REPRESENTATION MATTERS: SPELUNKY
I get a lot of shit on Twitter from well-meaning homophobes whenever I refer to my six-year-old daughter as gay. They say she can’t possibly know her orientation yet, despite the way that society grooms little girls with Disney Princes and how parents call any friend of another gender their kid’s “little boyfriend” or “little girlfriend”— even before those kids can talk. People also tell me that even if she has expressed interest in girls, I shouldn’t call my daughter a slur.
So let me break down what I do know: the first time she told me she was going to marry a girl, she was three years old. She’s persisted in telling me that she’s going to marry a girl even as she’s gotten older, gone to Kindergarten and first grade, been exposed to even more of the heteronormative world around her. When she heard me talk about dating boys to her middle-school-aged sister, she immediately followed up with “But what about dating girls?” When her sister said that she wanted to grow up and get married and have lots of babies with her husband, my then five-year-old replied that she was going to grow up and get married and have lots of kitties with her wife. She has recently begun calling herself “gay,” in very clear terms.
If she ever asks me to call her “straight” or “queer or anything else, I will. Who knows how her sexuality will evolve. Sometimes we’re watching television or I’m playing a game and a man and a woman kiss, and she scrunches up her face and says that’s okay this time I guess, with the same tone in her voice as when she deigns to eat chicken nuggets despite identifying as vegetarian. But if I know anything— if she knows anything— it’s this: who she is and what she wants isn’t what she sees in her world of cartoon royalty and playing house.
She was on the couch next to me the first time I sat down to play Spelunky— a fun roguelike platformer about digging for treasure and saving the girl. There are a lot of great avatar choices, with people of color and women galore. It’s a hard game, and I’m not great at platformers, so my five-year-old helpfully offered color commentary throughout:
“Mommy, you’re going to die soon.”
“It really looks like you’re going to die.”
“You’re going to get hit by that snake, huh.”
“Do you think you’re gonna die again?”
Finally, I managed to pick up the girl I was saving.
“Did you… did you just throw that girl, Mommy?”
LOOK I DON’T KNOW THE CONTROLS THAT WELL, I explained.
“She got dead. I think you killed her.”
Next try. I go to pick up the girl again.
“Mommy you WHIPPED her!!”
I WAS TRYING TO OH NEVER MIND.
She laughed at me, I failed a lot, and then eventually I was able to rescue the girl in triumph. I went back, picked up some more loot, and then headed out the door to the next level.
And that’s when the girl I rescued came over to my lady archaeologist and gave her a big smooch.
My daughter squealed. “WHAT??? I DIDN’T KNOW YOU COULD DO THAT! YOU CAN SMOOCH GIRLS?? AND YOU’RE A GIRL??” Before I could answer in the affirmative: “Do it again! Smooch her again!”
And that’s how Spelunky became one of her favorite games. I found out later you can change the person you rescue to be a man or a dog, but it didn’t matter. As a game designer, it was fascinating to me to see her engagement with the game change so viscerally in an instant— instead of meandering through the levels and exploring, the game became about FINDING THAT GIRL and GETTING A SMOOCH. Seeing the light bulb go on over her head, and seeing the mix of surprise and joy and relief on her face, was a watershed moment for me as a parent, an advocate, and a game designer.
We talk a lot about representation and erasure as marginalized adults. We want to see more people like us. This can lead to a lot of high standards even for companies and games that put representation at the forefront— and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. There’s no one queer person that represents all queer people that you can stick into a game. There’s no one person of color. Everyone is unique, everyone has different intersections of privilege and marginalization, and everyone wants to see those things on the screen, to feel like they’re not absent from all media.
But we don’t just want to see ourselves as jokes or stereotypes or sex workers or afterthoughts. We want rich stories that center our identities; we want to be flawed but not evil, noble but not martyred. We want to be human.
And we’re lucky that we’re starting to get a lot of those stories, big and small. We’ve got Gone Home and we’ve got Dragon Age and we’ve got some decent stuff in between. As an adult I’m excited that I can see myself in complex and human stories that I can relate to.
As a parent, I have concerns.
Adults are really into a lot of media for children because good storytelling has layers— there’s stuff in an episode of Adventure Time that’s for kids, and there’s stuff in an episode that’s for adults, and I can sit down with my kids and we can laugh our heads off and it’s great. Wash and repeat for any Pixar movie, most Disney movies, Avatar cartoons, whatever. But we give a lot of media a pass on representation— specifically queer representation— because it’s layered in at the “stuff for adults” level.
It’s easy to say Marceline and Princess Bubblegum dated in an interview, or to end a series with two female leads going on vacation with each other and tell the fans “Yup, they’re in love.” We as adults love it, we’re cool with it, we champion that as progressive storytelling and we see ourselves represented in it.
But to a five-year-old who holds hands with her friends all the time, or an eight year old who isn’t allowed on Tumblr, or a ten year old who doesn’t have the experience with or education in storytelling to be able to read subtext? It’s so easy for them to see something that is supposed to reflect who they are and have it go right over their heads.
Yes: we need representation with long, juicy storylines and adult content like Saints Row and Dragon Age and Gone Home and whatever else. And sure, okay, I’ll even grant you that the current trend of ambiguously-charged friendship that is explained as romance at San Diego Comic Con is kind of a step forward.
But here’s the thing: we, as adults, already know that we exist. We want to be reflected in the media we consume because we want validation.
Kids NEED representation in the media they consume in order to be aware that who they are is even an option. When my kid said “I didn’t know you could do that!” the tone in her voice made it clear that she wasn’t just talking about girl-on-girl smooches in the game— despite everything I’d done to assure her she could marry a girl someday, despite all of my progressive support in her upbringing, it honestly never occurred to her that you could kiss a girl romantically until she saw it in a videogame.
No big stories, no subtle subtext. Just the oldest, simplest story in video games: rescue the girl and get a kiss.