It kind of comes back to the Joan of Arc thing for me. Joan is a well known Unicorn. When you talk about war and combat and battles and being epic and awesome in that way, people talk about heroes of war and they talk about men. (There are a LOT of games that focus on this idea, fantasy, modern, and futuristic.) Well. Except Joan. People will, if they think of it, throw in ‘And sometimes there’s exceptional women like Joan of Arc! So, you know, I guess you could play her if you insist on playing a girl.”
Boys being heroic and awesome is the norm. It’s accepted. It’s Luke Skywalker. It’s Harry Potter. It’s David. It’s Captain Kirk. Janeyway is the (oft hated) Unicorn. She’s the only female captain who gets a series. And we isolate her in the middle of nowhere, as if that’s the only way we can be sure she won’t be replaced by a man. Hermonie is Harry’s Smurfette, maligned and ‘dirty’ because of her mixed heritage. She’s presented as unlikable and ‘put up with’ until she’s made to cry when the boys are mean. She’s a Unicorn no one likes until she’s taken down a peg or two. (And I LIKE the Potter novels.)
We bring this fiction into your games. It’s the media we draw from. A hundred game texts over the years have made mention of the Joan of Ach Unicorn. “Well, usually, this is something only men do, but I guess you can play the exception.” (Even if that opinion is historically or biologically inaccurate, as many of these claims are.) Never mind the games that flat out say ‘no lady knights’ or what have you.
“But it’s how things were!” or “But it’s a part of the in game culture!” or whatever your excuse is. Someone wrote that narrative. Someone made a choice to decide that girls in stories must be Unicorns, because boys are the normal assumption.
But Unicorns are beautiful! They’re proud and majestic and blessed by the Gods and why wouldn’t a woman want to be a Unicorn? You get all the attention and worship! (Aside from the fact that there are evil wizards who love to use Unicorn blood to fuel their magic?)
Because Unicorns are mythical and women are not. Unicorns can fart rainbows and do magic with their horns and can’t be touched by unclean hands, and trample monsters with their silvered hooves. Unicorns can’t fail at the things they are set up to do. Women can.
When you put a woman up as the exception, all eyes are on her to prove herself valuable. She has to not just perform as a hero like the other characters, she has to be perfect in all ways or she’s failed all of woman kind. Imagine if Joan of Arc had gone down in history as an okay general who died a quiet death of old age. It’s impossible to live with, and worse, it forces women into a competition to be the best whether they wanted in or not. It isn’t like we’re actually super human, it’s just like human is too much, or not good enough. We can’t be average, or the norm.
I cannot fart rainbows. I’m actually an average person in almost every way. An below average in other ways. BUT! I am a woman who has stood up, declared that I make games, make games, learn about making better games, and hope to foster the making of and playing of games for as many other people as possible. Which is not a thing that women do. In that way, I am a Unicorn. And since I have no magical powers, I am set up to fail.
I hide from this at every turn. I made a ‘kids game’ at my first solo project. Because I like kids games. But also because I knew that it might face less scrutiny than if I wrote something ‘more serious.’ I work with my husband, and I catch myself hiding behind him. “Well, this is really his baby.” or “Oh sure, but he did the heavy lifting. I just used what he was doing.”
Is it because I’m afraid of criticism? No more than anyone else. The real issue is that I know I’m not likely to get honest criticism. Because I am a Unicorn, if I presented a serious game that I felt stood on it’s own feet, I would meet, in equal parts, ‘well, it’s good for a girl’ and ‘this isn’t _____ enough! You failed. Girls are bad designers.’
You can fill in the blank with a lot of things. “Feminist enough.” “Inclusive enough.” “Welcoming to men enough.” Artistic enough, smart enough, feminine enough, fun enough….
You can’t see my work for what it was, because I am a Unicorn. (This is why, to this day, so many writers hide behind genderless or male names.) Because I am expected to by mythical, I cannot possibly live up to your standards. And when I fail, because I will, you point to me as another example of why girls can’t do whatever it is that you think girls can’t do. Average and acceptable is never going to be enough for you. Because I’m a Unicorn.