Last week, footage of two women fighting in Overwatch went viral.“You’re one of the worst Mercys I’ve ever played with,” one told her team’s Mercy player. “Me? You’re the Mercy who’s rezzing one person and feel like they’re really good,” the second player, Bailee, shot back.
The two women were at each other’s throats, arguing over how to play the healer, Mercy. A common stereotype among Overwatch players casts all women as “Mercy” mains, since Mercy’s playstyle doesn’t rely on aim. A teammate named Murdis was eating up the cliché. “IT’S TWO GIRL MERCY MAINS FIGHTING EACH OTHER,” he exclaimed in chat. The incident, recorded in a video, blew up on Twitter.
If you’ve ever played Overwatch, you know that throwing shade on teammates’ gameplay—and talking yourself up—is a long-celebrated play strategy. But that’s not how the average commenter felt. “Overwatch cat fight,” “#girlgamer” and “e-girls are a different breed” were some of the Twitter replies alongside the inevitable “I’m turned on.” It wasn’t your everyday Overwatch salt; apparently, it was a battle over who could be the team’s Mercy or, if we want to get symbolic, the team comp’s girl.
In gaming spaces, it often feels like there’s only room for one woman—the only girl to get invited to Friday night Tekken or, in this case, your regular Overwatch squad’s Mercy main. There’s only room for one. And when another girl comes along and picks up a controller, she threatens her standing as the “only girl.” The “only girl” is a token and, yes, at this point, a caricature. From this comes the ubiquitous, and now cringe-inducing, trope for girl gamers—one I, as a teenager, heard myself say—“Yeah, I mostly hang out with guys. I don’t like girls.”
“Only girl syndrome” is not a fictional dynamic invented in the minds of Twitter eggs and randos on Overwatch. When I was younger, I knew other girls who played video games. Neither I nor the superficial group of boys I called my friends invited them to gaming nights. A regrettable part of my teenaged brain clung to social survival: I believed these other girls threatened the one thing I had going for me. I was a great Smash player—but, if a girl came along with bonkers Call of Duty skills, would my friends leave me behind?
I didn’t understand why I felt fiery animosity toward these other girls, or the social forces that repelled me from girls who shared my hobby. It was shameful. But I felt it in my veins and blood, that I was easily replaced and needed to prove myself. I’ve grown up since then, but the Mercy incident had me reflecting on a phenomenon that still exists in gaming spaces, judging by conversations I’ve had with other women.
Lolitabot, like me, is competitive. She’s big into Tekken Tag Tournament 2, a reflex-heavy fighting game with a huge character roster. She attends tournaments in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina all the time with her friends, mostly boys. “I have generally been the only girl, with the exception of one other player’s girlfriend,” she told me. “I don’t think that many girls typically hung out at arcades.” Years into her tenure as a Tekken Tag 2 competitor, another girl who dated a Tekken buddy entered her social circle. Lolitabot helped her learn the basics when she noticed that no one else stepped up to teach her. After a while, the newcomer gained some competence. Soon after, Lolitabot realized that she wasn’t getting invited to practice sessions as much.
“Over time, she really did manage to ‘replace me,’” Lolitabot said. When the two women did train together or met at tournaments, Lolitabot noticed that, compared to the boys, the new girl singled her out as a competitor more. It was uncomfortable. But, after a while, the newcomer lost interest in Lolitabot’s scene. The boys resumed inviting Lolitabot to every practice session.
“I didn’t want the rivalry, but it seemed as though it was forced onto me,” Lolitabot said.
A little less than half of the gaming population are women. When it comes to competitive games, the female/male ratio plummets, according to a 2017 study by social psychologist Nick Yee: about 13 percent of fighting game players are female. For first-person shooters, that number falls to seven percent, and for sports games, two percent. For starters, women and men who do compete generally run in separate leagues, if the game in question even has a women’s league. But, for casual players in scenes built around these games, women can face social pressures because of the way machismo traditionally plays into competition. If you’re not a guy, you need to be a boys’ girl: you’re loud, you’re hardcore, you don’t show mercy, you don’t give a fuck and you win.
Like a lot of women, I love competition. I don’t love having to beg all-male attendees at Smash tournaments to hand over a controller. For some reason, the culture seems to write off women in these spaces as hangers-on or outsiders, not a part of the vibe. I stick around, I keep demanding. And when I am handed a controller and win, I’m no longer considered a hanger-on. That’s good. But it’s equally alienating to be treated like a wonder. In a lot of social circles, there isn’t a middle ground.
Charlotte Ashley, a bookseller and card game player, told me that, when she was a younger gamer, she relished in the attention her male peers showered on her. For decades, she was the only woman in her group of gaming friends and attributes that to the fact that gaming can be considered a “guy” space. “I definitely got the ‘I am a rare and valuable unicorn’ vibe as the only girl,” she told me. It made her feel special.
