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Pong Wasn’t Sexist — Gender Signifiers in Early Gaming

NEW: Watch my apology for this article on Youtube.

Modern gaming critics have a considerable advantage these days. Games are longer, more involved and fall on different price points giving a critic the ability to produce 20 minute reviews and 2000 word essays while still leaving the player the option to make their own decisions and learn about the game first hand. It’s even possible to speak directly to the programmers, designers and voice actors! This is a new phenomenon and should have resulted in better criticism.

Often this access leads to its own set of journalistic ethical wrenches where those who critique for their supper must be gentle for fear of losing that access. Game criticism doesn’t require a lick of access since you’re reviewing the game as delivered, but that’s an argument for another day.

Modern Critics Pick and Choose Their Battles

Critics of modern games run into even more trouble when it comes to taking a sharp look into the past. When modern critics (in this case, modern feminist critics) are not interested in the early history of gaming then they are not informed enough to comment on modern issues. Reasonably, one-quarter of the roughly 42 year history of games can be considered the early period if we choose the Crash of ’83 as the end of that era. A critic of modern music deserves no authority on modern trends if they’ve never listened to any bands from earlier than the mid-80s.

What kind of modern music critic ignores Led Zeppelin, the regrettable disco era and Black Sabbath? What kind of modern music critic has never used a record player? The kind of who gets paid for ignoring those years, that’s who.

Modern critics who decry games as sexist are willfully ignoring a decade’s worth of games because they do not fit into the narrative. If games are becoming increasingly sexist, then the start of the crescendo must be analyzed and underlined. If video games are inherently sexist, then modern rubrics to determine them as such must also align with the earliest games.

I’ll note that ignorance and dismissal of early games goes hand-in-hand with dismissal of second wave feminism, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The 1970s Were Not The Stone Age

Let’s start with some claims: Gaming as it is today did not emerge fully formed from the heads of sexist male game designers. Modern gaming is a result of advances in technology and must be understood hand in hand with gaming’s history of technology breakthroughs. Early gaming is not stone-aged technology. Working Atari 2600s and Pong consoles can be had for $100-$150 on EBay. I can guarantee you’ll have more trouble locating a working CRT television than a working early console.

So instead of diving right into talking about where we’re currently at in gaming (a subject on which I admit I am inadequately versed) I’d like to start with the most important video game ever produced: Pong.

Pong was based on the the game Tennis released in 1972 on the first at-home console, the Magnavox Odyssey. This resulted in a lawsuit against its manufacturer at Atari and Magnavox spent years pursuing legal action against other companies that produced games similar to Tennis.

Pong wasn’t the first video game ever produced, but it was the most important when you factor in its reach into the mainstream. So let’s stick a pin into this historical moment and make a bold statement based on my claims:

Pong is not sexist.

The most important video game of all time is not sexist.

Early Programmers Are Alive And Well and Browsing the Web

The first protagonists of those early games were its players. Yes, Tennis and then Pong were developed by men, but it’s unreasonable to claim that just because a game was designed by a man it is inherently anti-woman, especially since early games did not credit their programmers.

Claiming that modern games are sexist vilifies the game designers of today (including the female designers) who are able to respond to their target market and in fact are sentient beings who read their own reviews and gather feedback from their players. They are also gamers themselves.

It’s a pathetic feedback loop that allows non-gaming critics to be the most important faction to please with the video games built by lifelong gamers. You wouldn’t let a vegetarian review your steakhouse, would you?

In reality, early games were quicker to produce, and one truth about manufacturing is that when you have a faster turnaround time, you can respond more quickly to your market and to the changing technology. Games that were broken were returned. Atari programmers were not sending out beta versions to legions of testers, but instead they worked in an office full of programmers who were more qualified to give constructive feedback.

There is a sad lack of available interviews and documentaries about early programmers. It would be beneficial to give them a stronger voice in today’s gaming media. As a vaguely in-tune gamer who fondly recalls the thousands of hours poured into her childhood NES, I am often more interested in the views of the people who paved that way than the modern designers who are too busy with their careers to comment.

Early games were not social commentary, they were built around the available technology including available RAM and whether the system took cartridges. The programmers surely had their own views on the world but had no way of injecting such things into Super Breakout and Space Invaders. Early criticisms of those games were purely of and about the games. Now, critics are willing and able to personally attack those programmers.

Overhead Perspective Made The Player the First Person

Early games were not attempting to mimic reality in the same was as modern games. You were required to use your imagination to turn a dot into a ball and a line into a tennis paddle.

That same limited technology limited female protagonists. Of course, that means there were no MALE protagonists either. The first protagonist in video games was the player. Early games needed box art and manuals to fill you in on the details and left a lot to your imagination — now it’s all fed directly to you as a narrative.

Take Video Olympics as an example. Released as a launch title to the Atari, it included a female tennis player on the box art. Conspiracies ought to claim that therefore, Pong’s protagonist is a woman because Tennis, or something. The launch title Surround featured a male and female on the box art occupying the same space on their seat.

There’s a thesis’ worth of symbolism in those two examples.

Hardware First, Pixels Second

There’s a very basic trend here: technology and the hardware is necessarily prior to the software and therefore the storytelling in the game. Without the right hardware, without enough RAM in the console or cartridge, without battery power, it is harder to tell a story with characters be they male or female.

Nowadays to avoid naming a protagonist is to leave out a major piece of the game on purpose. Even John Everyman characters like Chell and Gordon Freeman are eye-rolling empty Mary Sues to the point where it’s deliberate.

Gendered Protagonists

Early games had no ability to produce real protagonists because they were limited by their pixels. Gender signifiers and female characters (and decidedly male characters) came about as graphics became better.

The first major protagonists were airplanes and sportsball players. If you were playing a baseball game it made sense to assume the players were all male because the best known professional athletes were and are men. It was all make-believe and in the mind of the player, anyway. And it’s not like it’s necessarily negative to assume that 15 pixels worth of a stick figure is obviously male, anyway.

But that’s an essay for another day.

I’M SO SORRY

Please watch my apology for saying horrible things.