This is a story. Well, kind of a few stories, actually. It's not my usual work, in any usual format, but these are not usual times. This is going to be long, probably uncomfortable, and share some views you might not agree with. Perhaps that is something you do not like. Please don't read on, if that bothers you.
Oh, and when I say long, I mean long. Like you're in for trying to 100% Just Cause 2 long here, in an article. Fair warning.
For those of you that don't know me, hi! My name is Maiyannah. Maiyannah Lysander. Nice to meet you.
I have a personal aspiration. I want to be the strong woman. I want to be calm and collected. I want to share the things which bring me joy with the people that care to listen to me. I have spent the better part of a lifetime making a conscious effort to improve myself: cultivating the good things, restraining and discarding the bad things. But at the core of that woman, a byproduct of years of scar tissue, growth, and experience, at the core of her is still sometimes that very injured and damaged girl I used to be. The bullied goth girl who spent most of her school years hidden. She didn't want to be seen, carrying her Game Gear, plugging away at Streets of Rage 2 or Sonic. If she was, the bullies would find her. They would say some mean things, probably beat her within an inch or two of her life, and leave her to crawl under that same tree in the far northwestern bit of the grounds. It was a nice tree. A weeping willow, of about middling height. Beauty is something we lax lyrical about often, but that particular tree was beauty to me. It was my muse, but, more importantly, it was my safe place.
It was there that I could do the only thing I ever wanted to do then. Hide.
I found myself reflecting on that girl last night, curled up in bed with my phone and a crippling addiction to the thing that was killing me inside. Crying. That was something I hadn't done in a while. Big girls aren't supposed to cry, much less women. Us strong women, the role models, the heroes, aren't supposed to bleed. We are bulletproof, resilient, courageous. Perhaps thats an ideal that I reach for and don't attain. Probable.
Something struck a chord, amidist all the various conversations I had over the last few hours. Days. Weeks. Month. It all starts to blur together now.
"You can find out a lot about someone when they are knocked out of their comfort zone." (@TrueMalduke)
It's still there, you know. That tree. It's worse for wear, now. The school system has suffered many funding cuts, an inevitable result of administrators who diminish the institution rather than their own salaries. I know. I found it today. I felt compelled to clean it up. Overgrown and kind of a mess. But still there, perhaps just as weathered and scarred as the woman that used to be that small girl curled up about its roots.
There's probably something deeper to be said there. I find myself in that sort of poetic mood. But that is a smoke signal. A distraction. So much of what surrounds me right now is just smoke and the occasionally misplaced mirror. They're not really set up in concert. Just scattered about the terrain like debris in Fallout 3.
I curled up there, in that safe place. I thought. I hid. Again. For the first time in twenty years - more than twenty years, in fact. I hid. I remember one of the school administrators passing by on a weekend routine giving me a strange look before passing on.
"Who is that strange woman?"
Sometimes I think I know the answer to that. Sometimes I'm not so sure.
I remember the moment I first saw some light amidst those stormclouds. It was here too. Just as I sit plugging away at this shitty iPad keyboard in the shade when the sun was shining, the breeze pleasant, and the weather pleasant, there I was with that game gear, tapping away at it's oversized black plastic frame with its big blue buttons and colourful LCD screen. The battery life was shit. It was going to die soon. I remember I was playing Shinobi. I can't even tell you why I remember that; what particular attribute of that stray fact makes me recall it. Perhaps it is proximity to the events.
There was a girl who approached me then. She was a couple years older than I, and looked rough. She even had a tattoo. One of those temporary ones, yeah, but I was too young then to differentiate between that and a more permanent one. I didn't recognize what it was then. It was actually Samus Aran. From Metroid. Metroid was a game I only discovered later on. Well, only a little later, but still.
"Oh great", thought I in light of this lanky and unkempt woman and her tattoo, every stereotype about tattooed bikers and convicts I had come in contact with though that brief first decade of my life fleeting through my head, "another bully. This is going to end well."
I should probably be a little honest here, before I go on. These aren't exact thoughts. I do not transcribe exact dialogue, carefully maintained and painstakingly recreated. The memory, as clear as it seems, is from a time when I was very young. Time distorts perceptions, especially of things close to our heart. Personal. We invest emotions into them. They become charged, and that distorts them further. This is a biased thing. Duh. As if I could talk about something so close to my heart without bias.
