When I sit down at a computer, my left hand falls automatically into the inverted-V shape known well by all of you; middle three fingers arched across W, A, S and D. Pinky hovering over left-shift, my thumb resting lightly on the space bar. There’s a poetic comfort in this for me. I do it without thinking. These letters are the ones I always come home to.
I’m protective about my natural gravitation to those four letters. They’ve opened up huge new worlds for me: I’ve been to Rapture, Azeroth, the cutting cliff-faces of Dear Esther. I spent three and a half years working towards a games degree. I write about games now. This year, I flew to Los Angeles for my first E3.
Those four letters on my keyboard define me: I am a gamer, they say. This is what I do, what I know and what I love.
So last week at E3, it wasn’t disappointing press conferences, my ruthless appointment schedule, not having time to eat, or even the nightly drinking that broke me. It was my forced separation from those four buttons.
It happened during one of my first appointments of the show, a half hour I’d booked to check out the sequel to a well-known military shooter franchise. I’d checked into the publisher’s booth as media and had been told to wait at a computer for the next available PR person to assist me.
So I sat down, fingers falling perfectly across the keyboard. Before me, yellow grass swayed in the wind, and leaning on the W, I began to move slowly through its blades, watching the brush give way to glimpses of crumbling buildings and battered vehicles. It was a meticulously detailed scene and I wanted to absorb all of it.
This was how the PR representative found me a few minutes later, though it seemed he mistook my marvel for a slow-witted lack of comprehension.
“Do you play PC games?” he asked, frowning.
One of the publications on my media badge was listed as PC PowerPlay. It shouldn’t have been necessary for him to ask such a question, but I answered. “Yes.”
“Well, OK.” I sensed a disbelief in the guy’s voice. “But do you play shooters?”
I remember the silence that filled this space beyond this question. I was horrified that anyone could even ask such a thing. Here I was, sitting with my fingers spread across WASD, admiring a game world — and somehow, for some obtuse reason, being assumed to be someone who didn’t know anything about the world or how to interact with it.
“I think I better play it for you,” he said finally, prying my hands away and turning the keyboard towards himself.
And so there I was, hands twisted awkwardly and uselessly in my lap as a guy walked me through his game. In laboured detail, he explained to me simple mechanics that any shooter player would be well-acquainted with. He avoided the gameplay due to some apparent strange belief that I was not there to learn about shooting things in a shooter game, that perhaps my delicate girl senses might be offended by killing with guns and missiles. He pointed out rabbits in the grass with all the condescension of an adult trying to distract a noisy toddler, as if my interest in this simulation-grade shooter lay in some wildly misguided assumption that it would be full of adorable, fluffy animals.
I looked down the booth and saw gamers at the other computers playing their own games, their own hands controlling the avatars. No PR representatives were hovering at their shoulders, pre-empting that a lack of knowledge would lead to them playing the game “wrong”. I felt ridiculous and unwanted. I felt it ridiculous that I should feel unwanted.
I left that booth having learnt very little about the game, beyond that it apparently wasn’t a game that should have interested me. I was evidently a nuisance to these people because… because what? I had made the appointment because of my own curiosity. I had rocked up of my own accord, eager to play what I believed to be a game interesting enough to write about. Instead my presence was underestimated, and I was brushed off as not wanting to truly be there. I couldn’t figure out why — besides perhaps that I was a woman in a pink skirt.
It continued to happen through the next few days of E3. Upon checking into a booth, I would often be asked by the PR rep whether I wanted someone to play my “hands-on” demo for me. During booth tours, I would more often than not be guided towards the Facebook games. Following demonstrations, I was often offered fact sheets just in case I didn’t “understand”. People would regularly take note of the publications listed on my badge and say, “But you don’t really play, right?” I was assumed to be eye candy, the pretty face of a publication whose content was provided by people with actual talent. Every time I protested, the offender would say — as if it were a proven fact — “Well, girls aren’t usually into this stuff, you know.”
And you might say that it’s silly that I might still find this so hurtful. After so many years of getting underestimated for being a woman in online games, in a games degree, in games journalism, why would it seem that I’m still not used to this? Why am I not tired of it already? Why have I not yet learned to shut up and realise that things will never change? If I’m so offended, why am I not determined to just keep my head down and prove the unbelieving wrong by producing good work?
And honestly? It’s because we’re f**king beyond this already.
So to be undervalued by the people promoting the games that I wanted to cover — games that I personally chose to cover — was a hurtful underestimation of my capabilities, both as a journalist and as a gamer. I wanted to accurately write about the games that I saw; instead, it was too often assumed from the outset that I would not be able to do this as a woman, and PR representatives took it to task to feed me condescension-laced spoonfuls of their games, lest my apparent black hole of knowledge sucked their product into the empty deadness of inaccurate, female-penned games journalism. And such behaviour on their part only confirms what they assume based on my long hair and my mascara — of course my hands-on recount is not going to be accurate, not when my own hands are batted away from the thing so that someone more “capable” could take point.
It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy that being prevented from playing a game myself leads to only shallow coverage of it, and to have it bylined with a woman’s name only reinforces the idea that a woman might be no good at covering games anyway. Why this, when we’ve made such progress? It’s not just an insult to me — it’s an insult to my editors, to the publications I write for, to games journalism, and to gaming.
It’s unbelievable that this is still happening. If this is how PR people feel about women’s capabilities, no wonder the promotional side of games is so sexist. No wonder marketing people still think it’s, on some level, OK to have a trailer feature a man ripping into a band of sexy nuns. No wonder we’re seeing it filter down into the developers, who implement in-game achievements for looking up the skirts of 19-year-old women dressed like schoolgirls. No wonder we’re watching it filter down into the gamers, who tell the ladies amongst us that they can’t possibly know anything about the online games that they play. After all, what proof is there of that when women are not allowed to speak on an authoritative level?
When we’ve come so far, to have a woman be underestimated at such an internal, integral point of the games industry tragically diminishes what the medium can achieve, and undoes so much of what we’ve worked to overcome.
When I sit down at a computer, fingers automatically fanning out over WASD, I shouldn’t have to be made to feel as though it’s not my place. As if I’m a fraud, or wasting the time of the people who develop, promote, or publish games. I can be just as capable as any other writer or gamer. Let me.