How male video game characters awakened my sexuality as a teen girl.
As a 12-year-old girl, I didn’t quite know what to make of the sensations that overcame me when I played Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
It felt like butterflies, only they fluttered much lower in my stomach, rising like a hot wave all the way up my body. If I’d looked in the mirror, my cheeks would’ve flushed scarlet.
The Prince was my first-ever sexy male video game protagonist crush. But he was far from my last. A desire to bang virtual leading men became a common thread for most of my favorite and formative gaming experiences in girlhood.
But today, I recognize that this wasn’t just a horny young girl discovering the great and terrible power of hormones for the first time. This was how I made the hyper-masculine world of video games work for me.
My virtual thirstiness unwittingly allowed me to embed my own fantasies and desires into games, a medium otherwise dominated exclusively by the desires and fantasies of boys and men.
A desire to bang virtual leading men became a common thread for most of my favorite and formative gaming experiences in girlhood.
For those who don’t remember, 2003’s Prince of Persia starred a haughty, privileged, selfish Prince — at the exact moment when he loses everything. He partners with the badass Farah, a princess of India sold into slavery after her own home country was invaded and her family was killed, as well.
They work together, at first reluctantly, to end the evil that destroyed their worlds. The Prince’s voice-over narration frames their adventure throughout, recounting the story of their journey to an unknown listener sometime in the future.
Yup, still hot — even a decade later.
But the Prince who narrates sounds like a different man than the arrogant (yet undeniably charming) boy we play in the first couple acts of the game. The Prince telling the story often sounds vulnerable, expressing feelings he wished he’d been brave enough to say in the moment. He’s even considerate and accommodating, dutifully telling his listener he’ll “start the story from here next time” every time you save your game file.
From the tender preteen years up through college (and to this day, if I'm being honest), I fell for countless others, too: Jak of Jak and Daxter II and III consumed the rest of my early fantasy sex life (take me now, Dark Eco Jak), only surpassed later by the long reign of the irresistible Ezio Auditore de Firenze from Assassin’s Creed, then eventually by the tragic family man John Marston in Red Dead Redemption (my taste in men evidently matured along with games as a medium).
In retrospect, I can identify what those dizzying, quivering flashes of heat threatening to overwhelm me while playing Prince of Persia were: a thirst, unleashing itself for the first time. It became a habit of mine to explore my nascent sexuality through the safe, removed, non-threatening distance of virtual and fictional worlds populated by hot protagonists.
Dark Eco Jak has a special place in my angsty teen heart.
© NAUGHTY DOG, SONY
Even at a young age, it wasn’t hard to tell that games and their protagonists were not made for me, or even with me in mind. I realized this long before I joined the gaming industry as a journalist, or understood anything about how games were made, or the boy’s club surrounding them, or its unfairness toward women and girls.
The games I grew up on tended to cater to the wants of a target demographic I was not part of: white, cis, heterosexual dudes. And their protagonists, embodying various male ideals, were specifically designed to give those presumed male players a power fantasy to identify with.
So instead, I got busy fantasizing about them.
I saw little of myself represented in these gruff, brooding, problematic video game heroes. So instead, I got busy fantasizing about them.
I’m not alone, either.
Game designer Jane Jensen, the mind behind 1993’s Gabriel Knight franchise, defended her right to make games with mostly male characters in a 2014 blog post titled, 'WRITING HOT MEN FOR GAMES? Yes, please.’
In response to a male reporter who asked why she didn’t write more female characters and role models for women players to identify with, she wrote:
“The answer was really pretty obvious — I don’t just write male characters, I write male characters who are hot simply because I enjoy it. And thus crumbles any illusion I have to be above gender. The truth is, when I write a male character I am writing him from a female perspective, as a kind of fantasy. And why not? Male designers create female characters who are male fantasies all the time.”
Ezio is our forever heartthrob, who we watched grow from boy to man.
To be clear, many feminists don’t agree with this logic. Whether in games or film, many will say the solution to treating women characters as sexual objects and fantasies rather than people is not to “even out the playing field” by giving women more eye candy, too.
And it's a valid point.
