Have you ever witnessed something so utterly terrible you couldn’t look away from it?
A few weeks ago, I went to one of the few cons I attend. I’m not really a panel person—I’m more the type to hang out in the game room as much as possible with a few forays into the dealer’s room—but there was a panel this year that caught my eye. It was called “Girls and Gaming”. Come on, how could I resist seeing what that was about? Before the panel even started, I had already began visualizing some PowerPoint about the problems girls face in the realm of gamers, or games featuring more female-centric stories. Needless to say, I was pretty hyped—this kind of panel really isn’t tackled in general, or at least not at the smaller cons I tend to go to, and definitely not usually run by a fellow girl gamer. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was not what this panel was about. Soon enough, insults were being hurled, from “sluts” to the barely-even-an-insult “gamer girl” (gamers’
equivalent to the “fake geek girl”, which we’ve discussed before here), simply because the speaker didn’t approve of the way these other girls they encountered were gaming. By this point, I couldn’t pull myself away from the wreckage: this panel was set to crash and burn and I could only watch on in horrified awe.
I had been lied to. The panel’s blurb had promised stories about this panel runner’s experiences in the world of gaming, and as a fellow girl who also plays games, I was hoping to find something to relate to. Rampant misogyny is inescapable, that much is true, but I didn’t want to see it committed by someone who seemed so convinced they were giving off the image of what a girl gamer should be. As the panel head spat out more vitriolic slander against other girls who gamed, I turned only to find the other girls in the audience agreeing with her. It was here that I cemented my stance that this just wasn’t right.
I’m going to lay down some mad truths for you all right now: the “gamer girl” doesn’t exist. She never existed. That picture of the girl with the wires in her mouth posing all sexily is the poster child for a subset of gamers who don’t exist—in terms of the trope; there are plenty of sexy gamer girls, believe you me. There is no such thing as a “gamer girl”, just as there’s no such thing as a fake geek girl.
That isn’t to say there’s no such thing as a gamer girl—that is, a girl who plays games. There’s a whole slew of us, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone by this point (statistics don’t lie, folks). Now, I may be in the minority here, but I have a vehement desire to call myself a gamer girl. For one, it’s what I am and I think it sounds pretty snazzy, kind of like a superhero title. But at the same time I recognize that other girls want to draw away from the title and join the subset of “gamer”, without the girl. There’s a certain shame that comes with being recognized as a girl in the gaming world: it means you’ve got to be that much more on guard and be at 100% simply to validate your existence on a server (of course, this varies by game and genre). It’s stressful when a wide majority of your geekdom doesn’t even think you’re qualified to participate from the get-go! So to hope that your fellow girls would be able to be a bit understanding to the plight the entire group faces shouldn’t be that much to hope for, but it always is.
So the question is, why do we, as girl gamers, buy into this patriarchal construct that only makes it harder for us to integrate into this fabled community of gamers? I think it’s a combination of two seemingly contradictory things: our desire to be recognized as a part of the group, and our desire to be noticed.
There is no greater feeling than the sense of community when you’re around other people that get what you’re saying and what you’re into. When we find people that fit this bill, we tend to hold onto them—they’re usually called “friends”. As psychologist Dr. Andrea Letamendi states in this article from The Mary Sue:
Our social identity – who we are, essentially, to the world – is greatly determined by the groups we belong to. We develop much of ourselves from our groups: self-esteem, purpose, a sense of belonging, approval.
So in a way, we don’t only want this sense of community, it’s a necessity. Thus, when a girl recognizes that she loves games and is, in fact, a gamer, she wants to do everything she can to validate her existence in that group. However, the fact that she will be pushed against, demanded to show proof of why she should even be considered for this oh-so-great honor (imagine me rolling my eyes) drives her, and all of us, to go to some pretty extreme lengths to claim that small little scrap the community is willing to give her.
This goes directly into the next point:
our desire to be noticed. Everyone wants to be noticed to some degree: it’s part of human nature to want to be set apart, to claim some sense of individuality. Unfortunately, and especially in the case of many girls in the gaming community, we get this by throwing other girls under the bus. Even if others aren’t attacking us, there’s still this very real sense of having to prove ourselves one better than the other girls to keep our spot, so to speak. From the same article, Dr. Letamendi goes on to say:
…being accused of being an imposter is actually very damaging and fragmenting to our sense of self because it’s like someone is telling us, “you’re not who you say you are.”
We have all been the “gamer girl” to someone else—even if it’s not us personally, on a general level we have been lumped in with someone’s argument against those kinds of girl gamers. I think we all
subconsciously realize this, so we work harder to set ourselves apart and make ourselves seem like some rare commodity in the community. That girl only plays Pokémon for the cute animals, but I IV trained all my Pokémon and made sure all of its EVs were perfect. That girl plays League of Legends, but she only plays support while I can tank and jungle, too. That girl isn’t a real gamer because she’s wearing something that shows off her figure; I obviously care more about the game because I’m wearing a hoodie and pajama bottoms. We invalidate the gaming experience of others to further validate our own participation and membership because we feel we must. We want to blend in to what’s considered normal for the gaming community. Since the gaming community is male-dominated, as it stands we’ll never be able to blend in as equals, so we blend in by sticking out and bringing down the other girls around us. It’s incredibly toxic and serves no purpose but to further keep other girls out of the gaming scene entirely.
While I sat in that small convention room, I kept thinking to myself, “was I ever like this?” but I know I was. I used to be exactly like that panel runner, thinking myself some better version of the girl who games—never “gamer girl”—because I had an arsenal of things I did that other girls didn’t. It was only as I began looking from a different perspective that I realized how stupid all this insulting each other was. By this point, I think the term gamer girl is unable to be reclaimed, especially by an audience that wants nothing to do with it, and there’s something sad about that. We should be taking pride in the fact that so many girls love to game and that, thanks to us, the gaming industry actually has to acknowledge that they need to make games that focus on more than just the narrative stories of men. Although many of us have suffered in our journey to this point in our gaming lives, we have to grow from those experiences, not force a whole new subset of girls to complete some arbitrary checklist of ‘things you must do before you are a true gamer who is also a girl’. In the words of Dr. Letamendi, we have to stop being exclusive; the gamer culture itself is sexist, but we don’t need to be. We can be each other’s community. We can recognize each other even when the community at large will not.
Then we can get around to crushing the gaming patriarchy.