation is so important since it dismantles the dominant schema (or as in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s wonderful Ted Talk of the same name, the “single story”). Seeing women be awesome and un-objectified can help our image of ourselves.
When that movie came out, I had already been challenging my schema but in a different medium. I had moved to a city where I knew no one except my spouse; I was precariously employed, cripplingly chronically ill and I needed a serious personal growth spurt. Of course I decided to play my xbox instead.
Video games aren’t exactly synonymous with female empowerment but the trick is choosing your genre. I barely play the kind with a built-in protagonist, especially if that protagonist is female. There are exceptions but odds are good that her pain will be exploitative and sexualised. I put down the most recent Lara Croft game after a few hours in frustration at her daintily pornographic gasps. No, if you want pure power fantasy for a female character you have to dive into a story that was written for a man.
In Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) your player character can be a man or a woman. It is, in fact, the first choice you make. This choice has minimal consequences and the main plot is identical whichever you play as.
That plot is an action-packed space opera and it’s a story which would never be written about a woman, especially not the Black woman I designed my character as. In fact it wasn’t – the official novelisation starred an infinitely boring white dude. I was astonished by the power playing through this story had. My character was smart, sarcastic, compassionate and couldn’t be bothered with her bland male love interest. I got to design a world where the most respected general, most feared warrior and the lynchpin of the galaxy was a lesbian who laughed at dumb jokes.
So I played and watched as over 40 hours this story unfurled about a woman who turns out to be vitally important, powerful and badass. If an afternoon watching Wonder Woman can make someone “ready to fight a thousand dudes”, by the time I finished my game I felt ready to (maybe) start tackling my life.
It’s also a great opportunity to let go an emotional release valve. The choices you make can be evil or good and while I chose to play as a lightsider, sometimes it feels good to be bad.
I have a friend who deliberately played a similar game called Mass Effect as a “renegade” after brainstorming with her therapist about how it could tie in with her gestalt therapy. It was a safe environment to stretch outside her entrenched identity as a “good girl” and challenge her reflexive decisions to prioritise others over herself. She hasn’t started throwing people out of windows in real life (yet) but it helped her to redefine what being “good” means. It doesn’t have to be about meeting other’s standards but about inventing your own. I know that I love playing as someone who pursues her goals indefatigably and hangs up on her bosses when they’re being dicks.
I suspect that those gamer bros asking what female power fantasies look like are really asking what sexy character designs they will be permitted to get away with. While the debate about character design is important, power comes down to so much more than physical appearance. It’s about choice and agency and the ability to shape a world where we’re unrestrained. We love Elizabeth Bennet for telling Lady Catherine to stuff it, Wonder Woman for marching across no-man’s-land and our Pokemon trainers for taking on the elite four. It’s wish fulfilment and escapism and it’s helped me to build a little of that fearlessness into my life at times when I had nothing but fear.
Felicity Anderson-Nathan is a writer, tutor and freelancer. Her work has been published by Marbles Mag and Dear Damsels and has been performed at the Edinburgh Book Festival Story Shop and That’s What She Said. You can find her on twitter @flick_writes.