“If I can’t figure out how to play this game on my own, then I’m not a real gamer,” I used to tell myself.
It’s human nature to want to be taken seriously. In our current culture, this desire is even more intense for women: So many folks are taught that taking us seriously is, at best, a waste of time…or at worst, a path to ruin. Having my thoughts and feelings set aside by others is so commonplace that I’ve even started doing it to myself. I have to make a conscious effort to remind myself that if I like, dislike, or am ambivalent about a thing…that’s real. That exists. It’s not just something to be shoved aside and forgotten.
With that in mind, let me tell you a story about walkthroughs.
As a Wee Mandaray, I grew up watching my dad play games like DOOM, Heretic, and Hexen. The premise was simple: shoot everything that moves. If you were especially clever, you might take the extra time and effort to discover Secrets: hidden areas of the map that usually had more walls or corners than they should. Tucked away inside were potent power-ups, extra health, or special guns you could use. Since the opportunity for strategy in these kinds of games was limited, it was a sign of prestige to know where Secrets were. According to my dad, the first to find them were hailed as gods; those who followed in their example were granted an innate, unspoken respect.
When it came time for me to play these games, my father and I switched positions. He watched over my shoulder as I navigated the dark corridors of these worlds and combated their horrors. He was very frustrated with me when I didn’t want to take the time to look for Secrets.
Wee Mandaray grew up into Teen Mandaray. My family moved to a new town, one where I had little to no contact with people my own age. I turned to the internet, forming my social circles in cyberspace. I also began expanding my gaming identity with titles like Baldur’s Gate, Tomb Raider: Chronicles, Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew series, Startopia, and further Sim games. For those of you who grew up in a similar vein, you’ll recognize the theme most of those games have in common: a learning curve steeper than the craggy sides of Mount Everest.
I took pride in my ability to combat the challenges in these games. Not only was I building confidence by overcoming their obstacles, but I was challenging the widely-held online stereotype that “girls didn’t play games”. I was making myself special. But I also knew myself: I got angry when I was frustrated with something, and sometimes my brain just wasn’t able to force itself into a game-sized shape. When confronted with a puzzle, I would often (and still do) dream too big or too small, never able to think past what I would do rather than what the game wanted from me.
The term “strategy guide” was something I heard from time to time, but never gave much thought to: the bulk of my games were purchased at secondhand book stores or on eBay, and the thought of asking my parents to put down $20-$30 on a shiny magazine with the same shit in it that I could get online for free was as ludicrous to me as asking them to buy me a house. After all, with $20, I could bargain hunt and find myself at least two or three new games to play.
So I turned to walkthroughs. My favorites were places were where I felt like I connected with the walkthrough writer(s) — places like the HerInteractive forums, or Stella’s Tomb Raider Site. I spent hours soaking in Stella’s love for the games via her amazing jump-graphs, maze guides. I also made judicious use of her pre-loaded save-games that helped get me past buggy bosses or death traps that I just couldn’t quite seem hop over.
“Isn’t that kind of like cheating?” my father would ask as I loaded in a save-game. I’d shrug. “You’re getting too nervous,” he’d tell me as I ran from an enormous cargo crane a bad guy was trying to smash into Lara’s head. “Stop panicking and play like you’re supposed to.”
Video games weren’t meant for girls, I reminded myself. I couldn’t get scared. Girls who got scared were weak. I needed to be strong.
The pinnacle of my walkthrough-use was when I began playing Final Fantasy X. I could tell my father was baffled by my love for FFX. Looking back on it, I don’t think I blame him. The dubbing is terrible, the acting is hammy, and everyone’s hair is ridiculous. But that game was my heart and soul. I played it over and over again for two months straight. Unlike any game that had come before, I wanted to know everything FFX had to offer. “Hundred percenting” wasn’t a term that had been invented yet, but that didn’t stop me from wanting it. So I let the internet guide me.
“Wouldn’t it be better if you found those things yourself?” my dad would ask, giving me disapproving looks as I got emotional over the cutscenes yet again.
Meanwhile, a downside of purchasing my games secondhand emerged: just as I discovered my love for them, the Community at Large (TM) had already decided they were shit – or, if they weren’t shit, that there were only a handful of ways to “properly” play them. Following guides or using save games was out; banging your head against a game until you finally figured out what the heck to do was in. The soaring popularity of punishing, twitchy platformers proved that point all too well.
