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IT WASN'T ALWAYS scary to be a woman who played video games. For a while, it was normal. There were always girls racking up high scores in arcades or dominating the console or the computer at home. But now, as the conversation around games has shifted from play toward the high stakes of online harassment, people keep asking me, with sincerity, "Why do women even bother to game?"
I started gaming back in 1989, when the gorgeous gold-cartridged Zelda beckoned from my father's (totally forbidden) Nintendo Entertainment System. By 1991, every other 8-year-old black girl I knew was kick and crossing to Another Bad Creation's ode to Iesha, a Nintendo-playing playground cutie. It was our anthem. Endless rounds of Donkey Kong Country, Tekken 2 and Abe's Oddysee made up my youth. My cousin and I even got into fistfights playing Doom because he insisted on playing that creepy-ass game with the lights off.
By the time I was a teenager, most girls were feeling the pressure to give up gaming for more "feminine" pursuits. But I never felt discouraged from playing. If anything, the guys hovering by Marvel vs. Capcom 2 were thrilled to see women breaking up the dudefest. No one messed with anything that put girls in the gaming matrix.
Flash forward. At 31, I'm a dedicated console player and madly in love with my RPG machine, also known as a PlayStation. But even though I'm not so off from the average gamer, who is 35 years old and nearly as likely to be female (44 percent) as male, according to the Entertainment Software Association, no one looks at me these days and thinks "gamer." Nobody.
Not the trolls trying to lock the clubhouse door, not the mainstream media that occasionally cover the sexy gang of competitive girl gamers formerly known as the Frag Dolls. If you listen to the prevailing narrative, the average gamer is an aggressive young white guy with every single system and a LAN hookup. Everyone else is an outsider.
It's a narrative reinforced by GamerGate, a loosely focused Twitter movement that purportedly began as an ethics movement in gaming journalism but is best known for its vile harassment campaign against women, who are seen as enemies to the community. Death threats. Rape threats. Doxing. The environment can be toxic. As one game developer wrote in The Escapist: "Knowing that speaking out gets you on the harassment radar makes it easy to quit a line of work that's already challenging." And the media, ever fearful of video game violence and ignorant of gamer culture, seized on GamerGate as the cause célèbre -- Law & Order SVU even ripped it from the headlines.
Still, it's strange to me that at this moment in history, when more women are playing than ever, when casual and mobile games are rampant, when video games are our cultural touchstones, now people think I should be scared away by the angry boys in the machine. GamerGate gets to be the defining issue in gaming culture? You have got to be kidding me.
Gaming isn't perfect, not by a long shot. There's still so far to go toward representation and equality both in-world and behind the scenes. But judging the entire culture of video games through the singular lens of online harassment is a lot like saying "Hollywood's full of sexist pigs -- how can you watch movies?" That doesn't mean the harassment isn't real -- it just means we play anyway. Gaming is my home, and I know a lot of other women who feel the same way. To crib a line from the Notorious B.I.G: Just the way players play, all day every day. I don't know what else to say.
WOMEN KNOW BETTER than anyone that video games aren't a pure art form; developers and designers work in a business in which the market (and its stereotypes) dictate what games look like. If society says women don't (or won't) play, then games featuring women don't get made.
And still, we play. In fact, women 18 and over (33 percent) outnumber males under 18 (15 percent) among gamers. So let's dispel the myth that women are drawn only to titles like Animal Crossing, Candy Crush and The Sims. Fun games, but women are also kicking ass on puzzles like Portal, rail games like Rez and, of course, first-person shooters. Let's also abandon the notion that we hate playing as men -- the power of gaming is that you get to step into someone else's skin. Hell, sometimes we do it just to get a character with clothes.
In 1996, women in gaming finally found a kindred spirit in Lara Croft. An adventure-seeking archaeologist, she could kick your ass and still make a proper cup of tea. I will always have a spot in my heart for Lara Croft-most feminist gamers do. In her games, Croft is her own person, strong and complicated; outside of the game, in the eyes and hands of others, she faces the same sexualization we all do. (Who can forget the 2001 cover of Next Generation Magazine, with hands holding a censored sign over Croft's breasts in homage to Janet Jackson?)
Croft was never a chump, not then and not now. In her final battle, faced with scores of masked marauders in a home invasion, Croft, wearing just a robe, takes them out with a shotgun. The game's closing scene finds Croft ready to enter the shower. She turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and purrs, "Don't you think you've seen enough?" before firing her shotgun into the camera. An iconic ending that continues to signal to me that women in games (virtual or not) don't owe anything to anyone.
Granted, I didn't have to grow up in today's hyperconnected gaming environment, in which the online harassment of women feels like it will never stop. But girls these days are also given even more opportunities to play and exposure to coding-the chance to show that they too can rock the controller like a boss and later make their own games.
Recently, I had dinner with an old friend, and we talked about how much our lives had changed since we first started playing together 10 years ago. We used to spend hours poring over new releases and online videos. Now gaming is something we squeeze into the crush of dealing with aging parents, toddlers, health issues, marriages and work drama.
But still, the familiar longing takes over me every time I see a new trailer online for Final Fantasy XV or hear about the new characters in Tekken 7. I know I should be spending my time elsewhere -- bonding with my family, in the gym, learning to code, being with my friends. So with all the people warning me that talking about games will lead to nothing but pain and drama, why do I still play at all?
The answer is simple: Sometimes, you just need to feel epic.
Latoya Peterson lives in Washington D.C. and is the Deputy Editor of the Voices section at Fusion.net. She is currently working on a documentary about girl gamers for Fusion at http://fus.in/1JKe9IJ