• Gamer or Woman: Choose One

    by  • March 23, 2012 • Essays, People & Events • 10 Comments

    Remember when all the internet jags were piling on Jennifer Hepler recently, going on about how women were ruining games because it’s in our genes to be wilting and non-competitive and non-strategic and the only reason we play is to get male attention?

    All I could do is laugh and think, “wow, these guys have never played games with me.”1

    Because when I play games, I play them. Give me a game with a clear goal, and I’m in it to win it. If it’s Chaos In The Old World, my Skaven will camp in your backyard and mercilessly steal every VP they can right out from under your filth-stained Nurgley toes. If it’s Arkham Horror, I will seize the leadership role and guide you to victory over Great Cthulhu while personally driving back the deep ones from Innsmouth’s scenic beaches one fish-lipped local at a time. And if it’s a 12-hour Magic: Commander marathon, where social maneuvering is as valuable as cardplay, I will always find a path to a tactical advantage, whether it’s shrewdly maneuvering table perceptions to draw aggro away from myself, taunting or goading my opponents into making mistakes, or knowing when to shut up and just fly under the radar.2  Regardless of whether I’m playing basketball or My Life With Master, I play hard.

    And while I love playing games that way, and I love that I’m regarded as a power-player within my group of friends, it does come with a serious downside these days: Gender Dysphoria.3 When I’m trash-talking an opponent or barking orders to a teammate, I can actually feel my voice lower a few octaves and take on a familiar but unpleasant cadence and rhythm. Even worse, my competitive nature will occasionally result in someone 4 ungendering or misgendering me; in fact, if I’m to remember back to all the times my pronouns have been blown in the last few years,56 most of those instances have happened at a gaming table somewhere. Any of these things is enough to immediately thrust me back to a place before my transition, which as you might have guessed, was a deeply painful and unhappy time for me. It is extremely unfun when it happens, and the threat of it is enough to heighten my already perpetually-high vigilance (which is itself exhausting and a distraction from any game I might be playing). The fact I’m willing to take the risk probably says something about the importance of games in my life.

    There are ways to mitigate against this, of course. These days, I sometimes liken game-playing to intimacy: Something best done with people I love. People who can hear that voice come from between these lips, who can be around me at the times when I personally consider myself least attractive, and still not have it compromise their understanding of who I am. People I can truly let my guard down around and still always feel safe. And while it’s true that I do sometimes play games with people I don’t know well, I try to stick to familiar surroundings and have at least a few allies around to serve as a sort of sanctuary if things go awry. Gone are the days of pickup games of Magic at the local card shop, or popping into a con game with a group of strangers.7

    It’s weird and frustrating to me that this activity, of all the possible activities, is the one that leaves me most vulnerable.8 Even if it is mostly self-contained, a personal bout with dysphoria, those feelings are still real and painful and given a place to nest by the perceptions of our culture as a whole. Probably I’ll reconcile them eventually, like I have so much other cultural bullshit.9 But that still leaves those occasions where, because of the “traditionally masculine” behavior I exhibit, some people actually do gender me as male. It is the most literal interpretation of a trope most women gamers are already familiar with: You can not be badass and a woman. But badassery and womahood are not inherently in conflict, and no one should have to give up one to be respected as the other.

    1. Or many, many other women I know.
    2. My approach to Magic has a bit of history behind it. My friends and I started playing back in ’94, in college, especially focusing on multiplayer and team games, and at some point early-on, I emerged as the player to be feared. A rule was then implemented that said “Unless there is an obvious, more urgent threat, everyone should always attack Renee, always.” To survive, I had to learn how to manipulate the social meta, to convince my opponents that everyone else was an “obvious, more urgent threat” than me. And it’s been a valuable part of repertoire ever since.
    3. Gender Dysphoria is hard to define; it’s basically the part of being trans* that hurts. Transition generally helps alleviate these feelings, but depending on what your own needs and expectations are, it can’t always fix everything.
    4. The typical perpetrator of this is a new or casual acquaintance to whom I’ve been outed prematurely, before they have any other information about me beyond “trans person”.
    5. This one always seems to blow cis peoples’ minds, but I seriously doubt there’s anything, cumulatively, that causes trans* people more stress and pain than getting their pronouns wrong.
    6. This is why I almost never play male characters in rpgs anymore…as players shift quickly between in-character and out-of-character talk, pronoun confusion is way too easy…and even when it’s just me misinterpreting what speech mode they’re in, it’s still triggery as hell.
    7. My best friend and housemate is convinced that this part is a bunch of worry-for-nothing; that if I were to plunk myself into a game populated only with strangers, who had no foreknowledge of my transness, that I’d be fine (or as fine as someone can be who only has to deal with regular sexism, I guess). His argument is that I rarely experience misgendering or ungendering in my daily life, suggesting that I “pass” better than I think I do, and that if I don’t, I still don’t present in a way that is in conflict with peoples’ expectations of a woman. I counter by pointing out that my life is affected daily by peoples’ perceptions of my gender, a point driven home by the fact that I’ve been unemployed for nearly two years now.
    8. With the exception of public restrooms and feminist websites, which are the most emotionally complex places on Earth for me
    9. Like the stigma around my height – I’m 6’5″ – which I had to personally overcome before I could even consider the notion of transitioning.


