"Video games are a boy thing," my sister explains to me. "I feel like it's a known fact. GameStop is a boy store. The commercials are for boys. It's just something everyone knows."
My sister is 17. She runs a One Direction fan Twitter with 10,000 followers. She plans to major in fashion marketing. She's a cheerleader. She is as close as anyone can get to what gaming's sweaty fever dreams envision, desire, and shame as "Girl."
Like me, she knows from personal experience that girls play video games, and would hotly defend it if challenged. But a second tenet holds sway, as contrary as it is simultaneous: video games are for boys. The video games we've played don't count. They're concessions, scraps, snatches at the lucrative attention of little girls. It's not that my sister and I don't like real games; it's that the games we like aren't real.
I ask about Style Savvy, Cooking Mama, Super Princess Peach—games she played without fanfare, without self-doubt, surrounded by torn-out Tiger Beat posters. Weren't those fun? Didn't she spend hours with friends, swapping Nintendogs? Doesn't she remember the giggly hours she devoted to Club Penguin?
"Oh yeah, those were fun," she says. "I don't know. Maybe I didn't grow out of video games. Maybe video games just didn't grow up with me."
It would be easy to cast my sister and I as opposites. I received a book of essays on The Scarlet Letter for my 16th birthday. She received Our Moment, the One Direction branded fragrance. I went to a college where I devoted myself to post-war politics and anime screenings. She dreams of a higher education experience full of tailgating and adorably slouched cardigans. A teen movie would have a field day: she, the blue-eyed beauty in a LOVE PINK hoodie, blinking blankly as she holds an Xbox controller upside down. I, the frizz-headed harpy, explaining that my half-elf duchess of darkness uses water spells, not fire.
But I nod in agreement. "Yeah. Same."
I have a Steam account. I have a favorite Soul Calibur title. But fundamentally, we feel the same: not gamers, not welcome, and not interested in most of what we see at GameStop. Those years we spent swapping DS cartridges were, for the both of us, our only experience of games as uncomplicated fun. Then we grew up, and an avalanche of qualifiers buried us.
We're not gamers. We don't play real games. We should stay out. My proximity to nerdhood, her proximity to the mainstream—neither matters. Video games did not grow up with us; video games did not grow up for us.
I press my sister to explain how she knows games are a "boy thing," how everyone "just knows this." "I don't know," she answers tentatively. "Y'know, the commercials, and… everything. All of it. You know?" It's difficult to explain why and how she just knows, in part because parsing the roots of any sociological phenomenon is difficult, but also because it's just such an immutable fact for us.
For girls who do not fight to be a part of the club, who are not conversant in that world of quarter-circles and Konami codes, it's as codified as all the other gendered tenets of our lives. Video games aren't for us the way football and finance aren't for us: sure, there are girls who break in, and we applaud them for it at a comfortable distance. But where there is a welcome mat rolled out for men, there is only a bloodied stretch of briar for women. And it's just not something we have in us to brave.
There are girls and women who do not feel this way. Which is not to say they feel at ease in gaming, but they at least demanded a space there, and knew it to be theirs. I understand this: it's how I feel towards the world of comic books, where I am comfortably ensconced as both a fan and critic. I knew I was not welcome, but I fought for my right to be present, to master the lingo, to insist on entering the conversation. It was a truth I knew in my bones: comics were mine, and no jumped-up fanboy who'd never even heard of Jackie Ormes could obscure my truth.
When it comes to gaming, however, I am bereft of such confidence. I shrug and sound very much like the dozens of women I have known who protest that their love of Raina Telgemeier and Archie Double Digests does not make them a real fan. I don't get games, I argue. Don't pass me the controller, I'll only embarrass myself. It's not my turf. It's not for me. I'm a girl, ok?
This is our reality, and that of so many women, one that is silent, vast, yet largely unremarked upon wherever gaming is discussed. How did we learn this, I ask her again. How did our friends learn it? How did our mother? How do so many women, even today, learn that video games are not for them?
"It's everything," she says. There is a pause. "And everyone knows it. I mean, there are girls who game. But everyone knows it's not for them. But… yeah, it's everything." Over the following hour, we dissect "everything" as best we can. We find that, broadly speaking, there are three forces at work in teaching girls that video games are not for them.
