So I was watching a Let’s Play-esque video of a dude and a lady playing a computer game together. Well, no: the dude was playing a game with a goal in mind and the woman was hanging around aimlessly, occasionally having things explained to her, but only when it didn’t interrupt what he was doing. 

She finds her feet pretty soon and they have a lot of fun together, but that dynamic rang so familiar to me I haven’t stopped thinking about it yet. 

I want to talk about how much of my time in (male) geek culture has been me being the Less Geeky One.

For all my school years, all the people I knew who owned computer games were guys, and I was kind of conditionally allowed to be interested so long as the game was being shown off to me, so long as I was a bit of an audience even when I was having a go at whatever-it-was myself. I didn’t have a games console or a TV or a computer that could run things other than solitaire; I’d read all the books that had even the shred of appeal to me in two libraries. I didn’t really communicate much. I really, really wanted escapism.

I loved conversations about geeky media a LOT more than I liked other kinds. I hadn’t seen anything that was on TV pretty much ever, and coming across things like videogames and webcomics where lots of people hadn’t heard of most of them was really great; I was really happy in a social sphere where not having come across a thing before opened up potential conversations instead of shutting them down. I like spending time in a culture where people enjoy sharing their story findings and get passionate about them and will explain why they love a particular plot or how clever the mechanics of a certain thing are.

It always felt a little bit conditional though. I was normally a bit embarrassed about how avidly I soaked up knowledge about whatever escapist thing I was into at the moment; I’d obey conversation rules that were kind of self-imposed but also a fair bit socially conditioned. This person wants to explain you a thing. Mostly just listen and you’ll keep getting to talk about the thing. Challenge their superior knowledge and you’re 1) upsetting a status quo that keeps the person you’re talking to happy and 2) admitting how much you care and 3) admitting how geeky you are, geeky unfeminine girl that you are.

Because, yeah, who’d want to admit to someone who likes a thing that you like and pay attention to it as well.

So, there was a rationale for this while I was a shy but standoffish queer teenager. It was a bit of a scramble for status: I’m happy to hear about about your geeky interests, but it’d be way too embarrassing to admit how long I spent ages reading about the plot of the game I couldn’t afford to play myself. Sometimes I knew more about the thing than the person explaining it to me, but generally the way I’d manoeurved the conversation meant I didn’t really get to tell them that.

Now I have broadband and a gaming computer of my own, but I sometimes find myself wanting to do it still. Dudes really like explaining things, and part of the reason my polite interest conversation tactic worked so well was that actually only really minimal polite interest is needed to trigger a conversation loop where chatter on and repeat themselves for ages. I noticed it back then but didn’t really care; nowadays, when an off-hand query about how someone’s Red Alert playthrough is working out for them cues up two paragraphs of highly specific answer, I roll my eyes instead of smiling about how I get to hear about a thing without having had to admit that I want to.

Nowadays I mostly talk about videogames to women, and it’s pretty much always made me want to say more. We can talk about just how much we’re put off even really good RPGs by how many of the female NPCs are labelled ‘harlots’, we can laugh about just how macho the dude game designers needed to make their dude main characters, we can grin about Chell and GLaDOS and Alyx and whichever other female characters we get to see and be, and if I’ve read bits of wiki and remembered lore and paid attention to game mechanics it’s much more likely to be useful.