Of all the things that video games are known for, their consistently negative treatment of women is arguably the most infamous. It was one of the first things I noticed when I started gaming: "Why do I always have to play as a boy?" "Why do princesses always have to be saved?" These were questions I began asking in childhood that have evolved as I've consumed more games and developed a deeper understanding of their relationship with media and society. While I felt the absence of femininity in games from the beginning, my crusade for representation in games didn't truly begin until I recognized the absence of my skin.
I've always been aware of my race. Growing up in the south with a white father and black mother wasn't exactly normal when I was a kid (it still isn't, to be honest, but it's more common now than it was in the 90s and early 2000s). Though my race set me apart in the highly segregated southeast, my parents were always open about it. Contrarily, my grasp of being biracial/mixed wasn't always as solid as it is now; I remember when I was very little, I insisted that I was "more related" to my mom than my dad because in my mind my light brown skin was closer to her dark brown tone than his peach one. In hindsight this likely hurt my dad's feelings (and dad if you're reading this, please forgive my poor understanding of race and color theory at age 4). But the reality is, from a societal standpoint, I will never have the privilege that my father's whiteness grants him and if I am seen with only my mother, people always know that I am hers. So in a way, I guess 4-year-old me was right.
As I learned to navigate the complexities of my race, and race in general, I felt drawn to black and brown female characters on TV (shouts to Keesha, Susie, Libby, Numbah 5, Penny, and Taranee). These characters made me feel seen, excited, included. Accepted. That feeling was so strong, it even extended to things that only bore a vague resemblance to me; Vulpix is my favorite Pokemon because of her brown, curly fur that looks like my hair. Even though I scrounged for and clung to these images in television, when it came to games I only focused on the feminine aspect. I never looked for brown women in games--perhaps I just never expected to find them.
That all changed when I played The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The first time I saw Tetra (left), it was like every corner of my being lit up. Every neuron dedicated to understanding my race, my gender, and my love for characters who encapsulated them suddenly connected. At the same time, my heart and soul felt perfectly in tune with my electrified mind. It might sound dramatic, but for an 8 year old girl who loved video games more than anything but never thought she could be part of them, it was the most beautiful, inspiring thing I had ever experienced.
While meeting Tetra was certainly a defining moment, unfortunately it is not the one that sparked my journey. That moment came later in the game, at a pivotal moment where Tetra's alternate identity is revealed: she is Princess Zelda (right). For a moment, I was ecstatic; how could I not be? The princess of Hyrule, the girl for whom these games are named, was brown, just like me! As her transformation sequence began, I leaned close to the screen with bated breath, anxiously waiting to see that iconic pink dress on the brown pirate princess.
Those of you who have played Wind Waker know that is not what happened. Allow me to recreate that moment through my eyes:
"[It is time] for me to teach you the fate into which you were born--the very reason that you live," says the King of Red Lions. He unites the shards of the Triforce of Wisdom, the key to Tetra's awakening. A glowing light envelops her. 'This is it,' I think. My heart is racing as Link barely shields his eyes from the rays. This is not my first Zelda game; I know who Tetra really is. I know she is the princess, my princess, and I am more excited to see her now than I have ever been. If Zelda, the coolest princess I've ever seen, can be brown like me, then maybe I can be like her. I can't do magic or stop an evil king, but I can be as powerful, as intelligent, as beautiful as she is in my own way.
All of that hope is crushed the second the transformation ends. The Zelda I see now is a familiar stranger in her moon pale skin. The lights inside of me go out. Tetra is gone, and part of me with her.
It still hurts to recount this story years later. Watching a character that I related to get literally white washed, I wondered if the people who made her believed that girls like me don't deserve to be princesses. As great a character as Tetra is, it felt inescapable that the more important roles in video games (the royals and namesakes of entire franchises) would always be reserved for white people.
That moment opened my eyes to the myriad of problems endemic in video games. At the core of the racism, sexism/misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments that plague gaming is a harsh truth: whether intentional or not, there is a deep lack of care for marginalized stories, voices, and people entrenched in game development.
However, the fact that I'm still so attached to Tetra today gives me hope. Tetra wasn't the first brown girl that I ever saw in fiction, yet her story is the one that affected me the most. I believe that speaks to the power that video games have as a medium to affect change in our perceptions. Before I played Wind Waker, my awareness of race in media was cursory at best. But since then, I have gained insight into myself as well as the cultural connections between negative images of marginalized people in media and our coinciding realities of oppression. Using games as a vehicle for self-discovery and cultural understanding, I've dedicated myself to being the change I want to see in the games industry. I hope you'll join me as I embark on this new venture to further my lifelong quest.
What are some video game moments that deeply affected you? I'd love to hear about your own journeys in the comments below!