The first force is disqualification: It takes into account the fact that girls almost certainly have played video games, but then carefully categorizes the games they're most likely to play as illegitimate. It's not hard to find this attitude wherever games are discussed. A mystery thriller like Her Story, a narrative exploration game like Gone Home, bestselling titles like Animal Crossing and The Sims, all manner of virtual pet sites: Not real games! Walking simulators! Boring! Easy! Dealing with women's emotions, not having guns, or simply being enjoyed by women en masse—all of these qualities act as disqualifiers. It's not just that women supposedly aren't interested in games; it's that the mere presence of femininity defines the games they like out of existence.
It didn't always feel this way, of course.
"All my friends had a Nintendo DS when we were little," my sister recalls. "I was really happy to find games related to my interests. Like, Style Savvy—that was my first step into fashion, really, as something I wanted to do." I remember her unwrapping a DS for Christmas, in fact, her eyes bright, the games beside it in a candy-colored stack. "Remember Elizabeth, across the street? I'd go up to her room when we were like, 9 years old. We'd play Nintendogs and Cooking Mama. All my friends did it. No one was shy about it."
My early relationship to video games was similarly untroubled. I played Purple Moon games on our stout little Gateway PC, Pokemon and Harvest Moon with a chunky, colorless Gameboy, Neopets during the hottest part of the summer. And for a while, it was something everyone did. A female friend painstakingly pieced together a Pokemon newsletter and disseminated it to our entire third grade class, all of us hungry for rumors of "Pikablu." Everyone got together for Math Blasters during free time. It was the late 1990s and my friends and I were just young enough, just high enough on Girl Power! to approach video games as we approached books, movies and TVs: as ours, inherently, and may the spirits of the Spice Girls damn anyone saying otherwise.
But something changed during those latter elementary school years, as the boys started huddling together to talk Starcraft and Grand Theft Auto—as their masculinity began to ossify around ideas of not-like-girls, our femininity limited by ideas of not-for-girls. The rules changed as we learned to mold ourselves into pleasing shapes, as the boys began to look at us less like people and more like objects to spurn and/or pursue. We were not they, and our entertainment became as segregated as everything else. And as with everything else, anything on the side of "girl" fell beneath anything on the side of "boy" in worthiness.
"Girl games," like my sister played—games explicitly intended for that audience, often marked by glitter and pastel colors—are the sole province of those young years, before the chasm between "girl" and "boy" rips open. And in this new light, we learned to look back at them and shrug. They didn't matter. They weren't real games. We left them behind as artifacts of childhood: loved, but ultimately relinquished.
Games grow up with boys from that point forward. We are welcome as long as we don't drag anything that might exclude boys along—as long, essentially, as we are assimilative and quiet about it. And even then, that variety of game—Mario Kart, Angry Birds, Bejeweled—are roundly derided as barely being games at all. Anything without the requisite genuflection to the almighty god of Boy's Interests is not a real game, it turns out.
"Girl" becomes incompatible with "video games," just as "boy" aligns with them. "Everyone knows it," my sister repeats. What about the girls who do play the games that "count," I ask? Surely she knows they exist.
"They exist," my sister ventures. "But it's way harder for them."
This is the second force that teaches girls video games aren't for them: the social hierarchy of the gaming community, and the narrow, deforming spaces it offers to the women who do persevere. "They have to become one of two types. There's the one gamer boys think is really hot, and they want her around, and they want to play games with her. But they're still going to make her uncomfortable and say really explicit shit. I see it happen. If she's cute, they tell her, 'oh, I want to fuck you,' and if she says no, she's a bitch. She can't complain."
And the other type? "The other type," she says, "is the 'weird' gamer girl who sits alone in the cafeteria with her DS while the gamer dudes call her fat and ugly. Both girls get put down by guys. And anyway, gamer boys try to own gaming. They claim it as theirs, as a boy thing. They automatically think girls are doing it for attention. No girl wins."
My sister's insight is startling to me. She's never seen the way online harassment of women in games often centers around a woman's sex life or looks. She doesn't know about projects like Feminist Frequency, and the way even its most basic critiques of overt misogyny inspire firestorms of hatred. She doesn't know about "fake geek girl" jokes. She doesn't know that something called "Gamergate" swamped everything having to do with games in virulent hatred for months, destroying careers and too many people's peace of mind, and leaving me reluctant even to write this piece. But she doesn't have to know these things. The collision of gaming and misogyny is apparent to her from a few cafeteria tables away.
