Over the last few days, I’ve seen an article on gender in gaming get passed around quite a bit. You can read it here; and it makes some interesting points. I’d love to see the study done over a wider group of people and see which results continue to be consistent. I’d also be very interested to read the “more comprehensive analysis.” The section that jumped out at me wasn’t about who likes playing which protagonists or who plays what type of games (those are also interesting, for the record). It was specifically this small section:
Burch and Wiseman took their study a step further by asking students if they identified as a “gamer.” While 65 percent of girls said no, and 65 percent of boys said yes, both genders displayed anecdotal evidence of being just as invested, and just as knowledgeable about games.
So, despite both the boys and girls displaying equal investment and knowledge in gaming, the girls were noticeably less likely to call themselves “gamers.”
This is something I’ve long had opinions about, but since they’re all anecdotal I’ve been careful about injecting them into conversations. The short version here is that some of us have got to rethink how we define a “gamer” if we’re using it to deny people their voice or push them out of the community.
I’ve heard a number of women in my life make statements along the lines of, “I’m not really a gamer, but I’ve been playing WoW since release,” or “I know I’m not a gamer, but I spent weeks trying to get that last achievement and I finally got it!” These are women who grew up playing video games, who still play video games…and just don’t feel that the “gamer” tag applies. And yes, I see this happen far more often with the women I know than with the men. You could argue that it’s because the stereotype of a gamer isn’t something they’re comfortable tagging themselves with – and I’m sure that’s part of it. You can also point out that labels are less important than what you’re actually doing anyway, and I’d tend to agree. But “not a real gamer” is so often used to shut someone down, I think it’s important to look at another reason why some folks may not label themselves. I’ll tell you that for many of my friends, it comes from something else; something I can relate to.
I’ll use an example – I love Star Trek: The Next Generation. Love it to death, you don’t want to know how often I binge watch every episode. I loved it as a kid, and I still do. I’m hesitant, however, to call myself a serious fan. Not because of any negative stereotype, but because the instant I say that, there’s a decent chance someone in the room will start grilling me. The “fake geek girl” issue is still alive and well – while I’ve never been made to feel that I’m “fake” anything by my friends, the wider community is a different kettle of fish. No one likes to share something they’re passionate about only to get grilled and tested.
Or, better yet, D&D. My friends have always played, I’ve always had interest in playing, but the number of games I’ve actually played is quite small. When I was a teenager some of the guys I knew were weirded out by a girl wanting to join, and later on I was too self conscious to approach folks to play. I didn’t want to be the idiot doing everything wrong, and I felt that by being a newbie (and a girl on top of that) I needed to be super good at it right off the bat. I’d heard so many jokes and stories about “We brought in this girl and she was stupid and didn’t know what she was doing.” I felt the need to prove I was committed and knew what I was doing, before I’d had the chance to learn. Thankfully I did get past that – but there was a whole mess of time wasted there in which I could have been gaming instead of feeling like I wasn’t good enough. I expect it’s a feeling that you understand if you’ve been there – knowing your interest is sincere, yet fearing you’ll come off “fake” since you’re still learning.
Or I could pick a subculture that folks are already uncomfortable with – the furry community. I first realized that was even a thing back in middle school (junior high), and I fell in love with a lot of the artwork. Many of my favorite books and movies ping “furry” on everyone’s radar; there’s a reason that most folks assume I’m a part of the fandom. But I’ve never been super involved with the wider community, never gone to cons, and never been super comfortable with the label. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not because of the stereotypes there either, although rather like gaming they do get old. It’s because when I was that teenager first discovering something I was into, I ran into a whole bunch of folks who were policing who was “allowed” to be a part of it. I didn’t go to cons, I didn’t have fanart or fanfic of a fursona, I didn’t know enough about [pick a topic]…so I was doing it WRONG and could not claim that label for myself. I still had the same interests, all the same favorite books, still loved the artwork coming from the community; but I’d been placed outside of it. Despite meeting some lovely folks when I got older, I don’t think I’m ever going to feel comfortable claiming the label – silly, maybe, but true.
I was lucky in gaming, at least. I grew up gaming with my brother and it was never a weird thing that both of us gamed. When I got older, I took for granted that I was a gamer and didn’t hang around with folks who questioned that. It didn’t occur to me that anyone WOULD since it was clearly one of my hobbies. I was the one who reads a lot, writes, and plays video games. By the time I hit my early 20’s and moved to a larger city, most of my friends either didn’t game at all – so didn’t care – or we had a mix of men and women who played so it was never a big deal. Neither “OMG gamergurl unicorn” nor “OMG fake girl gamer.” My gaming was treated the same as any of my other hobbies, something I did that I was lucky enough to have in common with other folks. I don’t think I realized at the time how special that was.
Then I started getting into online games more, and the wider gaming community. Quite the eye-opener, and not always in a good way. I shouldn’t need to say this, but for the record I’m referencing personal experiences. I still meet and know awesome folks who are happy to share a hobby with me; but I run into more and more who seem to prefer being self appointed gatekeepers. Do you play the right games? Have you been gaming long enough? Spend enough time weekly? Can you prove you actually game?
I’ve heard the argument (more than once, for the record) that so-and-so isn’t a gamer because they said they aren’t, or because they never said they were, or because they’re doing it WRONG. And every time I hear that, I think about younger-me trying to get into D&D, trying to talk about TNG, or trying to poke my head into the furry community and wandering away not because I didn’t care, but because I was told I wasn’t a part of it. I have literally told people before that I didn’t play pen and paper games and definitely wasn’t a furry, not out of shame about my interests, but because I was told I wasn’t a part of that community either directly or through implication. It makes me sad to think of other folks having that experience, feeling unable to be a part of something they enjoy. I got lucky with many things and eventually stopped worrying about other folks policing my interests, but not everyone does. Considering I can still write on the topic, I’d guess I still have baggage from my own experiences.
I think it’s worth taking a second look when we try to dictate who is and isn’t a gamer. You can’t always judge someone’s actual interests from how they choose to label themselves. And really, what is our goal in doing that in the first place? Why is it worth the risk of driving away someone who legitimately wanted to be a part of things? We should also realize it might not only be that person we’re running off; what happens when someone else new to gaming or unsure hears that and assumes the whole community is like that? The way to grow anything isn’t by putting up walls and stopping people at the gate; you grow by bringing in new people and being open to ideas they may have. Maybe they have a different opinion than you do, but it’s more useful to talk about why you disagree than just ignore them as “Not one of us.”
[Edit: To be clear, I’m talking about welcoming new folks and those with different opinions. I am not trying to say anyone should put up with toxic or abusive behavior from someone “because they’re a gamer.”]