I’ve been making my living writing about video games, in some sense or another, for nearly a decade. And like many woman in the industry, I regularly confront my own compulsive need to assert my gamer cred. The fact is, people still assume that being female means you’re not on the inside of gaming, not really “one of us.” Gamer cred is the currency you use to buy back the right to be considered a goddamn human being. In a games conversation with a homosocial gaggle of men who figure you’ve never held a controller, you’re invisible — until you bust out the Ocarina of Time reference, jangle around your N64 keychain, and roll your eyes at the success of whatever new title in whatever longstanding series is still nowhere as good as the original. Throw down!
Over the last couple of years there’s been a lot of talk about what makes women “real” or “fake” gamers (see the “Idiot Nerd Girl” meme). Long told by society that playing video games wasn’t girly enough, women are now being condemned for not being gamer-y enough — at least in the eyes of the insular, defensive gaming masses. They’re being accused of jumping on the nerd wagon for the sex appeal and glory (really, people?) without earning their cred through long years of dedicated play. See also: you’re pretty, you intimidate me, get out of my tree house. The feminist pushback has largely focused on the hypocrisy and the pervasiveness of “fake girl gamer” shaming. Female gamers are just as “real” as male ones; whether you like it or not, we have the cred to prove it.
The problem is that gamer cred as an institution is fundamentally sexist. Let’s think about what counts toward your “gamer cred” score. 1) How much you play games. 2) How you perform your own gamer-ness. 3) How long you’ve been playing games.
Let’s start with 1 and 2. Cultural expectations prescribed for women are different than those prescribed for men (duh). If I am male, the contemporary culture around me encourages me to play games. I see other men playing games on TV and in movies. I have been socialized to bond with other men by challenging each other to rounds of Smash Bros. I have also been encouraged to perform my gamer-ness in loud, proud strokes. A wide array of t-shirts and paraphernalia specific to boy bodies is available to me. If I am female, on the other hand, I may play games a lot, or I may play games less frequently. I may socialize through gaming, or I may not. I may rock a games shirt (despite my limited options), or I may “pass” as a “normal” lady in normal lady clothes. But when I make those choices, I make them under a different set of conditions than men do. Your cred is not my cred. When you claim they’re the same, that there’s some objective scale, you impose on me a male standard that I’m going to have to fight uphill hard to live up to. And that’s straight up discrimination.
But it’s 3 I want to focus on: the incredibly sexist idea that you have more cred the longer you’ve been playing video games. You’ve seen the slogan with the NES controller: “Know your roots.” Let me make a confession, a confession that I have made to groups of male gamers before, a confession that is always met with looks of surprise and mild disdain. Here it goes. My first video game console was the N64. My first console game was Mario 64. Before the age of twelve, I had only ever touched a computer game. Now you know my shame. As a (male) fellow journalist once said upon hearing this, “Wow, Bonnie, I thought you had cred.”
Let me tell you something about a system like the Super NES, which came out in 1991, when I was six years old. No six-year-old buys her own game console. She plays with the toys that are bought for her, and what is bought for her is dictated by what society tells her parents are right for her age and gender. If I had waited until I could buy my own game consoles, I wouldn’t have started playing until I was sixteen and bought a GameCube (the horror). As it stands, the only reason I had access to a Nintendo 64 was because my little brother — who was around six himself when the console came out — got one for Hannukah. Like so many young girls, I had access to video games only through my brother. This isn’t because I wasn’t a “real” gamer. It’s because I was a girl.
When you judge gamer cred by how long someone has been playing, you discriminate against them based on factors outside of their control. You discriminate against women. You discriminate against people of color. You discriminate against those raised poor. We are here now, and we make the choice to play games. Counting our cred based on our past reveals how little you know about what it means to “really” love something, and what it means to just “fake” it.