A Response to “No Girls Allowed” by Tracy Lien

This article by Tracy Lien on Polygon is easily one of the best articles I’ve ever read about gender and gaming. Lien examines how gender fits into the history of gaming and most importantly she examines how games, in their early history, were not always marketed so strongly towards boys and men. This article appealed to me for many reasons, but mostly because I have been playing games for my entire life and therefore I remember a lot of these historical changes and the impact they had on my own life (although I obviously was oblivious to their significance at the time).  The objective history of this article follows my personal history as a gamer so closely that I couldn’t not be blown away while reading it, even though in a way, I already knew everything that was being said. I think it is easy for women such as myself to rationalize our movement away from games as a product of growing up, and not a product of a changing games industry. This article finally allowed me to admit to myself that I was pushed away from games in my teenyears, and abandon the more voluntary narrative of simply walking away. Not that I ever stopped playing games completely, it just always seemed so complicated or dangerous to decide what to play, how to play it, and who to play it with. It was simply easier to play much less often. So, before I move on to a more personal story, this is me telling you to go read the article and feel the affirmation that I felt from reading it.  Also it has INCREDIBLE illustrations drawn by David Saracino, one of which is our featured image here. Bellow is some personal musings on my personal history of gender and gaming that were brought on by this article. Feel free to leave some of your memories in the comments!

I think it took me a lot longer to catch on that games were not “for me” because I lived in an incredibly small town that was relatively cut off from the world. When I was young we had very few television channels and the ones we did have wouldn’t have had video game advertisements or anything like that. Furthermore we didn’t have a Walmart until I was older, and we didn’t have a games store ever. My parents bought all our games for my brother and I, so we had an idea of what we wanted, but didn’t really understand what the “market” itself was like. I don’t think we really realized we had options, and we didn’t always know what was out there until we got the internet. I think the main reason I didn’t realize that games weren’t really for me was  because I had the benefit of living with a male sibling who liked both sharing, and more importantly, playing games together.

When I was a teenager I always thought that the period I went through where I felt excluded from gaming was personal and not systemic. I had played countless games on the Commodore 64, the NES, the Gameboy, our PC, and the PS1 before I ever realized that games were not intended for girls and women. In fact the very first time I played a Zelda game I had borrowed the cartridge from a female friend of my Mums! As a kid I never once picked up on the irony of the name “gameBOY”. I’m sure that is at least partly because while Zelda was blowing my mind for the first time as a kid “Gameboy” was as common and ubiquitous a term as “peanut butter sandwich”, and because of this it had become devoid of gendered meaning to me.

In the article Lien points out a particular moment in history in which both Doom and Myst were released around the same time. Doom had a majority male audience, and Myst a majority female audience. At this time I was busy playing equally obscene amounts of both and was totally ignorant to their demographics. This blissful ignorance didn’t last long of course. Around this time I had a few moments where I started to realize, for sure, that games were probably not for me.

1) Playing as Lara Croft confused the hell out of me as I wanted to be a female character, but I couldn’t identify with her even slightly, even though I identified so strongly with more androgynous protagonists in games like Harvest Moon, Zelda, or any FPS in which I couldn’t actually see “myself”.

2) Sometime about a year after I started playing 007 Golden eye I realized that this wasn’t a game for girls. When I first started playing I would compete with my brother, and other boys in my class and friends group. Eventually I stopped playing with them as I was realizing that for some indescribable reason I “shouldn’t”. The healthy competition of the game I once loved now said something about both me, my gender, and my validity as a “gamer”. People still played the game long into high school but I only played alone.

In my high school years I started to develop not just a fear but an all encompassing anxiety and repulsion towards playing games in front of people. Not only was I afraid I wouldn’t be able to compete, but that performance anxiety effected my ability to compete. When playing in a room full of boys, i often felt like all the skills I had been developing for all those years would melt away. Suddenly I wouldn’t be able to play a game I knew like the back of my hand at all. I was so afraid of making a mistake, and of how that mistake would reflect on me, and on girl gamers is general, that I couldn’t stop making them. It felt like I only had two options, to dive in an try to prove people wrong, or to disengage completely. I picked the latter.

