When your doctoral work involves studying a population that is nearly 95% male dominated, I guess it’s just a matter of time before you fall for one. In my case, it was my very last subject in a study investigating cognition in competitive video game players. He walked into my lab and barged his way into my heart with the confidence and determination of a competitor – and for me, it wasn’t just scientific curiosity that pushed me towards him.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how his world, the world of eSports and competitive gaming, would absorb and transform me, metamorphosing my identity, even changing my name, in the bracing way that only a family can.
My boyfriend plays Super Smash Bros.: Melee, which makes him a part of the fighting game community, or FGC. There is a distinct difference in competitive games between the genres (first-person shooters, multiplayer online battle arena, etc.). The communities are very much like fandoms for sports teams – the people affiliated with a certain game treat the top players like celebrities, requesting autographs, pictures, you name it, if they’re lucky enough to scout them out at tournaments. And these tournaments can range on scale from small, local weeklies, to massive, international affairs with thousands of entrants. While I knew these things from purely a spectator viewpoint, I certainly didn’t imagine myself as a part of the community.
As you might assume, there aren’t a ton of women in the FGC. While a good number of the players do have girlfriends or wives, they often meet these ladies because they play the game. Significant others who do not play and are still brought into the fold of the community are rarer.
In my case, I wanted to be a part of the community, because it served as almost a tool for networking. The more people knew who I was, the more likely I would be to get recruits for my research. My boyfriend, known in the FGC by his gamer tag, Gravy, began the indoctrination by bringing me onto his twitch.tv stream; twitch is a video streaming website that allows people to broadcast themselves playing/studying/walking through different video games to an enormous audience. I began appearing on his channel to discuss how psychology could be applied to training in-game skills and adapting mindset for better practice.
The response was immediate – lots of guys wanted to discuss my work, ask about their own game, and help me however they could. I was touched, inevitably, by the overwhelmingly positive messages I was receiving. They began to call me Biscuits (i.e. Biscuits and Gravy), and from there, a new identity was born.
As I streamed more regularly, an activity that rapidly became almost a date night, Gravy and I were developing into a team. I adopted a role like a coach, as he took my advice very seriously and worked with me to improve his game – and the “fans” loved it. I was never treated with disrespect or misogyny, which were the concerns I admittedly had going in. People complimented my appearance, yes – but never in a grotesque way that made me uncomfortable. The guys who talked to me wanted to know about my work much more often than they wanted to flirt. However, there have been a few exceptions, as you might assume.
There is the occasional guy who attempts to pursue me – and this can lead to nasty jealousy. When you have a man to woman ratio of about 100:1, it isn’t surprising, but it still catches me off guard. This sort of unending stream of male interest is something my boyfriend and I have had to address with honesty and an enormous amount of trust, and I am aware that this scenario is not one I would have had to go through with a different partner. But the pros outweigh the cons by an enormous margin.
I have spent the past summer interning in Boston, where there is a large Melee presence that extends through New England. When I moved here, I felt incredibly isolated, without any friends in the area. My boyfriend advised me to attend the weekly tournament in my area, even though I don’t play, just as a way to meet people. I contacted the community leader for Boston, and he welcomed me without hesitation. Now, each week, I look forward to the weekly tournament, as it is just an excuse to spend time with new friends. One hundred people attend the weekly tournament, and one hundred people extend me their greetings, their welcoming attitudes, and their friendship. Each and every one of them is aware of the family they are a part of, and that family never turns people away.
Being a girlfriend to a competitive gamer does have its obligations. There’s a realization that his reputation extends to me, in both a positive and negative way. If he becomes affiliated with any type of scandal or feud, it is immediately applied to me as well. “Your boyfriend is a punk,” is one I’ve gotten before from guys who simply know him on reputation alone. I often ask if they’ve met him, and 80% of the time, the answer is no. So, as his partner, it is my responsibility to be myself in the most positive way possible, as a sort of lasting impression that might affect perceptions of him.
