2015. I absconded into my bedroom under cover of night. No one was home, but I still scuttled like a knife-wielding crab until the door was closed and locked behind me. I didn’t want to get caught. In my arms I was clutching my roommate’s weathered Xbox 360 and the first installment of the Mass Effect series by BioWare.
Even with the door safely secured, I snuck glances over my shoulder like a middle-aged basement-dwelling pervert terrified that their cache of raunchy polaroids is about to be unearthed by their mother. At the age of 31 after more than a decade of knowing my best friend, an empowered woman and an obsessive gamer, I was finally going to play my first proper video game because a boy told me I’d like it, and I was desperately ashamed.
This shame wasn’t something new. I’m a woman. Shame is the must-have accessory. It can take a lifetime to get off. If I don’t grimace and apologize to someone who nearly knocks me down at least once a day, something is seriously amiss. I wasn’t worried that trying out a game would make me “uncool” either. That ship sailed long, long ago when I donned my first sensible business vest at the ripe old age of eight and starting doing things like putting the word uncool in quotation marks.
I was ashamed because of Alex. We’ve been best friends since we met in college. At 18 years old I’d never met a person so comfortable with herself. I, on the other hand, had no idea who I was, something my vast array of hair colors and Boone’s Farm binges made painfully clear. Alex played video games throughout college and graduated with a degree in Political Science. I didn’t play video games and the fact that I graduated at all is still a minor miracle.
I never went out of my way to avoid playing video games, like I spent a lifetime trying to avoid doing math or science, but I put them in the same category: for other people who are better, smarter, and more well-coordinated than I am. It didn’t occur to me until I was in my mid-20s, with a burgeoning sense of self-esteem and newfound passion for the scientific world, that I began to wonder if my negative associations with gaming, math, and the like were, you know, completely related to the inherent sexism of being born a girl in world that still hasn’t figured out that we’re people.
I was in love with a boy whose name I don’t remember when I was little girl. I do know that he had a rat-tail and B.O. and that we spent most of our time on playdates in front of his Sega Genesis. He played Sonic the Hedgehog and I watched. He let me try once, but I didn’t know which buttons did what, knowledge that is apparently inborn in men. I tried to jump for golden coins and failed. I was mortified and the little boy in question did nothing to bolster my spirits, he just took back the control. “Man, you really suck at this,” he said. “Yeah,” I said.
This was a moment I flashed back to in college when standing at my professor’s desk after one particularly brutal test. Science was a required course at my liberal arts college. I took Chemistry In Art, otherwise known as AP Kindergarten. I flunked a test, which is not surprising since a steel wall descended whenever someone tried to teach me something that was difficult to grasp. I was terrified of being made to feel small. In high school that was never a problem because I went to a single-sex school. I had no issue making a tit out of myself in front of those girls daily (and I often did). But slammed back into a co-ed environment I couldn’t stomach the idea of looking stupid in front of boys.
My professor shook his head going over my work. “This isn’t good, Rebecca,” he said. “Yeah,” I said.
I started playing Mass Effect just as Gamergate had reached (hopefully) peak awful. I followed the story but I didn’t relate it to my own life. I wrote essays for websites that garnered me hate mail, but no one ever threatened to kill me or rape me. They settled for calling me fat, ugly, and bad at what I do. I worked on becoming inured to them, but it was a slog. I didn’t compare my own experiences with those of Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn. Sure, they are progressive, creative women and so am I, but they were prominent important women in the gaming community, no-woman’s land, and as such they were experiencing real adversity.
I was just being told to shut up and sit down because I didn’t know what I was talking about. It was easy to view my own experience as being less-than because part of me still believed the naysayers were right.
The man who got me into video games was long gone by the time I finished Mass Effect. To Alex’s horror I somehow managed to convince Tali into commit suicide, banged Garrus long and hard, and became a sentient immortal robot alien god monster, just, I would argue, like God intended. I moved on to the Dragon Age games and then Bioshock Infinite. I was hooked. I was passionate about the stories. I loved queering the norm with the characters I could create in an RPG environment, and of choosing to take the road less traveled, even if it flummoxed Alex and her gaming friends. “YOU ARE ROMANCING ANDERS? WHO ARE YOU EVEN?”
When I ran out of games to play in the apartment, I inevitably turned to the web for advice. Naively I typed in “video games girls would like.” I was struck with a stick of total and complete awful. The most helpful posts suggested Bejeweled or Sailor Moon. But mostly the conversations just devolved into how women are the worst: “At least your wife likes to play games....... :) Mine, :cry: doesn´t understand or likes video games at all. :(“ or “My wife like playing fighting games on her PSP. That's right, HER PSP.” Those are the least sexist posts of this ilk I could find.
Even the most well-intentioned forum users talk about women in the broadest, wrongest, general terms: “Girls are more interested in exploring environments than the kill. Girls don't like fast-paced skill based thrill and kill and hate multiplayers and squad-based war games. Girls don't mind a shoot up but only to progress forward in the level. Girls are more likely to wait and hit and run rather than strafe around and take enemies out in style.” These dudes were like those archaeologists that accidentally make up dinosaurs: The pieces are right in front of them, but they can’t see the bigger picture. Instead they opt for a fantastical creation and promote it as reality.
The scary thing is that it works. Just like we all agreed that the Brontosaurus must be a real dinosaur, women like me agreed that we must have terrible hand-eye coordination, that we must hate shoot-ups, that we best leave the things we don’t immediately understand up to the boys. A girl gamer is no different than boy gamer: We know what we want, we like what we like, we have strong opinions, and we spend too much time discussing them on Tumblr.
The only difference is that every time we engage with the community that’s supposed to be our own, we run the risk of being told to shut up and sit down, and that’s if we’re lucky.
I resent the fact that I can’t just veg out and kill zombies with giggly abandon while playing Lollipop Chainsaw without worrying about the feminist ramifications of loving a game where the main character is a blonde cheerleader who repeatedly admonishes the player not to look up her skirt. In a way, I resent having to talk about any of it.
But I can no longer lead the unexamined woman’s life, and absenting myself from this conversation would be doing just that. It would be akin to sitting back as the controller gets taken away and agreeing that I’m bad at this, and frankly, I’m tired of agreeing with men who think they know everything.
Alex says I’m finally a “real geek.” In her eyes this means that my dissecting of Doctor Who and willingness to watch anime are now appropriately contextualized. The Venn diagram of my likes makes sense: I play video games. In my own eyes, becoming a girl gamer has been the final piece in making me a “real feminist.” It’s forced me to re-evaluate so much about how I was taught, and so many truths I simply accepted.
I take nothing at face value now. I ask questions. I do not sit down, and I will never shut up.
Image credit: TORLEY / CC