[Trigger warning for cissexism]
We, as a culture, like to blame video games for a lot of things. Want to read an informative news article on a recent, violent tragedy? Expect a paragraph on how the perpetrator(s) played a lot of Call Of Duty, or a handful of sentences about how the crime is very similar to one of the achievements to complete in whichever Grand Theft Auto game is the most recent. And while the glamorization of violence is a very real problem with our society, a lot of these aforementioned articles are reaching. If you really want to criticize video games, I’d like to volunteer a new angle.
This past week I bought myself the new Nintendo 3DSXL and made the hard decision of whether I wanted Pokémon X or Pokémon Y. It’s probably the most exciting thing I have purchased in a while. To say I was anxious to begin my new adventure as a Pokémon trainer was an understatement.
And then, the game asked me: “Are you a boy or a girl?”
At the time I was too absorbed in getting my hands on my starter Pokémon to really register what I was being asked – and what it said about society’s views on gender – so I picked without really thinking. As I thought about it more, though, I realized how harmful that simple question was.
Unlabeled genders will make the average North American citizen today feel uncomfortable. Anyone who falls outside the gender binary, any androgyne, anyone who doesn’t properply correspond with the gender norms is not considered normal.
Normal is cisgendered. Normal is girls in pink, boys in blue. ‘Sugar and spice and everything nice’ or ‘boys will be boys’. For centuries, these have been the values and ideas we’ve been conditioning every generation to follow. And as insignificant as it may seem, this Pokémon game is perpetuating that. Pokémon isn’t the only game doing it, either. There are countless games for various consoles, from handheld to the larger consoles, that ask this same question: “Are you a boy or a girl?” When a large chunk of these games are made for children and children play them, it’s perpetuating these black and white, unrealistic ideas of gender.
Children learn by example – presenting them with two narrow options of gender leads them to believe there really are only two options. However, it’s just not that simple. There are a multitude of gender identities and people identify with them in different ways.
Conditioning the way children think about gender can lead to a lot of detrimental behaviour in the future. For example, a non-binary child could feel anxious, uncomfortable and unhappy with how they identify. On the other hand, being forced into this way of thinking, with even the subtlest things in our society, can lead to ignorance. It can lead to the erasure of non-cisgender individuals.
Even the Pokémon you catch are gendered. I don’t know about you, but I don’t much care about that. But it’s included in the game. I don’t care if my Pikachu is a boy or a girl – that doesn’t effect the name I’m going to give it, how I am going to battle with it, how I will treat it. It’s largely a useless feature.
All gendered Pokémon seems to add to this game is the overwhelming feeling that non-binary folk are not welcome here. By implying something as simple and as insignificant as the idea that only boys or girls can be Pokémon trainers – it adds to the bigger picture of only cisgendered boys or girls, in their simplest terms, can be functioning, useful and happy members of today’s society. Considering the rate of violence against trans* people and the staggering statistics on suicide amongst trans* youth, ignoring the existence of non-binary people is dangerous. Offering other gender options – or not asking a player to identify their gender at all – would easily solve this problem.
Furthermore, the two avatar options Pokémon provide are your stereotypical ideas of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’. The ‘girl’ avatar has long hair, with three different colours to choose from, and her default outfit is a high-waisted dress and a pink hat. She also carries a purse. The ‘boy’, on the other hand, carries more of satchel, and his hair is much shorter. His default outfit is a white shirt, a sweater, and a pair of jeans.
So now, we have a double whammy: narrowed views on gender and subscribing to typical gender roles.
It’s not as if this is hard to fix. There are games, even consoles, that let you design your avatar from scratch, or using a loose model. This allows you to present yourself as you want. You could identify your avatar as a girl, but give it typical male features. Or vice versa. With the ability to customize your avatar, it’s about your comfort and how you want to be viewed. It makes your avatar personal – and something you won’t have an issue being associated with through whatever video game your playing.
This is all a product of narrow minds and a culture unwilling to change. Gender identity needs to be less about hard lines, about option a and option b, yes or no questions – and become something that deserves development, with more than just binary options. And that can — and should — start at an early age.