I’ve wrestled with my own thirsty use of a video game’s third-perspective camera to ogle at the butts of my favorite hot male protagonists — knowing that this is exactly what boys and men have done to Lara Croft. I question my desires for what are, objectively, pretty awful fictional men who perpetuate unhealthy notions of traditional masculinity.
But I’ve come to a few conclusions on why what Jensen and I are talking about is different from, say, zooming in on Lara Croft's triangle breasts.
For one, women in game worlds are in large part treated as damsels or sex objects designed to attract the presumed male player. It matters that women and girls are not the kings of these virtual worlds, where every story beat, character, and heroic act is designed for our pleasure and entertainment. I mean, even for protagonists like Croft, her legacy is embroiled in a design intended to make players desire her rather than identify with her.
For another, I feel a lot less gross lusting after hot male protagonists when I know it is precisely their humanity that makes them worth fantasizing over. And that humanity is often counter to those unhealthy aspects of traditional masculinity.
In her guide to writing hot male protagonists that excite women, girls, and all others attracted to that gender, Jensen points to a few key rules of thumb.
To win us over, “he needs to show vulnerability, be redeemable, and improve over the course of the story.”
First of all, “a nice ass goes without saying.” And, amen to that. But also she writes that, more times than not, we’re generally not into the stereotypical, hyper-masculine action hero Mr. Universe type — like a McCree fromOverwatch or Kratos from the original God of War trilogy. Those are the men that heterosexual guys think we want, but really they’re just power fantasies of their own creation.
They tend to be too off-puttingly aggressive for young girls (think Edward from Twilight), and too brutish for most grown women (think Edward from Twilight). And more importantly, Jensen asserts, it’s personality (read: their humanity) that counts most in writing a truly hot male protagonist.
That isn’t to say that said protagonist can’t be some variety of asshole (they almost always are in games). But to win us over, “he needs to show vulnerability, be redeemable, and improve over the course of the story.”
Look at the vast difference between Kratos in his original trilogy, versus his reimagined 2018 iteration. He checks all those boxes (to some extent), and is not only a more compelling and human character for it, but also an attractive partner instead of the abusive, psychopathic, pathetic dickbag of pulsating testosterone from the early aughts.
At the end of the day, the reality is that even now, games are still largely being made for and by the same target heterosexual male demographic that did not include me or my desires as a young girl — or the desires of many other identities for that matter.
I would love to live in a world where I could see more of myself, my gender, and all others who’ve felt themselves ignored by video games. And slowly but surely, we’re getting there, with trailblazing big-budget titles like Uncharted: Lost Legacy and Horizon Zero Dawn.
The first moment of 2018's "God of War" opens on a moment of Kratos' vulnerability.
© SONY SANTA MONICA
In the meantime, while most big-budget games continue to presume a predominantly cis, heterosexual male player base, why not do the rest of us a favor? At the very least, make your protagonist worthy of our thirst. Or perhaps, even our love.
At the end of Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, you discover that the Prince has been recounting his tale to an alternate timeline version of Farah who never went on this journey with him — who does not know him, did not watch him grow through their ordeal, and bears no love for him.
That’s because she sacrificed herself to save him. And in return, he brought her back by sacrificing their love and reversing time to before any of it happened.
Suddenly, I realized why Prince of Persia: Sands of Time ignited my virtual sexual discovery like no game had before. It was because, all along, it had been a story told with a woman’s perspective and audience in mind.
At the very least, make your protagonist worthy of our thirst. Or perhaps, even our love.
This whole time, the Prince was telling this story to Farah, and by some extension, me. Maybe that’s why I felt so invited to bring my own desires into that game world.
Games are not usually bastions of exploration for anything other than a very narrow and juvenille definition of sexual titillation. The general public looks down on “basement dwelling teen gamers” who jerk off to Lara Croft or other objectified women in games.
But when you broaden the landscape of who games are for — if more games allowed for a wider breadth of identities, orientations, and fantasies — they could become powerful tools of sexual discovery.
Because early sexual education is always a bit juvenile. And maybe, being a bit juvenile doesn’t have to equate to being perverse.
If video games opened up their playgrounds to more people’s perspectives, we even might find that a bit of juvenile play can be the first step in owning one’s sexuality.