I was one of the girls waiting to get to late meal. I was the one sitting on the couch, watching, completely unimpressed, as four boys sat around me fixated on a flat screen TV. They swore left and right, pressing buttons on the game controllers they gripped. My requests for them to please get up so we could leave and beat the crowds at Frist were ignored. Instead, they were busy whacking the shit out of each other in a virtual world.
The game was not graphically impressive. The console was an old Nintendo 64, a plastic green contraption with wires sprouting from its mouth. The four characters on the screen were jumping up and around a very geometrically simple gray castle, firing laser gunshots at each other, leaping through the air, catapulting wooden boxes at walls. I watched as one of the animated characters—Samus, I think she was called—plummeted to his death as Mario (of Super Mario Bros.) punched him off the ledge of the castle grounds.
This defined my freshman year: being friends with a group of boys in my zee group, almost all of who were engineers. Or, as I call them, nerds. (I use this as a term of endearment; by default, we are all nerds simply by the virtue of attending Princeton.) Real-life nerds who code, do problem sets, and game. In particular, they are obsessed with this one particular game, Super Smash Bros., which to my understanding, is a game where two to four players fight to the death. Apparently it’s a nineties “childhood classic”, but I guess I missed out. “Yo, wanna Smash?” was one of the commonly heard phrases whenever I was in the general proximity of my friends. And I’d get annoyed, because this meant I couldn’t hang out with them, because, well, I’m a girl. Girls, especially a girl like me—who likes books and reading and buying clothes and talking about boys once in a while—doesn’t really game.
I cannot recall exactly what propelled me to make a change sophomore year, but I think I was tired of sitting around watching the boys scream at the TV while I sat idly by. So one day, sitting on a giant couch in the Blair basement, I watched one match before I said to the friend sitting next to me, “Can I try?”
Much to my surprise, he seemed perfectly happy to show me. More than happy, actually. I was handed a controller covered in sweat, told to pick a character—I chose Kirby—and placed right into a match. To say I was terrified would be an understatement. The three boys next to me immediately started hammering on buttons, and the controller vibrated as my poor Kirby was whacked in the head with some kind of lightsaber, and then kicked into space until he disappeared off the TV screen. My friend who had given me the controller sat next to me while I shouted panicked questions at him: “HOW DO I JUMP? HOW DO I PUNCH?” He answered me calmly, occasionally ordering the boys to pause the game so he could show me which button did what. As expected, I was the first one to lose all my lives. The boys continued to play it out for an additional five minutes before a winner was declared.
“If you became that girl who gamed, that actually would be the coolest thing.” One of the boys said this to me as I exited the room. And for some reason, I figured I’d do it. Why not? I saw an image of myself sitting with the boys, staring at the screen and screaming profanities with them. I imagined myself to be effortlessly cool, “one of the boys”—the nerdy boys, but still. The only way to get good at something is to practice. So I sat back down and asked to play another round.
And here’s the weird thing: I actually enjoyed it. There is something satisfying about swinging a giant hammer and blasting Donkey Kong into the stars, or eating Captain Falcon so I could absorb his powers, or jumping up ten feet (relative to the screen, of course) in the air and slamming down with a whip of my sword. I wasn’t very good, but I got incessant praise from the boys whenever I actually did something right. Because, you know, I’m a girl, and that’s impressive. For a girl. Or, any other human being, regardless of gender, who didn’t grow up playing Smash.
Slowly, I became obsessed. Whenever I was free I simply walked into the boys’ room, and asked, “Can we Smash?” After they laughed at the unintentional sexual connotation of my words, they would always be willing to play. And I played, again and again, until one day, I didn’t come in last. The kid who did come in last was not happy, but then we played again and he died before I did. Whenever I KO’d somebody (or knocked somebody out, which is the objective of the game), I’d find myself releasing this evil-sounding cackle as I listened to my victim in exclaim in distress. After each match ended, I frantically pressed buttons and demanded another round. I could do better, right? My goal was to become a real threat in the game. And I had fun trying. I’m still trying to this day, but I’m getting a lot better.
I became the subject of many Snapchats and photos sent around on GroupMe. There’s this terrible photo of me sitting in front of the TV screen with a controller in my hand with the caption “#wifeymaterial”. My friend sent Snapchats of me perched on the couch, engrossed by the screen, a game controller in my hand. They Snapchatted him back and told him that I was a keeper, told him to “marry me already.”
After I started playing Smash, I decided to turn my playing time into a social experiment to see how the dynamic would change between the boys I gamed with and me. To be honest, there wasn’t much of a change at all, save for the completely natural reaction somebody has when somebody who isn’t very good at something suddenly improves at it. When I decided to write this article I was expecting to rant about feminism or about the stigma of girls breaking stereotypes or doing activities that are traditionally classified as “male:” in the perfect world, anybody who wants to game should be able to start gaming without a lot of fuss. This isn’t to say that the fuss is always negative, though. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know my friends in a different light, occasionally not coming in last in Smash, and occasionally angering them whenever I do something a little bit unexpected. It may be completely wrong to think like this, but I am truly entertained by their reaction to my—a girl’s —newfound love for Smash. And if for some reason that makes me more of “wife material,” then these boys are stupid. I didn’t start playing Smash because I wanted my friends to like me more or to get married, I wanted to play because I saw them having getting excited over something and I wanted to know what it was. So maybe I’ll never be truly one of the boys, but at the end of the day, I’m not trying to. I’m just a girl who wants to kick somebody’s ass at Smash. And while I have a long way to go, you’ll find me pressing buttons furiously and swearing at the TV until I do.