    I'm a queer trans woman who lives somewhere in Michigan with my cat Rufus. Yes, he *is* named after the cat in Re-Animator, how kind of you to ask.

    10 Responses to Gamer or Woman: Choose One

    1. avatar
      December 23, 2010 at 23:39

      I kind of hate the assumption that gaming = competitive. That ‘real’ gamers are competitive. I can be competitive. I tend not to be. This is a trait I picked up from my mellow, hippy father. My mother is actually very aggressive and WAY hardcore. (Trivial Pursuit wasn’t played in our home for a long time because she pwned fuckers so hard.)

      There are games that are highly competitive. They’re totally valid. And I think anyone who plays them (and enjoys them) plays competitively. But there’s still so much dismissal of any game that may be seen as ‘casual’ or DOG forbid, cooperative, as ‘not a real game.’ Bah. Lame.

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      • avatar
        March 23, 2012 at 23:52

        Edits are weird.

        Anyway, trying to just add, that I mean to say I *ALSO* hate that assumption. Not as a counter point to the OP, but in addition too.

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        • avatar
          March 24, 2012 at 05:31

          Totally understood. Games or the people who play them absolutely don’t have to be competitive. Or they can be sometimes and not others. And that some of these behaviors also carry their own gender expectations is problematic in the extreme. This just happened to be an essay about what happens when this one trans woman mixes it up with the boys, but for sure the stigma heaped on more casual games (during the whole Jennifer Hepler ordeal) was a springboard for me.

          And I totally don’t get why people would think of cooperative games as not competitive, or not games. Like I say in the post, I play cooperative games just as fiercely as I do heads up games, and I think it’s even possible to “win” them, in an MVP sorta way. I know that when we play Arkham Horror or Ghost Stories, there’s tons of recognition given to those players who pull off spectacular maneuvers, or who devise excellent strategies, and that in itself is measure of “victory”.

    2. avatar
      March 23, 2012 at 16:33

      Renee, if it’s a comfort (in the misery loves company kind of way), I’ve had some of my characters described as ‘butch’ because they were not the nurturing, supportive characters that people expected. I have played the nurturing, supportive type, but it gets boring to play the same kind of character in every game.

      I’ve not shared the experience of someone misgendering me at a gaming table (except for that one shot where I was playing a guy and they referred to me as male, but that was because it was 2 in the morning), but I’m cisgender with a distinctly fem build. For that, I can only offer you a hug and a promise to try not to do that to anyone.

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      • avatar
        March 23, 2012 at 17:49

        I don’t know about comfort but I’ll join you in being annoyed about the absurd sterotyping that goes on. One of the interesting things that sometimes happens with roleplaying games is people forget who they’re at the table with and the filters get turned off. Not always, but sometimes.

        Hugs are always welcome. And something I think you touch on but is a good point is that just because you’re cisgender doesn’t mean you’re immune to cissexism. I don’t usually bring this up because I think it’s sad and dangerous to suggest that the reason people should care about something is because it *can* affect them, rather than focusing on the people that are really at the heart of the matter, which in this case is trans* people. But, it is also a pretty interesting conversation. IMHO, the reason you don’t experience misgendering and other kinds of cissexism is more related to your outward appearance and deportment, which is not necessarily a function of you being cisgender. Following from that is a presumption of certain kinds of body types and genitalia – a presumption of cisgender or transgender identity – but with most of the interactions we have, that’s all these things are…presumption. Taken in that context, the lines between all of us become a lot blurrier.

