Deep into the pandemic and shortly after the death of George Floyd, Annie Black, a Brooklyn-based gamer, was trying to focus on something, anything aside from the news and trauma outside her door. So, she turned to gaming. Specifically, the 30-year-old started playing movement-oriented games, plugging in her Nintendo DS and grooving to Just Dance and Nintendo Sports, and — like many during the pandemic — creating her own world on the über popular game Animal Crossing. “Animal Crossing was a good escape for me because it was mindless fun in a fake little world when the real world was figuratively (and sometimes literally) burning down,” she tells Refinery29.
Black is one of the growing number of people (specifically women) across the United States who consider themselves “casual gamers,” people who enjoy games that can be picked up and played at a moment’s notice as a way to relax and socialize and not necessarily look at the scoreboard. But despite the fact that casual gamers are on the rise, this type of simple, easy, and light-hearted gaming comes with a lot of stigma: that people who don’t game competitively or choose to play games that don’t have an end objective, aren’t real gamers. And, unsurprisingly, it's affecting a lot of women who like to — and want to — participate in gaming culture.
For Black, casual gaming means you’re just playing for fun and you don’t take it, and yourself, too seriously. You may even be what others consider “bad” at video games. “That’s something I’ll never try to pretend,” Black says, “that I actually know what I’m doing. I am very good at very, very few things in the video game world, and I’m 100% okay with that. I’m still having fun.”
Andrea Palumbo, a Cleveland, Ohio, gamer who works full time in IT and got back into gaming during the pandemic’s Animal Crossing frenzy, loves to game because of the social draw. “I’m not as focused on the game as I am about interacting with people about the game or just interacting with people in general,” Palumbo says. She’s happy with her “casual gamer” status, but she’s also well aware that her choice to play non-competitive games can be looked down upon by some in the online gaming world.
In fact, in Palumbo’s gaming group (which, she points out, is made up of all cisgender men, aside from her), one of her co-gamers refers to games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley (that his wife enjoys) as “baby games,” because they’re single-player, easy, and low impact, she says. “He's got that derisive opinion that I think a lot of people have [which] is if you're not gaming for a purpose or a point what are you doing? Why are you playing a game like Animal Crossing, which is just glorified chores, you know? It doesn't matter if it's calming to you. It's like, you're wasting time if you don't have an end goal.”
While it may seem like good-natured ribbing, the fact is that stigmas around casual gamers go arm-in-arm with stigma against female gamers. The majority of casual gamers are made up of women and non-binary individuals. A recent study found that female gamers play all types of games (including popular online games), and in the United States, female gamers play for achievement and social reasons as a way to maintain relationships.
It's 100% a gatekeeping thing.
Some of this is personal preference. As both Black and Palumbo point out, these are just the types of games they enjoy playing with the limited free time that they have. But there can also be more behind it. While many have made the decision for themselves to keep it pretty casual, some haven’t really had the choice, or have made the choice because they don’t feel comfortable facing harassment, both online and IRL.
And this can run the gamut. Black recalls an encounter she had at a bar, when, after volunteering to enter a Super Smash Bros. Ultimate tournament, she was ridiculed for maining Jigglypuff. “She has some great moves, can float, and, frankly, she’s cute,” Black says. She’s also pink, something other players picked up on. “When I picked my player, a man behind me that I’d never met before told his friend, ‘Of course she picked Jigglypuff,’” Black says. “If I had picked any other character, there would have been no ‘of course.’ What this guy didn’t know was that I’m actually good with Jigglypuff.”
On the other end of the spectrum, women may not decide to engage in more competitive gaming forums for fear of being harassed when they turn on their mic or when people (*ahem* men) find out they’re playing against or with a woman. “The first thing many people do when you say you enjoy gaming in any capacity as a woman is doubt,” says Sachi, a 28-year-old gamer and Twitch streamer from Brooklyn, NY. “So when you tell people things like, ‘Oh I just play these types of games,’ they tend to just shove you into some category like, ‘so you aren't a gamer gamer.’” “I think men that aren't used to seeing women in the same spaces of interest that they are in tend to feel threatened at times,” she continues. “It's 100% a gatekeeping thing.”
And it’s affecting female gamers in more ways than you might think, prohibiting and excluding women from realms where they want to be. Even Palumbo, who says the men in her gaming group will stand up for her if anyone says anything, feels the repercussions. ”I still won’t [play alone online] now. You won’t catch me dead playing games if the guys aren’t online. I will happily retreat to one of my ‘baby’ games,” she says.
“It makes me feel super burned out at times,” Sachi says. As both a woman and a Black gamer, she adds, “I know in all parts of my social life I have to work harder for recognition; in any space where I would be a minority which is almost all spaces. In the gaming world, it's already a super racist place so to have pretty much what ends up feeling like a double strike of being a Black woman in a place that isn't overly welcoming to both of those characteristics, it isn't easy.” Which is a shame, because excluding women from these spaces means the industry loses the point-of-view of women. "Excluding women is damaging to the gaming industry that does in fact have women fans," Sachi says.
Thankfully, there are ways to combat this, and casual gamers, especially women and non-binary people, are doing just that, creating, helming, and joining online and IRL communities and platforms aimed towards combatting toxic spaces and fostering inclusive gaming. Earlier this year, Paidia, a platform geared towards female and non-binary individuals, launched to create a safe space in the industry, and other platforms like TheGameHERs and The Noir Network have been creating inclusive spaces for years. In addition to using these platforms, Sachi, as a part of her own local content collective, put together a charity event called #GirlsGameNight, which provided a space for girls to game without stigma or feeling judged. “A lot of women don't even bother gaming because they know how harsh the community can be if you aren't the best,” she says. “At #GirlsGameNight, we run all female/non-binary casual tournaments and provide free play so they can feel comfortable and hopefully find a game they love, or make friends with others they can game with.”
Outside of these more informal means of connecting, Sachi says the way to combat — and ultimately move past — this stigma is similar to the necessary steps to combat systemic injustice anywhere: “Hire women,” she says. And specifically, hire women in visible gaming spaces. “We have to make sure women in these spaces are being respected and taken seriously, we have to support and protect women streamers against the constant trolling done by people in the community,” she continues. “We have to make that type of stigma a shame to participate in for things to really change on an industry level.”
Playing a game makes you a gamer, no matter the game.
But even without these personal pivots, the mentality is changing. Due in part to gaming going more mainstream over the past several years, with more and more people turning to games like Animal Crossing to pass the time or bond with friends, the idea of casual gaming has become more accepted than it was even 5 years ago. “People are caring less to judge others since more and more non-gamer people are gaming now,” Sachi agrees. “Almost everyone I know is some type of casual-pro gamer to some capacity, so it would be crazy to stigmatize everybody as ‘casual gamer equals bad.’” Along with an uptick in female gamers at the more professional — or at least more visible — level, Sachi says it’s more difficult for the typical gamer bros to keep gatekeeping and the judgmental culture alive. Because, like Palumbo says, “the language that they speak and understand is the scoreboard.”
Regardless of whether or not gamers are scoring, and whether or not they even want to play to score, one thing remains true: “Playing a game makes you a gamer,” Sachi says. “No matter the game.” And yes, that includes Animal Crossing.