Issue 2, Spring 2007


Nintendolls: I Was a Comandante in the Video Game Revolution
by Sheyene Foster Heller


“What are you doing?” my husband Steve asks, a bewildered look on his face as I sit on the floor in front of the TV in our study, a rectangular gray remote pulsing in my hands.

With a 29-year gap in our ages, there are surprisingly few things that we do not understand about each other. In many ways, we often say, we had the same childhood. The difference is in the details: At the age of eight, Steve was drawing pretend bridges for Winky Dink to cross the river on a black-and-white Motorola console, eluding the bad guys and ensuring safe passage for Winky and his loyal dog Woofer. TV was still new; I Love Lucy and The Ed Sullivan Show were the most popular shows on the tube. The Cold War was in full-force, but the bad guys in the pretend-wars played by kids Steve’s age were still the Germans and the Japanese. Dwight Eisenhower defeated Aldai Stevenson to secure a second term, and Rocky Marciano retired undefeated after 49 matches and 43 knockouts. At the same age, in 1986, I was maneuvering a multi-colored Mario through worlds of smiley face clouds and dark dragon-infested dungeons, 32 levels to rescue the real princess, defeat King Koopa, and restore order to the Mushroom Kingdom. TVs still had tubes, but their pictures were in color. VCRs were relatively new; The Cosby Show and Family Ties were the hit series. The Cold War was nearing its conclusion, and both Chernobyl and the Challenger exploded. The Gipper was midway through his second term in office, and Mike Tyson became the youngest heavyweight champion in history.

So, as I sit on the floor in our shared study, fixated in front of the TV with the grey remote in my hands, Steve doesn’t quite understand. “You’re playing a video game?” he asks.

“Kirby,” I say. “I need a break from grading.”

Steve sighs an okay and goes back to his laptop. And how can I explain? I’m a 27-year-old woman with two graduate degrees in English, guiding a puffy pink star through Dream Land in search of the Star Rod. I’m a writer, a teacher, a runner—and a gamer.


I’m not sure exactly when, but I do remember how it began: one girl, one joystick, one spaceship to save from an invasion of splintering space debris. My first console was the Atari 2600, and I played it on a 4” square black-and-white screen of the fold-down alarm clock/radio/television my parents gave me one Christmas. The games were your standard classics: Asteroids, Pong, Frogger, Ms. Pac-Man, Pole Position, along with a few clunkers like E.T., in which the blocky figure of an extraterrestrial wanders around pointlessly, falling into pit after pit until finally (thank god) he dies from lack of food.

At some point, however, I sold the 2600 at a garage sale along with all those games and that little black-and-white eye-strainer. I upgraded my childhood to 8-bit graphics and shanghaied the family TV.

Just like that, I became a Nintendoll.


My stepdaughter Rachael has had a PlayStation 2 remote in her hands since she was five, but back in the 1980’s not all girls were into video games. Frankly, it was a boyish thing to do, but I was a tomboy anyway and I hated most of the girls in my class, so that was fine with me. I could beat my boy friends at all of the light gun games, and I was proud of my prowess with the Zapper. I could beat all three Super Mario Bros. games, and I was making progress on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. And why not? I had all day in school to ignore my teachers and read books. I had evenings to ride my bike, shoot hoops, and play with friends. When I came home to an empty house each weekday afternoon, I craved a different kind of stimulation. I wanted virtual environments, simulated engagement, where one could reap all the rewards of winning without ever really losing. After all, “Game Over” simply meant “Retry.”


Lately, I’ve been pressing the retry button a lot. Growing up in Kansas, I loved video games, but I was mostly an outdoorsy girl. When I was 12, I spent weekends on my friends’ farms, helped fix fence and shear sheep, cut cane and clean barns. A decade later, as a newlywed, I was the kind of woman who liked to hike the Flint Hills year-round, observing the constant, subtle color changes of Big Bluestem and Indian Grasses. The kind who liked to take my youngest stepkids, Rachael and Daniel, to the lake, where we’d all roll in mud, cover ourselves in muck and cattails, and the wash off in a catfishy man-made lagoon. The kind who liked feeling a little filthy every now and again, rinsing off by dancing in the rain.

Now Steve and I live in Los Angeles, and I feel displaced. On the edge of the water in Marina del Rey, surrounded by palm trees and boats, film crews and concrete, I miss the smell of dirt. I miss mowing broad green lawns and the moments just after—sticky with sweat, gulping iced tea, the feel of fresh cut fescue beneath bare feet. Like many other displaced Midwesterners sprinkled across the West Coast, I miss thunderous storms and showy seasons. But the simple sensations of my former life are what I miss most. For the last three years, I’ve been struggling to find something—anything—to make me feel whole again. I’ve tried Pointe ballet, yoga, Pilates. I’ve tried drinking Scotch and smoking cigarettes all day, starting at 9:00 in the morning and ending whenever I passed out. I’ve tried swimming, body boarding, rollerblading. I’ve quit smoking altogether, cut back on the drinking, and potty trained our miniature long-haired dachshund named Dash. I’ve thought about having children.

