“Hey! Listen!” Women Have Been Gaming For Decades
I was raised to play games. I was no good at being on teams and I wasn’t about to submit myself to voluntary cardiovascular activity, so it became clear early in my childhood that I wasn’t going to gain any skill for rule-following, cooperation, collaboration, brainstorming, problem-solving, or focus (much less any pleasure) from sports. So instead, I played games on the family computer, by myself or with my sister Sara or with my friends, and my dad and Sara and I played video games together at night and on the weekends.
My parents supplied us with a steady stream of educational computer games — Midnight Rescue! and Mega Math Blasters, the Carmen Sandiego games, games to help our typing skills and spelling; whatever subject they felt we needed help with at school, they got us a game. And I loved logic quests: Zoombinis was my favorite computer game, and when I played on our Nintendo systems with my sister and my dad, they fought the bosses while I figured out the side quests and puzzles. We got Myst when it came out when I was six and it was way over my head, but I watched while Sara played, read the official companion book, and drew landscapes based on its worlds.
By far, the game we played and bonded over the most was Ocarina of Time. We’d had every Nintendo system, and don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of Paperboy, Ice Hockey, Super Mario II, Castlevania in all of its iterations, Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble, and that boss SNES Return of the Jedi game. But Ocarina of Time was our shit. We played it over and over and over — it took us weeks just to finish it the first time; the second time we started looking for all the extras and side quests; in the process, my sister and my dad even helped me to gather up the courage to fight some of the bosses — because, yeah, I was a kid, and the game was narrative and immersive enough that it scared me.
I was 11 when it was released, and it never occurred to me that the games I liked the most — role-playing games, logic quests, games that built and solved and saved, were any less “real” games than any other. It had never once crossed my mind that there was any reason that I shouldn’t play video games, or wouldn’t be welcome to play video games, for any reason whatsoever, much less for my gender. Hell, five of the seven sages are women in Ocarina of Time. Sheik is a badass. Without Malon, the game would be impossible. Link’s fairy companion, Navi (depicted in the image above), is female, as are all the Great Fairies. The entire Triforce legend operates on goddess worship. Even two of the bosses are female. Why would I think that being female would disqualify me from being worthy in the gaming community?
I only started hearing that sort of language when I was in high school, when games like Final Fantasy, Splinter Cell, Rainbow Six, Fallout, Far Cry, Doom, and Resident Evil became more and more popular — games that relied less on myth and what my male peers had decided was child-like fantasy than on decidedly more violent, gory, and adult, or more “realistic” content like guns, modern warfare, and, uh, zombies. I started being dismissed and shut out of conversations about gaming because my tastes in games weren’t in line with theirs.
I had always figured that this was a consequence of the fact that they were adolescent boys and, as such, more drawn to aggression, that they wanted to prove that they were mature and strong, and were apt to be exclusive of girls. I stopped gaming so much, and I stopped trying to talk about it. It didn’t keep me from keeping a GameBoy in my backpack all the time; it didn’t keep me from practically splooging over a refurbished N64 I got for Christmas when I was 22, it didn’t keep me from making it a priority to grab my Wii and all the games when I was packing my shit up and leaving my husband. But it meant that I bowed out of the community, because I was happier playing games that I liked at my own pace and doing it by myself than being constantly told that I wasn’t adequately a gamer — no matter how many hours I’ve logged in my life, and believe me, the number is overwhelming — and to stop pretending.
Sixteen years later, I’m checking back in on the gaming community while #GamerGate is trending on Twitter and I’m dumbfounded. Of course I know that the last few years have been particularly rough for people who love video games and also happen to possess vaginas, because I’m a feminist and I pay attention, but the whole thing has come to a surreal critical mass: I’m watching Anita Sarkeesian getting death and rape threats, Zoe Quinn being threatened and lied about, I’m watching Arthur Chu on Twitter fighting hard against the misogyny in the field he loves. Male gamers are claiming that sites like Kotaku and Destructoid are “hostile” to them because some of their writers are calling for more empathy toward women both in games and in gaming. If anyone is creating a conspiracy, it’s the male gamers who are ignoring facts, context, and reality itself while whipping themselves up into a frenzy over Zoe Quinn’s nonexistent “privilege” in the gaming industry.
You know what the shitty thing is? Someone’s going to read this, take issue with me taking issue with death and rape threats, and send me an e-mail or a tweet telling me I’m a cunt. I guarantee you that will happen. Because I’m a woman and I’m deigning to speak on something that I’ve been doing since I was literally (literally-literally) three years old, over which a bunch of misogynists feel unrealistically possessive, while also simultaneously claiming they aren’t misogynists and making violent sexualized comments about women.
I won’t get into all the things I object to in the way that Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn have been treated, because I’m already 1000 words in and it would take another 3,000 for me to really do that particular subject justice. What I will say is this, from the perspective of someone who loves gaming but is outside the gaming “community,” as it were, and looking in: Gaming is regressing. Twenty years ago, everyone was so happy to have this new medium that had infinite possibilities, that could not only entertain or distract but really immerse its audience, that had the potential to teach and to communicate, to tell beautiful stories set in impossible places, that no one was really thinking about gender. That has had two consequences: One, a generation of children grew up believing that each and every one of them was entitled to play whatever games they wanted to regardless of their gender, and so many girls who are now adult women grew up gaming. Two, the gaming industry has gone for twenty years without really thinking too critically about its assumptions about the way it talks to women, portrays women, treats female characters, and treats female gamers.
Well, those girls who have been passionate about games for 20-odd years are now women, who unlike me didn’t back out of the conversation but stayed around and tolerated what we all thought was just adolescent nonsense but has continued far too long into adulthood. They have things to say about it. Misogynist gamers act like we’ve just popped up and started pretending to play games to gain some sort of cred with them, as if we play games for the sake of credibility or impressing men and not for entertainment, education, enrichment, or enjoyment (Women: They’re just like you!). No, guys, we’ve been here since we were kids. Some women might just now, as adults, be rediscovering the joy games gave us as children, when gaming demographics weren’t measured because they weren’t assumed to matter. But we’ve been here for decades, we’re ready for progress, and some of our male peers are fighting hard against it.
It’s striking to me the contradictions these men are willing to engage in: They cry “hostile!” while harassing a woman out of her home. They say they want video games to be taken seriously as an art form and with that they want serious and unbiased gaming journalism (as if such a thing can exist), but they don’t have the scholarly discipline to embrace a diversity of perspectives. Choose wisely, gamer bros: Do you want your hateful little clique, or do you want to be taken seriously?
[Image: Deviant Art]