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.
- Or many, many other women I know. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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”. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- With the exception of public restrooms and feminist websites, which are the most emotionally complex places on Earth for me ↩
- 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. ↩