So maybe you knew this, or maybe you didn’t, but I’m a bit of a geek. Sort of, kind of, sometimes, and it’s complicated. But I’ll try to explain.
I say to people that I’m not as good at being a geek as I feel like I should be. Maybe that I have a bit of impostor syndrome about it?
I’ve figured out that a better way to describe it is to say that my geekery is quite broad, but it’s not very deep. I don’t ever get massively swept up in anything – at least not anymore – but I do retain an appreciation for all things geeky.
Like the new Star Trek movie? I’d love to see it, but I wasn’t queuing in line on opening weekend. In fact, by the time I get around to it, I’m sure I’ll be watching it on Netflix rather than the big screen. I care about it; it’s just not that high on my list of priorities. And the same goes for most other things.
It’s a little complicated though, because there’s some history involved here too.
When I was a kid, I was pretty into videogames. This was still a good few years before gaming was considered “cool” by any stretch of the imagination – but games kept me company. I didn’t have a lot of friends (shocking, I know), and I was parented in a way that was probably best described as “hands off” or “uninvolved”. For the most part, I took care of myself. And since I was smart enough to figure out how to use things like MS-DOS – smartdrv, and HIMEM, and autoexec.bat’s and config.sys’s became second nature to me – games were an accessible escape for me that didn’t require any outside assistance or input.
It’s funny, but if I’d spent less time playing the actual games, and more time thinking about the kinds of games I wanted to play, I might have learned a few things about myself. I always preferred Lemmings to Doom, for example. Or The Sims to Diablo. I never really much liked Tomb Raider, but I sure preferred it to Rainbow Six, or Splinter Cell. I especially loved RPGs – though sometimes I’d scarcely even bother with the game itself, and just spend hours designing characters.
I touched on this before briefly, but I often found myself leaning towards female characters if I were given the choice. And although gender norms are arbitrary and BS, I never really enjoyed the testosterone-laden pissing contests that so many games felt like; instead, I gravitated towards sandbox style games that didn’t necessarily need to be won, but just gave me some freedom to be who and what I wanted.
I definitely spent far too many hours picking out furniture in The Sims, of that there is no doubt.
It wasn’t just about videogames, of course. While all of this was happening, I was dipping my feet into space opera, and high fantasy, both television and books. I read Tolkien, and Herbert, and a bit of Auel. And some Douglas Adams. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time, but I was identifying with the Arwens and the Galadriels and the Trinities. I eagerly awaited my weekly dose of Buffy every Friday evening. I basically inhaled Dark Angel, at least for the minute that it existed. Janeway is still the only starship captain whose name I can actually remember.
Yeah, I guess the writing was on the wall. I was just a little girl looking for role models and representation.
But more on that later.
Somewhere along the line, I got into Magic: the Gathering, for a short while. I really just dabbled in it – built a small collection of cards that I thought were cool, but which were actually useless, played a few silly games at school, and ultimately ended up packing all my cards away in a box, where they spent the next decade or so.
During the years that followed, I carried on playing games though, with one or two exceptions, my overall enthusiasm for gaming waned. I continued writing reviews (did I mention that? I used to write videogames reviews, for South Africa’s first dedicated videogame magazine. I was 12 when I started), though it became more sporadic. Every now and then, there’d be a game that really caught my interest, (usually a Spore or, maybe, a new Civilization or Mass Effect), but mostly I just grew apart from the entire scene.
I came back to Magic in about 2011. I picked up a discounted copy of Duels of the Planeswalkers on Steam. My then-girlfriend caught a glimpse of it, and soon had me tracking down my old collection and teaching her to play.
I got caught up in it all again, rediscovering a part of my history that had been all but forgotten. It was fun, and I was good at it.
I dabbled briefly with the idea of trying to play competitively – after all, I had the mind for it. I’d need some practice, and some time, and some commitment, but I had enough natural aptitude to at least consider it all.
It wasn’t long, however, before I abandoned my flirtations with that idea, and found myself instead pursuing a path in judging.
Now, just to give you a nutshell summary, in case you don’t know – but hopefully without boring you – Magic is a pretty complicated game. And because there are tens of thousands of cards, and they can all interact with each other, there is the potential for things to get kinda complicated. Not just that, but there’s a lot for players to keep track of, and the potential for disagreements over what’s actually happening. This is where judges come in. Judges are veritable experts on Magic rules, and navigating the complexities and intricacies thereof. They are the people who answer questions, resolve disputes, and basically keep large events running smoothly.
I was drawn to it, because it was a way to be involved with a game that I really enjoyed, but it allowed me to do so without getting bogged down in the ultra-competitive (and often toxic) culture that sometimes surrounded the actual playing of the game.
I advanced kinda quickly through the judge ranks. It was hard work, make no mistake, but I rose to become one of South Africa’s top judges.
I liked the rules and the policy just fine. But even then, my motivating factor, and my drive to be involved with the judge program was really all about community. The mentorship, the growth, the development, the teamwork. That was what I saw in it. And even though people had read me as male at the time, even I found the competitive environments that our events took place in to be toxic and hostile. I was never the target of that hostility because I wasn’t read as other, but I was always aware that it existed.
And I wanted to find a way to change it, though at the time, I felt like I didn’t have the agency to address it.
So I mentioned that for me, gaming was a surrogate of sorts. It filled some gaps, gaps left by social isolation, familial strife, and general otherness (because, for as long as I can recall, I have been other, even if I didn’t understand why).