I tried to ignore this girl, and her tattoo. My father was a caring man, and he always made sure to take me aside when I came home with those bruises and say, "Those people just want to hurt you. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can only hurt you if you let them." A bit of a straying from the traditional saying, but a right one. My dad was a smart man. An engineer, actually. I always tried to listen. I was proud of him. I always wanted to make him proud.
I tried to ignore her. It didn't work.
"What's that?" she asked again, insistently, clambering down to sit beside me, peering ever so obtrusively over my shoulder. She was genuinely interested, but I didn't realise, or perhaps I didn't care. She was intruding into those walls I put around me. She clambered into that safe place. She found me where I could not hide.
"Nothing," I muttered, begrudgingly. I had to say something. Denial came most easily. It didn't seem wrong to me. I was nothing, worthless, indeed not worthy of consideration, being wierd, fat, and ugly. They we words I heard so often. I resisted internalising them of course, but eventually they had won. I did. I wasn't worth the fuss of your attention, haggard girl from like fifty billion grades ahead of me. Please believe that. I hoped.
"That looks too rad not to be nothing," she ventured on, "So what is it?"
Rad was a very 90s thing, I guess. Lingo. Jargon. It was pretty common, at least amidst the cool kids at school, but it was something I wasn't used to hearing. A moment of increduility settled upon me and it left me more uncomfortable than all of the hateful, hurtful words I had ever heard up to that point. After a moment of awkward silence I think she caught a glimpse of that screen. Realisation dawned.
"..hey, can I try?"
Bayshore was a rough part of town, downtrodden and poor, and berefit with gang violence, drugs, and prostitution. I was too young to properly perceive those things, however. It was my favourite. It was the place where Hannah lived. The girl with the metroid tattoo. The gamer. It was a term I had never heard before, this gamer thing. She had this neat little box. It was white and grey and came all the way from Japan. It captivated me. It was like that computer my dad had, except it did cool things, not the boring word processing and spreadsheets my Dad's computer did.
It was of course a Nintendo Entertainment System, as some of you no doubt surmised from the description. But to that younger me, it was an electronic smiles machine. I remember how cool that seemed. Hanging out with this rough kid at her house. She lived in the basement, if it could be called that. It was more like a particularly large cupboard under the stairs. Yeah, like Harry Potter I guess. Her family was large, and all jammed into one small house in a bad part of town.
A cramped, uncomfortable, hot, and often dirty place. And it was the best place in the world.
She was rough. One byproduct among many of the place she grew up. Perhaps she was even a bully in her own right. She hated the kids who bullied me. They were stupid morons to her, and she got in scraps with many of them, but to me, she was like my goddamned guardian angel.
Over the next couple grades we accumulated a small group of gamers. It was such a force, this connective tissue between so many downtrodden people from different backgrounds. I remember my dad being so very enthusiastic about that. He thought it was really cool for his daughter to be making friends finally, as we had moved to an entirely new country from Scotland to begin with. It was important for her to have those friends, he said so many times, arguing with my mother when she objected to him carting me once more to Hannah's house.
He bought my sister and I a Nintendo in 92. It was well on its way out then, and my Dad had to go all the way to Toronto to get one. He made calls and that kind of thing, several in fact. Father saw something that was a little light in my life and decided to make that mine. Of course, there were pragmatic reasons too: if I we had one in the house, then he wouldn't have to have arguments with my mother about taking me to Hannah's again.
My sister and I resented each other up until then. We were mostly forced to live together and in close proximity to each other because of the economic conditions of my own family. My dad was paid well, but not that well, after things like my treatments were done. I was perpetually sick, after all. I did forget to mention that. I was supposed to die when I was 11 because of an infection. But I soldiered on. We lived in the same room, my sister and I. Shared the same bed even. My brother was crammed into what passed for a bed in what was actually supposed to be a storage room beside us. It was a nice house, in a white suburban neighborhood, but aggressively small for us. It was meant more for some sort of bachelor businessperson. And we were a family of five all crammed into a 1 bed, 1 bath house. It was what my father could afford, when we immigrated here for his job, from Scotland.
