It's Friday night and I'm gathering supplies for Girls Night over at my friend's house. Fashion magazines? Check. Nail polish? Check. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 for the PlayStation 3? Check. As I chuck the box into my Tinker Bell shoulder bag, somewhere, a feminism fairy dies.
Modern Warfare 2 is a sexist game. On this fact, I think most people agree because it's a war game, a typical male fantasy. Beyond that, though, the game omits women from its experience almost entirely. If you skip the infamous No Russian level, the only female contact you have is an automated voice telling you all phone lines in America are down. There are no women in the bunkers, no women in the chain of command, and I'm 90 per cent sure that that poor astronaut also isn't a woman.
To be fair, the lack of women in Modern Warfare 2 doesn't seem as blatantly sexist as other video games where big-breasted bimbo women are shoehorned into the story for the main character to drool over. However, excluding women - who make up more than half of the world's population - from the entire cast of characters is still sexist. Like branding every copy of the game with a No Girls Allowed stamp.
Sexist or not, though, Modern Warfare 2 captured the hearts and minds of at least three feminists simply by being a good game. There may have been moments when my friends and I as women felt uncomfortable - like riding in the Humvee in the mounted gun position; there was something a little too butch about that. Overall, though, I had to conclude that we weren't shut out from enjoying this male fantasy. We just have to ask if there will ever be room for us to exist within it.
Originally my two friends and I weren't planning to spend our entire night in playing Modern Warfare 2. It was just an item of curiosity, like stealing my big brother's Playboy magazine to show off at a slumber party. The game had been out for about a week and everybody was talking about it, particularly the No Russian level. So after a gracing the first level with our presence, we decided to keep playing and see what all the fuss was about.
Two days later I still hadn't left my friends' house. Empty take-away containers littered their living room and the fashion magazines and nail polish had been abandoned in the kitchen. We were at the final level and we were screaming our heads off with all the high-octave fervour of pre-teen girls at a Jonas Brothers concert.
SPOILER WARNING: MODERN WARFARE 2
That moment went something like this:
"Ohmigod, you have to catch him! Don't let him get away!" This was from Felicity*, a girl in her early 20s who works in local government.
"Ooohhh... He killed Ghost!" This came from Tiffany*, a classmate of mine at Mills College - bastion of feminist principle in the West - and the owner of the PS3. She insists she bought it for the Blu-ray player but we've all seen the stack of PlayStation One games on her bookshelf.
"We know he killed Ghost, we were there! Oh! Oh! Quicktime event!" That was me, the games journalist who couldn't name a single feminist movement leader.
After negotiating who would perform the quicktime event (me, because Tiffany pointed out I play games for a living), we sat back and soaked up the final moments of Modern Warfare 2 almost in revered silence. After the credits sequence ended, my friends and I stayed up late into the night, gossiping, mooning and moaning over every little detail in the game. Sort of the same way we do for movies we like, starring people we'd like to sleep with.
"I heart Ghost," I declared. "He can carry me on his back to a helicopter any day."
"Oh come on," Tiffany replied. "You can't even see his face. MacTavish, now he's dreamy."
"The mohawk's not doing it for me," Felicity contributed. "He'd have to wear his snow cap and goggles to bed."
It struck me then to wonder about our behaviour. First of all, I thought it was weird that we were lusting after Ghost and Soap as if they were Brad Pitt and Jason Statham. Second, I noticed we had moments of masculinity when our typical female language ("Omigod! Eee!") was replaced by more aggressive language ("Kill that guy! Run and knife! Go loud, go loud!"). Finally, I thought maybe we failed at being feminists. Modern Warfare 2 is sexist but we played it - and not just played it, loved it.
That last point is important because it's part of a catch-22 in the video games industry: Developers don't make games for girls because they assume girls don't play games, and because developers don't make games for girls, girls don't play video games. In other words, if I accept Modern Warfare 2 as awesome despite being not having a single female character for me to identify with in it, will Modern Warfare 3 also lack female characters?
I brought the drama up with Tiffany first. "It is possible to enjoy something despite it being sexist, not because it's sexist," she said. "I think there needs to be a move away from the language that makes some things for boys and some things for girls so we can enjoy things without using gender language."
To me, that's typical "Millsbian" language - it sounds nice, but it doesn't offer any solutions. So I asked Tiffany if she thought the game would be better with a playable female character in it.
Tiffany said no, she didn't want to play as a woman, she just wanted to see women. The non-playable character women in No Russian don't count because they offended her (and me). Here's why: they all seemed to be wearing the exact same purple shirt whereas the male NPCs had a variety of outfits. It's like the developers had no idea what women wear and copy-pasted one character model into the level to save time.
Above: Spot the women. Now spot the women without purple shirts.
Felicity mentioned the purple shirt ladies as "not real women", too, but she didn't seem nearly as offended by them as Tiffany and I were. She's inclined to forgive Modern Warfare for not really having women in the cast because she prefers that to Japanese role-playing games where all the girls are cutesy, skinny and have huge tits.
"I would have been OK with some of your radio commands coming from women, though," she said. "But I'd be more worried about having a playable female character because it might seem more like they shoehorned a woman into the game."
That made me think of the first Modern Warfare. In that game, there is a female helicopter pilot in a combat situation. For the majority of the level, she's helping your male character out - then at the end, just as you're about to escape a nuclear blast, she gets shot down and your character goes back for her and dies trying to save her.
This triggers my feminist rage in two ways. First, it's inadvertently suggesting that men wouldn't go back for other men on the battlefield - only for women (and from there, it's not much of a stretch to conclude that women shouldn't be on the battlefield). Second, it's implying that women can't drive. Seriously, why couldn't some of the male pilots get shot down?
I give Modern Warfare 2 credit for not repeating the female pilot nonsense. But at the same time, I feel like they wasted an excellent opportunity to give me, Tiffany and Felicity a female character we could easily relate to without feeling like she'd been shoehorned in: the DC Invasion levels. You really think the US Army would care about the no-women-in-combat-zones rule when the enemy is in the White House? You would see every able-bodied adult on the battlefield at that point.
That's ultimately what I'm asking for from Modern Warfare 3: room to exist within the male fantasy. I don't just want to lust after Ghost and Soap - I want to imagine myself there with them. I don't just want to know that women are in the Army by hearing their voices on a radio - I want to see them fighting for their country the way I would if the enemy were at the gates and my country needed me. I want developers to know that I play video games too, so they should pander to me as well as men.
*Names have been changed.