The basement in my childhood home was equipped with a Magnavox box TV, a GameCube and a PlayStation 2. The furniture was old, and the basement was prone to flooding, but it didn’t matter so long as my older brother and I had the TV and at least one console. Before the days of homework and exams, my brother and I would spend every day after school in the basement: He would sit on the ottoman in front of the television while I curled up in the armchair behind him and, for hours, watched him play video games. He played any number of games — “Super Mario Sunshine” or “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess” were the most popular, and if I was lucky enough, he’d let me play “Lego Star Wars” with him.
I spent years consuming games but spent hardly any time playing. By the time I reached my tween years, I had gotten decent at “Lego” games, “Animal Crossing” and “Super Smash Bros. Brawl,” and I was familiar with the mechanics of the Wii and PlayStation. But I intimately knew “Legend of Zelda” and “Infamous” games and others less suited to a little girl than “Animal Crossing.” I knew how to solve the puzzles in those games. I knew the lore and character biographies, and I knew that if you fell in water in “Infamous,” death was immediate, so steer clear. I watched the early days of YouTube gamers like ChimneySwift11 and iHasCupquake, and in recent years, I fell in love with Polygon’s “Unraveled” series. I had all the theoretical knowledge it took to be a “real” gamer, but my brother was the gamer, not me. No matter how much interest I showed, the video games underneath the tree on Christmas morning weren’t addressed to me. So what was a young girl to do?
She gets smart. She learns everything she can about video games since she can’t afford to buy them herself, and she flexes that knowledge at every opportunity. And it surprises people — men, mostly. After they undergo a brief period of wondering how a woman could have so much knowledge about a sphere mostly exclusive to them, there are generally two ways they follow through. One, they accept it and carry on the conversation with me. Two, and perhaps the more common option, is the testing.
If I know so much about one video game, then they want to see if I know everything about its predecessors and spin-off games. As a young woman, I am not new to men’s attempts to trip me up in an arena they do not deem suitable for me, but I never face it quite so poignantly as I do within the gaming sphere. Their singular desire is to act as gatekeeper to the academia of the video game community — meaning I am not allowed in unless I prove myself intelligent enough and otherwise ought to be kept on the fringes of their culture. And while I don’t mind saying that I can hold my own when it comes to discussion about a game’s story or characters, I will also admit that I begin to trip up when it comes to gameplay. If someone asked me to speak on the particular mechanics, special items or battles in, say, “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” I would be at a loss because even though I watched my brother play through the entire game, I have never laid hands on a “Legend of Zelda” game. All these years later, I still find myself wondering why?
That why has a number of answers, but advertising is at its core. Before the 1980s, video games were pretty neutral due to a lack of data. Yes, the industry was still largely male-dominated, but “there was hardly any player research being conducted.” No developers knew who exactly was playing the games, so the games were made for everybody.
Enter the 1983 video game crash: a recession in the industry caused by over-saturation. Consumers stopped purchasing games, and the industry lost money by the billion until a little company called Nintendo stepped in. Aiming to avoid repeat over-saturation and to create a more niche market, Nintendo conducted wide-scale market research into who was buying and playing the most video games — or toys, as they were marketed at the time to avoid the defunct title of “video game.” And what did they find? Boys were playing more. It follows that, in the ’90s, “Video games were heavily marketed as products for men, and the message was clear: No girls allowed.” Marketing images and campaigns often featured hypersexualized women, the notion that increased gaming skill could win you more female attention and the age-old joke that video games were an escape from the old ball and chain.
This is why video games under the Christmas tree were never addressed to me as a child. They were good gifts for my brother — tools for him to be a regular little boy —while I was given baby dolls, which were tools for me to be a good mother.
As a future homemaker, I was represented in countless Disney princesses rescued from the clutches of evil only to become wives and mothers. The only kind of women I saw in the video games my brother played were these same damsels in distress. To my child-mind, Zelda and Princess Peach were princesses locked away in towers, waiting for Link or Mario to come save them from Ganon and Bowser. Even when the rare strong female character, like Lara Croft or even Samus Aran, did make an appearance, she was hypersexualized and seemingly animated for the male gaze.
The “gamer girl” identity is reflected in this representation. Somehow both fetishized and scorned, the internet’s definition of a gamer girl is, like Lara Croft, welcome in the gaming community, yet is more ornament than player and is non-threatening enough to be held at arm’s length within the community. She is an unfortunate, unrepresentative catch-all term that has been applied far too liberally to myself and other female gamers.
In 2014, Gamergate — the online harassment campaign in which “thousands of people in the games community began to systematically harass, heckle, threaten, and dox several outspoken feminist women in their midst” — revealed just how dangerous video game culture actually was for women, and particularly for transgender gamers. The campaign produced transphobic memes in order to push its agenda and highlighted just how long transgender women had been speaking against sexism and harassment in the community. When Gamergate pulled back the curtain on the utterly violent misogyny embedded in video game culture, it was no longer surprising why women were always kept on the fringes. If the games weren’t marketed towards us, if we didn’t see ourselves represented in them and if men would resort to violence to keep us out, then what was the point? Why try to indulge in a culture that obviously didn’t want us when there were so many other arenas in which we could be experts? Like cooking. Or child-rearing or homemaking, if that’s more your speed.
Well, “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” and all that. Men in the gaming industry can try to keep women out, but there will always be some who slip through the cracks. Women like the members of Dignitas, “regarded as the world’s best all-female ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ team,” who practice for six hours every day in order to keep fighting for their place at the esports table. Women like Twitch streamer Pokimane, who in 2021 was revealed to have made 1.5 million dollars over 26 months, not accounting for merchandise or sponsorship revenue. Women like Kim Swift, who developed 2007’s hugely popular “Portal,” or Alyssa Finley, the executive producer of “Bioshock” and “Bioshock 2,” the first two games in a franchise that has sold over 34 million games as of 2019.
Women will continue to pursue video games, and video game culture will continue to make us feel that we are not “real” gamers or reduce us to “gamer girls” because of our gender identity. Time and time again, I have faced men that want to keep me out of gaming because they do not deem me serious enough — and this is a universal experience for women in the video game community. That is the upsetting truth of our current time. However, I maintain that women do not have to be esports champions or top-earning streamers or developers of some of the most popular video games of all time to prove that they are “real” gamers. Consider this a call to arms: All you have to do is play the games you like and keep pushing. When a man claims that you have no space in the gaming community because you play “Animal Crossing,” I want you to double down and devote your skills to building your dream island. When a man quizzes you on your “Call of Duty” knowledge, I want you to challenge him to a game and beat him.
Or, if you’re like me, learn everything you can about video games and then ask for your first “Legend of Zelda” game for Christmas. It will be the second-ever video game addressed to you under the Christmas tree, both received in the year and a half since you turned nineteen, and both will be from your big brother.
Daily Arts Writer Maddie Agne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.