The Princess is in Another Castle

Gaming’s savior complex

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I play a girl.

I have ulterior motives, but I also like role-playing. These are role-playing games, I tell myself, and why not play the furthest role from what I am. What I am is a middle-aged man, thick with beard and tattoos, who never lost his love for video games, and I choose a girl. The smallest, most feminine model. Long red hair and eyes like the sky. I know what men want so I shape it in front of me on the screen, fit my design to their desire.

My desire — my ulterior motive, because I have two daughters entering an adult world they know nothing about — is to smash men in the mouth with my shield. I like the idea of this small, frail female avatar slicing them with steel. So I shield her with armor, with bracers and belt, gauntlets and greaves, until she is completely covered. Because I know, from my years walking around in a man’s skin, that the male players are thinking of putting their own swords inside her, at the moment just before she fucks them up.

It started with a princess.

I could go back to when I first read “Rapunzel” or “Sleeping Beauty,” but for me, it was Princess Peach in Super Mario Brothers who needed saving. It seems something always needed saving. This was the 1980s when we were still waiting for Soviet missiles to fall from the sky. I got my first video game system — the Atari 2600 — in ’83, around the time the Soviet Union’s early warning system detected the launch of five American Minuteman Missiles, and the world came close to ending itself forever. On the screen of the video games, I liked best, the fear of annihilation repeated itself: missiles streaked toward the old cities of Earth and asteroids careened toward us through space. Every game was combat of some kind: tanks and helicopters bombing one another into oblivion or invaders marching down the horizon, destroying the last bulwarks we’d erected against them.

It was up to me to stop them. For years, I faced the invaders and shot down swarms of missiles. It would not occur to me for some time that the missiles never stopped falling. The waves of invaders only came faster and faster. War always led to an inevitable end, no matter how many times I blasted the asteroids or destroyed all the missiles.

When the Nintendo Entertainment System came out in the mid ’80s, my best friend Thomas and I went after women. In both Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda, the player must rescue a princess from the evil creature who has captured her. Link, the hero in Zelda, is a small boy, armed at first with only a wooden shield. He must save the princess to restore peace as if it is her abduction that has thrown the world out of order, or perhaps only women can keep the peace. Maybe. There’s not enough context. Only the idea that when evil men come, they come for the women.

In Super Mario Brothers, Mario journeys through world after world looking for Princess Peach. At the end of each castle, he finds one of her handmaidens, who has also been abducted. When Mario saves her, she exclaims, “Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle,” forcing Mario to continue searching.

In both games, after saving the princess and restoring peace, the player is given a second quest. This quest is harder, with more powerful enemies. The player must go through the whole world again, completing every castle, casting down every dungeon, until he fights his way to the princess, who calls him a hero.

Thomas and I never thought further than the gameplay — we never analyzed its intention. The adventure for us was to go down into the dungeons, so we never thought deeper than the surface. Now I wonder what it says that so many women were abducted by men. I wonder what it meant that so many young boys — like Thomas and me, not quite men yet — were left to save them. Metaphor was too much for us at that age, so we never realized the world we would grow into thought women needed saving, and we didn’t know when men saved women, they would expect a reward.

“How many women do we have to save?” Thomas asked once.

We had been playing for hours. We were on castle six or seven, and each time we reached the end we found a woman who was not the one we needed to save. So we kept going through another world, past the koopas and goombas, the bullets and hammer brothers, the Bowsers in every castle. It’s a ridiculous premise, but at that age, it was easy to believe what we saw on the screen, whether it was constant war or women who needed constant saving.

“I’m guessing nine,” I said.

“Nine? Seems like after the first one got caught, the rest would have learned to stay at home.”

But the princesses were not only in castles, and video games were not the only contributors to this culture. In the greatest movie of my childhood, Princess Leia is captured by Darth Vader and must be rescued. Even before Super Mario Brothers was released on Nintendo, arcade Mario was saving a woman named Pauline from Donkey Kong, a massive ape who harkens back to King Kong. That summer, Thomas and I watched the 1976 King Kong in which Jessica Lange is taken captive by Kong, and only shooting the savage beast can save her. We watched The Empire Strikes Back, the second movie in the Star Wars saga, in which Princess Leia is, once again, captured by Vader. Schwarzenegger as Terminator chased Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor, and Jack Nicholson chased Shelley Duvall all through the Overlook Hotel.

In Washington, Clarence Thomas was still a few years away from assaulting Anita Hill, but Dan Crane and Gerry Studds were both censured for having sex with teenage pages. Gary Hart would soon drop out of the presidential race for cheating on his wife. That October, a nine-year-old girl named Sarah Pryor went missing while walking through her neighborhood. My parents had already divorced, and Thomas’s would soon as well, so with what little we knew of relationships, it didn’t strike us as odd that women would so often be held captive.