To this day, there is a concept that I struggle to truly understand. The concept of “home”. I’ve always had somewhere to live, but I feel as though I’ve never really had a home. To me, “home” is a concept that means safety. That means freedom to relax, and to not have to be on guard. A place where one can abandon that defensive stance that we are so reliant on in our day-to-day lives, and find some respite from the harrows of existing in this world.
It’s something I’ve never had, in honesty. Whether it’s been because of parents, or exes, or neighbours, or landlords, I’ve never had that physical space that embodies sanctuary and safety.
For a lot of us geeks, gaming and its culture represents a home of sorts. Somewhere where we, as the misfits and outcasts, can actually find solace. Somewhere we don’t need to be acutely aware of all the othering.
My generation especially, who grew up in a time when none of this was mainstream. I mean, we were the kids who were picked on, and bullied, and never got invited to any of the parties. Games were our bastions, our safe spaces. Whether they were digital or analog, card-based or tabletop – they afforded us that reprieve, that security, and that shared bond with others like us.
Or, they were supposed to.
See, there’s a lot of intersectionality at work here too. Because these spaces, the ones that are supposed to give safety to those who have always been denied it… well, they too make judgments. If you’re a woman, or if you’re queer, or if you’re disabled, or if you aren’t white… well, sometimes these bastions become just another source of suffering.
I was aware of it long before I came out. It was the reason I drifted so far away from this community. It was the reason why I never sought my home in gaming, despite longing for one so desperately.
All of this came to a head for me when I started coming out. And in a lot of ways, Magic was at the center of much of the conflict that I faced. I won’t bore you with all those details now – but you can read about it all here. Coming out to the local Magic community was one of the things that terrified me most.
But, I did it. And the world didn’t end.
So this is the part of the essay where I tie it all together. This past weekend I spent at PAX, a
large huge gaming convention held annually in Seattle. I spent the majority of the weekend dressed up in an elaborate Magic-themed outfit, teaching people how to play the game. Kids, adults, couples, women, men, non-binary folk, the lot. People who had never been exposed to Magic. Some of them have been playing games for years, while others are new to the scene as a whole.
I told you earlier why I became a judge instead of a player. But I didn’t tell you why I continued judging. Or why I didn’t step away from it all when I transitioned. You’ll remember I said that I was aware of the toxicity inherent in some of our spaces, but I never quite felt like I had the tools to engage with that, or to try to speak up, or even to think about how to change it.
Well, that all started to make sense to me once I knew who I was. The pieces all fell into place. Of course I’d never felt comfortable in environments that were hostile to women; I was a woman. And likewise for queer folk.
Sure, there was a temptation to just leave it all behind, and not face the fear of being shunned, rejected, or abused. But I also knew how desperately I had wanted to find some semblance of home for myself. And I knew that I wasn’t alone in that. That these games, and the communities we build around them, had the potential to be empowering, liberating and uplifting for so many people who had spent their lives being trod upon.
I wanted to find a way to make it better. Not just because of the role games had played in my life before, or the role I hoped they might play in the future, but because I recognised the kind of good they could do for other people, too.
And if they didn’t hold that potential? Well, we probably would have given up a long time ago. Anita Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, Tauriq Moosa? That’s just a handful of high profile examples of the kind of abuse that can be directed at people who don’t “fit the mold”. Even Penny Arcade – the “PA” in “PAX” – has a less-than-stellar track record of misogyny and transphobia.
One of the things that exists at PAX, at least in this day and age, is an expo area called the “Diversity Lounge”. This is a space occupied by stalls that represent a bunch of different causes, but which are all ultimately working towards inclusion and diversity in gaming. Whether it’s about creating safer spaces for female game developers, or campaigning for better representation of queer identities, or making games more accessible to people with disabilities, the overarching theme at work here is that “gaming is for everyone”.
One of the challenges I wrestled with, as a high ranking Magic judge was, “How do I take change a toxic space? How do I make it safer, and more accessible?”
Because I faced it too, especially after I came out. I was the target of a whole lot of abuse and venom and vitriolic diatribe whenever I tried to speak out in my community about the way women were treated.
It took me some time to find an answer to that, but eventually, I did.
We don’t try to change the toxic spaces.
Instead, we build our own spaces. Spaces that are safe and welcoming. Spaces that don’t discriminate. Spaces that promote acceptance, and spaces that don’t tolerate intolerance.
We create those spaces for ourselves, and we make them the kind of spaces that everyone wants to be a part of. We make them the coolest and the most awesome spaces around, instead of buying into the toxic notion that those spaces, and anyone in them, are somehow lesser.
Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of fun with the rules and the policy and the logistics of running tournaments. I really do. But that’s not why I’m a Magic Judge. I love space opera and high fantasy and dragons and portals, but that’s not why I continue to identify as a geek. That’s not why I jump at the opportunity to go to PAX, or why I spend more money than I should on boardgames.
I taught people how to play Magic this weekend because I love the game, of course. And I want them to love it too, and to get the same enjoyment from it than I do. But much more than that – when I judge, when I teach, when I sit down to play games with people, I am building a community. I am creating safe spaces. I am using my own experience to help make other people feel welcome and at home, so that together we can carve out some spot where we’re allowed to feel safe and where we’re allowed to be ourselves. Somewhere we don’t need to make excuses or apologies.
Somewhere we can just geek out.
My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here.