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My palms begin to sweat as I lower myself to the floor in front of the LCD monitor, an arcade stick clutched between my knees. I can barely hear BlazBlue’s pre-match music over the roar of the crowd in the convention hall. I steal a glance at my opponent kneeling next to me, sizing him up. Skinny kid, glasses, conservative button-down shirt. Meek looking. Maybe I could take him.
We acknowledge each other with a courteous nod as we select our characters. Then I let it slip:
“This is actually my first tournament, ever.” I let out a giggle to mask my panic.
“Oh, good luck,” he replies, barely glancing my way.
OK, conversation is a no-no -- got it. The first round is about to start, anyway. Game face, go.
I would love to pause this memory here, eternally savoring that pre-battle high, the adrenaline flood, the delicious dread of competing in a fighting game tournament side-by-side with strangers for the first time. Let’s just skim over the fact that Mr. Meek crushed me thoroughly, round after round, leaving me K.O.ed from the competition in an alarmingly brief two minutes. That wasn’t the important part. What mattered was that I had taken a chance -- one of eight female entrants in a 180-player tournament -- and resolved to pit my mettle against that of my peers. Yes, yes indeed, I had a lot to be proud of.
So then why did I spend the next hour brooding in the bathroom? I don’t recall all the insults I spat at myself in the mirror, but it probably went something like this: God, you’re a fucking moron. You actually thought you could win? These are real players. Go back to playing Connect Four -- not that you’re any better at it. Why did you even bother?
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I’d been counting on my tournament debut to be spectacular. Instead, I lost spectacularly. And I couldn’t handle it.
My career as a female tournament player saw plunging lows and soaring not-as-lows. During the year in which I competed regularly, I toggled between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing on an almost-daily basis. At my best I played with poise and a clear head and left feeling like I’d scored a victory for women gamers everywhere. At my worst, I beat myself up mentally for hours after the on-screen beating had ended, mourning what was surely a setback for my entire gender.
Overdramatic, maybe. But here’s the thing about fighting games: It’s a macho world. Although almost half of video game consumers these days are female -- 42 percent, according to a 2011 report from the Entertainment Software Association -- fans of this frenetic genre (think Street Fighter) still skew overwhelmingly male. It can be intimidating to glance at the tournament sign-up sheet and see that yours is the only feminine name. It can feel, by default, like you represent your sex.
Not to worry, though -- I had a plan. I was going to fix the fighting game scene. First I was going to prove myself as a player of dazzling skill. Then I was going to use my clout to help other women step forward, women who practiced alone but were too shy to drop their quarter into the arcade cabinet with a guy on the other side. “Of course you can do it -- I did,” I’d say to them.
I dreamed of fostering a community of girl gamers. Of working to tip the gender scale on the competitive circuit. Of joining with other brave dames to create an entry point that was warm and accessible and nurturing. It didn’t seem important at the time that I imagined doing all this in my hottest mini-skirt and John Fluevog heels, against a backdrop of epic theme music.
I got into this hobby via my boyfriend. He had quipped in his online dating profile that he was “world-famous at playing video games.” Turns out, he wasn’t joking. He promptly ushered me into a world of dank arcades lined with banks of flashing cabinets, slack-jawed challenge-seekers hunched over the screens for hours at a time while onlookers hooted and cheered.
Their ardor enthralled me. In no time, I was fantasizing about soaking up that glory myself. I wanted to be the one behind the joystick, surrounded by fans, basking in the hail of rousing obscenities. When my boyfriend asked if I was interested in learning the game, I said yes.
My ambitions were totally pure, of course. Not selfishly motivated at all. I was doing it all for the benefit of the girl-gamer community. At least that’s what I told myself as I swabbed metric tons of MAC’s “Sweet Lust” shadow onto my eyelids before heading to the arcade. Which I needed to do for, well, reasons. To help me feel more confident. Yeah, that was it! Because when you look good, you feel good, and feeling good boosts your focus and concentration (isn’t there a study?). Playing, make no mistake, requires gobs of focus and concentration.
