I don’t remember a lot of my childhood, but I remember getting the PlayStation. The first game my older brother and I played on it was Tekken, and I immediately kicked his ass with my invincible six-year-old button-mashing skills. I quickly moved on to cuter games like Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, and Klonoa: Door to Phantomile and let me tell you, those games were my jam. Growing up, the less “realistic” the game, the more time I was going to put into it. The type of gaming I did as a kid was pretty much the type of gaming I do now: I preferred my enemies disappearing in a puff of smoke to excessive violence and gore. Occasionally, I’d play fighting and racing games with my brother or we’d team up in more violent games like Future Cop: LAPD, but I spent most of my time with Crash and Klonoa. I only felt comfortable with more violent games if my brother was there. He would fight boss battles for me because I found them to be stressful and upsetting, which defeated the purpose of gaming for me completely.
Gaming was more than entertainment: it was an escape from reality. My brother and I used video games as a coping strategy and distraction from our lives where we felt helpless. Our abusive father both provided this escapism and the reason we needed it in the first place. My brother played more aggressive games to express his frustrations while my style was more lighthearted, but both of us were just looking for an outlet.
As I got older, the use of gaming as an escape became even more essential. My parents were going through a horrific divorce, and I was severely depressed. I spent most of my time sleeping, because when I was awake I felt completely powerless. The only game I played was The Sims, and I spent hours building a world in which I had control. I was obsessed with The Sims and played it every day until I was 14, when my brother acquired a closed beta account for World of Warcraft. I had watched him play Diablo and Warcraft and they hadn’t interested me, but he worked hard to convince me that this was something I would like, too. And he was right.
Being in the early stages of soft-goth teen angst, I started out as a warlock. It took one day to get me completely hooked, thus starting a long-running battle between my brother and I over computer time. World of Warcraft was the major source of our sibling fights, and it quickly became an obsession for both of us. Once the game was released, we were able to play simultaneously on different computers, and when our friends bought it we all joined a guild together. Sometimes our friends would bring over their computers and we’d all watch Legends of the Hidden Temple and play WoW and eat pizza, and it was wonderful. I gave years of my life to World of Warcraft, and a lot of that time was fun.
Unfortunately, a lot of that time was also filled with misogynistic microaggressions and sexual harassment. Random groups contained people who used slurs as punctuation, and god forbid they find out I was a girl: the mood would change, and I had to laugh along with whatever awful things they decided to throw at me. I hardened myself to fit in. I laughed at the “jokes,” I used slurs flippantly, I brushed off abusive language, and agreed that people who wouldn’t participate in this toxic community were just “too sensitive.” I ended up in a romantic relationship with our adult guild leader who lived in another country. I walked a fine line between feeling “grown-up” and incredibly uncomfortable.
I tolerated the constant barrage of sexism and convinced myself that the endless parade of random men who hit on me were just paying me compliments. I was an underage teen in an internet community filled with adult strangers trying to act tough and mature. My confidence and self-esteem became more and more eroded, and I didn’t have the ability or the resources to understand the causes, so I drifted away from the game. I didn’t play for years—time that I used to battle with myself. I came out as queer, I challenged my own misogyny, racism, and general internalized bigotry. I realized that I had to change, I had to care, and I had to try to be better. I looked back at my 24/7 gaming days, back at World of Warcraft, and wondered if it had changed, too.
I came back to the game in my early 20s with a determination to have fun, which translated to “pretending I wasn’t a girl.” My feminism was pretty basic, and my strategy shifted from changing myself to participate in this toxic culture to hiding myself. I didn’t want to attract sexual attention from men in any way, so I stopped playing elves and young human women. My characters were all either elderly human women or orcs and trolls who didn’t sport any of the “cute” face options, and I have to say, the sexual harassment stopped.
Alliance or Horde, strangers were so irritated that my chosen avatar didn’t exist to aesthetically please them that I got random whispers and men running up to me in-game to berate me for it. “Why is your avatar so old/ugly/gross/etc.?!” My response was always to say, “I don’t fucking care what you think” and block them, but it wore on me. I didn’t feel safer. The casual “locker room” sexism continued in instance groups, despite none of it being directed at me. I felt like I couldn’t win. I started calling out the misogyny in these groups, sometimes even in trade or general chat. The result was always the same: I’d be mocked, and the men would double down on their abuse, often becoming defensive and saying it was “just a joke.”