That Nintendo changed things there though, with my sister and I. It was another bridge. My sister would see all my small group of friends crowd around that screen taking turns playing Contra together and she was curious. "Me too," she said in her own way. I don't think she ever took that label, and called herself a gamer. But she was always, to us, one of the group, from then on in. A group of that Mexican kid, the Arab guy, Hannah and her conspicuously-absent tattoo, that at the time I never thought to question the disappearance of, and a Korean guy who always was tinkering with some gadget or another, and that was rad. And there we'd sit together. Gaming.
My dad encouraged that, too. It was so very pleasing for him to see the family together. He introduced me to his C128 he had, that spreadsheet machine of his, and a game he played. He picked it up at one of those dirty used floppy swap meets for a couple dollars. Yeah, the same ones game developers would come to disparage and hate. People were getting super cheap copies of games and the developers weren't strictly speaking making money off of it. While there were some people just legitimately selling used games, there were others making copies. "Don't copy this floppy" was a byline of that age. Truly the bundle sites to the late 80s, early 90s. But it let my dad share a game with me.
That game was Ultima IV.
He had the other ones, too, III, II, and I. I played them all. But I was utterly fascinated by this game that Richard Garriott made called Ultima IV. This wasn't just kill the bad guy, or win the race, or whatever. This was a game where the goal was just, ultimately, to be a good person. Sure, you fought monsters, but it was something you did along the way. It was a distraction. So much of what I faced, the trials that little motley crew of gamers faced, for that matter, seemed like just that. Our goals were just to get through school and enjoy these cool video games, but we fought monsters along the way, too. So many people told us we were strange. Some of them tried to physically beat us down when words didn't work, although Hannah usually didn't let them. They stopped trying that with me specifically when I struck back. I floored a guy with a punch to the jaw. He bled. I was angry, hurt, and sad all at the same time to look down at that. And the worst part was to see my father feeling the very same with me when the school suspended me for it and he had to have a talk with me over those few days. Valor++; Honor--;
He also did something else then, which I look back on and just think to myself: he understood where that young girl was at. I cast my mind back to the wonder with which I beheld the internet. My dad had a modem for his Commodore. We hooked up to a BBS. Suddenly, my small bubble of friends, of gamers, wasn't one isolated group. It was many.
There was an Ultima BBS you could dial up to. He didn't want me doing it myself because of the charges you accepted doing so; it was super expensive on the phone bill at the time. So he would have me and my friends write down little notes. Our responses to the ongoing conversations. We would all huddle around him at the screen and read the conversations that occurred. What people had said. Our world was suddenly huge. One images many other similar situations happening elsewhere too. The world was huge. This was the future. And we were living it, sharing our passion for this one series of games with people all over the world. It didnt matter that we were kids then, that I was Scottish, or female, or that Korean kid was Asian, or that one of the guys was as literally the gamer stereotype of overweight cisgendered white male you could muster, we were all just people, distilled down to the basest essence of the hobby we shared.
We were gamers. We were all gamers.
That medium removed us from that bullying. There was no bullying there, at least at first. Just gamers, most of us a mix of the young and the middle aged, sharing the hobby we were so very enthusiastic about. It was a weekly routine. Even when we upgraded to PCs, the two Packard Bell IBM compatibles my dad dropped a shitton of cash on. We'd sit and play network doom, a couple at a time, our little group. Dad would let us all post our little newsgroup messages in the Ultima newsgroups. We'd go back to the old NES and play our favourites. Once a week. Once a week we weren't a troubled group of bullied kids. We were just gamers. It was all that mattered. Rays of sunshine in the midst of a time where I was quite frankly extremely depressed. The bullying only escalted after all, even if it was no longer physical.
But everything ends eventually.
I recall a conversation with a close friend recently about scenes in media that affected me. Things from our popular culture, specifically. I am a bitter woman, hardened and scarred by a lifetime of emotional abuse at the hands of the cruel. I cannot call them monsters, in retrospect, like I did a scant few paragraphs ago. They were human beings, just as I am. They likely still are. But they made me a very numb thing indeed.
