Imagine crossing the expanse of the moon, delving deep into tunnels that were carved by an alien race intent on destroying humanity, finally finding the chamber that holds their greatest warrior, and, after a hard-fought battle, defeating him. Imagine exploring a haunted house, one room at a time, knowing that one of your friends could turn on you at any moment. Imagine running straight into a house on fire, with no concern for your own well being, rescuing as many people as you can before the building collapses.
I do things like that all the time. I am a gamer.
I know, I know, but I don’t mind the label. I spend a large amount of my free time playing games, and I have since I was a kid. I don’t see it as a cultural identity, but it is a part of my overall identity, and the way I see the world is definitely affected by the fact that I play games. A lot.
But I am also a woman, which may be why I don’t see the term gamer as a cultural identity. I certainly don’t feel particularly welcome in a culture that forces women out of their homes, or uses the women who agree with their politics as a shield against criticism. I can’t stand how they talk about what’s best for gaming and gamers as if I, a queer woman, am somehow not a gamer who disagrees with them.
It’s guys like those that I avoided for most of my gaming life, because I thought they were everywhere. And, honestly, even if they weren’t everywhere, it felt like they were, just like it feels that way now. This is the public face of gaming, whether true or not: a bunch of dudes who don’t want me at their table.
So I stayed away from tabletop nights at my local comic shop, even though I was into some roleplaying games and Magic: The Gathering. And nobody really reached out to welcome me, not that it’s necessarily the responsibility of a group of guys to be welcoming to someone new who wants to play with them. So I just sort of stopped playing board games and card games, and focused on video games.
Video games were easier to stick with. Mostly it was just me and my computer or console. In fact, I wasn’t the only lady playing games growing up; almost everyone I knew had a Nintendo, then a Super Nintendo. In college, my roommate and I hosted Goldeneye 64 tournaments. But even then we were in the minority, as the other women around us stopped playing games.
Occasionally I played silent matches of Quake III Arena, but online gaming was just not a thing on my mind in college. As the years passed, less women I knew played games. I have no idea why, but it eventually ended up being me and the guys. I played the Halo 2 campaign co-operatively with a (male) roommate, and after one trip online with voice chat on, I decided never to go back. I could occasionally convince someone to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band with me, but none of my lady friends were interested in sitting down for a competitive first person shooter.
Now when I play games, whether they’re board games or video games, I game with a bunch of men. In my video gaming group, I am the only woman. In my board gaming group, another woman might show up once in awhile, but more often than not it’s me in a room full of dudes with beards. They’re very nice beards, if you’re into beards, but as the room has become more crowded with guys and I remain the sole woman, it’s become a noticeable distinction. I am the beardless one. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t know if the guys I game with online have beards, because I game with them online and don’t see their faces. They could currently be in any state of beardiness.)
Beard status aside, I love the guys I game with, both on the table and on the screen. We share a camaraderie that comes from spending a lot of time together, solving complex tasks and competing, whether with the game itself or each other, to win. We share adrenaline highs, and we share our losses. I’m lucky in that I’ve found groups of guys who can handle being called out when they something sexist or homophobic things or who, even better, don’t say those things.
Am I just lucky?
I met the guys in my groups because of the Penny Arcade Expo in Boston, also known as PAX East, also known as not exactly the most welcoming place for women. But that’s where I found the people who invited me to play games with them, and through them I met other people to play games with.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still aware of my status as the only woman at the table or in the party chat. It’s hard not to be aware of that. Even though no comment has ever been made, I’ve got two and a half decades of pre-programmed, “But will I be good enough to be invited back?” and “I have to show them I’m good so they’ll give other women a chance in the future,” floating around my head. I have no way of knowing if I measure up, or if that’s even a consideration, because I can’t read minds. But I get invited back.
The guys I game with may be exceptional guys, but this is my gaming experience. For the first time since it came to Boston, I’m considering not going to PAX because I don’t feel welcome. But I’ll still sign onto Xbox Live – in a few weeks we’ll be playing Dragon Age Inquisition multiplayer together – and I still go to game night every week. Gamer culture may not feel very welcoming, but plenty of gamers welcome me every single day I sit down and play a game.