It’s the 1990s, and your parents have recently decided to invest in a home PC. It is treated with reverence, often having its own special room. After playing some solitaire and maybe attempting minesweeper, you also mess around with MS Word, PowerPoint, or Paint. At some point, your parents tell you when to stop. As the PC shuts down, orange words glow against a black screen: “It’s now safe to turn off your computer.”
After playing a few simple point-and-click games as a toddler, and messing around with Microsoft Office, I was about seven years old when I started using a home computer to “game”. Many Windows computers came with preloaded DOS games (The Lion King, Dave, Prince of Persia, Digger etc). These would have been many people’s introduction to the world of gaming, as it was for me.
By the turn of the millennium, I had a sister (spectator and player 2!), a dial-up connection, and access to Flash games (RIP). Excited about the games I was discovering, I’d attempt to share my hobby at school. However, when talking about games at school, it became quickly apparent that most girls didn’t play games even if they had a computer at home. It was apparently a “boy” thing.
But why was it a “boy” thing at such a young age? It’s not like boys were stopping girls from playing games.
A lot of discourse on the subject today centres around gaming being a toxic space dominated by men. This is by no means untrue, especially in India. This is old news, we know it. Online games, especially those which require a microphone to be turned on, are especially toxic spaces for women to exist as gamers.
But that is today’s discourse. Why, in the 90s, did other Indian girls my age from roughly the same income group and socio-cultural slice of society, not grow up playing videogames?
As a child, most of this was confusion. However, as an adult with hindsight, many things make themselves clear. There were many factors that deterred girls from gaming, especially when household computers were new. When PCs started making their way into domestic environments, girls were often automatically adjusted to the notion that the PC was “not for them.” Especially (but not always) if they had a brother. Giving a girl access to an advanced piece of tech was not an idea most parents liked.
Sometimes my (girl)friends’ parents would even complain to my parents that all I did when their kid came over to play was sit in front of the computer. My friends had fun, it was their parents who came complaining.
Parents were also largely unaware of the benefits a child could get by simply toying around with a computer, and how important this would prove in the decades to come.
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Playing games on a PC isn’t a boxed-in activity on its own. Old PC games in particular lead the user to explore how the PC itself works. Since our parents usually couldn’t solve computer-related problems, it pushed us to develop an interest in, and learn more about its software and hardware. If you grew up a PC gamer, it’s more than likely that you spent time in C:/Program Files to examine the various moving parts of the game, see if you could alter it, mess with it, or fix something that wasn’t working.
For anyone, this eventually leads to an overall feel for what a computer does, how to fix something when it goes wrong, and cultivates a general interest in PCs and related tech. Not getting a feel for these things at a young age will eventually leave you an adult who struggles to do anything besides use MS Office and Google Chrome.
Luckily for me, my family’s mindset towards the PC was that it would be a tool for the future. The earlier we got used to it, the better. However, once popular media started creating fear around the internet, my computer usage was choked, and I wasn’t able to play another meaningful game until the age of about 16 (Assassin’s Creed), where I’d have the excuse of using a laptop to practice my coding. I could also sneak in some more gaming by figuring out how to emulate Pokémon on my Nokia 5230.
While the trend of girls not gaming is being bucked at a faster pace in Western countries, India seems to be even slower to follow. A quick Google search will repeat the same names of the few women who have skilled up to a professional level. However, in day-to-day life, it is still uncommon to come across women my age who game casually.
As time passed, games became bigger and more complex, and the learning curve and cost of playing went up. This further decreased a girl’s incentive to acquire and play games. Boys had a peer group to keep the culture going, where they could discuss games and exchange CDs.
Girls, we didn’t have a peer group for it. The boys at my high school managed to make a LAN out of the computer lab, but I was pushed out of playing with them because having never played PvP, I wasn’t skilled and therefore too boring to play with.
This continued into college, where I was still the only girl who gamed that I knew of. The only exceptions being a few that I met much later while studying design.
Boys in college continued their amazing culture of doing whatever it took to be able to continue gaming. Again, centred on having a peer group. From running LAN cables across rooftops to creating internal FTP servers to exchange material, they made sure they could keep gaming.
My area of interest then shifted specifically to offline single-player fantasy RPGs (eg. The Witcher III) and Indie games (eg. The Stanley Parable), and it remains so to this day. Some may pose the question of whether the issue is of games having a female protagonist. While that is an important factor, it is another discussion altogether. Gamers just want good games.
Busy with board exams, then college, and then work, I daydreamed a lot about gaming but never got back into it. Back in the 90’s, consoles in India were reserved only for the super-rich. But now it was the 2010s. While still expensive as a recreational item, they are now much more affordable. A few years ago, my partner surprised me with a PS4. Now, it’s impossible to stop me from starting my nth playthrough of Horizon Zero Dawn.
I mention my age so much because it brings me to my more positive conclusion – that culture around gaming has been changing at a rapid pace, even in India. Just over the last 10 years, everyone and their grandmothers (literally) started playing Candy Crush, the laptop became a necessary tool for work, and consoles became more affordable. Appealing social sim games like Animal Crossing also made games seem less scary. More girls and women can choose if and when they want to game, and in what capacity.
Today, I can log on to any platform and quickly find at least a few Indian women who game. That is a big deal. The barriers are fewer, streaming is a fun hobby for many, and the attitude towards games and gaming has changed worldwide. The future looks brighter for not only for girls who game, but all gamers in general.
(The author is a brand and visual communications designer, and occasional pop culture writer based in Bengaluru)