Let me tell you about fighting games. They’re fast, they’re thrilling and they’re addictive. Like bouts of steroid-speed chess, they challenge you to out-think and out-maneuver your opponent within a fixed set of rules. And like normal-speed chess, they take lots and lots and lots of time to master.
But I didn’t have lots of time. I was chomping at the bit to get good already, so I could start acting on my dream of feminine dominion. Sheesh, I had tournaments to win -- for the sake of womankind!
So I practiced every night until 2 or 3 am. I guzzled coffee and soda. When I didn’t improve as fast as my daydream-self did, a primal fury began to stir in my bowels. I raged at the TV screen when I lost a match online. I stomped around the apartment and snapped at my boyfriend, who sweetly suggested I should maybe take a break. Poor guy -- he spent hours teaching me advanced game-play techniques I couldn’t seem to remember, totally unaware of my misguided goals. And how did I thank him? With one stormy mood after another, every time I lost.
Playing gave my personality an edge it never had before, and I welcomed it. After all, I needed thicker skin if I was going to compete with the guys.
Sometimes I encountered overt sexism.
“You here to watch your boyfriend play?” one opponent asked with a condescending smirk. He might as well have said, “Oh look, little girly is playing with an arcade stick. How cute!” I let him think that. If I won a round, his look of surprise would be that much more satisfying. And if I lost, well, I could just use the excuse he had already given me -- an easy out for my trampled ego.
But the majority of guys I met and played against, some of whom are now close friends, were kind and supportive. It was harder to blame my floundering on their macho culture when they weren’t rubbing it in my face.
“This is only my fourth tournament,” I found myself mumbling, mid-match, on a particularly bad day. I was at the local arcade with about 20 other competitors and the muggy summer air was making my hair frizz. The amiable guy I was playing against hadn’t said a word when I’d botched my timing on a move twice in a row, yet I felt compelled to make an excuse anyway. I knew when the game was over I would exchange the usual high-fives with friends in the crowd; I would wallow in their genuine belief that “You’ll get better.” But I wanted more. With every ounce of my blood, I yearned to impress them. I needed to win.
Gee, that bone-deep desperation felt familiar, somehow. What could it be?
Oh yeah: Seventh grade gym class, our unit on field hockey. The way the boys dominated the ball. The way Devin (not his real name) taunted me, the perennial goalie, day after day. Squinting down the field, my stomach would lurch as I watched him swerve toward me at cutthroat speed, his lips curling with malice. Sheepish classmates would tell me afterward that he’d bragged about purposely aiming his slap shots at my boobs and my crotch. I’d hear him snicker every time I caught the ball between my thighs, numb and bruised from the impacts, clenching my teeth so I wouldn’t cry.
I hated him and the other boys who made fun of my shyness, ignored me at lunch, excluded me from in-jokes and games. I wasn’t cool enough for them, their constant scorn said. Yet my “hate” was just a cover for the truth: I pined for their validation. I placed it on the highest pedestal. “If only the boys liked me,” I thought, “things would be better.” With their approval, I would finally feel OK.
Each time I sat down to play at the arcade -- the ultimate boys’ club -- it was a chance to prove my adolescent tormenters wrong: See? I really am cool! I could walk in on tournament day, wrapped in a cute vintage dress, and be the hot, smart, formidable chick I never was in school. I could lap up all the affirmation my sulking seventh-grade ego desired.
Yes, I wanted to be part of a community of women players. But part of me also liked being the only one. And that wasn’t a milestone for women. It was an embarrassment. It was the kind of deluded bravado that makes a mockery of serious female gamers, who quietly hone their craft for legitimate reasons -- like that actually enjoy the game. My glory grab wasn’t making strides for women; it was the kind of attention whoring that gives them a bad rap.
I haven’t entered another tournament since that realization. I can’t be trusted with an arcade stick until I’ve internalized something I should’ve learned long ago: The people I care about, who really matter in my life, already think I’m cool -- whether I’m good at fighting games, or field hockey, or not.
I still practice every now and then, and whenever I meet another girl gamer, I offer my wholehearted encouragement and support. But until I can say for sure that I’m only playing for the love of the game -- and not for the love of attention -- I’ll just cheer from the sidelines.