Ellen and her husband had gone to the local nursery to pick out some bushes for their back yard. Natalie had taken her two young daughters to a play date at the zoo. So began the Monday round-robin discussion of weekend events, as I settled down with my bowl of soup on a bright but cold afternoon. As Julie’s tale of scouring Lowe’s for just the right ceiling fan for her spare bedroom wound down, I sighed quietly to myself, knowing what was coming. The three 30-something women peered at me over their fat-free dressing decorated salads: It was my turn. I explained that I had spent the bulk of my weekend shooting my friends in the head while playing some Gears of War online. To my workmates’ credit, their expressions of polite interest dropped for only a few seconds, but those few seconds were enough to reveal the disdain, revulsion and full-blown pity each of them was feeling toward my idea of a “good time.”
It’s a scenario I’ve become more and more accustomed to as the years have gone by. While I’d like to say these women are shrewish harpies, the truth is they’re perfectly nice, normal folks. They, unlike me, got married at appropriate ages, saved their money to buy the appropriately-sized house and then proceeded to fill it with the appropriate number of children and appropriately-groomed pets. They want to relate to me, if for no other reason than to be civil, but there just isn’t an entry in the Surburbia 101 Text Book for the 30-something Female Gamer. So they fall back on vacant smiles, polite nods and none-too-subtle changes of subject, hoping, perhaps, I’ll follow their lead and change my ways. I am an aberration in their world – an outsider – and we all know it.
But I’m not alone.
At GamerchiX an all-female gaming forum hosted at Xbox.com, I found a number of other “old” gaming females who’ve been forced to endure the confused smiles and awkward silences from judgmental or misguided coworkers over the years. I found they shared many of my frustrations. “I’m not considered an adult in the office or with co-workers,” says lachica38 (screen names are being used to maintain privacy). “Most non-gamers judge my leisure time harshly as a waste. I’ve resorted to not talking about my gaming outside of my gamers.”
Simply avoiding the topic – dodging it altogether or telling flat-out lies to avoid scorn and mockery – seems to be the defense mechanism favored by many gaming women. “My family and friends think [my gaming habit] is weird,” says Trixiebelle67. “I used to keep it pretty quiet at work because I felt embarrassed when I would get the strange looks and the comments about wasting my time on a kid’s game. But now I figure if they can spend all their time watching TV every night and talking non-stop about it, I can wear my geekdom with equal pride!”
With little first-hand information or experience, non-gamers tend to rely on what they’ve seen in movies or TV shows, those caricatures that paint gamers with a uniformly unflattering brush. Many non-gamers are genuinely surprised to learn that not everyone who loves to play games is a Cheetos-stained slacker whose eyes have gone glassy from too many late nights in front of the monitor. This lack of understanding can lead to some annoying generalizations sure to send a gamer’s eyes rolling skyward. “Besides people not understanding that video games are an advanced form of entertainment over idly watching TV, I also encounter several ‘So do you go to Star Trek conventions too?’ comments,” says iTara PMS. It’s certainly not the most offensive question a gamer has ever been asked, but it belies a basic lack of understanding. And so it is that we, as strangers in a strange land, are constantly asked to explain and justify our hobby, a requirement rarely placed on those who choose trips to the movies or pickup games of basketball as their pastimes of choice.
Non-gamers will stand, mouths agape, demanding to know how we can sleep at night spending “so much money on games.” Upon overhearing Lou P Lou’s description of her gaming weekend, a coworker asked her how she could justify the cost of videogames. “I asked her if she had any hobby that she spends money on, scrapbooking, reading, computers… anything. She admitted that she did. So, I explained to her that gaming is my hobby, an escape from the stress of working in ICU with critically ill patients all day. That I work for my money and if I decide to spend that money on gaming so be it. [But] no matter how I ‘plead my case’ they seem to think that I waste my money. Guess you have to be a gamer to understand.”
Sadly, relatives aren’t much more supportive. Though we might hope to at least enjoy some unconditional support and understanding from our families – they are, after all, stuck with us – they are sometimes the very people from which we earn the most scorn and criticism. It’s a rare woman who doesn’t feel pressure from her family to get married and have children, and when that doesn’t happen, gaming makes a handy target for misplaced anger and disappointment. “My sister-in-law actually had the balls to ask me when I was going to grow up, and have a kid already,” explains Xbox Betty. “When the family came to visit, and I was showing my brother Blazing Angels, she forcefully moved my niece away from the TV, explaining really loudly that her kids wouldn’t grow up to play those ‘terrible’ video games and waste her life.”
It’s ironic that an activity that might open the doors of communication between a mother and her children – a shared love of gaming – oftentimes causes so many people to call her parenting skills into question. xSkx Nightstar’s son is just 5 months old, but her family is already doubting her ability to raise him “properly” if she keeps on gaming. “I have had my family tell me that I can’t play anything because it’s ‘not right for a mother or wife to play games with a child to raise.’ Even [after] explaining that I don’t play any games unless my son is asleep they still remain in that mindset. Many people will have their opinion on the ‘traditional’ way that women in general should not play …but I won’t change my outlook on gaming; I’m still going to play for years to come until I can’t hold a controller anymore.” Deanna the Geek faced similar flak from her mother: “My mother tells me I need to spend more time being a mother and housewife than playing games. ‘Games are for kids,’ she’s always telling me.”
It’s tempting to file this all under “Us vs. Them,” but non-gamers aren’t usually trying to be confrontational, they’re just bowing to basic human nature. When confronted with something they don’t understand, they do whatever they can to fit it into terms with which they’re more familiar. A woman paying $130 for a pair of shoes is one thing, but one paying $130 for the Legendary Edition of Halo 3 is something else altogether – something confusing – so our loved ones try to persuade us to fit a mold with which they can more easily identify. “Friends think I need to grow up and do something productive like take classes, etc.,” scoffs NBG Julia343. “There’s nothing I want to take. I can and do read the texts on my own without paying $300 + materials and stress for the semester. Or painting. OK, I could be a fifth-rate painter and end up with a ton of fifth-rate art work around. I do my best painting with a roller. Or teach piano again, when I scare the kids, and when the area is flooded with teachers? I’m single and in my early 50s. I just enjoy gaming on the 360.”
Still, Kiki Kat looks on our role as strangers as a golden opportunity. “A benefit of being an older gamer, I think, is that if I start talking about games people will usually listen for a while whereas if a teenager starts talking about games people will zone them out right away,” she says. Perhaps she’s right, and we should make every effort to educate and inform the non-gamers in our life. Maybe the responsibility is ours to help bridge the gap between ourselves and those who don’t understand us, but who, in all likelihood, truly do want to. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll even get them to pick up a controller and play someday.
When Susan Arendt isn’t writing the news at Wired’s Game|Life or feeding her Achievement Points addiction, she’s training her cat to play Beatmania.