The reputation thing is two ways, like I said – if fans perceive me negatively, it extends onto him. This give and take is new for me, but has been very effective for improving our accountability to one another, as well as boosting the admiration we have for one another. Each time he receives a message or tweet saying, “I met your girlfriend, and she’s great,” his respect for me skyrockets. Our public appearances take a very political form this way, but so far, I’ve had the chops to handle it. When we are at tournaments together, meeting people, we often get things like “Gravy, you WOULD have a hot AND smart girlfriend,” but most of the time I’m taking pictures of him for fans, or quietly listening to guys tell him what an inspiration he is. Tournament days are all about him, keeping him focused, hydrated, and relaxed – there’s a great deal of humility and selflessness in my role.
There are, of course, different types of FGC girlfriends. Some, especially those whose significant others are at the very top of the rankings, take the devil-may-care approach. They pride themselves on their identity being the girlfriend of that man, and take free reign to engage in all the trash talk they like. Others prefer to be unaffiliated from the community completely, and can be spotted supporting their significant others at tournaments, but are nearly unrecognizable from their absence on social media. There are the women like me, who do what they can to give back to the community by volunteering their time to organize/run tournaments. Finally, there are a handful of women who approach dating within the FGC as a way to keep their options eternally open, as there are always guys interested.
Basically, no matter what type of girlfriend you like to be, there’s probably a guy for you – just a PSA on behalf of my 1,000 single guy friends.
Kelly, another FGC girlfriend, spoke with me a bit about her experiences. She’s been with her boyfriend, tag ColBol, for nearly four years. While she met her boyfriend through mutual friends, she was once a competitive gamer herself outside of the FGC. Now, while she doesn’t play much anymore, she is an incredibly dedicated volunteer (and a personal inspiration to me).
“I didn’t always volunteer. I used to just spectate,” she told me. “I’m not very good at smash [Melee], but I still wanted to be an active part of the community, and I guess I found my calling in running/volunteering at smash events.” Kelly loves the travel involved with attending tournaments, which I’ve also come to appreciate – some of the major tournaments are held in places like Las Vegas and Orlando.
Unlike Kelly, Erin, FGC girlfriend of Gahtzu, was already a member of the Melee community before meeting her boyfriend. “I’d just got into it at the time,” she told me, “We would meet up at tournaments to see each other.” When I asked Erin what she likes about dating someone in the FGC, she said, “I have and continue to meet so many awesome people who love the game as well. But my favorite thing is watching Jason [Gahtzu] play. I love watching him keep beating these awesome players and just improving himself. I am glad I can be a part of something he really cares about.” The negatives, we all agreed, are that sometimes the percentage of time devoted to game-related activities is overwhelmingly large. When all of ‘our’ time is taken by talking about the game, preparing for a tournament, streaming, what have you, it leaves very little room for dinner and a movie.
“You would fit into the community, and that alone makes you compatible on a level that you don’t even understand. There’s no way to express how much this means to me.” My boyfriend sent me that message in the midst of the chase to make me his. He was right – I didn’t understand, at the time. Being in the FGC, being a part of it, can only be compared to meeting and being accepted by your significant other’s family. Knowing that your family will love them is such a sigh of relief, that when your family consists of thousands of people, that sigh grows exponentially. I asked him if anything has changed, if he still feels this way.
“We’re bonding over the thing I’ve dedicated my life to,” my boyfriend says, “and the only negative thing is the endless hoard of guys hitting on you. But other than that it’s amazing. I love watching you become more popular. It wouldn’t bother me at all if you became more famous in the community than me – it makes me proud that you’re my girlfriend.”
In all the ways my relationship has manifested itself through the community, at the end of the day, it’s just like any shared hobby. Being a part of the FGC is a way to be a part of my boyfriend’s life in a meaningful and thrilling way. I feel like I’ve lived out the dream of finding a way to help people, and in turn, my relationship just gets stronger. I’d be his Player 2 any day.