COLUMN: Dear You…

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Dear You,

I don’t know who ‘you’ are. You communicate with made-up names and behind avatars that aren’t really you. But know that if I knew your name, I would refer to you by it. I could come up with something derogatory and hurtful, but then I would be lowering myself to your level of snipe. There’s no discourse to be had once you deliberately offend someone. You may not get to the end of this column before navigating away, but the ending might surprise you. So stick around for the couple of minutes it takes you to read.

I was an adult before I had a proper games console of my own. One that was just for me and not shared or a hand-me-down from my brother as he moved on to the newest technology. But don’t let that fool you into thinking I’m a new gamer. I’ve been bashing buttons and ferociously waggling joysticks since the 80s and I’m excited to be getting an XBox One next month. Whatever games my brother had, I played too. We started with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and never looked back. You’re probably too young to remember it. The ZX Spectrum made a sound like a fax machine when you loaded up the game tapes. You’re probably too young to remember what a fax machine sounds like too. Then again, the problem with the way you hide behind images and identities that aren’t your own means I don’t know how old you are. Maybe you’re 50, maybe you’re 15. You’ve made yourself deliberately ambiguous so that you can’t be held accountable for the terrible things you’ve said publicly.

From there we made our way through a whole stream of consoles and hand-held gaming systems: Sega, Nintendo, PC games, PlayStations, XBoxes. I never picked what we got when we were kids, because it was his. His toy. I always wanted to play a little more than I let on, but again, it was his. And in all honesty, gaming was for boys, at least officially. Nobody ever told me I shouldn’t play, but I never felt like it was something I should ask for either. I could say that I never really asked for a console or games of my own because it wasn’t financially practical to double up, but what child thinks about money, really? It was more that it just wasn’t the done thing for girls. Thankfully, my brother was always around for me to play his games with him, against him, and when he wasn’t playing. I was so lucky, in that sense. Without him I never would have been exposed to this thing that I love so much.

I never discussed gaming with any of my friends. Not because it was a secret or that I thought it would make me an outsider in the group. I was never one of the popular kids anyway and I never expected to be. Dork for life etc. I just didn’t think any of them would be interested in Donkey Kong Country or the very best moment to shoot out a green turtle shell in Mario Kart. I didn’t bring it up. I now wonder how many other girls were gaming in the 80s and 90s, thinking the same thing. They would have been cool conversations if I’d ever found another girl stealing goes on her brother’s consoles.

As I got older I identified myself more as a gamer, although mostly to men rather than other women. I still didn’t have a tribe of women around me who played too. In the beginning I felt like a novelty in the male conversations I jumped in on. For a while it was something of a badge of honour, to have knowledge on something a lot of women apparently didn’t. They thought I was cool, even if they found it annoyingly surprising that I could keep up. But as I shifted from girl to woman, the gaming world didn’t seem so welcoming. Women weren’t considered to be genuine gamers. They had to be tagging on to a man or pretending they enjoyed playing to impress men or they weren’t interested in ‘real’ games. It was isolating. I never played with strangers online, just friends. The XBox gamer tag I chose years ago is generic so that if I did ever decide to play online with people I didn’t know, they wouldn’t be able to tell I was a woman. I just didn’t want my gaming joy to be crushed with a slew of abuse from men and boys on the other end. Or worse, have them kick me out of the game altogether. If I were picking a new one now, I’d probably pick one that had my name in it so everyone would know I’m a woman. But that’s because I refuse to play with strangers now to avoid the insults.

It wasn’t just the response to me being a female gamer, it was also about the options within the games too. My first thought when approaching any game was always, “Can I play as a woman?” The answer was almost always no. I feel the same way when I read a comic book. I’m not looking for a man to lust over, I’m looking for which person I would like to be if I were in the story. I love when that can be a woman because it means I can sink deeper into the story. You’re going to quote Lara Croft and Clementine back at me. But really, think about how many thousands of games there have been over the years, then think about how many strong female protagonists there have been in comparison to men.