She has come to understand that gaming is obsessed with her as a fuckable object, but not a human being. "It's all about women's bodies," she says. "It's gross." Women's bodies. Not women's words, women's feelings, women's dreams, women entire.
What of those gamer boys, unto themselves? "With the really serious ones, you feel like you don't even know enough to begin talking to them." There is the implicit understanding of this litmus test, and of it being exclusively imposed upon girls. "Guys get older and think they're superior and there's just this whole other boundary put up. The older you get, the less acceptable it is for girls to play video games."
My sister pauses thoughtfully. "But it's not like girls grow out of games, exactly… It's that can get away with it. Growing up, I stopped feeling like I could take my DS anywhere, because boys would judge."
She goes silent. When she speaks again, her words are tentative. "But it isn't like those games stopped being fun. I didn't age out of games. I… gendered out of them, I guess?"
I describe games like Journey, Transistor, Life is Strange, and Portal to her: games with female protagonists, created by women, resistant to dominant norms of sex and violence. "I don't see commercials for those, though," she demurs. "I see those Kate Upton commercials instead."
This is the third force: marketing. "There aren't really any games that seem positive to me," my sister explains. "They're all about violence and nudity. I don't like how the female body is made out. It makes me really uncomfortable. All of the commercials are for guys."
She doesn't know about Never Alone. She doesn't know about Gone Home. But she knows about Kate Upton in a strategically knotted bed sheet. She knows about Booker DeWitt and his face-shredding skyhook. Anything beneath that top stratum of blood and jiggle is invisible to her. So why would she go spelunking into gaming with no clear purpose? Why would she assume there's anything worthwhile out there for her to discover? Without me, she'd never have heard of all the progressive indie titles I rattle off, and would have no reason to believe they exist. She doesn't know about Steam; she doesn't even really know about PC gaming period.
For my sister, and so many girls and women like her, the gaming marketplace begins and ends with these mainstream visions of gaming, and the mainstream stores like Game Stop that sell them. "It's obviously for boys. The nudity of course, but even the colors. From what I see, they mostly hire boys." We discuss the posters and cardboard stand-ups we've seen in their windows: stubbly white men cradling bricks of oily black weaponry, or half-naked voluptuous women with pouting, glossy lips inviting the onlooker to ogle. Be the hero, over and over again, in a million monochrome worlds: crush the bad guy, fuck the woman, do a whole lot of shooting in between. Games are fantasy and fun, the marketing tells us. Fantasy and fun built upon our backs.
Our phone call falters, mired by my sister's sad insight. How could the industry and community make this right, I ask? What would make you feel welcome? What could have kept me from a lifetime of fearful distance from gaming—even the games I love?
"Maybe if they developed games for all interests," she says tentatively. "Stuff like the games I liked when I was little, but… grown up. Games about everything. And if the stores especially were just more friendly? And less sexual. Less violent." She pauses. "You need to make people want to come in, you know? Girls want to be comfortable there. They don't want to go in and be surrounded by that kind of female nudity."
I agree, and we discuss what changes we'd make. We remember breeding Nintendogs, not-quite-swear-words on Club Penguin, Princess Peach's magical parasol. The fun we had, the adventures we shared, the friends we made. "Cooking Mama!" she exclaims. "I loved Cooking Mama. It was so much fun." I agree, recalling the tricky stylus technique one mastered over the course of many digital omelets. I can nearly hear her smile travel through the phone. "That's what I want," she says, wistfully. "More Cooking Mama games."
And that's certainly what we need: more games featuring women, made by women, willing to tell stories about pop stars, witches, and queens, willing to work in palettes beyond army drab. But that will be meaningless if our understanding of what a game is and who a gamer can be does not expand wide enough or visibly enough to reach and include my little sister.
She wants to play games where women make the world beautiful, save the day, make friends, or romance boys. She wants to play games without killing, without rape, without weaponry. She wants to play games that don't assume you grew up on GameFAQS or have hundreds of dollars to shell out on hardware upgrades. She wants games on her phone. She wants game in her browser. She wants to live in a world where games are just as aligned with girlhood as boyhood, and where no one bats an eye at a girl like her loving video games alongside One Direction fanfiction and scented candles.
In a way, it's simple; she just wants games to be for her exactly what they are for boys and men: easy to love. Why does that have to be so hard?
Illo: Rob Beschizza. Photo: Shutterstock