That choking feeling in my chest, that deep effect that things can have on us is something I have long learned to stifle. To be resistant to. To not listen to it. I don't, usually, even when it happens.
One of the moments that did do that, it still does, and makes a good movie very difficult to me to watch. It comes immediately to mind now, that movie, because it feels almost to me reminiscent now, typing these words away. I feel like I am writing my very own Valarie's letter.
Because how things changed then, when everything became different, when that relatively happy time came to an end, seemed very familiar indeed. I watch it now, to remind myself, and I cannot help but be reduced to tears. Movement. Feelings left buried. Unpleasant memories. Pain.
I sat under that same tree that day. I wasn't even in that school anymore, having graduated to high school. But it was always my safe place, my place to go. I was crying, you see. Hurt.
We had set up something, indeed, a concerted effort. Something we made ourselves to do, a thing which took courage. It was not an easy thing to muster. There were already rumblings in the school that we were "gross", though, so we had to. For better or worse, we had do. Dad at least would understand, I told myself. He always seemed to. Even when I was shit. Even when I did bad things, got in trouble, was suspended, came home so broken and bruised and in pieces.
But he hadn't. Mom hadn't either, for what it was worth.
Hannah had remained a moment, when the others were all in the entryway getting shoes on, before leaving one of those get-togethers. Her hand in mine, I recounted my affections for her, like a criminal confessing sins. Yes, that is right, to use the tired language, I came out of the closet. Hannah, strong as she was, just held my hand then, as I did. It was a vice-grip, tense and fearful. It was the first thing that ever seemed to make unflappable Hannah afraid.
I don't remember the words he said then. Not the exact words. I suspect I never heard them to begin with; but I heard the yelling. Oh, did I hear the yelling. "Get out. Just get out." The only words I remember are those.
There would be no get-togethers after that. No little mini-LAN parties. No enthusiasm for that hobby any more. At that point, it became more of an escapism. I retreated after that, of course. To the Safe Place. My sister followed, with of course Hannah. Hannah's mother, who we'd already spoken to, and accepted those feelings of ours, dropped us off there, after gathering up the rest of the kids. It was fortunate she was the one playing taxi driver that day. It was a very quiet bus ride. I think we all knew it was over then, this was done. There was a grim, sullen air to that ride which was impenetrable.
Hannah's mother knew there was something wrong. She asked if we'd like to go somewheres. My sister knew that was the Safe Place. She said there. Hannah's mother waited in the car. My sister sat a fair distance from me as I just cried. Face in my hands and Hannah's hand on my shoulder, I just .. cried. There wasn't much said there. It was the end. When the immediate, raw, pain passed, Hannah's mom gathered us all up. I slept the night there.
Gaming changed during this time, too. No longer was it a bunch of disparate groups and random individuals talking on BBS boards. The world wide web came. Games became commercialised and more mainstream. Video game violence became a hot topic. The bullying in its own fashion returned. I was a violent person for liking video games, they told me. Even the national media was saying this.
Gaming became adult. This wasn't just Sonic running along platforms anymore, nor was it the starry-eyed idealism I found in Ultima IV. It was blood and tits, Duke Nukem 3Ds and Soldier of Fortune. And there was nothing wrong with that, in the place I was in, to me. The world was shit. I was shit. We were all shit. I had my games I enjoyed.
I still lived with my parents. My father, when the anger simmered down, forgave me, and I him. The kids never really wanted to come to my place anymore then. Some of them had stopped speaking to me. It was insular again: basically, then, just my sister, and I, and my dad. But we did rebuild. Fences were mended. In face of the fact that I was friendless and alone again, my father came to accept that I had those feelings, even if he never accepted the feelings themselves. I was okay with that compromise. I just wanted my dad back.
We'd play TeamFortress, the original Half-Life one mod one, all the time. My dad had a pair of laptops from work, having finally gone through fifty billion security checks to get a better job in the military, and he used those laptops for work of course, but he made a point to gather my sister and I together occasionally, and we would game. It was fun again, if more violent than before, consisting mostly of Team Fortress CTF and Doom II. I remember how much I liked playing Hunted. We used to take turns being the civilian. Dad was rotten at it. He liked the idea of trying to beat people to death too much with an umbrella.