    3. avatar
      March 23, 2012 at 17:33

      Totally hear ya. I’m seriously competitive and I’m in male-dominated fields (both engineering and gaming), up to the point that I’ve been misgendered in the past (friends calling me in an Italian equivalent of “dude”, which does not apply to women here). Every time, it was a seriously odd experience. I tend to disregard gender roles a lot and have played with my androgyny in the past, but this was in situations where I think I was clearly identifiable as a woman – still, I think that in part it was because I fit so well with the expected behavior of the dominant gender, then I must have been part of it.
      This experience gives me just the barest glimpse of what you are coming from, of course – I can only begin to imagine the impact of gender dysphoria on social interactions. I mean, this felt weird to me, but you have a painful history that resurfaces every time, so there’s no comparison between the two. Just, you know, I think I can understand a little bit of how you feel.

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      • avatar
        March 23, 2012 at 18:20

        I can totally appreciate that. Like I hint at in my reply to Arlene, I often find it hard to straddle the line between “this is a trans* issue” and “hey, we have more in common than you think.” And the difference is largely the one you make: Scope and magnitude. Scope: You may deal with it occasionally, but it’s the substance and fabric of my life. Magnitude: When it happens to you, it’s bothersome, maybe even hurts because you recognize the inherit sexism; for me it can become a full-blown PTSD-like event where I dwell* for days on the use of a single word.

        (In fact, that happened just this week, as I’ve discovered a new venue for misgendering: My video production classes. Turns out filmmaking for me is very much like gaming; I immediately fall into a leadership role, organizing and directing and generally trying to control the flow of creativity towards something productive. I love it to an unreasonable amount, so of course it had to happen that someone I really like working with blew my pronouns not once but twice. sigh.)

        But at the same time, the cissexism I experience can definitely be seen as a big bold underline beneath what I think most – maybe every – woman gamer experiences (part of which Darla talked about in her first Game Design and Sexism article), and then to a bigger problem yet (maybe the biggest)…that “strong” and “woman” do not go together. At any rate, I’ll take these early opportunities to build interconnectedness with everyone because no doubt there’ll come a time when I figure out a way to connect the microaggressions of the feminist community to gaming, and when I write that essay, I’ll be a nervous wreck. :p

        * “dwell” might be too strong a word these days. It used to actually ruin my functionality for a period of time; now I can at least go on with my business and then later cathartically vent about it on the internet.

    4. avatar
      Claudia Cangini
      March 23, 2012 at 20:03

      This reminds me of a few years ago, when the (all male) friends I usually played with used to tell me “you’re not a woman you’re a gamer”. Maybe the fact that I used to go out drinking with them and laughed at the same geeky jokes had something to do with it.
      They insisted they meant this as a compliment but somehow I never felt very flattered… Funnily enough one of those saying these things ended up becoming my husband.

      I’m not sure what can be learned from this story… °__°

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      • avatar
        March 24, 2012 at 07:23

        You mean other than the fact that many guys consider ungendering a woman to be a compliment (because obviously being a woman isn’t a good thing)?

        I’m curious what your husband would say nowadays. 😉

    5. avatar
      August 5, 2012 at 19:42

      This was really interesting to read. Being female in gaming is always weird, whether you play with men or women, because there is the option to play a different gender than you are on the surface. I often play male characters or masculine female characters – I don’t really identify personally with feminine characters, unless they are feminine males. It’s kind of bizarre, but that’s just how I work. The problem, though, is that I get very into playing, and when I am in character or my character is referred to, I want people to use the correct pronouns for that character. While I am not trans*, and I have definitely had my fair share of gender!fail with other people growing up, I really try to respect people’s identities, and it took people a really long time to understand why I was bothered by people referring to my male characters as “she” just because I was a girl.

      Referring to another player’s character as a “she” when they are a “he” can be frustrating in the context – I played with some very misogynistic guys back in the day, and you could tell when they stopped playing the game with my character and started playing the game with me, from their attitudes and shortly thereafter, the switched pronouns in game. Sometimes it was a simple mistake, but more often than not, it was a way of taking my license to play a man away, and pushing me out of control. I couldn’t have control playing feminine female characters in games with them, so playing a guy was the only way I felt stronger and safer and more likely to succeed, and when they would take that away, it felt awful.

      I know this compares in no real way to your experience, so I do not mean to belittle it, but the pronouns/playing masculine subject is something that is very complex and this is how I experienced it.

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