At the age of 24, I picked up an Xbox controller for the first time.
This is a two-sided story. On the one side, there is the phrase “gamer girl”: Rife with a sexist history, rich with an underlying subtext, with haters and outcries and controversy.
On the other, there’s me: A proud non-gamer for twenty-four years who’s had a complicated history with the concept of gaming. And understanding both is necessary for understanding why I became a gamer girl.
The reason I wanted to start playing games was because of my boyfriend. We’ve lived together for three years, and in those years we’ve struggled to find evening hobbies that we can share.
Normally, our post-dinner time is spent doing what we call our “independent hangout time.” He pursues his hobbies, which tend to be gaming. I pursue mine, which tend to be reading or painting. But we do them companionably in each other’s company in the living room.
I wanted to do something actively together. It occurred to me that while it would be difficult to share a book or a painting project, it would be simple for me to start gaming. All we were lacking was a second controller. So I bought one, and my life as a gamer girl began.
But to be honest, there was baggage.
I’ve pretended to be into games my whole life.
Seriously. Despite never picking up a controller or buying a single game, I’ve feigned enthusiasm for video games since I was old enough to know it was cool. We weren’t allowed consoles as kids, so I watched avariciously as my neighbors played games, absorbing the lingo, what people thought of them, which ones were good and which ones weren’t.
By the time I was eighteen and headed off to college, I’d already nailed the script. “Oh yeah, I love gaming. My favorite Assassin’s Creed game is Brotherhood. I prefer COD to Halo.” I watched with jealousy as one of the girls in my first year of college was revered as “cool” when she spent her afternoons crushing the boys and drinking beer while playing Call of Duty. I even thought about secretly buying a console just to prove I was just as good at the boys.
It never failed to amaze me the reactions I could elicit from my peers — mostly boys — when I revealed my faux interest. The amazement: “Oh my god, gamer girls are so hot!” The anger: “As if. No girls are actually into gaming.” The suspicion: “Oh yeah? Prove it.”
I would always stick to my guns, desperate to cling to my reputation as a cool girl, too. I tried to ignore my own complicated feelings about the pretense, about being fetishized, stonewalled, treated in any different way simply because I pretended to have a hobby perceived as male-dominated (despite the fact that since 2010, nearly half of all gamers are female). I was still treated as a rare minority who’d managed to infiltrate a secret sanctum.
And the thing was, I didn’t want to actually be a gamer girl. When I started playing RuneScape, an MMORPG, at a young age, I had a female username. So many horny boys begged me to be their girlfriend, followed me around in-game, generally harassing me, that I had to restart with a gender-neutral name. Which, of course, made everyone assume I was male behind the screen.
So I was leery of the world I’d find if I began gaming. Of the weird assumption boys and men would make. Of the liberties they’d take. I wanted all the glamor of being a gamer girl with none of the repercussions of actually being a woman who played video games.
I rejected games as an act of my nascent feminism.
Finally, I realized I was only pretending to be into games so boys would accept me and think of me as cool. I was putting up with bizarre and sometimes disgusting behavior just so I could impress boys. I realized there were no boys pretending to be into makeup or the fantasy books I read — so why was I investing time and energy in this facade?
Why couldn’t I be accepted as cool on my own terms? I didn’t have to like games to be a cool girl. I didn’t even have to be a cool girl at all. When I stepped out of the shadow of pretending to be a gamer girl, stopped trying to impress people I didn’t need to impress, I turned around and could see that the whole Gamer Girl/Gamer dichotomy was toxic and untrue.
“They stalk conventions in skimpy costumes, spending money on geeky merchandise, all to sink their claws into and seduce an unsuspecting Real Geek Boy…but don’t let them fool you, they aren’t really interested. They just want you.” — description of a fake gamer girl via Vocal Media.
There were no gamer boys. Only gamers and — lesser by definition and in their very name — gamer girls.
I finally picked up an Xbox controller — for my boyfriend.
In a way, I went from one stereotype (fake geek girl) to another: the girlfriend of a gamer. After half a decade of adamantly and proudly refusing to pursue something I had no legitimate interest in, I found myself leaning towards video games again. When I finally began gaming in earnest, what I experienced surprised me.
It’s fun, to be honest. I love it. I love spending time with my partner doing something we both enjoy. I love the adventure, the storylines, the vast range of new worlds out there for me to explore.
And it makes me wonder. I wonder what life would have been like for me if, when I first expressed interest in gaming and admitted I didn’t know anything, the boy I told didn’t laugh at me. What if he hadn’t told me to stop trying to be a fake gamer girl? What if he’d taught me instead?
I wonder what it would have been like if as an openly female RuneScape player, I hadn’t been objectified into anonymity. What if I’d been able to form the same kind of friendships I saw forming on there all the time, companionship and camaraderie rather than sexualized treatment?
My life probably would not have been that different, but I’m still bitter that this part of my interests was kept from me for so long. That I had to go through the roundabout and meandering path of being shoved out of games for being a girl, to pretending to be into games just for societal acceptance, to hating games for everything they represented in society, to finally enjoying games.
And for what? Why was I excluded so strongly? Why did those gamer boys fear? Why didn’t they want to let me in on my own terms?
The gamer gatekeepers are afraid of me and people like me.
Back when I falsely pretended to be into video games, I was that girl all those nerds hated. I was someone who pretended to like games in order to infiltrate their secret cult, who didn’t actually like games.
“Sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community.” — Aris Bakhtanians
They did not question why I or others would try to do this. There was no self-reflection on those fierce and angry emotions: why would a girl risk vitriolic dislike and hate just to be accepted? Why are only boys’ interests valued? What would be so bad if it were true, and I actually was into games?
What are they so afraid they’ll find, in the women who genuinely share their interests and passions? Why wouldn’t they welcome more people into their space, who shared their hobbies? Is it because the identity of a gamer is so fragile that the inclusion of a single woman can shake its foundations?
These gamer boys at once bemoan the fact that nobody will date them while simultaneously forcing away any girls who share their interests. They decry “booth bimbos” as fake due to their attractiveness while rejecting the idea that video games should have more realistic, non-hot female representation.
Are they worried that girls who have the same hobbies as them still won’t like them: not because they’re geeks, but because they’re misogynistic assholes?
I still have a lot of questions and no answers. But I do have a new hobby and a tentative enthusiasm for it. Already, I’ve been questioned, belittled, tested and even laughed at by the boys I’ve mentioned it to. Just like when I was eighteen and my interest was faked, men feel the need to prove I’m not a real gamer — not like them.
But this time, even though I started to play these games for my boyfriend, I’m continuing for myself. Continuing the education and the journey I wish I’d never stopped. I’m a gamer now, and no matter how many people question me, demand to see my credentials, tell me to get out of their sacred space, I’m here to stay.