I’ve loved the male characters I’ve played as. You know as well as I do how attached to characters you can become, especially in a long, story-driven game. But when you’re already made to feel inferior simply by playing, the fact that nobody in the game looks like you makes you feel even less worthy. I adored GTA V, but I was dying just for a short time to play as a woman. I was nuts about Trevor, Franklin and Michael. It was a stunning game with a fantastic story. Everything you’d expect from Rockstar. But what I’m most excited about with the news that the XBox One release of the game will have a first person option, is that it’ll be more like I’m playing as myself, not being a man. Even though technically I’ll always be playing as one of those three men, the immersion, which is apparently brilliantly done, will make a big difference. When playing Mario Kart, even though I loved racing most as Luigi, I sometimes chose Princess Peach because nobody else ever picked her. And I wanted sometimes for the character who looked most like me to have a crack at winning. Sometimes we (she and I) did. It always felt a little cooler winning as Peach than as Luigi.

I understand why you’ve reacted the way you have to women in gaming pushing the agenda to be more recognised. Don’t think for a second that in saying that I condone your behaviour and the way you’ve spoken to women over the past few months under a transparent cloak of ethics in gaming journalism. The words you’ve used have been sub-human, degrading and in some cases highly illegal. Wishing rape and death on someone and leaving them too afraid to stay in their home is appalling. Making bomb threats because someone wanted to share a view is disgraceful. Deep down, beneath all that misguided bravado, I think you probably hate yourself for doing it. While you watched Stephen Colbert interviewing Anita Sarkeesian last week, cleverly ‘being you’ for a few minutes to help her make her points, I know that underneath it all you probably felt a little embarrassed hearing your words coming out of his mouth. You’re bullies though. And the thing about bullies is that it’s never about the target, it’s always about the insecurity and worthless feeling that lives inside the person doing the bullying. You lash out because it makes you feel powerful. Probably because you don’t really feel that way.

But here’s the thing that might surprise you most, I understand why you’re trying to hurt women. You’re afraid, so you hit out. You’re scared that women will come along, take over the gaming industry and you won’t relate to it anymore. You think you’re going to be pushed out. You’re worried that the characters won’t look like you and you don’t think you want to play as a woman. Women aren’t weak, but society often paints us that way, so you’d rather nothing changed and you were still able to play as the exaggerated version of you. I get it and so do other women, because that’s how we’ve felt since the birth of video games. We feel pushed away. We feel overtaken. We feel underrepresented. You don’t want our experience of gaming to be yours too, so you fight against it in the hope you can block change. You maybe just don’t have the communication skills to discuss your fears like adults, so you snap and bite instead.

Now that you know we see through it, here’s the other thing you need to know. If women have felt this way in gaming since its conception, why on earth would we want anyone else to feel as terrible as we have? There’s no revenge being plotted. Why would we want anyone to feel unwelcome or isolated? Why would we not want a friendly, all-inclusive community? All we’ve ever wanted is to be accepted and to share our love of video games the way you can. Women in gaming aren’t here to obliterate men. If anyone tells you that the purpose of feminism is to hate men and wipe them out, they’re being sarcastic at best and a false representation of feminism at worst.

We don’t want you to go away and we don’t want there never to be any male characters. We just want it to be equal, so that we can enjoy it as much as you do. So that we can be a community that people are gagging to get into. So that being a gamer is a label we can all wear with pride and not feel sheepish about revealing. We want women to do more than sit around waiting for a prince to rescue them or gyrate for boys to wank at. When we ask why Assassin’s Creed has no customisable women in it, we need more explanation than that Ubisoft couldn’t be bothered to spend the extra few days to make that possible. If you think being ignored and made to feel invisible would suck for you, we can confirm that it most definitely would, because we’ve been living that experience for years. We don’t want that for you any more than we’ve wanted it for ourselves. Instead of making things worse for women in the hope of holding up the tide, you could stop being abusive and be a man who doesn’t deal with fear by throwing insults and threats at us. That would be a really strong man. Use your teeth for smiling at us rather than biting. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reaction.