A friend of mine recently expressed surprise when he went to get a haircut and overheard a middle-aged woman and her stylist discussing their shared love of Assassin's Creed. He admitted that surprise was a bit ageist and sexist, but he's hardly unusual in forgetting that women over 40 play games. In fact, there are a ton of us, and as I passed that threshhold just last year, I'm now an official member of the middle-aged female gamers club. I meet other women my age and older who game all the time; I suspect younger gamers don't think we exist because we don't tend to hang out in the same spaces. And because I'm now in that club, there's one phrase that's really starting to annoy me: "girl gamer." It's used both as a marketing term and as a shorthand for all girls and women who game. But should it be? I'd like to look both at the ways "girl gamer" is misused in popular culture and how it's used in celebration by actual female gamers.
What do you think of when you see the words "girl gamer?" Chances are you'll see the same image that's everywhere on the internet. She's in her teens or twenties. She's white. She's thin. She's fully able-bodied. Pretty much any stock photo of a woman who games looks like this, meaning that it's practically the only image you'll see if you search for girl gamers online. It is not, of course, what the actual female gaming community looks like at all. We come in all shapes, sizes, colors, physical ability levels, and ages. All sexualities as well, despite what dumb stereotypes promising that "girl gamers" are mostly in it for attention from men would have you believe. The marketing image of a girl gamer makes any of us who don't fit that particular white, skinny, etc. mold invisible, and it's an image I desperately want to see diversified in order to reflect reality.
Calling all female gamers "girl gamers" can be disrespectful, as well. Why don't we call male gamers "boy gamers?" Well, most guys over the age of 12 get pretty offended if you call them "boys." It implies that they're immature. Similarly, "girl" is often used by assholes on the internet to attempt to make female gamers feel small. "Oh, she's just a girl," is the tagline for small-minded people who can't think of any better way to disagree with a woman who has an opinion about any gaming topic on which they disagree (trust me, it's not limited to gender-related issues). I've been called "little miss" and told I couldn't handle "real" games for daring to negatively review a niche RPG that I found tedious. Now, I'm still here, so I certainly don't let the haters get me down, but it's enough to make me groan when I hear "girl gamer" used to describe all women who game. I'm proud to be an "older" gamer and comfortable with the fact that store clerks call me "ma'am" these days. I'm not a girl, I'm a woman, and my opinion is just as valid as any other gamer's.
Of course, the way that actual female gamers use the term "girl gamer" is quite different from the marketing sterotype and is often a celebration of their love of gaming in a world that can be hostile to girls and women. I wanted to get a younger perspective when writing about this, so I asked two twentysomething women to tell me why they like identifying as girl gamers. Here's what Jennard, 26, had to say:
"...the reason I'm cool with the label is because I sell retro games in the mall and all the time I hear younger boys tell girls games are not for them, and sometimes I even hear it from adults. It's weird to me that girls are still often excluded from nerdy things in 2017, and I think it's important to spread the message that games are also for girls to a younger generation."
I love that Jennard uses the label of girl gamer to connect to a younger generation. After all, toy aisles are still obscenely gender-segregated, with video games in the "boy" section. Once they get their hands on good games, many girls are all about gaming, but it can be a struggle to convince both girls and their parents that gaming is something that they should try.
I also chatted with Mary, 24, who blogs as ShyGamerGirl, and asked why she chose "gamer girl" to be part of her blog title. She responded:
"Mainly because I wanted to show that not all gamer girls need to show their "charms" in order to impress their [viewers]. I don't say that I am a pro gamer or something, but I've been playing video games and PC games since I was 6 years old. Back in those days "gamer girl" was something special not because of boobs or over-make-upped face, but because of her skills (personally I was the best in school in "Red Alert 2"). Maybe some of you may think its old fashioned, I'd rather call it old school. And I really hope that some day somehow I will influence the girls who show off on streams to make them respect themselves."
Thus, Mary uses the tag of gamer girl to express her opinions on modesty and how women portray themselves and are portrayed in the gaming community. Now, modesty and the expression of sexuality are both big issues of debate in (and out of) the feminist community. However, it's true that female gamers who don't actively put themselves and their image out there are misgendered all the time by people who assume all gamers are men until they find out otherwise. It's no fun to be constantly misgendered - it's yet another form of erasure - so if you were wondering why so many women have gamertags and blog titles that indicate their gender, well, that's why. Given that the default of image of the "gamer girl" is often of somebody who is scantily clad and seems to be posing for men's enjoyment, it's not surprising that those of us who don't portray ourselves that way want to step forward and say, "Hey, we're here too."
Both Jennard and Mary remind me that calling somebody a girl in order to disrespect her (or him) is pretty much failing at insults, because "girl" is not an insult. Reminding everybody that it's not an insult is one reason why many young women are cool with calling themselves girls. And in this increasingly polarized world, I think it's pretty easy to respect both those of us who embrace the label of "girl gamer" and those of us who don't. It's all about remembering that women are a huge portion of the gaming population with a vast array of identities and opinions. There's no single image or attitude that can encapsulate who a "gamer girl" is. We're just people who enjoy gaming and happen to be girls and women. We belong in gaming spaces, full stop.