Compete Staff Writer Maddy Myers and I both feel nervous about playing games in front of other people. We sat down to talk about why.
Gita Jackson: Hey Maddy. Both of us have been put in the position of playing games in front of other people. Whether it’s at a tournament or over streams, playing a game while other people watch comes with a sense of performance anxiety.
Maddy Myers: In thinking about this I’ve thought back on so many experiences—good and bad—that I’ve had trying to play games at big parties growing up, having to psych myself up to grab a controller and face off against a group of guys in a fighting game. As I got older, that experience got way harder—in arcades, once I was old enough to go to the mall unsupervised, and later at official fight nights at gaming stores, and tournaments. It’s been hard for me, every single time, to get myself to play a game in public. The reasons go beyond just “it’s embarrassing to lose,” which is a basic sentiment that I’m guessing all our readers can relate to. There’s also the fact that I have social anxiety and the fact that I’m a woman—a fact that other people tend to bring up as soon as they see me playing a game in public.
Gita: When I was getting into games, it was through my older brother. Sure, we grew up playing games together on the Super Nintendo and the Genesis and later various Playstation consoles, but all those things implicitly belonged to him. Once he entered teenagerhood and discovered that hanging out with your little sister wasn’t cool anymore, I didn’t get a chance to play games without other people at all for a long time. For a long time the only way I could play games with other people was in social settings, and because I didn’t have a space where I could safely try out a new game and learn how to play it and maybe even fail at playing it a bit, it was embarrassing to go through all that in public. Kids are mean, and if you don’t have a strong sense of self it’s hard to put up with constant teasing. And yeah, I was also the only girl I knew who was into games, and yes, all my guy friends who liked them too also loved pointing that out.
In Cecilia’s piece about “Only Girl” syndrome, she talked to a lot of women who have been the only girl in the gaming groups, and a lot of them lived in fear of not only another girl showing up, but another girl showing up who was better at games than them. If you don’t have space to learn how to play games, then you might find yourself without friends to play games with as a kid. And that’s what happened to me. Eventually I stopped playing games for a while.
Maddy: Have you ever had the experience of playing a game in public and/or expressing interest in a game and having a stranger express a weird level of surprise at your interest?
Gita: My brother was buying a suit for some reason, and I went with him because there was a Best Buy nearby and I’d heard about this cool game The World Ends With You and I had birthday money or something. It was just at the end of high school. So I’m playing my brand new game in a Brooks Brothers and this adult man comes up to me and asks what I’m playing. I tell him, and he says, “Oh, who made it?” I say, hesitantly, “Square Enix.” His reply was, “No they didn’t.” Like, I had the box in my hand. By that point I had learned that if you tell a stranger that they’re wrong about a video game fact you’ll get into a fight. So I just said “You must be right!”
Maddy: It’s really exhausting to have conversations like this. I haven’t had anything like that happen to me, but I have had the experience of going to fight nights or fighting game events and trying to wait in line to play a game, and guys will keep cutting me in line because they don’t think I’m actually there to play. They think I’m “someone’s girlfriend.” It gets really tiring to continue to assert, “Yes, I’m actually here to play, against you, in a video game.” It’s easier to not play games in public! It’s just easier to sign in online and play people there!
At the NYCC Street Fighter V tournament, a group of guys made the one girl in their group who actually wasn’t playing come up to me and ask me if I was really entering, because I guess none of them were able to ask me themselves. That was embarrassing for everyone.
This stuff happens on a small level in day-to-day interactions too. The Switch is so portable that you could play Zelda on public transit, if you wanted to. But I don’t really want the public to know how hard I find some of those dang puzzles! I don’t want strangers on a train (heh) to weigh in on which item I should be using!
Gita: It seems a lot of our anxiety surrounding gaming in public comes from kids being mean. But now, we’re adults. I stream sometimes, and I’m okay with playing my 3DS in public. But we’re also both in a profession that is really public facing, and the pressure to publicly be better at games than others hasn’t gone away.
Maddy: I play games in public, but I still steel myself. I get myself into a psychological mode where I’m “performing.” When I was younger, I just didn’t have the self-confidence to do that; I was a lot more likely to just bail out if things got hard. I wish I could go back in time and tell my past self that actually, she was really good at games and she shouldn’t be so hard on herself when it comes to participating in tournaments and so on.
Gita: A lot of what has changed for me was just meeting nicer people. When you’re a kid you don’t get a lot of choices on who you get to know, but even the guys who I (very very rarely) played Halo with in college were pretty nice about the fact that I had no idea how to play Halo. Once I started to meet better friends to play games with—and more women who had experiences like mine—I found it easier not only to play games in front of other people, but to ask for help when I needed it.
Maddy: I guess I also wish my past self had been a little luckier with finding the right friends. But I bet there are other people out there who’ve had experiences like this, and hopefully reading this will be validating for them in some way.
In order to be really good at any game, you have to feel like it’s safe and acceptable to fail—sometimes in public—for the sake of eventually learning. This is actually a big reason why as an adult I’ve made myself play games in public even though I also find it very scary and nerve-wracking and exhausting.
Gita: Trying and failing a lot of times is really the only way to get better at games. I’m glad that I now have the confidence to put myself out there. Who knows, maybe I’ll start bringing my Switch on the subway, even.