feature: oh crap! a black girl gamer!

October 21, 2014

I have been playing video games off and on since I was a little kid. I didn’t have a system at home, so I made sure to make friends with the kids who did. That said, why is it my experience is somehow less than in some gamers’ eyes, despite at least twenty years of interest? Oh, right. Because I’m a black girl queer gamer. The issue is that the “cool girl” doesn’t want to play; she just wants to watch. This unholy desire to actually play games instead of serving as decoration in the background during a gaming session means that I’ve been cut in lines, gawked at in stores, talked down to while playing a game, and honest to God farted on at a LAN party. Rude. Read the full story.

By CJ Dermody-Williams, AFROPUNK Contributor

I started gaming when I was about four. My upstairs neighbor had a Sega Genesis, so after playing in our backyard and riding our bikes in front of the house, we’d sit in his living room, eat a snack or drink some juice, and play Sonic the Hedgehog until the end of the day or until my mom picked me up for errands. This was the first time that I started really using technology and seeing video games as a means of entertainment and making friends. I definitely went outside and went to the park and all of the other things that kids do. Aside from playing baseball and skinning my knees, it was kind of boring. I learned to look forward to those visits upstairs because, aside from seeing how video games has the capacity to break friendships, gaming was a new way of engaging with the world. It made me feel like I was controlling a cartoon, a concept that seemed foreign and fascinating to me. When I moved from that apartment, I remember one of the major things I was going to miss was the console. And also the other kids, I guess.

I didn’t find games again until I was in fifth grade and would commute forty miles to see my dad. It wasn’t often that I got to see him and he’d moved to a new place, so I was excited. I would finally get to talk to him about Harry Potter and maybe ask him some deeper, existential questions about family and responsibility. Either way, I was excited. When I first got to his new apartment, everyone was already asleep and we were both too tired to get into serious conversations. He got the sofa bed ready for me while I put on my pajamas in the bathroom, turned on the TV, and handed me the Nintendo 64 controller. Super Mario 64 was already in the game port. I played for a while and, after an unsuccessful bargaining attempt wherein I promised to be good if I could stay up for another fifteen minutes, I vowed to play some more as soon as I woke up. When my father’s roommate’s kids came through the next day, I’d already been awake for an hour, playing by myself. They all sat and watched as the two oldest kids and I played Mario together, taking turns between the three of us, doing the closest thing to kid cussing that we could while the adults were around whenever one of us died and had to relinquish the controller. This, again, became a ritual every time I went to visit my father and the kids, who were like siblings for a while.

After a few years of little to no video games at all except visiting video game stores to look at stuff, I didn’t game again until I was a junior in college and I met my partner. I need to explain a thing: Her rig was awesome! I’d been using a GameBoy Advance and playing DDR with lunch money throughout middle school, which seemed unreal at the time. Her system was completely different. It had a four-core processor, an amazing Radion video card, the soundcard was…it was bleeding edge and it completed me. Video games had evolved in so many ways in the ten years that I hadn’t been playing, so when I first popped Bioshock Infinite into the CD drive, I was transfixed. I had that same four-year-old wonder I had when I first played Sonic, but I was sharing it with a different person this time. I was aware of the bullying that could happen, but that seemed like a normal occurrence when people get together. I just knew that each time I started another gaming phase, it marked a new level of socialization with the world around me. As an awkward kid who could make it a whole school year sometimes without making any friends, knowing that video games were an escape option was always encouraging.

On our wedding day, nerds that we are, my partner and I decided to celebrate by going to a local gaming center to play Left 4 Dead 2 as a kind of honeymoon. That’s how we get romantic on a budget. It was also one of the few times that I shared my interest in gaming with people outside of my personal circle. For some reason, I always thought it should be my own little secret because I didn’t think I should give people a reason to ostracize me more at school. Not with how much I liked Pokémon.

I was able to enjoy myself when I was shooting zombies with just my partner, but establishing my own space in the gaming center became this primate territory juggle. I would get myself situated at the computer to prove that I have every right to be there and the guys around me glared epically, making it clear that I was not welcome in their No Girls Allowed Club. I was set upon by passive aggressive microaggressions, like when I decided to challenge myself on a mission in Borderlands 2 by trying to beat a boss while slightly under-leveled. I thought I was doing something major. That feeling didn’t last long. Instead of asking me what my strategies were or what I was trying to achieve, I was given the true honor of having a definitive ponytailed neckbeard breathe down my neck and give scholarly advice about what I was doing wrong. He was even nice enough to mention that, if he weren’t completely swamped with his League of Legends campaign, he would have helped me. Like I don’t know how to beat the game on my own or don’t have my own gamer tendencies that affect my gameplay choices. Like he had to pencil me into his crowded gaming schedule to share his wisdom with the wretched masses. There was the general assumption that, because I present as female, I didn’t know what I was doing and, therefore, shouldn’t have been there.

I have fond memories of playing WWF SmackDown! and getting in trouble for trying to pile drive people like the Rock when I was in the fifth grade. I would play Mario with my friends-turned-siblings and throw my controller across the room after falling off of that gorram Rainbow Road again. I’m no expert, but I’m not a n00b. As a partnered, queer woman of color who flirts with literally everyone and never notices it enough to follow up, there is no way that someone could accuse me of doing it just for attention. This rules out the dreaded “fake gamer girl” accusations. I’d be considered a “cool girl” because I am just like one of the guys in a lot of ways – a brand of girl “nice guy” gamers lament doesn’t exist in the gaming community. The issue is that the “cool girl” doesn’t want to play; she just wants to watch. This unholy desire to actually play games instead of serving as decoration in the background during a gaming session means that I’ve been cut in lines, gawked at in stores, talked down to while playing a game, and honest to God farted on at a LAN party. Rude. You’d think that I would have enough under my belt for people to value my experience or opinion. Talking about games was the one common interest I had with my peers so I would try to worm my way into game conversations whenever I could because, honestly, it was the one way I could get through a few minutes without being made of for being the class weirdo. Yet, I am seen as an amateur by virtue of the fact that I’m an African-American woman in a mostly white male industry.