Too many times I’ve been called precocious, and I realize now it was never a compliment. At 27, I’m somehow caught in a midlife crisis—a spiraling loop of uncertainty and lack of focus. After trying so many things—succeeding at some, failing at others, getting nowhere all the while—I’ve made a conscious decision to revert to a 1980-something version of me, with retro Atari releases on the Sony PlayStation and aged NES cartridges in a classic gray Nintendo console, souped up with a brand new 72-bit connector. This, I tell myself, will get me somewhere. Part of me must believe it. I’ve purchased a Super Nintendo Entertainment System to complement my classic NES, a PlayStation 2 to accompany our old PS1, a brand-new backlit Gameboy Advance SP to replace my yellowed, monochromatic original Gameboy system.

I’m old enough to know better, but still young enough to hope: Somewhere in the make-believe Marioland of my childhood, I might find a missing piece of me.

There are kids who read the instruction manuals, and then there are kids who just start playing, pressing buttons, trying and retrying until the rhythm is right and things work the way they’re supposed to. I’ve never even opened a manual. All I know how to do is fiddle, continue trying on costumes until I find the right fit, keep clicking the keys, move the words around until they make sense, fuck with whatever until it functions properly.

My husband is a Baby Boomer, but I don’t normally think of myself as a member of a particular generation. After all, those of us born in 1978 fall conveniently forgotten between the constructs of Generation X jobless slackers and Generation Y consumerist clones. I’ve always surrounded myself with people who were significantly older than me. My favorite types of music are Big Band, Classic Crooners, and Swinging Jazz. Most of the writers I read are long dead, their heydays in past decades where my decadent imagination thrives: the 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. Steve understands this part of me, the part that likes to hear a good story, sip a glass of single malt scotch or a dry martini, dance around the kitchen with my hubby, moving my stocking feet to the sound of Frank Sinatra or Rosemary Clooney. But another aspect of my personality, the part of me who listens to Violent Femmes and Cake, the kid who enjoys a few good rounds of Donkey Kong or Duck Hunt, has been feeling rather lonely lately. So a few days ago, I thought it might be interesting to do a quick websearch: There have to be other girls who played classic Nintendo, I figured, other Nintendolls. Probably they’ve already coined this phrase and written books on it. What I found in the list of links was different:

Adult Nintendo Games - Sacrifice quality...for porn!

E3 2005 Photo Gallery – Nintendo’s Booth Babes.

Kamalot: Nintengirls?

I try several combinations of the terms “girls classic Nintendo” and “women NES” before coming upon a search term that provides results more along the lines of what I’m looking for—and what works makes me slightly ill: “Girl Gamers.” Apparently, I am one of them.

As it turns out, there are several forums for girl gamers, but most seem to be devoted to young women who like first-person shooters like Halo, action games like Tomb Raider, and a variety of other first-person RPGs, including “MMORPG’s,” Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, like World of Warcraft. The “Watch Us Game” Girls include pictures of themselves, all posing with their perfectly smooth young skin, some toting various props or accessories: chokers, nose rings, lip rings, handguns, rifles, dogs, friends, and exposed underwear. They go by screen names like Wildflower and XxxSTARSxxX , CandiGirl and PirAteChick, Chickiepoo and Atomicdolly, Apathyoverdose and TranquilTears.

Oh, shit, I suddenly realize, they’re all still in high school.

“Where are all of the other girl gamers of my generation?” I complain to Steve while out on a jog. “Why aren’t they out there blogging about the classic NES like guys are? Why aren’t they writing about any of this?”

As I ask these questions, I realize that I don’t remember any of my female friends having Nintendo systems when we were younger. But I know others have to be out there.

“Maybe they’re raising babies,” Steve says.

“Don’t be an asshole,” I tell him.


Nearly eight years ago, one of my early writing mentors, Vicki Lindner, gave me an essay of hers to read: “I Was a Comandante in the Sexual Revolution.” I had just turned nineteen, and I was working with Vicki in a one-week summer workshop at the Brockport Writers Forum in upstate New York. In the essay, Vicki recalls being the “last virgin” at Bard College—until “a ‘townie’ creative student” named Jim kicked off her erotic escapades. She then reflects on significance of the sex-laden Sixties.