This was also at a time we were first becoming aware of our changing bodies, of the changing bodies of the girls we went to school with. In our adolescent minds, we related rescuing women with receiving a reward, so we went through the castles and the dungeons to save them, secretly thinking of saving Jennifer Stokes, who I sat beside in 7th grade and who smelled like sunflowers.

As we grew older the same plots repeated themselves, reinforcing our dreams of rewards. Mario dreams of a cursed world in need of saving. Zelda falls under a sleeping spell and Link has to wake her, and I must admit that more than once I had this fantasy — to find the girl sleeping under the glass case in the castle with her lips still red and breast barely fluttering, to wake her with a kiss and wait for the reward she must, undoubtedly, provide. All video games offer fantasy, whether swords and shields or simply another world to save, and here, in the ultimate male adolescent fantasy, was a woman who would be so grateful as to give any reward.

Like the other boys my age, I was always looking for rewards. My goal — and there’s no other way to say this — at the end of each date I went on, was a reward of the kind I’d been imagining since I felt the first stirrings of puberty, and I don’t know now whether it was the world I grew up in or something wrong inside me that made me think that way. It’s possible there’s something wrong with all of us and our culture only calls it out, and it’s possible that the games we played as children are the games men have been playing since we first came out of caves.

In 1991, with the release of the Super Nintendo, a third game in the Zelda series came out, and while the graphics were sharper and clearer and the gameplay longer, the player is once again tasked with saving princesses. There’s a different maiden in each castle and the character gets rewards for rescuing them — more life, a stronger shield — but the same old monsters arrive, now bigger and stronger. The boss is back, the evil creature who stole Zelda in the first game, and even as a young adult I began to see that the games would remain the same: women always abducted by evil men. There’s the sense that no matter how strong your character gets, the monsters will only become stronger as well.

By this time, Thomas and I were living in an apartment in a college town, skipping classes and not knowing what to do with our lives except press buttons on a control pad in the hopes of changing the world we were in at the time, not the real world around us, but the one on the screen. We had watched the Gulf War on the same screen our games appeared, and we knew no amount of button pressing would ever change how men behave. Like the games we played, our wars would only become more sophisticated, a game of their own in which computers control missiles, and drone strikes can be called in from thousands of miles away. From where we were, the Gulf War had seemed too much like a game. The missiles from Multiple Launch Rocket Systems looked like the old Atari Missile Command, and the nearness of the war to the Plains of Megiddo made me think of asteroids coming out of the sky to end us all.

I preferred immersing myself in other worlds. Too sick at heart to go to class and learn about World War II or why trickle-down economics didn’t work, I went after Zelda again and again. The girls I met in college didn’t need saving, or, if they did, it was from men like me. When I did meet a girl and coax her to my place with the promise of drink or drugs, I’d often wake in the night after sex to the blue glow of the TV screen. When I crept out of bed and went downstairs to rescue yet another princess from yet another castle, I’d wonder if the girl sleeping upstairs would wake and wonder, like the women in the games must have, where she was, why she was there, how she was going to get home.

When I quit college, I kept my old Nintendos. I’d missed too many classes to continue, so I slept in the basement of my parents’ house and woke late in the afternoon to play video games. I didn’t know if I was trying to save the world, or myself. I had started working nights at a factory, and every day was a struggle. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was dating the woman who would become my wife, and she didn’t need rescuing either, only kindness I couldn’t offer at the time.

When my first daughter was born a few years later, I held her in my lap as we played the old games. We saved the princesses again and again, as she grew old enough to walk and talk, as she began to develop into the woman she would turn out to be. We ran through worlds in search of fortune, or better armor to shield ourselves against attack. She liked the moment Link rescues Zelda, but she liked better the moment in the game Metroid when Samus Aran, the main character, takes off her helmet to reveal she’s a woman. No one knew that all the time they’d been fighting the metroids and monsters of planet Zebes, they’d been playing as a woman. No one ever knew that a woman could be as fast and strong and smart as a man, and my daughter, who would years later save Princess Zelda without me, liked that the best.

After my second daughter was born I bought an X-Box and began playing more role-playing games, open worlds in which my character could go anywhere and do anything. With my wife and daughters asleep, I would play for hours when I was supposed to be writing. That September the Twin Towers had fallen, and the world was, once again, headed for war. I was in graduate school trying to write my way into the world, but in video games, I found a way out. The monsters I encountered were not men, or were such outlandish men no one could ever believe they existed in a real world, and though I found the same old tropes — evil wizards, abducted women, kings in high castles — some games also introduced customizable characters, or gave the player a choice between male and female. It seemed, like I was trying to do after the birth of my daughters, that the world had learned to rewrite the old stories. The princess was not always caged in the castle. The main character was not always male.

