S.EXE: Teen Girl Squad
No, not the beloved Homestar Runner animation, this fortnight it's a celebration of teenage girls and their sexual agency being front and centre of the narrative! "Hey Cara," I might hear you say, "I have never heard of a game that even gave the tiniest crap about teenage girls' libidos!" Well, I'd say, you've clearly never been near the Otome genre, or a copy of Duel Love, but that's okay. We'll leave Otome to another day, because I found two perfectly free games that give women a good sense of bodily autonomy without having to relate their self-worth to what a dude thinks of them. How healthy!
How Do You Do It
New York-based Nina Freeman makes adorable games with a nuanced sense of intimacy that not many other games have. In her game How Do You Do It, something made in Flixel for the Global Game Jam in conjunction with Emmett Butler, Jonathan Kittaka, and Deckman Coss, Nina explores the curiosity a young girl has about sex after seeing the sex scene in James Cameron's Titanic. Her mother leaves the room, and the girl is left with a Barbie and a Ken doll, which the player can then move and rotate and smash together to 'figure out' what sex is.
You only have so much time before your mother returns, however, which gives playing the game a really piquant sense of the forbidden, raking up that feeling from your childhood whenever you knew you were watching something on the TV that definitely had too many adult hugs. (I think for me I first felt this way after switching to late night ITV and Species was on. It was fairly clear to me even then that part of the crime of this alien woman was that she desired sex at all, which plays into that societal expectation for women to be desirable but meek. It portrayed women as being sexy aliens. Sometimes I think the internet believes that women are indeed sexy aliens.) (Man, Species is terrible but women being evil and sexy is something I so enjoy.)
How Do You Do It addresses that space between feeling sexual and not knowing what to do with it. There's a small amount of time between the ages of about eleven and seventeen when you're just trying to figure out, emotionally speaking as well as technically speaking, what sex is and what it does to your own body as well as someone else's. When I was a tiny Scottish girl in a tiny Scottish school there was no formal sex education until I was eleven years old, by which time I think I had already asked my mother what the hell a condom was (mainly because it's such an ugly word, and I still think it is).
Eleven years old was when they rolled out the childbirth videos, the videos about periods, and the ones about unwanted erections. They were all uncomfortably narrated by a very proper Englishwoman with an RP accent, about as far as you could get from any of our Aberdonian accents, and maintained a really strained distance from the people it described. The uncomfortable rutting diagrams may as well have been narrated by David Attenborough: 'And here, we see, the man on top of a woman, with the intention of growing a baby inside her, which is incredibly rare, because usually the man and the woman are completely dead set against any outcome of sex, up to and including feelings, relationships, exchange of numbers, text messages and phone calls.' (Twitter DMs, naked Snapchats and photomessaging pictures of your dick with sunglasses on were not a thing then.)
Sex education seemed so removed from emotions and feelings and from the charged, exciting sex scenes we saw in films that sex still seemed like a mysterious prospect; even the formal info on periods was abstract. Until I actually got a period I was convinced it would be a painless quick process where the liquid was blue like in those Always sanitary towel absorbency adverts. I'd never noticed a grown-up woman even talk about periods: it was the world's best kept secret that women even endured this ludicrous torture as frequently as once a month for a week. I was extremely angry when it was not blue liquid: so much so I remember playing Doom and thinking THIS IS YOU, PERIOD, and gunning everything down with the rage of a small girl who had been betrayed by her own body. Eventually I realised that this was a thing that would carry on throughout my entire adult life, destroying my competitive swimming schedule, making proximity to a toilet a constant, gratingly boring worry. Couple that with the realisation that boys make you feel funny and that Titanic sex scene becomes all the more confusing. How do you do it? Why, even? And what will my body do if I get it wrong? Or get it right?!
Nina's game expresses these feelings all very neatly through How Do You Do It: the pressing together of two genital-less plastic dolls to see how many times you can 'do it' is a feeble attempt at making sense of sex in a world where there are no, ahem, tools for girls (and also boys) to do so, since discussion is so societally policed. There's even less discussion about gay sex than there is heterosexual. The fact that the Barbie and Ken dolls have been neutered is symbolic of the lack of frank discussion in public about what having genitals means or does not mean. This also ties in to gender and how we unfairly assign meaning to people via their parts. Sex, particularly in the UK, is left as a mystery until you actually get someone who is willing to do a sex with you/on you. But perhaps that's the point of sex: it's a personal thing. You find out more about yourself through it than you ever wanted to know, and most of the time it's a pleasant surprise.
Love Is Zero
Our very own free games columnist Porpentine's text game Love Is Zero is something I have also been playing around with recently. I think it illustrates a really powerful teen girl agency that you often don't see illustrated in games. Girls are often relegated to beautiful little ICO waifs that must be admired but never given control, and even if they are, they can't be evil or nasty or threatening in their actions. Porpentine's Love Is Zero is a sort of recreation of a fantasy all-girl high school experience, lyricised. The music is intense, like the text is almost a music video, and you generate lyrics for your teen girl by clicking 'study' 'play tennis' or 'bully'. You are a teen vampire, and the symbolic nature of the blood, the 'sucking', the mention of hentai in the anime club are all exciting morsels of a teenage sexual agency I wish I'd had. 'God I hate you want to kiss you': perhaps a teenage feeling that's a little too familiar.
Structure-wise, Love Is Zero is really interesting. It's constructed like a pop song that has different lyrics every time, soundtracked by the talented Brenda Neotenomie, and made with pop art 'album' covers by sloane. It's almost infused with all the feeling of the nineties cult classic film The Craft. Pop and The Craft: two things I was obsessed with as a young girl. The game generates three sets of lyrics, like verses, and then ends answering the question: 'Who Am I?' All of these structural and thematic manipulations evoke a realm of teenagedom that it's exciting to fantasise about. It gives the player power, the power fantasy that young men so often get in video games, but that teenage girls are often denied.
In short: it's very easy to fetishise teen girls in videogames, but the most interesting work is being done by the game designers who want to convey meaning to other women about their own experiences or fantasies. As soon as you let go of the fixation on looking at teenage girls' bodies, and start to think about how girls actually feel about their own desires, and how they want to be empowered, much more exciting things can be done.