From a young age, like many people, I’ve been interested in games. My siblings and I would argue over who got to be Mario and who got to be Luigi, whose turn it was to play Yo! Noid (yes, that was a real game), or who got to pick the next title to rent from the video store. When my friend Katie would come to my house for a sleepover, we’d sneak up in the middle of the night and play my brother’s borrowed copy of Strider (which I’m only recently learning is very similar to Metroid). I’d go over to my friend’s house just so we could play Super Mario Bros. on her SNES all day.
Whenever my family went on vacation, I would follow my brother to the arcades so we could play Street Fighter (Guile was my favorite) or Mortal Kombat (I wanted to learn ALL of Sub Zero’s moves). When the Sega Genesis first came out, it was all my sister wanted for Christmas, and we spent the next year playing the crap out of that Lion King game that came with it.
During my childhood, it was never suggested — and I never considered — that playing video games was a boys-only activity.
Flash forward past my middle and high school years (during which I apparently forgot about video games for the most part), to my first year in college. My passion for video games was reignited when my then-boyfriend brought over his PlayStation and we’d play Kessen into the wee hours of the morning. And once I saw his little brother playing Final Fantasy 9? I was completely, unbelievably hooked.
That was also the beginning of my trading card game (TCG) obsession. We played so much Pokemon that I ended up buying whole boxes of cards online. I had binders for every type of Pokemon, complete with color-coded cover pages, organized by rarity and name. I later forsook Pokemon for the Star Wars TCG, and then eventually learned about the satisfying complexities of Magic: The Gathering.
TCGs took a backseat after a while, though, when I began gobbling up every MMORPG I could find. I made an awesome group of friends and we traveled from MMO to MMO together. World of Warcraft, perhaps unsurprisingly, is where the bulk of my online gaming took place. My guild had a significantly large percentage of women — seemingly by chance — and for most of The Burning Crusade, I was escalated to GM. There were a few rather crude guys, but for the most part our guild was a safe and comfortable place for women.
Once again, in my 20s, I wasn’t really exposed the idea that video games weren’t for girls, or that we’re not as good at games (video, TCG, or otherwise) as guys are.
Maybe I got lucky. Maybe it was actually a setback.
One of the things that brought my husband and me together when we first met was playing MtG Online. From there we branched out to visiting a local shop for draft tournaments, and eventually started playing in standard tournaments a few nights a week.
I fell in love with gobblers, burning my opponents’ faces off, and the watching the way crazy strategies could play out (or go completely awry). When I would Top 4 and actually win prizes (ooh, treasures!), all the better.
There was nothing quite so satisfying as taking Top 2 with my husband and our matching mono red decks (in fact, he’s still heralded as “the best mono red player in Texas”). At one point, it got so bad (good?) that people stopped coming because they didn’t want to lose to us anymore, so we had to change up our decks. Oopsie!
But the more time I spent playing Magic with the general public, the more I began to understand the discrimination and isolation many women experience in the gaming community.
At first it was fun, being underestimated by my opponent. People saw me as a new player, so my match wins would often come as a surprise to the other person. I relished being able to outwit my opponents with unexpected deck choices and mind games.
It wasn’t until I started receiving certain commentary, however, that I realized there was more going on. My supposed newbie status wasn’t what was throwing people off; it was the fact that I’m not a guy. People would try to bully/sweet-talk me into letting them win. People would try to convince me to make bad plays, like I was an easy target. People would RAGE when they lost, and I would have to stick up for myself and not back down when I knew I was right or had announced something they “didn’t hear.”
After narrowly losing a mirror match (we were playing Tempered Steel at the time) against a seasoned player, I was told, “You’re one of the better females.”
Perhaps he meant it as a compliment, but it instantly made me uncomfortable. Why wasn’t a “good game” and a handshake good enough? Why mention my gender? (And why not “women” instead of “females”?)
One night I was playing in the final round and my opponent hit me with a double-whammy. In the end, I had to admit to myself that he was better at mind games than I was (and I wasn’t familiar enough with his decklist — also my fault). But the thing that made me want to crush him?
“Whew! I didn’t want to lose to a girl,” he quipped as he packed his deck away.
I’m still annoyed with myself for responding with a soft snicker and embarrassed silence, but at the time, I was kind of shocked numb. I’m a good player and the match win came down to one mistake I made (and will never forget). I was disappointed that I’d lost the match when I was previously undefeated, and had been paired down that round. He wasn’t concerned that he might have lost the match and gotten pushed out of the Top 8. He was worried that he might have lost a match to a girl. Good thing I’m not concerned about losing to guys, or I would hate playing Magic.
Oh wait. That’s actually what started to happen.
After a while, it wasn’t about fun anymore. It was about proving myself as a Magic player. If I lost, it was because I’m a woman (and thus obviously bad at Magic). If I won, it was because they were having bad luck that night.
I wanted to destroy that mindset among the players. I wanted them to see me as a good player. I wanted them to see me as more than an easy win. I wanted them to see me as an equal, as a peer, and as a challenging opponent. I know that not every Magic player thinks this way (we’ve made a core group of friends who rise above the rest), but the general atmosphere and attitude among players still pushed me to feel this way.
I didn’t just want to be seen as a good player. I wanted to be seen as the best player in the room. No excuses, no doubt.
I played only to win. If I lost, I was frustrated with myself. If I didn’t Top 8, I was embarrassed and would spend the ride home apologizing to my husband for sucking at Magic*.
Maybe I sabotaged my own success, though. When people talked about cards, or strategies, or new deck ideas, I wasn’t always able to follow the conversation or chime in (or understand all the jokes). I’ve never been as deep into learning about ALL the cards as my husband and our friends are. [Truth be told, I even became too lazy to build my own decks and just let my husband do that for me (but I would make the final decisions on card choices and sideboard composition; I didn’t want to go in blind).]
So I don’t have time to read about Magic all day long. So I don’t have every single card (which set it’s from, and its current trade value) memorized. So you might have to remind me what the mana cost is for Incinerate if I haven’t used it in a while. Does that mean I’m to be dismissed from the community? Does that mean I’m not a “real” player? Does that mean I’m a poseur for wearing my Simic t-shirt every week? (Dear god, does that mean I’m some sort of “fake geek girl”? Hint: No.)
I don’t know how different things would’ve been if I were a guy. I don’t know how different things would’ve been if maybe I was just more studious about Magic (my husband says everyone who likes Magic just naturally reads about it outside of the game — news, spoilers, new card mechanics, etc.; I contend that I can like a game but still not have the time or desire to delve so deeply into it).
In the end, all I know is that my need to prove myself killed my love for the game.
While I’m still a very active gamer, and I still want ALL the trading card games (have you SEEN Vanguard and the Madoka one and The Spoils and…?!), playing a game of Magic always comes with a large helping of self-doubt and trepidation these days. I hope I can shake that eventually.
For now? At least I’ve got Civ5 to keep me company.