Gamer girl: What ‘Pokémon’ taught me about myself

Monday, March 11, 2019 - 5:06pm

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I often joke when I’m going through a rough patch that upcoming Nintendo releases are the only thing keeping me going. Yeah sure — there’s plenty of music, movies and life, I guess, that make the daily slog worth it, but what if I never got to play “Super Smash Bros. Ultimate”? That was the light at the end of the tunnel that was last fall semester, much like the wait for “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” kept me grounded senior year of high school. If a new “Animal Crossing” or “Kirby” game is announced, I whisper to myself, “goddamn it, they’ve done it again.” The next handful of months or even years will have the promise of (insert new Nintendo game) forever tucked away in the back of my mind. It’s the carrot on a never-extending stick.

So when “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield” were announced a few weeks ago, I swore silently under my breath. The nondescript release date of Late 2019 can’t come soon enough. And despite my doubts about Game Freak making a main series “Pokémon” game for a home video game console, the proverbial hype train has left the station. I have made it abundantly clear to my friends and Twitter that I would die for that monkey.

During our spring break road trip my girlfriend and I spent a good chunk of time discussing “Sword” and “Shield” speculations and theories. In the excitement of the announcement, I even bought “Pokémon Ultra Sun” to play on the trip to scratch the itch. I haven’t gotten that far, but something about starting a new game makes me fall in love with the series all over again. The debate over which starter to choose was as back-and-forth as it was when I booted up my first “Pokémon” game more than a decade ago. My Safari app is now overpopulated with Bulbapedia tabs about the Alola region.

But what makes “Pokémon” the Nintendo series dearest to my heart, more so than sprawling odyssey of a “Zelda” game or the platforming precision of a “Mario” game?

For years I had just accepted video games as a man’s realm, to be played and enjoyed and talked about at recess fields by boys and boys only. The rare girl who played video games was essentially one of the boys. When my parents gave my sister and me a Wii for Christmas, I was the one who spent hours glued to the thing, my sister only occasionally stopping by for a round of dog frisbee on “Wii Sports Resort.” Yes, this notion of gendering activities is extremely backwards, and I resent myself for buying into it for so many years, but this is what I grew up thinking. Video games were a boy’s space.

So why did I always feel an unexplained connection with female video game characters? Why did I always pick Rosalina, Toadette or the pink Shy Guy in “Mario Kart”? The easy explanation to which I chalked it down was one offered by a YouTuber I used to watch: He reasoned to his group of friends that he created a female character in “Grand Theft Auto V Online” because he would rather look at a girl than a dude for the truckload of hours he would pour into the game. Sound enough reasoning for 13-year-old me, who still subscribed to the gender binary and had never met a queer person in her life!

Still, even then this explanation was not comforting. Even though I always chose or created a female player character when I was given the option, I would never want to be seen playing that game because I was afraid someone would make fun of me or ask why I was playing as a girl. It’s a bit sad to think now, but this virtual shame was perhaps the first manifestation of my transgender identity.

And that’s why I found such refuge in “Pokémon.” Each of the core games was made for handhelds (the Game Boy Advance, for example) and offered me my own private little adventure, not displayed to my family on the living room TV, only shown to those I wanted to show — pocket monsters on my pocket console. My first “Pokémon” generation was the fourth, and oh, was it vital. “Diamond,” I sing my song of love to thee. There’s a common phrase found in the openings of all the earlier “Pokémon” games which is essentially the character select screen: “Are you a boy? Or are you a girl?” The girl in “Diamond” is canonically named Dawn, whose flowing scarf and pink aesthetic I immediately found the perfect projection of my inward self.

I’d still get teased whenever I battled or traded with my school friends and they saw a pixelated girl pop up on their DS screen, but from “Diamond” onward I always responded “Girl” to the given generation’s Professor when they asked. And while “Pokémon” isn’t explicitly a queer friendly game, it has never condemned the legions of queer fans whose experience with “Pokémon” is whatever they make of it. It didn’t matter if it was Hoenn or Unova; every NPC would always refer to me as my chosen name (Emily initially made the rounds) and gender me correctly. Hell, that’s better than the real world — their batting average is way lower than “Pokémon”’s perfect record.

It wasn’t until the sixth generation of “Pokémon” that I started to realize my constant choosing of female protagonists was more than an aesthetic decision. With “Pokémon Y” Game Freak introduced player customization, and I was ecstatic. My character could actually wear multiple cute dresses as opposed to the real me who could only dream when online window shopping. “Y” was also the first time I tapped C-a-s-s-i-e into the touch screen keyboard. With these two aspects however, my shame playing as girl grew even greater. I constantly played the game with my 3DS gripped tight close to my chest.

It’s a bit of a coincidence too that the sixth generation had two of the most explicit references to trans identity. Well, not references exactly, more coincidences really, but the beauty of “Pokémon” is that I can believe them to be references and not immediately be told I’m wrong. And plus, at least some one at Game Freak has to be down for the cause. First, we have Sylveon, a Fairy-type evolution of first generation pokémon Eevee, whose colors match the colors of the trans flag to the T, and has become the icon for trans gamers across the globe to trojan horse their transness through phone wallpapers and Redbubble stickers.

And second, how could we forget the benevolent Beauty Nova, a female NPC trainer with a bit of dialogue mentioning she was a “Black Belt” (a hulking Karate expert class of trainer) “a mere half year ago.” Beauty Nova’s dialogue opened itself to debate, with some fans insisting it was just a mistranslation from the original Japanese. Personally, I’ll have whatever estrogen she’s having.

I’ll say it again: “Pokémon” is what you make of it. For me, not only is each “Pokémon” game an incredible journey where I lovingly watch these weird little creatures evolve into a super effective Elite Four-squashing squad, but it was the first space where I could truly be myself without obstruction.

In the Photos app on my phone there is an album called “fairy type trash” full of selfies and trans memes, inspired by our trans icons Sylveon and Gen VII starter Popplio (I mean, just look at her evolutionary line). The album primarily exists as a timeline to visualize my own progress, my own evolution, but instead of Exp. Points and Rare Candies all it takes is a little bit of hormones and a lot of confident, unapologetic pride in the girl I truly am.