When she was 19 or 20 and attending card game tournaments, she still didn’t want to share the spotlight.“I knew even then that women were made uncomfortable by the sausage-fest, and I tried to be welcoming,” she said, “but I was also trying hard to be ‘one of the guys’ too, so I don’t think I helped as much as I could have.” The undivided attention was nice, for a while, until she realized that it was more of a consolation prize than a perk. “They didn’t care that I was a good card player, that much was made abundantly clear,” she said.
Susan Roterman also admits that she liked being the only girl attendee at her friends’ Mario Party or Super Smash Bros. nights. She had carved out a space for herself; it was cozy. And she didn’t want another woman crammed in there—it meant that her social standing was compromised. “I did feel jealous when there were other girls around, but mostly because I wasn’t the only girl anymore,” Roterman explained. Other women I interviewed said that, if a girl came along who was prettier or liked more hardcore games, they feared being replaced. They feared that they weren’t valued for their witty trash talk or stolen Mario Party stars, but for their empty novelty. When another novelty comes along, this time with better hair, what would happen?
We can get into the psychology of why female competition, or “cattiness,” is a thing. Several studies have reported that women aren’t inherently more competitive than men, but to cope with gender bias in male-dominated communities, some women have developed strategies, like pursuing the role of the “queen bee”—an imperfect, but recognizable term.
Recent studies have shown that, in the workplace, and especially in leadership positions, gender bias and a dearth of women can spark jealousy between women—that’s when, in Utrecht University social psychologist Naomi Ellemers’ terms, “queen bees” emerge. In an e-mail, she posited that majority-boy gaming circles aren’t much different because they can feature the same cocktail of low female turnout, gender bias and a devotion to machismo. According to Ellemers’ research, it works like this: Women in managerial positions can feel marginalized because they make up only about 30% of those positions. The low ratio doesn’t inspire much gender solidarity. On top of that, stereotypes about working women—for example, that women are more emotional or weak leaders—can lower women’s confidence. As a result, women may try to distinguish themselves from each other to assert their status as men’s equals.
In an e-mail, Ellemers told me that her research can transfer onto careers like police work, as well as gaming circles with a low male/female ratio. She said:
Anyone who wants to succeed and be respected as a good member of the community should embody the features that characterize the community. If the gaming community is very masculine, then this is how individuals should feel compelled to behave, to show their commitment to the community and worthiness of being a good group member. . . For individual women to be accepted, it is important to show they are just as talented and competitive as any man, and to demonstrate that the stereotype doesn’t hold for them. If they identify with other women or support them, they run the risk of spoiling their credibility as individuals who are “just like the boys.”
With fewer women and so many stereotypes about “fake gamer girls,” competition among women for social slots in gaming circles can get fierce—especially when girl gamers are often considered less talented. “Queen bees” probably aren’t a thing because women hate each other or don’t want to game together; it’s how girl gamers cope with being told we’re not welcome and not good enough.
Despite being a common phenomenon while growing up, not all women feel jealous of others, or enjoy being the lonely female in their gaming group. Holly Badger, a serious Left 4 Dead player, says that being the only girl was never a goal for her or something she enjoyed. It wasn’t a big part of her identity, in part, because her guy friends didn’t make it a thing: “They always made me feel comfortable,” she told me, “I was never the ‘token gamer girl’ to them. I was a human being and I was their friend.” So, over time, more women attended Halo or Bulletstorm nights, and she welcomed them.
“I’m always happy to have other women to play with, but that’s because I know how it feels to be a girl in the gaming world. People are assholes, and I don’t want to play a part in that,” she said.
And those who do experience “only girl syndrome” mostly don’t stay locked into it. Long ago, I outgrew “only girl syndrome” because my fear came true: I was replaced by a friend’s new girlfriend, whom I introduced him to. It was a blessing; I realized how superficial my friendships were. But for months, I’d pass by my friends’ house and imagine them playing Katamari without me. I was devastated and, throughout those months, only gamed online, where my social life, gender identity and and gaming hobby could remain separate.
Through college, I remained the only girl in my gaming circles. By then, we were all adults, and it was the Dungeons & Dragons games I wrote or my wild Super Smash Bros. Brawl plays that, on top of who I am, made me an asset to my many gaming circles. I wasn’t afraid of losing my “spot” anymore. Desperately, I prosthelytized my favorite games to women I knew, and today, still do. Sometimes, they join. These are the nights I remember most fondly.
[Correction—7:55 p.m. est]: An earlier version of this article misidentified one of the Mercy players. We have made a correction and regret the error.