I could barely even walk straight. I was swinging my camera wildly and even straight through my head. I stumbled around knocking into walls and trees. I had just “entered middle earth” for the first time as my newly minted elf huntress avatar in Lord of the Rings Online, the massively multiplayer online role-playing of the World of Warcraft variety. I was experiencing firsthand what I had only before glimpsed over a guy friend’s shoulder. I had never thought that I would be playing a game like this myself. I got incredibly frustrated multiple points in just the Intro alone, shoving my computer away and muttering “How can I be so bad at this!” and “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to do this.”
I continued to feel uncomfortable with the game as I was assigned multiple gameplay levels to beat or quests to finish over the next few weeks. I was self consious and realized that I was always behind on my LOTRO’ing because I avoided playing it in public spaces like the library (where I do a majority of my studying) for fear of judgement. First, I thought I was embarassed for someone to see how bad I was at playing and how I couldn’t help walking in zig zags or straight into trees. But as I got better at the game and started levelling up, I still felt a certain anxious avoidance and made sure to sit so the least number of people in the library could see my screen.
When friends commented on the fact that I was playing LOTRO while we were studying together, I felt the need to explain myself. I joked that I stayed in my room all the time now secretly playing LOTRO because I wasn’t “hot enough” to be doing it in public in an intriguing and “cool” way. The joke was laughed at but it left a sour aftertaste in my mouth. I reflected afterwards and realized that my comment had nothing to do with my “hotness” and everything to do with my “women-ness.” No matter how beautiful, as evidenced by the lovely ladies I know who are avid gamers, no one is exempt from the confused head tilt upon finding out that they play video games, especially games like LOTRO. While my joking remarks were highly problematic in themselves, they could also be revealing some pretty widespread issues in gaming.
First of all, I hadn’t thought about what was “cool” or not since I was thirteen, yet being forced into playing a game like LOTRO suddenly made me feel gainly and self conscious. Was I suddenly regressing and having flashbacks to caring so desperately what people thought of me or was moving into the boundaries of what had been conditioned into me as socially acceptable causing the inner anxiety? Were there implicit social norms about what kind of person are “allowed” to play video games in public and who are not?
In the NYT article, “Women Get In on the Action in Video Games”, it is exclaimed with triumph that almost 50% of gamers are now women. So am I imagining all this? Maybe not. The article does admit that males are more likely to play “immersive, narratively complex games” while women preferred” ‘casual’ games” like Candy Crush or Farmville. Are women simply not interested in the immersive, richly layered stories and experiences? I was frusterated by my gender for a moment and asked myself were we not “sophisticated” enough to appreciate a richer more complex and demanding medium? No. I think that while the growing playership in casual games is an exciting development. The continued gender gap in MMO’s like LOTRO reveal that there is more than just a steep learning curve barring the way for a lot of women.
Even after I started to really enjoy the game, I was sad when I realized that if I had stumbled upon the game casually, I would have never played for this long, not because I wouldn’t enjoy it but because I would have run into too many invisible social barriers and given up. I know there are hundreds of thousands of happy and carefree non-white male players in LOTRO. But for each of those, I wondered how many dozen young girls were deterred by the same creeping self consiousness I faced when playing for the first time.