‘Only Girl Syndrome’ Pits Gamer Girls Against One Another

‘Only Girl Syndrome’ Pits Gamer Girls Against One Another

Last week, footage of two women fighting in Overwatch went viral. “You’re one of the worst Mercys I’ve ever played with,” one told her team’s Mercy player. “Me? You’re the Mercy who’s rezzing one person and feel like they’re really good,” the second player, Bailee, shot back.

Illustration by Angelica Alzona

The two women were at each other’s throats, arguing over how to play the healer, Mercy. A common stereotype among Overwatch players casts all women as “Mercy” mains, since Mercy’s playstyle doesn’t rely on aim. A teammate named Murdis was eating up the cliché. “IT’S TWO GIRL MERCY MAINS FIGHTING EACH OTHER,” he exclaimed in chat. The incident, recorded in a video, blew up on Twitter.

If you’ve ever played Overwatch, you know that throwing shade on teammates’ gameplay — and talking yourself up — is a long-celebrated play strategy. But that’s not how the average commenter felt. “Overwatch cat fight,” “#girlgamer” and “e-girls are a different breed” were some of the Twitter replies alongside the inevitable, “I’m turned on.” It wasn’t your everyday Overwatch salt; apparently, it was a battle over who could be the team’s Mercy or, if we want to get symbolic, the team comp’s girl.

In gaming spaces, it often feels like there’s only room for one woman — the only girl to get invited to Friday night Tekken or, in this case, your regular Overwatch squad’s Mercy main. There’s only room for one. And, when another girl comes along and picks up a controller, she threatens her standing as the “only girl”.

The “only girl” is a token and, yes, at this point, a caricature. From this comes the ubiquitous, and now cringe-inducing, trope for female gamers — one I, as a teenager, heard myself say — “Yeah, I mostly hang out with guys. I don’t like girls.”

“Only girl syndrome” is not a fictional dynamic invented in the minds of Twitter eggs and randoms on Overwatch. When I was younger, I knew other girls who played video games. Despite courting my friendship, neither I nor the superficial group of boys I called my friends invited them to gaming nights.

A regrettable part of my teenaged brain clung to social survival: I believed these other girls threatened the one thing I had going for me. I was a great Smash player — but, if a girl came along with bonkers Call of Duty skills, would my friends leave me behind?

I didn’t understand why I felt fiery animosity toward these other girls, or the social forces that repelled me from girls who shared my hobby. It was shameful. But I felt it in my veins and blood, that I was easily replaced and needed to prove myself. I’ve grown up since then, but the Mercy incident had me reflecting on a phenomenon that still exists in gaming spaces, judging by conversations I’ve had with other women.

Lolibot, like me, is competitive. She’s big into Tekken Tag Tournament 2, a reflex-heavy fighting game with a huge character roster. She attends tournaments in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina all the time with her friends, mostly boys. “I have generally been the only girl, with the exception of one other player’s girlfriend,” she told me.

“I don’t think that many girls typically hung out at arcades.” Years into her tenure as a Tekken Tag 2 competitor, another girl who dated a Tekken buddy entered her social circle. Lolibot helped her learn the basics when she noticed that no one else stepped up to teach her. After a while, the newcomer gained some competence. Soon after, Lolibot realised that she wasn’t getting invited to practice sessions as much.

“Over time, she really did manage to ‘replace me’,” Lolibot said. When the two women did train together or met at tournaments, Lolibot noticed that, compared to the boys, the new girl singled her out as a competitor more. It was uncomfortable. But, after a while, the newcomer lost interest in the game. The boys resumed inviting Lolibot to every practise session.

“I didn’t want the rivalry, but it seemed as though it was forced onto me,” Lolibot said.

A little less than half of the gaming population are women. When it comes to competitive games, the female/male ratio plummets, according to a 2017 study by social psychologist Nick Yee: About 13 per cent of fighting game players are female. For first-person shooters, that number falls to seven per cent, and for sports games, two per cent.

For starters, women and men who do compete generally run in separate leagues, if the game in question even has a women’s league. But, for casual players in scenes built around these games, women can face social pressures because of the way machismo traditionally plays into competition. If you’re not a guy, you need to be a boys’ girl: You’re loud, you’re hardcore, you don’t show mercy, you don’t give a fuck and you win.

Like a lot of women, I love competition. I don’t love having to beg all-male attendees at Smash tournaments to hand over a controller. For some reason, the culture seems to write off women in these spaces as hangers-on or outsiders, not a part of the vibe. I stick around, I keep demanding. And when I am handed a controller and win, I’m no longer considered a hanger-on. That’s good. But it’s equally alienating to be treated like a wonder. In a lot of social circles, there isn’t a middle ground.

