What I learned about gender identity from Pokemon

Sometimes you learn interesting life lessons in unexpected ways.

I have always been a diehard fan of the Pokemon video games. I’ve played nearly every installment in the series since the Red and Blue versions came out in North America in 1998, and I will be playing every one until Game Freak stops making them. I’m that guy who will just never stop playing Pokemon. If you don’t know a person like that, you probably are that person.

I am on a quest to catch them all. I’m going to do it, no matter how long it takes, because it’s a challenge that’s just difficult and absurd enough to be interesting for me. Recently, I had to start over my copy of X to catch a Pokemon called Moltres, who can only be captured by playing the game from the beginning and beating it again, which can take anywhere from 30–40 hours. I didn’t bat an eye at this, because, well… I’m obsessed, and I want to complete my collection. It’s just what I need to do.

In the Pokemon universe, there are humans that live alongside the Pokemon characters. The character that you control and represents you is a human that trains Pokemon. Since Pokemon Crystal in 2001, Pokemon games have allowed you to choose your player’s gender. I have played through Pokemon games many times throughout the years, and I have always chosen to be male because I am a male in real life. For this most recent play-through, I decided to do something different: I chose to be a female. I didn’t decide to do this out of some deep self-questioning or identity crisis, I simply wanted to see if the game’s storyline would change as a result of being a female.

Almost immediately upon choosing my gender and starting the game, something felt off. I’ve played Pokemon X so many times that I pretty much know it by heart, but this new play-through felt weird and different. I played through a bit of the game and realized that I didn’t feel immersed in the Pokemon universe like I usually do — I didn’t feel that I could identify with the female character that represented me. Because of this disconnect, I just wasn’t finding the game fun. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks: This is how every girl who has ever played a video game has felt.

I ultimately decided to start the game over again play as a male, and I’m having a lot more fun because of it. It’s not that I have anything against female characters, I just want to identify with whatever digital avatar represents me. That’s why I’m jeremyckahn everywhere on the internet; that’s my name and that’s what I want to be called. Not all gamers are this way, as some choose to be represented by an avatar that is significantly different from what they are in reality. It really just depends on the person. That’s one of the great things about video games: You can be whoever you want to be.

I imagine that a lot of female gamers would also like to be represented accurately, or at least in a way that they can identify with. Unfortunately, they’re out of luck in most of cases because the majority of games only allow you to be a male. There are notable exceptions to this, and the gaming landscape is slowly improving, but it’s still very unbalanced.

As a web developer, one of the most important things I can do is build the web sites and applications I make to be as accessible as possible. Everyone deserves to enjoy technology and media equally, regardless of their physical capabilities and attributes. The purpose of video games is to be fun, but most game developers choose to optimize the fun for male players. Things are getting better, but at a glacial pace. There’s a growing awareness of this, and some developers try to pacify the market by offering female versions of previously male-only characters and roles. Nintendo started to make this mistake and fortunately course-corrected with the new Linkle character in the new Hyrule Warriors Legends game.

Women are not the female versions of men, they are an independent gender with unique qualities and equivalent value. Likewise, women video game characters should not be designed as the female versions of the male characters that preceded them; they should be their own characters.

I’m optimistic that this will get better, as there is more discussion than ever on the subject. While I don’t plan to play as a female character in games where I can choose to be a male that more accurately represents me, I hope that gamers of all kinds will someday be able to play video games in a way that represents them as well.

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