It was around this time that I also encountered that most terrifying of creatures: The Toxic Internet Fan.
Please understand me when I use this term: I’m not talking about people who become excited, joyous, or even passionately argumentative when discussing something they love. No, I’m talking about the folks who will rip you in two over whether or not you say Aerith or Aeris, or go out of their way to call you every nasty name in the book if you dare to have an opinion they disagree with even a little bit. (As a fun bonus, a lot of them hate women.)
We’ve all met them. And they made my online life hell. I did my best to avoid them on the various forums I frequented but, of course, there’s never a cure-all for avoiding harassment on the internet. There’s also no surefire way to keep from internalizing other people’s hatred…especially not when you’ve been raised to see hatred as a sign of intellect and “rightness”.
Slowly, I put my walkthroughs away. I remember grabbing a copy of Grim Fandango and loading it up in excitement – I was going to play a game that everyone loved! Positive I couldn’t go wrong, I made it about an hour before getting so angry and frustrated with the puzzles I wanted to cry. I also wanted to look up the answers, but I knew looking up the answers meant I wasn’t a real gamer. I remember demanding to play Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness on console instead of PC, because then I couldn’t use Stella’s save games to “cheat”. When the buggy camera and punishing, death-trap laden traps struck, I blamed myself.
I began shying away from games with any kind of puzzles in them. I stopped playing Nancy Drew games. I told people I hated adventure games. The only exception I made was FFX-2, and only because my dad had bought me both the game and the strategy guide as a gift. Besides, nobody thought FFX-2 was a real game anyhow, so if I “cheated” on that, then it didn’t matter. (In fact, it was years before I’d even admitted I’d played it.)
This is the part where I’d love to tell you that I got off all of those forums full of Toxic Fans, realized that their double standards were meaningless, and got on with my own damn life. Sadly, this isn’t the case. In fact, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I even thought about challenging these long-held, punishing beliefs.
Thanks to StreamFriends, I had the opportunity to rediscover adventure games. In my absence from the genre, instead of dying out, adventure games had undergone a revival of sorts: a re-imagining that focused more on what made them beloved in the first place, rather than trying to find new and different ways to be “cutting edge” – a goal that usually did more harm than good.
And, for the first time, I was exposed to a group of people who used walkthroughs and hints without shame.
Part of the StreamFriends trademark is that streams usually feature multiple people, even when playing games that are typically regarded as single player. And a lot of times, when someone (usually Kelsey) is playing an adventure game, the other person will look up a walkthrough and provide hints for her when she gets stuck. This blew my mind. Someone live, on a Twitch stream, willing to use hints, tips and tricks – and NOT apologize for it? All while the chat watched on and not a single viewer dropped or had a conniption about the fact that someone – especially a woman – was asking for help?
Mind = blown.
Gradually, I began to realize that it had never been about me. It had been about the people who acted as gatekeepers, people who were determined to retain a tight control of what a “gamer” meant. But, of course, they can’t feasibly achieve this. So they traded on one of the oldest techniques in human existence: shame. It was shame that kept me from doing things the way I wanted to. If they’d just shouted at me, I would have resisted: It was the idea they planted in my head that I was a failure which did the most damage.
This journey may seem a bit trivial to you, and in the larger scheme of things, it probably is. But I think we need to be critical of the things we’re afraid of, because what lies behind our fears are often poisons that were dripped into our heads without us even realizing. I have unearthed some incredibly toxic nuggets of sexism, racism, ableism, and cissexism buried in my mind behind tiny fears. Never underestimate their importance.
A couple of weeks ago, I bought a Humble Bundle. Contained in it were the first adventure games I’ve owned since I was twelve. Around the same time, I got my hands on a Nancy Drew game, which required me to both let go of my “hatred” of adventure games as well as a shame for playing an “easy game for girls.” I streamed the whole thing, including me stopping to look for hints from a walkthrough ever now and then. Guess what: the world is still turning. Nobody in my chat screamed at me. (And, if they ever do, my mods have carte blanche to banhammer them.) In fact, I’m never again going to play an adventure game without a walkthrough handy if I need it. I’m done wasting precious minutes and hours of my life trying to live up to an invisible, toxic standard.
These are my games…and I will play them my way.
Hi! My name is Mandaray! Some folks also call me Gwenna. I’m a 26-year old writer, jewelry maker, and gamer. You can find me on Twitter, Twitch, Etsy, WordPress, and my live-reading blog, Mandaray Reads.