I was absolutely winded when I realized that I suddenly couldn’t like video games with other people anymore. It’s like when your mom tells you that you’ve outgrown your favorite sweater or something. It guts you for a minute, even though you still try to wear the damn sweater, no matter it’s cutting off circulation in your arms. I thought that I would be able to find a whole bunch of other weirdoes who know about being the butt of jokes and who I could team up with for gaming sessions. I hoped that it would be a safe community space where likeminded people could come together, play video games, and become friends or at least acquaintances. Instead, I was once again the dorky kid in glasses whose clothes didn’t fit right like when I was twelve.

Because I’m African-American in an urban, low-income area with a history of racist BS, I instantly assumed that this hostility was racially motivated and it is true that video game representation does not reflect how many people of color play video games. A recent Nielsen study reports that between ages 18 to 49, African Americans consistently spent more time playing video games than whites, but only make up about 10.49% of playable characters in white male dominant games. However, the violent backlash against appeals for female characters who wear practical armor or make it through the game without dying to build the main male character’s story suggests the hostility is gender based. Who knew? Women who dare to participate in gaming, including cosplaying and attending gaming conventions, are often ostracized and ridiculed on the premise that the gaming environment is exclusively for men. Unless the women are sex objects or victims. Whenever I tried to contribute to a conversation about a game, guys would calmly explain the game to me as though I’d never played it before. There is just this assumption that I need guidance on how the game works.

This anti-female gaming culture is an interesting issue because it is paradoxically visible and invisible. On one hand, people know it happens because they hear secondhand stories or read articles about it. It happens on such a personal level though that no one really knows how to address it. We have a constant appreciation of the female form in video games that are, admittedly, nice to look at and there is a budding voice for more female inclusion in video games. However, the feminine voice has been overshadowed or is downplayed in the industry. This insidious belief system has become interwoven into the culture. Even calling it out becomes an invitation for arguments and ostracism. Mentioning that I think someone’s patronizing tone is irritating turns the discussion away from the problematic misogyny or even the game and makes it about how I hurt this guy’s feelings with my comment, making me the angry black woman or an angry feminist. Thus, the main issue takes the backburner in favor of tone policing, allowing the behavior to continue. Because gaming is so solitary and personal, those comments and threats become intensely violating. Sitting down to play a video game is suddenly becomes this test against time and the question becomes, “How long can I go through this game without having my humanity threatened? Also: Where’s the Gatling gun?”

I’m fairly young, so maybe this has always been an issue. I remember people telling me as a kid that only white boys like video games. With the games that come out and how homogenous the industry is, it almost seems true. Most games have been developed by men and for men. Maybe the idea of women claiming space in the community is so novel that it registers as wrong. I guess. I can’t be sure about that reasoning because, when I see women playing games, it never seems too different. We chug Mountain Dew and eat junky crap to get through a productive gaming session just like guys. Some women are even better at gaming than guys. We have to be. In order to prove that we belong, hours upon hours of training and practice are necessary just to enjoy something that a guy with a truly unholy level of n00bishness would be able to get away with in a heartbeat. Because male privilege.

What’s so discouraging and enraging about it is that women make up nearly half of the entire gaming demographic. In 2014, the Entertainment Software Association reported that 48% of gamers are female. They also happened to report that people have played video games for about fourteen years of their lives, meaning that a solid 48% of gamers have been putting up with misogyny and sexism for an average of fourteen years of their lives. Women, especially women of color, are essentially voiceless characters in games, so people seem to assume that we really don’t have anything to say. Maybe the community’s attitudes will change when more games show women as more than sexualized in-game tools or provocative mission objectives. Or maybe it’s time to ensure there’s gender equality within the game development industry. I’m just spitballing here.

I think there is just this naïve six-year-old in me that remembers how much fun it was or an anxious twelve-year-old who learned that talking about video games made me seem “normal.” Gaming has the potential to be used as a positive tool for socializing and building a community of misfits who were all singled out during childhood for being a geek, a nerd, or a dork. With video games becoming more socially acceptable amongst adults, it would be great if women could also engage in this entertainment medium, regardless of what they choose to play, how they present themselves, and what their gaming tendencies are. A woman’s opinion or experience in the gaming world should not be any less valid just because she prefers The Sims 3 over Battlefield 4, like one game is more inherently feminine and insignificant in gaming culture. In writing this, I’m finding myself wanting to reiterate how manly I am as a girl, like that will somehow give me more social capital on the topic. While guys in the scene still seem to find it unusual that girls are more than just boobs on legs, it doesn’t matter how masculine I actbecause no one will see it and take it seriously anyway. It didn’t work when I was a kid and trying to like the Spice Girls. It won’t work now. Honestly, it would just be great to go to a video game store and be ignored until I get to the register and start geeking out about why I’m excited to start playing as soon as I get home. Ideally, this might mean making friends with people who I can play against online just like when I was a kid and being a girl or a boy didn’t matter when we both liked the same game. All in the name of fun and games, right?