I learned very recently that this feeling is what has been called “stereotype threat”. That is, an anxiety that develops when you fear that your performance in a given situation will confirm a negative stereotype about a certain demographic or social group that you are part of. In this case, the negative stereotype was that girls should not/could not play games and furthermore, were not good at games. When I was very young, this threat may have caused me to try even harder at specific tasks in order to prove this and other stereotypes wrong, but as I became more aware of my gender and the roles I was expected to play in order to get along in society the anxiety instead manifested itself as a desire to not even try. There was that distinct shift from say, wanting so badly to win at say boys vs girls soccer, to just wanting to disappear that happened right after puberty that just never went away. I assume is because around 14 many gen Y girls realize that all the “girl power” rhetoric they had been fed growing up was not nearly enough to prepare themselves for the massive onslaught of sexism they would face now that they were women. In the end, when it came to my love for games, it was simply better that I not play in front of other people, because if I did then I may confirm to them that everything they thought about girls and games was correct. Consciously I believed that I just hated competition and didn’t want to play with other people. I didn’t realize that subconsciously I had decided if I failed it would convince everyone that girls suck at games and it was all because of me. I still have this fear today, but now, I understand it which makes it much more manageable to enjoy playing games, although I still vastly prefer to play alone.

Around the time I was ready to graduate the eighth grade I had figured out that I was strange not for being a girl who PLAYED games, (there was lots of girls who fondly remembered playing NES and SNES etc.) but for being a girl who played games SO MUCH and who still liked playing SO MUCH. There were lots of things girls were supposed to obsess over when they are 11,12,13, years old but video games were not one of them. Around this time I had a group of guy friends who (in a genuinely super nice affectionate way) used to call me “Nintendo Girl” not because I played exclusively Nintendo games, we played PC and Playstation games as well, but because when they would call me up to go do cool preteen stuff I would reply “too busy. I’m playing (insert whatever new game my brother and I were playing here)”. This went on for about a year but when I started high school it all changed.

I still played games but I played them exclusively alone. This combined with my budding social life would mean that I would play a lot less games. Don’t get me wrong I still had a Gameboy SP (even in highschool the irony of the name didn’t hit me) and I played a ton of handheld games. I had a gamecube and, “for a girl”, I played that a lot to. But every year I still played less and less. I never stopped entirely. I still played every Zelda game, I played Animal Crossing, I played Pikmin, all the Resident Evil games etc. but the older I got the more and more I felt like games were no longer for me. I have always regretted not monopolizing on this free time in highschool and playing even more games than I did but, reading this article, for some reason, makes me feel less regretful of those years and more accepting of them. I guess it is comforting to look back and see how the cards were stacked against me, and considering all of that that, I made out pretty well. No matter how much I loved games, games didn’t love me back. It was a torrid story of unrequited love between girl and the douche bag we know as the gaming industry.

Now in 2014, I play as many games as my life will let me, but because I’m an adult with a job, and a PhD student I have almost NO TIME to play games, even though I have attempted to make them as big of a part of my school and work life as possible. Currently we have this fantastic dialogue going about how we can make women feel welcome in gaming communities, but there is still a long long way to go. The cards are no less stacked against young girls now then they were then. In fact, now that those boys playing games when I was a kid have grown into men both playing and making games, the situation is actually much worse for young girls who want to get into gaming.

Recently, for our GI Janes booth at Ada Lovelace day, we were attempting to make a list of “female friendly” games for young girls. We were looking for games that were not offensive to young girls, but were also not simply “kids” games, or games about cooking and puppies etc. (not that there is anything wrong with that!). We made a pretty good list of games we enjoy playing, but this was still a really hard list to make. Lots of the games included on this list were there simply because you had the option of playing as a female character, but they were still games in which the female character was the beta “alternative” to the primary intended male character. Games like Portal 2 and Gone Home give me some hope that by the time I have kids old enough to play games it won’t be so hard to make this list. That maybe, eventually, it won’t be considered strange, unnecessary, or overly demanding to want more games with  female protagonists and characters. I hope that fifty years from now a history of games, gender, and marketing like the run down in “No Girls Allowed” will look back at our next 10 years as a turning point for both games and for those of us who identify as women and play them. So seriously, read this article, go read it RIGHT NOW.

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