By: Elisia Lopez, Junior studying Literary Arts and Anthropology, Special Projects Coordinator at the LGBTQ Center
Since coming back home, one of the ways I’ve been distracting myself from all this stress has been by playing video games. It wasn’t until pretty recently that I had actually started playing them semi-regularly. Before now, before I found a group of supportive friends who encouraged me to start gaming, it wasn’t really something I super felt comfortable doing or even something I was supposed to do. And, to be honest, a huge influence on my relationship with video games has been the fact that I’m not a dude.
Despite the fact that about half of self-identified gamers are women, there is still a lot of stigma around “gamer girls” and a general lack of confidence in women’s gaming abilities. And, while anyone should be able to enjoy a game without concern for how well they do or not, there is still a degree of discomfort when it comes to playing video games, especially if you’re not amazing at it, and even more so if you’re playing alongside or against people who are much more skilled than you.
One thing I’ve been realizing is that sometimes this discomfort is internal, sometimes it’s external.
I remember the first time I was ever introduced to Super Smash Bros, which is basically a culmination of every Nintendo character I didn’t know beating each other up…for some reason. I was probably around ten or so, and I was at a friend’s birthday party when they busted out the Wii. I had been pretty excited to learn how to play this new game that everyone swore up and down was so fun. When all the characters showed up on the screen and we finally got to play, I slowly went from being totally psyched to just bummed out. I remember asking how to play and just not having any of my questions answered. I was feeling tense and–for lack of a better word–shitty because I had no idea what to do. I couldn’t last more than a minute, so I eventually bailed.
And yeah, I know, we were ten. Around ten. I’m not trying to bash on what people did when we were kids because, you know, we were kids. But this is just one of the earlier instances of an ongoing pattern. The same thing happened when I first played Mario Kart. The same thing happened when my cousins tried to get me to play Assassin’s Creed. When this kind of thing keeps happening over and over and over, it becomes something that eventually stops you from wanting to play.
A lot of it had to do with people thinking I just couldn’t be good because I was a girl. Yeah, I wasn’t good, but that had nothing to do with my gender. I just wasn’t socialized to play video games, so I didn’t. It becomes this self-fulfilling prophecy, where girls can’t be gamers because that’s a “boy’s thing,” so girls aren’t really encouraged to game, then when they do of course they’re not as good at it. And sometimes, you start passing up on playing because you know you’re no good, or you don’t have the energy to get made fun of.
In my case, I just stayed away from playing video games entirely.
Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience. But I’ve been in enough friend groups where men patronize women about how badly they’re playing that they just decide to not even try and say they’re just okay with watching.
It wasn’t until college that I started to let myself play video games, despite how far I am from being good. Being someone who is into creative writing, a lot of the video games that appealed to me did so because of the way that they engage with stories and lore differently than books, movies, or TV, like running around in a fantasy world and defeating evil in Legend of Zelda, trying to figure out my way home from the Underground in Undertale, and just messing around in the futuristic world of Overwatch. And once I had gotten into them and understood the gameplay, I actually began to enjoy playing them–and get better at them, as practice tends to do.
Don’t get me wrong, I still get super nervous and self-conscious when I’m playing video games. Sometimes I get the overwhelming urge to stop because I don’t think I’m good enough. Sometimes I get so nervous about it that I try to preemptively explain away why I’m so bad. Sometimes I even stop playing something when someone else walks into the room. But that’s only sometimes.
Being able to game with non-cishet men and without dealing with weird gatekeeper gaming complexes has done a lot in teaching me that I am allowed to suck and still have fun at the same time. Right now I’ve logged an embarrassing amount of hours on Overwatch with my friend, and I’m able to laugh at myself when I mess up but also recognize how much better I’ve gotten at it. That’s something I wouldn’t have seen myself doing a couple of years ago.
It might not seem that deep because it’s honestly just video games. But the fact that I have been able to get to the point of enjoying something I hadn’t felt good enough to even try just because of my gender has got me feeling pretty great.
Footnote (some games, game designers, and gamers that subvert gendered expectations in video games)
- Undertale – Features a protagonist who is referred to using they/them pronouns throughout the game. The game diverts from uber-violent expectations in video games and focuses on solving problems peacefully and with care.
- Night in the Woods – Features a queer woman protagonist and explores her mental health and relationship with her hometown and her past.
- Life Is Strange – A game that follows a lesbian in high school with time-altering powers. The game includes potentially triggering content.
- Tell Me Why – The first video game from a major developer with a playable trans character, also voiced by a trans man. (I haven’t played this game, so I can’t speak to the quality of it)
- Roberta Williams – A self-taught woman game designer who revolutionized graphic game design.
- Anna Anthropy – A trans woman game designer who makes digital games, interactive fiction, and zines.
- Aisha Tyler – A WoC gamer who is very vocal about sexism and racism within the gaming community.
- Here’s a link to a list of trans game developers from 2018–check it out!
- And here’s a link to another article with influential women in gaming.
Image credit: Sara Montoya ’21, Graphic Design and Publicity Coordinator at the LGBTQ Center