When my first daughter played with me, she liked character creation. We still played old Nintendo games — Gauntlet, in which she played the only girl; the second Mario game, in which she could become the princess instead of having to rescue her — but now she could create her own hero. Together, we began to create women with swords and shields, with magic to hurl at anyone who came too close. My daughter watched as our heroines grew stronger and stronger, the monsters more easily vanquished. Every action — rescuing a princess, killing a dragon, solving a puzzle — awarded experience, so our characters were always improving, either becoming stronger and better looking, or smarter and wiser.

I did not realize at the time my daughter had already recognized the world as belonging to men. She already knew that women were seen as weak and ineffectual, fit only to be captured, locked away in the castle until such time as they were needed. Boys on the bus were already turning into monsters. She came home from school to tell me of their too-loud voices, and the few times I raised my own voice I saw her shrink back, become smaller.

When my daughters bought me World of Warcraft for Christmas, I let them help me create my main character. I wanted a Troll or a Tauren — the two tallest races in the game — but they chose a human female. They gave her long red hair and pouting lips. They gave her eyes the same color blue as their own, eyes inherited from me, and my father. I let them guide her through the forests of Elwynn, the fields of Westfall. They watched as I conquered the Deadmines and Shadowfang Keep, where the men had, predictably, turned into monsters, as if all our imaginings always come back to monsters in the guise of men. I wonder now if they already knew how small they would grow up to be in the eyes of too-many men, and if there’s an answer for what I’m trying to say, for the reasons I wanted my avatar to be as fierce as the north wind, that’s it — I know men will see my daughters as small.

Video games have always been for me a window into a different world, one where all the problems could be overcome by strength or intelligence, by wisdom or charm. I’ve spent too much time in that world in many ways, yet in some ways, I have not spent enough. I have not yet grown strong enough to stop the injustices I see happening everywhere. I have not become wise enough to find ways to fight off the evil monsters that beset us on all sides.

What I have tried to do is teach my daughters — avatars, in a way — to continue progressing. To keep gaining experience and strength and intelligence and wisdom and charisma and hope and courage. To keep smashing men in the mouth who might try to keep them captive, either in real chains or the chains of the mind too many men try to cast on too many women.

Because I know the monsters are out there. I have seen them in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps. I have seen them lurking in every level of every dungeon, in every office building on every corner of the country. In the highest office in the land. In the halls of learning and the darkest holes of the internet. In every football field and frathouse at every university.

So I play a girl. I raise her to fight off the men who might attack her instead of waiting for rescue by one of them. To seize her own sword and shield and wield them against a world that expects her to be weak.

Eventually, I made my female character so strong weaker monsters would not attack her, and only then did I let my daughters guide her through the digital world. I showed them that monsters always move in predictable patterns, and they learned to take them down, to find ways to defeat them before they could do any more harm.

I suppose after a time my daughters got bored and wandered off to another room, or maybe they only realized that what was on the screen had little relation to the world we lived in. They knew that women, no matter how strong, will always be attacked, because they had seen it before, even at such young ages.
There was the time a boy on the bus made fun of how my younger daughter talked; a few months later he called her mother a whore. There was the time my older daughter was walking home and a man driving sped up when she crossed the street as if he would run her down or take her captive. There was the time, online when a man called my female character a cunt, and when I asked him to be polite because my daughters were playing, he said he hoped they got raped.

“Raped and killed,” he wrote on the screen, and I wandered around online for hours wondering about the world we lived in, what made men act in such a way.

So I play a girl. I’d like to smash the man I once was, and all the men who act like young boys, who never think beyond the metaphor before them. Never go down into the dark dungeons that exist inside all of us and destroy the demons there. Who never vanquish their violent thirst for war or women. I want to be the man who never asks for a reward. Never expects a return for the kindness we inherently owe one another.

So if you see me online in my woman’s skin, with my long red hair and cold blue eyes, my sword and shield ready, be polite. Offer kindness, or come at me, bro. •

Graphics created by Emily Anderson.

Paul Crenshaw’s essay collection This One Will Hurt You is forthcoming from The Ohio State University Press in spring 2019. Other work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Pushcart Prize, anthologies by Houghton Mifflin and W.W. Norton, Oxford American, Ecotone, Brevity, North American Review, and Glimmer Train, among others. @PaulCrenstorm

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