Let’s state this up front: I consider myself a feminist. I strongly believe women deserve the same opportunities as men and have the right to determine the course of their own lives. We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’ve still got a long way to go, so I do what I can to advocate for the ideas and standards I believe should be a foregone conclusion in today’s society. To relate this back to my beloved gaming hobby, I’m all about Girl Power and shutting down that Fake Geek Girl crap.
There’s just one problem. I have trouble getting along with other women.
Despite my mother’s best efforts, I’ve been something of a tomboy my entire life. Even with all the frilly, girly things she bought me, I was more interested in adventure stories and I coveted my brother’s action figures. My Barbies had super powers and regularly traveled through time in addition to deciding which one got to date Ken. One Christmas when I was little I opened a big yellow Tonka truck and my brother opened up a pink baby doll. I was ecstatic, but he started crying, “Santa got me a GIRL toy!” Being the older sibling, I did the ‘mature’ thing and gave my brother the Tonka truck and took the doll, but man did I want that big old dump truck for my own.
As a kid, I wasn’t really athletic enough to keep up with the neighborhood boys, so most of my friends were other girls, but I was always the odd ball in the group. There was only so much Star Wars I could talk to them about and they all thought my obsession with the X-men was weird. By the time I was in high school, I was the strange girl who awkwardly carried a big purse that was primarily to tote around whatever massive fantasy or science fiction book I was reading at the time. The divide got even wider during the end of high school when I was introduced to D&D. I found my niche, but it was completely foreign to every single one of my female friends.
It’s a pretty well-known fact to say that gaming was always considered a guy’s hobby. Though there were ladies playing from the very beginning, most were considered aberrant minorities or driven away from gaming social centers by creepers and misogynists. After all, what was worse: getting hit on and leered at by someone who treated bathing as an option, or being belittled and talked down to by someone with a superiority complex based solely in their ownership of a naturally attached penis? The atmosphere IS changing; most of the conventions I attend prove that women in gaming are here to stay and MOST guys are completely on board with that, but when I got started in the late 80’s, it was totally a sausage fest.
While I had to deal with the same negative issues as most women interested in the hobby had to face, I was able to find good guys to game with that accepted me in spite of my gender. With them, I found people that actually WANTED to discuss the same crazy, nerdy stuff that I’d been interested in my entire life. As a result, by college and afterwards, the majority of my friends were guys. I still had female friends, but there were really only one or two I would say I was truly close with. I was always more comfortable hanging out with the guys than I was getting together with the girls.
To a certain degree, this is because I just don’t get the social landscape that most women are expected to inhabit. While it’s been rare, my occasional encounters with women who treat all other women as competition to stab in the back has always confused and upset me. Make-up eludes me, hair styling is something that happens when I let my hair dry and then I brush it, high heels are a dangerous choice, and fashion is something I look at on websites, not consider for my own wardrobe. Oh, I love pretty things, and cute animals make me squeal in delight (there’s a reason my last foster kitten became a permanent resident), but the areas where I fit the feminine stereotype are few and far between. Heck, a very good friend has joked that I’m the gayest man he knows. (i.e. I’m attracted to men, like musicals, do creative things like art and writing, am not very feminine, and can’t actually carry a purse without looking like a dork.)
This all came to mind recently because I finally joined a guild on Neverwinter. Once I reached 60th level, I discovered there was content that was only accessible to folks that were members of a guild. Deciding I still enjoyed the game enough to keep playing, I began shopping around for a guild despite my misgivings. The one that caught my interest had an informational blurb that included the following: “Do you hail from the days of pen and paper? Do your gaming dice sport rounded edges? Have you explained THAC0 so many times that you are glad never to do so again?” Turns out, the officers I chatted with were pretty cool and I got an invite.
That was three weeks ago. Suddenly I remember how much fun it is to play a game like this WITH other people instead of beside them. An added and new aspect to this for me is that they have a Ventrillo channel and encourage people to actually chat via voice rather than text while they’re playing. When I left Everquest, the voice chat options in MMOs were in their infancy. I actually never had an actual “Leeroy Jenkins” moment while I was playing. Talking to guild folk is pretty cool, but it has required a mental adjustment for me. I have spent close to twenty years perfecting communicating online via typing, so actually talking to people online is taking some getting used to.
The thing I noticed, though, is that while I got comfortable fairly quickly with the guys, I found myself getting nervous chatting with the other women in the guild. The ratio still favors the guys, but there are women in the guild and one of the officers is female. Why, I thought, am I being weird about getting to know the women in the guild when I’ve so easily accepted the dudes? Ultimately, even with the common bond of enjoying a nerdy pastime like a video game, I instantly have that worry that I’m not going to know how to navigate the expected social landscape for women. I can handle the guys, but women scare me.
This is true for me whether we’re talking about my workplace or at the gaming table. For work, I’ve always been comfortable in a more masculine environment. The times when I’ve worked with predominantly female co-workers, I’ve carried an undercurrent of worry – sometimes valid, sometimes not – that I’m going to say or do something wrong. With face-to-face gaming, I’ve usually been the only female among the guys in my gaming groups. It wasn’t until I met Lisa that I began to consistently find female gaming friends. Lisa decided I was cool, completely ignored my hesitation, and dragged me (silently) kicking and screaming into a wider network of female gamers. That’s pretty much how I found Alana and Margaret and Caitlin and Elle and Heather and Claire and Becky and Rose and… Well, the list goes on.
(The one exception to this pattern in my life was when I got involved with the Sims2 community. The group I got in with was primarily female, but somehow the way the group fell together completely bypassed my usual anxiety about befriending other women. We bonded over a wellspring of creativity as we wrote stories and made shared content for the game and before we knew it, we were regularly getting together in AIM chat. I’ve stayed in touch with many of them via Facebook, but man do I miss my fellow Simming Boxians.)
I need to reconcile my fears with the heartfelt belief that women need to support one another in pursuing equality and cement our place as partners in creating this amazing hobby we call home. My subconscious needs to STFU about the fear that women will automatically reject me because I’m not girly enough. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more comfortable in my own skin, accepting that I am who I am and that’s absolutely okay. I’ve even come to accept the fact that my mother was incredibly proud of me even if I wasn’t the girly girl she had initially wanted. Slowly, I’m getting to know my fellow female guildies and realizing they’re pretty darn cool. It’s a start.