The first feminist game I remember playing came out in 2007. Contemplating 2007 from 2014 is a really good exercise in understanding how weirdly time moves for the games industry. Is 7 years a long time ago? Obviously not. Except it’s an eternity ago. In 2007 there were iPhones, but no App Store, which is to say there were no iPhones. In 2007 I spent the summer playing Picross and Planet Puzzle League on the DS, and Rogue Galaxy on the PS2. In 2007 I was looking forward to Hellgate: London.
I didn’t meet this game until 2009, which is my fault, not the game’s. The game had done the rounds by then – an IGF submission, coverage in Jezebel and Geek Squad. I’d missed it, somehow, but I will never forget finding it. This is because I’d never played a game before that set me the dilemma of how to get through the day if I ended up with a period stain on my skirt. Life has set me that dilemma. Videogames, previously, had not.
The game in question is Coolest Girl In School, an old Java game made by Holly Owen and a team of female collaborators. It was a little text-based RPG with a killer plot; you wake up one morning to discover that the coolest girl in school has exploded, leaving a vacancy. Can you fill that role? The writing and the art were anarchic and rawly honest. It was a game that revelled in every high-school-girl stereotype without ever losing sight of the painful, personal experience of trying to make it through high-school as an actual human. And so, despite the fact that I was in my 30s when I found it, my 14-year-old self was suddenly back, collapsing with relief. I hadn’t been a freak. I hadn’t been a failure. All that stuff I had going on was normal, it was just a kind of normal that no-one talked about.
Because really, no-one talked about it. I grew up surrounded by women who would only refer to pads as ‘sanitary towels’, and in fact not as ‘sanitary towels’ but as ‘STs’, and in fact not ‘STs’ out loud but only in a horrified whisper. Bloodied skirts are one of the unifying bits of female experience that even books and films and TV aren’t all that interested in dwelling on. Having something say to me ‘this is normal’ felt like a big deal. Having that thing be a game, and having that game tell me that a girl who stained her skirt now and again still had a chance at being the Coolest Girl In School was a really big deal.
So much has changed in 7 years. Coolest Girl wouldn’t be news now, I don’t think. We’re lucky to have a much richer range of games starting to explore female experience, from all kinds of game makers. I can write this article, which I would never have felt able to 3 years ago, let alone 7. There’s an App Store, now, so you don’t have to PayPal a lady in Australia $6 so she can send you the game file to install on your Sony Ericsson. But thinking back makes me excited to look forward. There’s a lot to feel bad about in current game culture. But if we’ve come this far in the last seven years, how far can we go in the next?
Closing note: I don’t mean to suggest, for a second, that Coolest Girl was the first feminist game, or even the first feminist game that I actually played. But it is the first one I remember connecting with – the first game that came with a jolt of recognition that someone, somewhere, had thought that the thing that I was was a thing that was interesting enough to make a game about. I would love to hear what that game was for you.