During this time, was when Maiya first became a games journalist, whatever that means.
I cultivated a blog then, hosted on Geocities. I rambled a variety of opinions in it. Early attempts at reviews which to this day I wonder to myself if I should post again here. Clean up maybe? Or leave them as is, things of historical interest? In either case, the proto-May had a little website and she wrote on it. My dad helped me set it up. In retrospect it seems like an act of contrition, trying to find a moment like when he first set me up with those BBS all those years before. It mostly worked. I enjoyed writing to that.
This got noticed. During this time the "PC Gaming Revolution" was in full swing. A local games magazine which had just founded was looking for writers, and they apparently stumbled on that blog. I did have a small audience at the time. They were looking for the "in crowd" with the PC gamers, and I was writing to people about how shit Ascension was and crashed on my PC all the time. I probably wasn't that "in crowd" really, but they thought I was. And, no, really, that really pissed me off at the time and I spent an insane amount of my time talking about just shit that bugginess with Ascension was. It was an ultimate disappointment for Ultima fans, indeed. I also cultivated a small following playing CS.
To protect myself, I had assumed a male persona online. I had seen plenty of women get burned. "There are no girls on the internet," people would bleat. "Tits or gtfo!" I had no desire to subject myself to that, so I wrote under a male name and put a male face to that writing. It was the the magazine recruiter's shock that when we did ultimately meet it was a scarred, black and dark purple wearing woman that greeted him. I don't think I knew what to expect of them. Nor did he know what to make of me. But eventually an awkward conversation happened. They offered me a job, and eager to discard the shit-end McDonald's job I had, I accepted it. It was barely above minimum wage, but I liked writing about games, and this let me do that after my college hours and get paid for it. I was getting paid a regular wage to write about games.
So I removed that mask. I made a post about who I really was, that I had been offered a job at a magazine and wouldn't be continuing to post to the Geocities page. It went about as I expected. They didn't believe that I was a woman, mostly. I got a lot of comments asking for pictures. Some of them were looking for proof, but most were just looking for tits. "Take off your top and take a picture" one anon encouraged.
It was a mess, but I regarded it as growing pains, and actually was pretty happy. I felt liberated. I could be a girl. Talking about games. At the time, in the environment we had where people were in camps around consoles, PC gaming, different games, and also 'male gamer', labels were being defined everywhere, and 'girl gamer' was one that was regarded as fake. There were no girls on the internet. And if we were a girl and a gamer we just wanted male attention, we weren't real gamers. But I wrote on regardless. The magazine really liked my work ethic, or the suits did anyways. The other guy writers there mosty resented me. I got a lot of attention because I was the girl. A rumor floated around the office that I was just hired because I was a woman, and when it actually came out that rumour was true, things became catty.
The suits liked their girl gamer though. And not just because of the gender, although that was part of it. The negative reception I got from many of the other writers only drove me to write harder. Faster Stronger. Yeah, like the Daft Punk song. They challenged me, and I was going to prove them wrong. I had a tremendous work ethic, I pushed a lot of stuff out. Eventually, when they decided to expand, they made me reviews editor.
It would be short lived. We moved into a small office building. We had all kinds of neat gaming-related stuff we bought. Top of the line PCs for everything. A huge library of different games and consoles. It was cool. It was relevant to work. It was also our downfall.
We hemorrhaged money left right and center, always telling ourselves as a publication that we would make it up with the next big story. The pressure I started getting from marketing to have those big stories and cover big games was tremendous. And that was our death knell: we went from covering awesome but much less known things like Avernum, to the same big games everyone was covering. We took the value out of our magazine in doing so. People picked up that magazine to read about the games the other outlets weren't really talking about. We learned that lesson the hard way, and what we did manage to do to salvage things was too little too late.
And things crashed and burned hard. A lot of people blamed me, specifically. I didnt understand games. I was a woman. I couldn't understand them. In a way they're right. I can empathise with men, but I am not a man. In either case, that left with such a sour taste I decided not to look for another job in the field. I went elsewhere. Or was going to, anyways. My father, and then my Hannah, both passed away, not too far apart. My mother started dating a man that abused me. My sister commited suicide.