Charlotte Ashley, a bookseller and card game player, told me that, when she was a younger gamer, she relished in the attention her male peers showered on her. For decades, she was the only woman in her group of gaming friends and attributes that to the fact that gaming can be considered a “guy” space. “I definitely got the ‘I am a rare and valuable unicorn’ vibe as the only girl,” she told me. It made her feel special.

When she was 19 or 20 and attending card game tournaments, she was regularly in the spotlight and didn’t want to share. “I knew even then that women were made uncomfortable by the sausage-fest, and I tried to be welcoming,” she said, “but I was also trying hard to be ‘one of the guys’ too, so I don’t think I helped as much as I could have.”

The undivided attention was nice, for a while, until she realised that it was more of a consolation prize than a perk. “They didn’t care that I was a good card player, that much was made abundantly clear,” she said.

Susan Roterman also admits that she liked being the only female attendee at her friends’ Mario Party or Super Smash Bros. nights. She had carved out a space for herself; it was cosy. And she didn’t want to share the attention, because then it meant that her social standing was compromised. “I did feel jealous when there were other girls around, but mostly because I wasn’t the only girl any more,” Roterman explained.

Other women I interviewed said that, if a girl came along who was prettier or liked more hardcore games, they feared being replaced. They feared that they weren’t valued for their witty trash talk or stolen Mario Party stars, but by their empty novelty. When another novelty comes along, this time with better hair, what would happen?

We can get into the psychology of why female competition, or “cattiness”, is a thing. Several studies have reported that women aren’t inherently more competitive than men, but to cope with gender bias in male-dominated communities, some women have developed strategies, like pursuing the role of the “queen bee” — an imperfect, but recognisable term.

Recent studies have shown that, in the workplace, and especially in leadership positions, gender bias and a dearth of women can spark jealousy between women — that’s when, in Utrecht University social psychologist Naomi Ellemers’ terms, “queen bees” emerge. In an email, she posited that majority-boy gaming circles aren’t much different because they can feature the same cocktail of low female turnout, gender bias and a devotion to machismo.

According to Ellemers’ research, it works like this: Women in managerial positions can feel marginalised because they make up only about 30 per cent of those positions. The low ratio doesn’t inspire much gender solidarity. On top of that, stereotypes about working women — for example, that women are more emotional or less strong leaders — can lower women’s confidence. As a result, women may try to distinguish themselves from each other to assert their claim be men’s equals.

In an email, Ellemers told me that her research can transfer onto careers like police work, as well as gaming circles with a low male/female ratio. She said:

Anyone who wants to succeed and be respected as a good member of the community should embody the features that characterise the community. If the gaming community is very masculine, then this is how individuals should feel compelled to behave, to show their commitment to the community and worthiness of being a good group member … for individual women to be accepted, it is important to show they are just as talented and competitive as any man, and to demonstrate that the stereotype doesn’t hold for them. If they identify with other women or support them, they run the risk of spoiling their credibility as individuals who are “just like the boys”.

With fewer women, and so many stereotypes about “fake gamer girls”, competition among women for social slots in gaming circles can get fierce — especially when female gamers are often considered less talented. “Queen bees” probably aren’t a thing because women hate each other or don’t want to game together; it’s how female gamers cope with being told we’re not welcome and not good enough.

Despite being a common phenomenon while growing up, not all women feel jealous of others, or enjoy being the lonely female in their gaming group. Holly Badger, a serious Left 4 Dead player, says that being the only girl was never a goal for her or something she enjoyed. It wasn’t a big part of her identity, in part, because her guy friends didn’t make it a thing: “They always made me feel comfortable,” she told me, “I was never the ‘token gamer girl’ to them. I was a human being and I was their friend.”

So, over time, more women attended Halo or Bulletstorm nights, and she welcomed them.

“I’m always happy to have other women to play with, but that’s because I know how it feels to be a girl in the gaming world. People are arseholes, and I don’t want to play a part in that,” she said.

And those who do experience “only girl syndrome” don’t stay locked into it. Long ago, I outgrew “only girl syndrome” because my fear came true: I was replaced by a friend’s new girlfriend, whom I introduced him to.

It was a blessing; I realised how superficial my friendships were. But for months, I’d pass by my friends’ house and imagine them playing Katamari without me. I was devastated and, throughout those months, only gamed online, where my social life, gender identity and gaming hobby could remain separate.

Through university, I remained the only girl in my gaming circles. By then, we were all adults, and it was the Dungeons & Dragons games I wrote or my wild Super Smash Bros. Brawl plays that, on top of who I am, made me an asset to my many gaming circles. I wasn’t afraid of losing my “spot” any more. Desperately, I proselytised my favourite games to women I knew, and today, still do. Sometimes, they join. These are the nights I remember most fondly.


  • Or… and hear me out here… or it is much more likely that they are just gamers and as such have filthy rage issues. Just saying, pretty sure being female has nothing to really do with people being horrible to each other (or at least in this case).

