Rachel Chai and I are sitting in an outdoor plaza of Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. It’s an overcast Saturday afternoon. I, in undoubtedly terrible journalistic form, ordered a bowl of medium-spicy chashu ramen, and I’m doing my best to slurp away from the mic so as not to risk obscuring part of the conversation. Every minute is critical with her, as she deftly navigates from one topic to another without so much as a sentence break. Later, when I transcribe this interview, I will be eternally grateful that we went to lunch, as every pause for breath or food is a tiny opportunity for me to collect my thoughts. At just 21 years old, Rachel is a veteran girl gamer, and her insights into the male-dominated world of video games are something I don’t want to miss – even if it means my ramen gets cold.
She sits back in her chair while we dance through the awkward small talk that precedes the actual interview stuff. She’s just maybe a little taller than average, wearing jeans and a gray tank top that look comfortably casual, and her light skin and dark brown, highlighted hair betray her half Korean, half German genetic ancestry. I try to subtly nudge her into talking about the interesting stuff; namely, her time working at Gamestop (six months in two different locations). She wastes no time.
“All my real hardcore gamer friends were girls,” she tells me. “We used to sit around and play all the time. At Gamestop, I was the only one working there. That was frickin’ weird. I’d get hit on like mad if I was wearing something cute to work. They’d always try to get away with paying less, too – you know, ‘Could you do this for me, just this one time?’ and all that.” She pauses to sip her water and continues, “You always get those guys who just wouldn’t think that you know anything, so they’d just be like, ‘Oh, can I talk to the assistant manager, can I talk to that guy over there instead of you?’ And then they’d be confused when you, you know, actually knew something. Everyone was astonished when they found out I played roleplaying games – ‘Do you play Final Fantasy X? Final Fantasy X-2?’ – and get surprised when I started listing Illusion of Gaia and Soulblazer.”
I’m a little surprised, too; not at the names she dropped to establish her gaming pedigree, of course. Being in this line of work shows you really quickly that there are gamers with much harder cores than yourself. What struck me was the organic ease with which she discusses issues of sexism, gender discrimination and Illusion of Gaia without stopping to pick at her noodle plate. It’s as if dealing with this crap is just as much a natural part of life as Soulblazer, and that is genuinely a depressing thought.
She must have noticed the conversation’s sudden mood swing, for she quickly switches stories to a slightly more upbeat anecdote. “This 18-year-old kid used to come up to me and ask me, ‘What did you think of Super Mario RPG?’ so while I worked we’d sit there and talk about role-playing games and stuff. And then when we were closing, I basically had to shove him out the door, and he asked me if I wanted to see a movie some time,” she says. “I was thinking, ‘Awww, you’re cute, okay?’ I ended up playing Smash Brothers at his house and kicking his ass.”
That sounds like a decent date to me.
“But then he told me, ‘You know, it’s funny, all the girls I’ve dated can beat me at Smash Brothers.’ And I just said, ‘Wow, that’s great, I gotta go.’ He was cute, I’m just not looking for anything right now.” Poor kid. C’est la vie, I suppose.
“By the way, the greatest thing to do when you’re a girl is bulls**t that you know a lot about sports games. You know, sports games just really aren’t my thing, they’re probably fun but I just didn’t get into them, and people will be like, ‘So what did you think of Madden 2005?’ and I’d just tell them, ‘Oh, I dunno, I liked Madden 2004 a lot more because of blah, and blah, and blah.’ No one would ever call me on it,” she tells me, perhaps in an attempt to divest our conversation of this serious undertone once and for all. “Confessions” indeed; I resolve to never ask a Gamestop clerk for purchasing advice again.