In one group, I met someone who told me their guild leader was a lesbian and she co-ran it with her girlfriend. This was incredible to me. I had always dreamed of joining an all-female and/or queer guild and finally feeling some sense of community where I could let my guard down a bit. I asked to join, and they eagerly accepted me. I was super enthusiastic and gushed that I was so happy to find other lesbians in the game. The guild leaders immediately asked me to join Ventrilo, saying that they wanted to hear my voice. This was the typical line that I got from most male-led guilds, and it was always followed by increased sexual attention, so it gave me pause. I put them off for a little bit, but they didn’t talk too much in guild chat, so I relented and joined vent. General guild vent was upbeat with some ribald joking, but once I started talking with a headset the pressure started.
The nature of the guild leaders’ conversations with me became more and more sexually explicit. No matter how much I laughed them off or changed the subject, both guild leaders flirted with me relentlessly. I got more and more uncomfortable, taking longer breaks from playing that character until I returned, angry with myself that I couldn’t face them head-on and say they were being inappropriate. I knew why it was hard to call out this behavior: I had enjoyed my brief feelings of community and didn’t want to endanger it, and I was having a lot of trouble coming to terms with sexual aggression from queer women. When I returned, the sexual propositioning became more explicit and they asked me to join them in their relationship. I gave up and cancelled my account.
Misogyny and harassment was the background noise of my entire gaming experience. As a child, I didn’t understand the misogyny, as a teenager I intentionally denied it (and even participated in it), and as a young adult I tried to avoid and then to fight it. The microaggressions all built up, a constant negative buzzing that overwhelmed all my positive experiences. The only time I ever felt safe in World of Warcraft was when I was utterly alone, and I realized that was the answer. I was done. The “lesbian incident” had been the final straw; I could not find a safe space where I wasn’t sexualized even with other marginalized people. I was disgusted with gaming culture and nerd culture in general.
Being unable to see a positive future for gaming really upset me. I had grown up with games, I loved them, but all I could see was the legion of awful people ruining lives and going to extremes to maintain the oppressive status quo within the gaming industry and culture. Video games felt like a loss; all the news I heard was negative and my memories were marred with the frustration of having to navigate fantasy worlds just as delicately as I had to in my daily life. I only thought about gaming in relation to how toxic it was for women and marginalized groups. I didn’t touch my Xbox for anything other than Netflix for years, but I missed video games and how much they used to help me.
One day, my best friend bought me Dragon Age: Origins on a whim and I loved it so much I bought DA2 the moment I beat it. I was so far out of the loop that I hadn’t even heard of those games, and they blew my mind. I could romance other women while playing a woman! When my male teammates irritated me, I could play through the game with an all-female team (just kidding, Varric was ALWAYS with me, he’s amazing). I had choices, I had agency, and I didn’t have to tolerate casual misogyny while I saved Thedas. While still avoiding gaming culture, I started to enjoy playing games again.
My best friend, who always knew more about games than me, was so excited about Gone Home that I bought it the day it came out. For the first hour or so I was reluctant and grumpy, constantly expecting a jump scare. But by the end, I was crying and I wanted to tell everyone on the internet how happy I was. A game existed that I could really identify with! I felt hope for the future; for gaming, tech, and marginalized peoples’ place within those spheres. I started participating again—actually using Twitter to reach out to people, to search for community. I got more vocal about social justice activism, which has come with negative repercussions. My relationship with my brother has been destroyed—he is a Gamergate supporter. It turns out that the clear line between SJW and GG runs right down the middle of my family. We no longer speak. But I’m still hopeful that he and the other gamers who feel like he does will stop feeling so threatened by little games about lesbians trying to find their way. You can always come back to gaming, especially now that inclusivity is becoming a priority in the industry. For the first time since I was a kid, I finally feel like there is a space for me in video games.