For while the Sexual Revolution offered us an opportunity to experience a new and uncomfortable desire for power, it also encouraged us to take significant risks…I don’t think it is a coincidence, or altogether due to feminist politics, that the women I know who slept around in the sixties and seventies became actresses, writers, artists, editors, started their own businesses, and lived adventurous, unpredictable lives.

When I first read Vicki’s essay in 1997, I was still a virgin. Even more than her sexual escapades, I envied that generational force she experienced. Women and men Vicki’s and my husband’s age had already fought the good fights for kids like me. My generation was born lucky, too lucky: post-bra-burnings, post-Vietnam-protests, post-Civil-Rights-marches. Our good fortune robbed us of the opportunity to be gleeful rosy-cheeked anarchists—idealistic in the face of reality, united by our common discontent with societal structures, so much more liberated than our middle-class parents. How can you be freer than free love, zipless fucks, flowers in everyone’s hair? Is it any wonder that so many of us turned to video games, to the one place where there were still battles to be won or lost, kingdoms to save or conquer, new territories to explore in virtual places where our parents would never dare to tread? We were the ones who went there first, the millions of us children of the eighties who served as Comandantes in the Video Game Revolution, and we each went into combat alone.


A few days after the jog, I’m finally beating one of the ultimate bosses in Kirby’s Adventures when I’m interrupted.

“Damn,” I hear Steve mutter from across the room, his brown furrowed as his stares down at his laptop. “What the . . . but why?”

I press the select button, putting my game on pause, and sit down next to Steve on the futon in our study.

“What’s up, honey?” I ask.

“Well,” he begins, “this time it’s the page numbers. Look at this. Why are they at the top of the screen AND the bottom of the screen?”

“Here,” I say, and with two clicks, the page numbers at the bottom disappear.

“Thanks,” Steve grunts sarcastically, shaking his head. But he smiles.


If I have to be part of a generation, I guess this is what video games gave mine: Much like learning a language before puberty, our fingers have retained a kind of sensual, technical knowledge, independent of conscious thought.

“How did you take away those tabs? How did you fix that margin?” my husband asks—to which I laugh.

“Hell, I don’t know,” I say.

“But I need to be able to do it myself,” he insists.

I wish I could tell him. But the truth is I really don’t know. How do you make Mario power jump? How do you make Kirby swallow his enemies? How do you ride a bicycle, do a cartwheel, throw a baseball? How does a 19-year-old girl fall in love with a 48-year-old man?

I don’t know how, and I certainly can’t tell you why. Some things you learn by touch and recognize by feel.

Later, Steve and I retreat to the balcony as we do every evening after all our work is done. We sip Bombay Sapphire martinis, listen to NPR, eat popcorn, and play fetch with Dash. During the daylight, we see sailboats glide past on the main channel of the marina, jets streaking across the horizon as they take off from LAX, other couples walking circles around our apartment complex while their dogs mark palm trees. After nightfall, all movements are refracted. We see shards of moonlight gleaming on the water, the green starboard lights of sailboats returning to harbor and the red port-side lights of boats slipping out to sea. We count the white lights of jets lined up to land at LAX, sometimes eight or nine or more in a row. Day or night, we are surrounded by people with purpose, discernable destinations, regular routes and predictable patterns. We find comfort in these rhythms. We dream of our own possibilities as we observe the wakes of others.

Tonight, however, it is cloudy and cooler than usual. Few boats are out, and only the occasional white dot in the sky above the airport peeks through. Dash soon scrambles onto Steve’s lap, and I lean my head on my husband’s shoulder.

“I’m not sure whether I want to have a kid or just be a kid,” I confess.

Steve smoothes my hair and kisses my forehead.

“That’s the question,” he replies.

We sit together in silence, staring at the soft violet sky, the streetlights throwing shadows of palm leaves on the sidewalk below our balcony. In the velvety glow, we focus on the family of pelicans dive-bombing a school of fish, the sounds of seagulls screeching across the way, and the bright light of a boom in a parking lot on the other side of the marina where whoknowswho is filming godknowswhat once again. Typically, I’m annoyed by film crews, but tonight I appreciate the presence of these pretenders, the way their 10,000 Watt bulb acts as a make-shift moon. As I let my eyes linger on that steady sphere, secured in the sky by a mechanical arm, something happens. Unlike recent nights, a scene unfolds in my mind—not another deadly-dull episode of CSI Miami, but something unscripted: Steve starring as Winky Dink, me a multi-colored Mario, Dash our loyal dog Woofer, all of us together somehow, spanning time and technology, catching our breath before we draw the next bridge, power jump over the next obstacle, think and feel and fumble our way toward the path we must travel together.