But alas, one depressing anecdote and a failed pick-up attempt do not an article make, so I press on. “I got these mothers a lot,” she begins, signifying to me that the topic of men was exhausted. “One of them, she comes up to me and asks, ‘What do you think would be great for a little girl?’ A friend of mine later told me that he started cracking up because he thought the lady asked the wrong person. I just showed her all these Game Boy Advance games because she mentioned it, but whenever I asked her what the little girl was into, she just replied, ‘Oh, I don’t know, something girly?’ and left it at that. I suggested Advance Wars and she said she didn’t think that’s girly enough. I tried anything that was pink, or like, happy, like Super Mario Brothers, and apparently it just wasn’t good enough for her. I guess girls just can’t play Super Mario Brothers, even though everyone and their mother has played Super Mario Brothers.”
I pause for a second and stare into my soup bowl, trying to figure out whether the irony of that last bit was intentional or not, but that doesn’t seem to stop her. “She picks up the Bratz game and just says, ‘I think this will do.’ I’m not going to be like, ‘Hey, no, lady, put that down.’ I tried to save the kid. No Bratz games for me, though. Me, I played Intellivision as a little kid. I think my first game was Burger Time. I loved that s**t.”
By now, visibly excited about the opportunity to tell more stories, she dives into the topic of fellow girl gamers, leaving her half-eaten lunch aside entirely. “I was so happy when other women came in. Oh my God, it was great. On the whole, interacting with girls was really exciting. I’d just be like, ‘Hi guys, umm…I love you…’ But it depended on the girl. Some girls really hated me, they’d assume I didn’t know anything, like they were sexist against me the same way the guys were.” She stops again for a second to collect her thoughts. “There are a lot of elitist gamers out there, no matter what gender they are. And it frustrates me.”
Something makes her pause again, and her facial expression reveals an internal conflict that her voice, suddenly measured and much more reflective, confirms. “I don’t want to be elitist, either, but I kind of feel insulted sometimes when all these girls start gaming now and claim they’re old school. Like, ‘I played Final Fantasy X, I’m so old school; I play World of WarCraft, I’m so hardcore.’ What the hell?”
Another break for reflection. “Is that bad?”
I don’t know what to say. Certainly the game snob hidden somewhere in me can sympathize with her. I imagine I get just as irritated when people think they’re a hot commodity because they totally played Street Fighter 2, back in the day, and thought Blanka was just so cool because he, like, bit people’s heads and stuff. But I have also experienced the opposite. That is, the gamer who insists that he (or she!) is better than me because he just had to have a perfect Final Fantasy VIII save file. No, Rachel, I don’t think it’s bad. Just, well, human, I guess.
But the moment passes, and she resumes chatting as if the topic had never been broached in the first place. From here she begins talking about another girl gamer anxiety of hers: “I should have said something smarter to [the writer and illustrator of popular web comic Penny Arcade] Tycho and Gabe when I saw them at E3. Instead I was just like, ‘Thank you for everything,’ and I was so overwhelmed, it was ridiculous. I felt like such an idiot. I felt like I should have said something intelligent so they didn’t think I was just getting it for my boyfriend or something. That’s what I’m always afraid of, you know, that someone’s going to be like ‘Oh, you’re just getting that for your brother, or your boyfriend, or something.'”
And here, I think, something clicks: something from what she said, and something from what I thought. I begin to feel a little bit ashamed. Why is it that I, who spend more time writing about gamers than actually gaming these days, am granted the presumption that I can take games seriously, but Rachel, whose apartment is saturated in Castlevania posters and assorted RPG soundtracks, is forever stuck with Bratz games and buying presents for her brothers or her boyfriends? How many men and women and boys and girls have innocently and unthinkingly passed her up as another know-nothing gaming ditz?
How many times have I done that?
The rest of the evening is fairly uneventful. We pick up the tab, get our parking validated and head back to our homes and loved ones after a brief session of Pop’N Music 11. She has nothing more to say. Aside from a few brief comments about designing costumes (her other primary hobby), traveling and school, the conversation is fairly brief. I’m glad she’s gotten a chance to tell it like she sees it. But I do believe I am long overdue for my own “Confessions” at some point. If Rachel’s stories ring true to anyone else, perhaps a good many of us are.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long.