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"She's the Best!"

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The other day I asked my Twitter friends and followers what the term “girl gamer” means to them. What are the word associations that instantly come to mind? What are the attributes that the world expects female gamers to have? In the midst of the interesting responses I found the exact answer I was expecting:

“Girl gamers are really good at the games they play.”

Time and time again I’ve seen girl gamers celebrated with the words “They will pwn your ass!” I’d go so far as to say this is the most common claim about female gamers that isn’t about appearance. It’s also, frankly, the most embarrassing.

I don’t know about anyone else – perhaps I’m suffering from low self-esteem here? – but being praised for my gaming skills by people who have never *ahem* played with or against me makes me very, very uncomfortable. It’s a hefty dollop of expectation on women’s shoulders when they’re already perhaps a bit self-conscious about participating in multiplayer games.

Sure there are those girls who will breeze in there confidently and kick ass, but there are also many who worry about humiliating defeat. There’s little more embarrassing than being touted as a heavyweight contender and, with all eyes on you, entering the ring only to be KOed with the first punch. With such hefty expectations on your shoulders, simply holding your own in a game – and plenty of women do that – is no longer good enough. Especially when it feels like your performance is being analysed in minute detail.

Where the “badass girl gamer” stereotype comes from, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps the first vocal, publically “out” girl gamers were aggressive, angry women – and admittedly fierce competitors – who felt that they needed to out-macho the men. Or perhaps the thinking has always been that for girls to participate in male-dominated multiplayer games they must be strong players battle-hardened against smack talk.

Just to clarify something: I’m not saying that game-playing women aren’t competitive. In fact, I believe competitiveness is a shared characteristic of ALL gamers, regardless of gender. It’s safe to say you wouldn’t play games if you didn’t enjoy a challenge. And that applies whether your chosen game is a console title, board game, card-based or a tabletop RPG.

Even if girl gamers aren’t fond of player vs. player interactions, the ladies are still challenging themselves. And they’re pursuing a goal – whether it be a high score, a stage completion or the most elegant and efficient solution to a problem. Gaming is all about overcoming obstacles and feeling gratified that your efforts, through a perfect combination of reflex and mental strategy, are responsible.

This said, having a competitive spirit doesn’t automatically mean that every single game-playing woman is super-skilled. Nor do they need to be super-skilled to “deserve” the Girl Gamer title.

It’s the challenge we enjoy – and, sure, personal improvement is a big part of that – but gaming is most importantly about having fun. As all casual gamers know, you can enjoy yourself even if you’re not the best. Or even particularly good when you compare gamerscores.

Just don’t ever try to maintain this relaxed attitude to gaming skill during a newcomer-unfriendly, high-tension multiplayer session, where all eyes are watching… and all mouths are flapping.

Of course there’s the school of thought that when it comes to smack talk and in-game douchery you should give back just as hard as your receive. However, there’s always a tolerance limit, and when you reach it you’ll move on to another activity that hasn’t had the fun crushed out of it.

The point is that people need to drop their unrealistic expectations about female gamers if they want a healthy, growing community. The “Kick-ass Girl Gamer” stereotype is hype that few can live up to, and it leads to unpleasant feelings on both sides. On her side there’s the fear of mockery. This will prevent her from playing with all but her existing circle of friends. On his side, the shattered illusion can lead to vocal disappointment that may alienate her even more.

At the end of the day, just like the genre choice of game-playing women is extremely varied, so too is their gaming skill level. We’re just as good AND bad as the guys. Seriously. Don’t expect anything different.

Last Updated: August 10, 2011

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