    • But it had a lot to do with how the twitter examples reacted to the exchange (I’m assuming you’re talking about the first example, and not any other example in the article). The rates of female gamers either being treated as either objects of fetish or novelty are pretty hard to dispute.

      • I am not blind to people charming little shits in games, just saying that there was an example of female gamers acting like… well, gamers.

    • You remember how we had that talk about how your negative encounter with a woman earlier in your life made you someone who is triggered every single time a female-issues story is published, forcing you to come and play ‘devils advocate’?

      • Remember that time you made a tonne of assumptions about someones life thanks to a new age ideology that almost borders on a cult?

        • Well no, as I don’t subscribe to any ‘new age ideology’, unless of course your viewpoint is firmly rooted in the Dark Ages, which I suspect yours very well may be.

          On the other hand, it’s not an assumption when you went on at length about it – and then the fact that you pop in to EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE STORIES AND DO THE EXACT SAME THING EVERY TIME.

          *story about gender issues*
          *a moaning vaegrand appears*
          ‘uuuuuh stop the reverse discrimination this issue isnt an issue’


          • Are you daft? I claimed that the issue here was that they were acting like gamers, I never said anything about oppression, you numpty.

            Where in;
            “Or… and hear me out here… or it is much more likely that they are just gamers and as such have filthy rage issues. Just saying, pretty sure being female has nothing to really do with people being horrible to each other (or at least in this case).”
            Do I at all allude to the idea that anyone is a victim? The answer is nowhere, I merely stated that the actions seem in line with how gamers are in general, I even stated that gamers just tend to horrible to each other.

            Chill mate, your princess is in another castle.

  • Yeah, I would never ever say anythign about another persons performance unless I could somehow help the person. I have no problem with people giving me tips as well. I often play overwatch with another girl. I am a support main, preferred character Zenyatta. The other girl is more a dps main. It works. It’s usually with the guys that i argue over who gets to be a support =P

    • Why haven’t we played together? :@ My playstation is downloading the game at like 1gb a day, but when I do let’s do some Quick Play. I play Lucio, Rein and Ana 😀

  • Looking at gaming from a sociological views always intrigues me, especially when it related to viewpoints other than my own (which is most, as I almost exclusively game alone). Keep stuff like this coming, great article.

  • Reminded of the universal “third person in” rule – in this case the no-hoper who records the fight between the two whether it be online or in the school corridor – and blows out of proportion what was supposed to be between two individuals.

    And yes of course the other person sharing it online for the mad likes or hot retweets or whatever is also not most charming either.

    The often ignored side effect of things like this (and comment sections that dismiss it out of hand) makes it just that little bit harder to affirm you actually play this game or games in general when out in public. Sure that might not apply to you, but the person across from you at work or the pub tonight might still have those hang-ups, and it could be something you have in common.

  • What a long winded, overblown article about two people arguing.

    But they do need to work on their trash talk skills.

  • I’m male and have experienced this “only girl syndrome” I have a few female friends who I play games with and depending on the game they’ll either slay me or be less than an average player. Anyway, I’m not very good at explaining myself so I’m just going to dot point my experience.

    – I have a friend I play Overwatch with regularly
    – another gal pal also showed interest in Overwatch
    – I introduced two said girls to each other irl and they got along fine
    – when second gal pal started playing Overwatch my first friend turned nasty towards her
    – I am confused
    – two friends now never play together so I have to balance between the 2
    – life is hard

      • so do most of the men they are playing against, who in directly are as much to blame.

        • A lot of the time, the men may not even be aware they are doing it. Females would probably still be shitty toward each other.
          When I was first online with another female, I felt weird. I’d only played with males online. However, I thought “this is stupid. I should be glad.” I noticed the issue and I fixed it.

  • Take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt, because my experiences come from 20 years ago.

    In my experience growing up, girls who have joined as a “token girl” have primarily been attention whores. They’ve joined because they’ve seen it’s a way to get a group of “friends” (read: undivided attention) rather than joining because they actually enjoy the hobby itself. When a better attention whore turns up, they get benched. These were the girls who’d go to LANs, meets, etc and never pick up controller or keyboard/mouse despite being continually encouraged to do so. They basically only tried to game if another girl came along, most likely due to this “queen bee” syndrome. This was people who were selling themselves as one dimensional, then being upset when someone else came and usurped that throne and they had nothing else to offer.

    That said, in my experience growing up, girls who weren’t the “token girl” were the ones who joined in. It didn’t matter if they got destroyed in a game they weren’t familiar with, they took their beating just like everyone else, didn’t complain “go easy on me, I’m a girl”, but enjoyed the hobby itself and that was the catalyst for the friendship. The ones I remember most vividly weren’t great at Quake or MK2, but they gave it their all and they were always contenders, even if they weren’t continually first (there’s one friend I still see who I *still* haven’t beat at Puzzle Bobble. She was pretty good at Mario Kart (usually placed top 3), too). They weren’t “one of the boys”, they were “one of the gamers”.