Yeah, it all kind of went to shit. And its a long side story in an already long article. Lets skip forward a bit.
So now we fast forward to now. Here I am, typing this out as I attempt to cobble together a living in games journalism again, this time as an independant. To some people, in this controversy,. I have been an inspiration. The plucky indie journalist calling out some of the corruption in the big pubs, and scraping by an existence as an underdog. To some people, I am just a gamer, inadvertently supporting harassment by defending my identity, trying to hold onto the last shreds of that memory of the time when I got together with that little group. Holding onto that memory, all those pleasant times I once had has certainly been a thing to it, says the woman whose steam account is named after Hannah's old self-insert 40k character, silly as that probably is.
I have a need to fix things. To be happy and to share that happy, amidst all this, I think I have failed that aim. I sit here amidst the proverbial charred wreckage of that identity and I cannot help feeling a little broken girl crying into her hands as Hannah tried to be there. I wish she could be, now, but I also wish she couldn't. I'm not sure she would still be proud to be that gamer anymore.
There's something amidst this I've been very frustrated with. I don't feel I have a voice. Certain people, the Anita Sarkeesians and the Zoe Quinns, the anons on #GamerGate have all stolen that from me. There are so many people, some of them trolls, some of them gamers, some of them devs I respect, some of them ones I don't - and they are all speaking for me. They are telling me what I should feel, what is offensive to me, what I think, feel, and believe. Some of them mean harm, but not all of them do.
All of these people, however, have harmed me.
They have also harmed others.
Through all this, I have been trying to listen. I have a background in psychology, part of the boring stuff I skipped over for brevity's sake, and I fancy myself a good listener. I always try to be there for people who approach me, and to listen to their concerns, hopes, dreams, the things they love, and what they're building. As both that psych and as a games journalist, being able to both support game developers and gamers, and share enthusiasm for their stuff, is one of the appeals to me. I have to be careful not to board the hype train, but at the end of the day, I work in the entertainment industry. Fun is part of the job.
This past month, I have leant many an ear to frustrated women. There are women with big audiences who purport to speak for all women, and those people are highly frustrated at that. "Anita Sarkeesian doesn't speak for us," they say. "We don't hate gamers. We love gamers. We love games. We want an inclusive, accepting community. A safe place." And for those dissenting women, myself included, the industry has not been a safe place. Indeed, even for the non-dissenting feminists and personalities, the industry isn't a safe place right now. Zoe continues to battle with trolls that harass her, perhaps only encouraging that harassment all the while. Anita Sarkeesian has received death threats. Ones she tweeted first, rather than reporting, it seems, but ones nonetheless.
For those of us women that both are women in the industry, and dissenting opinions from the likes of Anita, we often get a double helping of abuse: we get both the genuinely misogynistic harassment, and we get the supporters of Anita to whom we are "the enemy". "We must have internalised that misogyny," they say. "Don't worry about that though, we'll fight for you." Stuffing words in our mouths that aren't ours, and often leaving us to battle off trolls who take umbrage with those words.
When I first started writing again, I felt powerful. I have you, my readers, and I am making a living doing something I genuinely enjoy. I felt empowered. I was doing this without any mask, without any corporate marketing team forcing my hands. I am writing what is purely my mind, tempering opinion as best I can with fair consideration. And yet here I am. I have no voice. Others are speaking for me. And I am not the only one.
I have a deep-seated desire to want to be that big voice in the industry. It's ego, it honestly, really is. I also want to protect people. And I haven't.
I don't know what I hope to accomplish saying this. It's as important to me as anything else. I am finding my voice, more than anything, writing this. Shouting above the din, or trying. Dispersing all these smoke signals and distractions, or trying to. But most importantly, there has been a deep desire for transparency and an attack on my identity. I share the desire to improve journalism. I share the defensiveness and pain that comes from my identity being so vigorously attacked.
Don't try to take my voice from me. And to those other women who have also had that voice stolen, there's always room on these pages, if you have something to share.
So let me, after this long and meandering piece, find that voice to say this: