It’s a strange time to be a woman in the world of gaming. In some ways, things are hopeful: more ladies than ever before are getting into games while the idea of “geek chic” rises in cultural prevalence. Unfortunately, there is also a surprisingly vicious backlash to this shift, as detailed in a recent New York Times article about the harassment of female gamers. You wouldn’t think that at this time, in this country, the acceptance of female gamers would still be so tenuous, but it appears that our culture still needs to catch up with the reality of women who do play games and seek equality with their male counterparts.
That’s why it’s so heartening to read such positive depictions of female gamers in the recent book Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. It’s not a perfect novel by any means, but it’s a fun adventure story steeped in 80’s trivia that is likely to appeal to gamers and includes several strong female characters.
Ready Player One is a story set in the future about a teenager, Wade Watts, who escapes his squalid existence by jacking into a Second-Life-esque virtual world known as OASIS and trying to solve a series of 1980‘s-themed puzzles left behind by OASIS’ creator, so that he can win the creator’s vast fortune. When Wade becomes the first to solve the first puzzle, he begins a worldwide rush of gamers racing to the finish. His friends, Aech and Art3mis, who he only knows in the virtual world, are his competitors, too, but it turns out that there’s more to both of them then meet the eye.
Wade’s relationships with female gamers are very positive from early on in the book. In the first mention we get of Art3mis, on whom Wade admits to having a “massive cyber-crush”, we hear about her accomplishments, like the blog she writes, before we hear about how she looks. Wade, being a teenage boy, does notice her avatar’s body, but he likes that she’s short and curvy, instead of supermodel-esque like most female avatars. When he meets her later, he treats her as a worthy foe as well as a possible love interest, and when he meets her in the real world, the fact that Art3mis has imperfections that her avatar lacks proves unimportant. The other major female character in the book turns out to be a surprise and I won’t spoil it here, but the fact that a woman has an avatar who doesn’t look like her turns out to have no impact on Wade’s respect for the person behind the digital mask.
Although the book has its flaws (sometimes the 80’s trivia gets to feel like a list, there’s a lot of exposition, some of the plot points are predictable), it’s still important that this book was written, and especially that it was written by a man. The fact that a man wrote this book gives male gamers a positive example of how to relate to female gamers, without preaching. The gender-commentary-takeaway from this book is basically that some female gamers are really badass, and that if you’re really nice to them you might end up with a great new friend or even a girlfriend. What straight guy who plays a lot of video games wouldn’t be glad to hear that?
Although it’s unfortunate, I think that many male gamers might not believe that message if it was presented to them by a woman. The fact that men can get this message from a male point of view gives it weight, and makes it seem like an obvious truth, rather than a radical idea. Female readers can both enjoy the rollicking adventure and feel included in it. So, if you’re interested in a fun summer sci-fi read full of ‘80s throwbacks and refreshing gender politics, check out Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.