    This isn’t just a boys vs girls thing though. I remember a friend bringing in one of his pals who just wasn’t interested in gaming. He wanted to kick a ball or something instead and it was clear he wasn’t there for the same reasons we were. That was fine, he just wasn’t invited back again. This wasn’t because we were excluding him based on gender, it’s because he wasn’t there to be a part of the hobby for the sake of the hobby.

    Anyways, I guess my point is that I can see how girls can feel like they’ve got to compete, but they should also ask themselves if they’re there for the right reasons (just like my friend’s pal should have). If they’re actually there to play, then anyone who treats them differently is a giant douche. Like I said, I grew up when people hid the fact that they were gamers. More people playing games is all I’ve ever wanted.

    P.S. This Mercy thing isn’t anything new. Overwatch is full of people tilting when someone else picks their main. At least in this video no one was blackmailing people with the threat of throwing if they didn’t donate to their PayPal account…

    • In my experience growing up, girls who have joined as a “token girl” have primarily been attention whores.
      That’s your opening gambit?

      • Guys can be attention whores, too. This wasn’t meant to be misogynistic.

        Do you have an opinion on the rest of my thoughts? Or just wanted to point out that you got triggered by a word you didn’t like?

        • When you use inherently sexist terms, you tend to come off as a bit sexist.

          Haven’t got much to say on your experience; it’s yours, it’s valid. I disagree with some of your phrasing and the general conclusion – same old guff about fake gamers – but that’s about it.

  • In the workplace, women are more bitchy to each other than they are to men. It’s been scientifically proven.

    • Are you referring to the correlation between increased bias and decreased comradery or just trolling around?

      • Research confirms that women are more likely to have an external locus of control. Personality can dictate how sensitive we are to outside factors influencing our achievements. If we lack the confidence in our innate talent to help us reach our goals, we are more competitive and anyone is a potential threat, especially other women in a workplace that fails to offer sufficient advancement opportunity.

        Apparently men compete openly but women are more likely to compete behind the scenes, leading to them ripping each other down so that, if they can’t be top of the pile, they can at least be top of the *female* pile.

        The article reminded me of this. Maybe the girls in the gamer groups tended to accept secondary status to the males present (who were more openly competitive) but when other women came along, there started to be more subtle and discrete competition between them (by trying to gain influence with the males — see external locus of control).

        Just my pop psych take on it.

        • If Wikipedia has taught me anything in the last minute and a half, the term seems to be “Realistic conflict theory” and I think this article summed in up pretty well:

          Several studies have reported that women aren’t inherently more competitive than men, but to cope with gender bias in male-dominated communities, some women have developed strategies, like pursuing the role of the “queen bee” — an imperfect, but recognisable term.

          The theory sounds pretty gender neutral. It’s just that more often that not, the gender bias is in the favour of men.

          • If Wikipedia has taught me anything in the last minute and a half

            For some reason I feel like this phrase represents so much of the world.

          • Hey, there’s nothing wrong with only doing minimal research if you’re transparent on how familiar you are with your research (otherwise no one is allowed to have any opinion on anything they aren’t well-versed in). It’s only when people feign expertise and refuse to listen to others is when you run into trouble.

          • Sorry, I never meant to imply this was a negative thing. I simply meant that so many of our discussions are fueled so differently nowadays that we’ve got such vast resources of information at our fingertips.

          • No implication taken. This was less me defending myself and more pointing out that the fact that it takes such little time to research these days, but some people refuse to listen to any research outside what little they have read. That’s why I like to preface any ‘skimmed knowledge’ I have in something that I had a ‘gut feeling’ on then found an excerpt on a single study to back up my feelings, as opposed to trying to sound like I have a PhD.

  • In my experience this is very similar to the Queen Bee phenomenon you see among the ‘cool chicks” when two of them complete to be ‘the coolest’, usually highlighted in soapies, dodgy teen movies, and even dodgier reality TV.

    In gaming circles (my experience is mainly in Pen and Paper RPG groups, but I’ve seen it in computer gamers as well) two girls will clash. If there are three or more girls, it tends to still be two girls who will clash. The others will just be chill (and far more fun to be around). If one of the competing girls leaves, then one of the others sometimes steps up to the plate.

    So saying, while I think the “Only girl” theory is real, I don’t think that’s the issue here. Every Overwatch player has had some poorly socialised man-child wallowing in their mother’s basement tell them how to play their character. It’s not gender related – it’s just one of the joys of online play.

Show more comments

Comments are closed.

Log in to comment on this story!