Adventures of a Lady Gamer: The Trial of the Xennial

I know what you must be thinking. Xennial? Where’d you dredge that up? What even is that? Are you an alien now, TroubleGMR? Watching a lot of supernatural TV shows lately, perhaps?

None of the above, actually. As I’ve mentioned in the beginning of this series of articles, being a lady gamer has trials associated with it. Those even passingly aware of either gaming or the internet are aware of this. There’s lots of being sexualized, ridiculed, and pigeonholed, and a persistent demand to “prove” oneself, both as a genuine girl and a skilled gamer.

We’re not going to delve too deeply into those common topics today. What I want to get into is the age group of gamers I fall into, and what it means to be a female within it. I actually had to do some homework on this one, because it’s confusing.

Growing up, I heard I was Generation X, or the Baby Bust generation, the group of people born in the much lower birth rate span after the Baby Boomers. Also called the “Latchkey Generation” and the “MTV Generation”, they were born in a time of changing societal values. They typically had reduced adult supervision compared to previous generations, supposedly a result of increasing divorce rates and increased maternal participation in the workforce, among other things. Wikipedia says the years of Generation X range from the early-to-mid 1960s to the early 1980s.

I also heard I was Generation Y, more popularly called the Millennials. Also called “Echo Boomers,” they are often the children of Baby Boomers born during a major surge in birth rates. Millennials are generally marked by an increased use and familiarity with communications, media, and digital technologies, their upbringing often marked by an increase in a liberal approach to politics and economics. The Great Recession caused historically high levels of unemployment among the people of this generation, potentially causing social and economic damage to them. Wikipedia says the years of the Millennial generation range from the early 1980s and the mid-1990s to early 2000s.

I was born in 1981. When I was a kid, there were typewriters, cartridge gaming consoles, Walkmen, and VCRs. As a teenager, I had computers, CD gaming consoles, and the beginnings of the popularized internet. My parents stressed both that it was a tough world out there and I needed to take care of myself and be careful who I trusted, even while assuring me I should fight against the idea of it being a “man’s world”; I was capable of anything and nothing should hold me back. So . . . which generation am I?

Turns out there’s a micro-generation called the Xennials. Born between 1977 and 1983 (What?! Star Wars children! Amazing), Xennials experienced “an analog childhood and a digital adulthood.” They also “possess both Gen X cynicism and Millennial optimism and drive.”

Perfect. That’s exactly where I go! Now . . . what does this have to do with gaming?

An awful lot, it turns out. Video and tabletop gaming were relatively new things, at least, to a more popular audience, and were going through massive growth and change. Dungeons and Dragons was first released in 1974, but 2nd edition– the crazy age of THAC0– came out in 1989, and made quite a few changes to appeal to popular audiences, including removing references to demons and devils, sexually suggestive artwork, and playable, evil-aligned character types. The edition also played with settings beyond that of traditional fantasy, blending it with other genres, such as horror (Ravenloft), science fiction (Spelljammer), and apocalyptic (Dark Sun), among others.

In console and arcade video gaming, Atari was starting to have strong competitors in Nintendo and Sega. After the video game crash of 1983, when the video game market became flooded with poor-quality cartridge games created by numerous companies attempting to enter the market, consumer interest in console video games dwindled as interest in games on personal computers rose. By the time the Xennial was ready to pick up a controller or poise their fingers over a keyboard, there was healthy competition again in the home market for not only console gaming, but PC gaming as well.

In short, by the time I started gaming, there was more to choose from than there ever had been before, and my options grew by leaps and bounds every day. In large part, games were innocent, especially compared to modern markets . . . there just wasn’t the memory space or the graphics to sexualize too much yet. We were all still establishing our identities as gamers, elbowing our male or female peers as they hogged the Street Fighter arcade machine or bogarted the controller as we took turns trying to get through a level of Mega Man.

And the advertising! We were still making up the rules for that in the US when the Xennials were kids. The Millennials probably remember the Sega slogan in their commercials being “Welcome to the Next Level.” If they were a couple of years older, they’d remember something different: “Genesis does what Nintendon’t.” The console wars of the 90s were huge, and often not exactly polite.

The commercials were pretty epic too. Remember getting super hyped over Bayou Billy after that commercial with the man with the overdone Cajun accent wrestling the gator and promising us, “for the first time ever . . . hand to hand combat, driving, shooting, and of course, the zapper”? Remember the animated Double Dragon 2 commercial, or the barbarian jumping out of the fiery portal in the closet to tell us about the glories of Iron Sword? And what about the huge crowd of kids chanting “Mario!” for Super Mario Bros 3, or the twitchy guy and quick camera angles of the Legend of Zelda commercial? Commercials in those days were loud, spastic, cacophonous, with lots of quick cuts and sound that ranged from high-pitched and squealing to epic and booming. They seemed almost desperate to get your attention as fast as they could, and it worked. And not always pleasantly.

By the time I was in high school– so not very long at all, in the grand scheme of things– the PlayStation came out, and CDs started to take the place of cartridges. The graphics of video games were light years better even in the short period of a decade, especially on PCs, and we were starting to get our first 3D games instead of side-scrollers and top-down games. The isometric views went from the complexity and playability of Q*Bert, Marble Madness, and Snake, Rattle and Roll– annoying games where the play control got you killed at least as often as the enemies– to Starcraft, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Diablo 3– games that played much more smoothly and the view seemed more of a help than a hindrance.

Google was founded in 1998, when I was almost finished with high school, and I was introduced to the world of the internet. There were a lot of AOL and Yahoo messages from strangers asking “a/s/l?” Translation: how old are you, are you male or female, and what city do you live in. Did I mention that internet and identity safety weren’t exactly a thing at this point? Scary, in retrospect!

Besides just floating around and talking to people, I discovered Ayenee, the old group chat rooms of Yahoo where groups of writers and role-players gathered, making their own realms and rules for the purposes of role-playing by email or chat. In short, the beginnings of text-based role-playing, at least, to a wider, more popular audience. Did you live in a small town where no one was into video gaming or tabletop role-playing? Were you too shy to try and find people with similar interests, or had you been rebuffed so often that trying again held little appeal? No longer a problem. There were tons of people out there who shared your interests and wanted to play with you, and for the first time, you could reach them.

So what was the Xennial gaming experience like? Well, you definitely had a lot to keep up with. I did not easily make the shift to 3D gaming, for example. Let’s just say I have a little PTSD from Ocarina of Time. But it was also exciting. When I got a new video game, and especially a new console, I was so excited to see how much better it was going to look and sound. The differences are always large, even today and especially when there’s a shift in console generation, of course. But even within console generations at the time . . . wow.

For example, the NES.

Super Mario Bros, 1985: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ia8bhFoqkVE, and

Kirby’s Adventure, 1993: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJXM4EPbPe0.

Yes, I realize eight years is a long time, but those programmers had to work within the same requirements and limitations. And look at the difference! The flat matte backgrounds of Super Mario Bros compared to the blue sky, green hills, sparkling water, and tutorial text in the same screen for Kirby. The bass line and melody of Mario vs. the complexity of Kirby’s music. All the different things Kirby can do compared to the comparatively few power-ups for Mario . . . I am not knocking Mario here. Fantastic game, a pioneer. But the difference even within one console generation was obvious and exciting for a Xennial. And I’ll never forget how spellbound I was when the PlayStation came out and I got my first glimpse of Final Fantasy 7. Magic.

I honestly don’t remember there being a lot of girl gamer shame or justification at the time. I’ll admit some may have been there and I missed it? I was pretty young. But I remember playing video games with girls and boys as a child. And if a boy thought I couldn’t do it because I was a girl– which I’ll admit happened– I just picked up the controller and gave it a shot anyway, and normally the boy gave it up afterwards, regardless of how I did. I don’t remember needing to be good “for a girl” to play with the boys as a kid, when it came to video games. If nothing else, lots of the NES games were so hard they were beyond all of us. Thanks, Japan! Apparently the video game rental market in the US earned us an increase in difficulty a lot of the time so we’d keep going back to Blockbuster to rent the game.

In my junior high and high school years, being an open and honest gamer girl actually helped me out a lot. It led me to people with common interests, and some of those friendships have lasted to this very day, over twenty years. Did it make me less appealing to perhaps more mainstream or popular groups of kids? Probably. But I really didn’t care, because I had found people I could relate to and have fun with. I learned a lot about PC gaming– we didn’t own a gaming computer at home– and was introduced to AD&D 2nd edition in high school, as well as traded games with my friends to learn about all sorts of genres I hadn’t really played before. Being an attractive young gamer girl was also pretty hot, apparently. I never lacked a date to homecoming or prom, and typically I had more than a few choices that I liked to choose from.

There was occasionally a little incredulity about a girl actually being a gamer, but it only took two minutes of me talking about what I was playing at the moment for people to stop looking wary and start looking delighted. They wanted me to be a lady gamer, and there wasn’t a generation’s worth of time of being “tricked” by casual or insincere gamer girls to make guys bitter and suspicious yet. Similarly, there wasn’t a generation of feeling annoyed or offended by being sexualized or looked down upon to make girls bitter and suspicious yet, either.

No, I had to get older, into my late teens and early twenties, before the scene had developed enough to start feeling what all the ups and downs of being a gamer girl were. Luckily, by then I was old enough, entrenched enough, and had enough friends and experience where the ridicule rolled off my back, for the most part. I can’t imagine many of the Millennials had those advantages at that time, unfortunately.

So, the trial of the lady Xennial gamer wasn’t that bad for me as I was growing up, though I think I escaped many of the common trials. The culture was growing with me, and there wasn’t a whole lot of elitism yet, but I’ve heard other Xennials had more problems with their parents than I did. My mother was extremely supportive, though she didn’t play. My father was sure I’d outgrow it by the time I was fifteen, and didn’t understand it at all, but never stood in the way. As long as my school work was done and I played outside occasionally and did a physical extracurricular activity (usually softball, in my case), I could play as many video games as I liked. Mom even cooked for me and my friends and encouraged us to have AD&D games at our house.

Many Millennials I know have the lovely advantage of being in a family of gamers, and getting to play with their parents. That must have been pretty awesome. I know other Xennials whose parents deemed it a waste of time and did everything they could to stamp out the gaming habits of their children, which is terribly sad, in my opinion. Everything in moderation.

I know other Xennials whose parents were unable or unwilling to keep up with the immense tide of games (before quality control standards and age ratings were really established) and the unceasing and often exploitative advertising of the era (before there were many rules about when and what and how you could advertise to children) and therefore the Xennial was denied their interest in gaming on those grounds until they were old enough to finance their own hobbies. I was lucky enough to dodge this trial too.

As for being a female Xennial gamer, as I mentioned, as a kid and a young woman, I rarely had problems being a lady gamer. Sometimes, when I was a little older, it even worked to my advantage. Today, while I am at times bombarded with some of the stupidity I have mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have sufficient self-esteem and am secure enough in my identity to withstand it, most of the time. The advantage of my age compared to the development of the industry is that by the time a lot of the discrimination started, I’d had “gamer” as a part of my identity for years, and it didn’t really matter to me what people thought about it. The comments about my age have been very few so far, but they have started. Time will tell what being a lil’ old lady Xennial gamer is like, but that’s a few decades off, I think. In the meantime (and far beyond), game on.

 

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