Okay, audience: you and I both know the “women don’t game” thing is total bullshit, right? From trading Pokémon with classmates, visiting my roommate’s Animal Crossing village, or watching my friends platform on Twitch, women have been present in every stage of my video game life.
Rampant sexism aside, I think part of the reason this myth persists is that sometimes people genuinely don’t know, because women’s voices in gaming are often silenced or just aren’t sought out. And it’s even more of a problem with the older generation of gamers—the ones who played on Commodore 64s, stockpiled quarters, and lived through the Great E.T. Disaster—as gaming continually focuses on the teens and twenty-somethings on the latest consoles. With all that in mind, I reached out to talk about gaming with one of the older gaming women who’s been present since my first Game Boy cartridge… my mom, Jean.
What’s the first gaming experience you recall?
My good friends, Diane and Ernie, had an Atari system. And the first game they had for it was—ready for this?—PONG! And we loved it. It was such a goofy game, so simplistic. It was fun. Ping, pong, ping, pong. I always lost.
When Atari came out with their next games, they were more advanced. I really enjoyed Centipede, but I was terrible at Asteroids. Space Invaders I was terrible at… I did like Centipede the best. Then Mattel came out with their Intellivision. I can’t remember [when], but I want to say it was the late seventies? [It was 1980.] I remember we brought it with us when we moved down here [to Georgia in 1985].
Oh, yeah, I remember playing with it.
I really liked it because the control pad was a little more detailed. It was more like a calculator, with all the buttons. I really liked the one, what was it called, Crazy Train…
Loco-Motion, yeah. And another one I had was Dungeons & Dragons. Which was still kind of simplistic, but it was a lot of fun because that was one of the few I could actually win. I can’t recall all the ones I had, but I had quite a few. Including the one that was like Centipede, but with a snake. The hardest thing was probably those controls, because it was the size of a calculator. You had to insert the little instructions for each of the control paddles, because depending on which game it was, the buttons did different things.
Your dad never got into it much. That’s okay. Like when we’d play Rock Band, he’d just kind of sit back and say, “Well, whatever you want to do.”
What was it about gaming that you enjoyed?
Trying to beat it. Trying to win. It was a challenge, and I think that was the most fun part about it. I still do that with the games I have. I have Spider Solitaire on my phone now. I got rid of Ultimate Jewel, because I got up to level 35, 36, and I got bored. With Spider Solitaire, even though I do two suits , I don’t win all the time. I just try again. With Jewel, you eventually won it and went to the next level, and it’s boring.
I do sudoku on paper, the book I swap out about once a year after I’ve done all the ones I can do. According to AARP, sudoku’s a better type of puzzle to do, because you’re figuring things out, as opposed to crossword puzzles, where it’s just recall.
Did you do a lot of arcade games?
I love pinball. LOVE pinball. I was never very good at it, but that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. You keep playing it. The arcade games we usually played were Pac-Man… We had Ms. Pac-Man when they brought it out. They had Donkey Kong and Mario Bros. on arcade games, too. And of course, the ever-loved Frogger. The one where I got to smash frogs. Hoppity, hoppity, hoppity, pbbbt. Ah, darn, I’ll have to start again! Squished another frog!
I probably should see if I can find that for my phone. I had a lot of fun with it. Maybe I just had fun squishing frogs. Those were the ones in the individual cabinets, and later on, they came out with the tabletop models with a player on either side. Lots of places had those for a quarter a game, fifty cents a game. Probably my favorite was Centipede, because they brought that out on the arcade, too. I wasn’t too good at Pac-Man. I always got cornered and eaten by the ghosts. We had Space Invaders there, too. Part of the allure of Space Invaders was the music they went with. It would get louder, the aliens would get faster and you went “Nooo! I’m gonna die!” The Space Invaders, when you looked at them, were very basic, not like the gaming stuff they have today. Graphics and virtual reality, it’s almost over the top. But it’s amazing how much fun the simple stuff could be.
Did you know any other gamers?
That we hung around with? No. Diane and Ernie were two of our closest friends. Diane did needlepoint and I did cross-stitch, so we had that. Ernie and Jim [my dad] had known each other for years. Ernie and Diane were always getting the new entertainment things on the market. So when they got the Atari, they’d invite us over. “Come over and play Pong!” “Okay… what’s Pong?” They were the ones we gamed with. Unless I was playing pinball, that was usually at the fire hall. Pinball wasn’t anything you gamed with other people.
This was before Windows computers, you didn’t have a lot of fancy electronics on the market. The best you could do was an Apple II, or an Apple IIGS when I got really advanced. We did Oregon Trail, ended up with diphtheria and snakebite and everything else. I never won that game either. I constantly died. I couldn’t shoot animals to save our lives, so we’d starve again.
I’m pretty sure that’s how most people played Oregon Trail.
There was one called Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple IIGS. I had that one, too. I saw some advertisements for it recently and was like, they brought that back as a game game! Versus the original simplistic figures, everything was blocky like Lego bricks with squared-off corners and such. Wolfenstein was a lot of fun because it was so new and so different from things like board games.
So Ernie and Diane both played.
But mostly it was Diane and me. The guys would sit back and talk about hunting, and we’d be sitting there playing until the wee hours of the morning. And then we couldn’t get off the floor, because we’d been sitting on the floor for five hours, staring at a screen. We thought it was fancy cause they attached to the TV and we had a larger TV. Now you look at TVs and they’re larger, but they’re thin. In the ‘80s, you were lucky if you got a color TV. When you think about what we’ve seen in our lifetime, the Baby Boomers, technology has been incredible. Everyone’s got stuff on their phones that do what computers used to do. A lot of people don’t even have [desktop] computers anymore because they don’t need them. They’ll have a laptop or an iPad or a tablet.
What kinds of games do you play now? Do you game a lot on your phone?
That’s probably the only place I do that. I have a Wii, but I haven’t touched it in months, years. When we use the Wii, we just use yours instead. Your dad doesn’t want to use it, and your brother has his PlayStation. He still plays it. It’s like Grand Theft Auto and war games, boy things. I don’t get anybody at the house to play with me. I’ll probably eventually get tired of Spider Solitaire and put something else on my phone, maybe some other kind of solitaire. And I still have all these old computer games, but I doubt my newer laptop would work with them.
There’s programs out there now to emulate DOS, for old computer games, if Windows is too advanced.
You’d have to. Windows has come a long way. I’m on Windows 27 now. …Wait.
How do you think gaming has changed? Do you feel gaming as a whole has changed from what it was when you were younger?
In a lot of ways. It still targets young audiences. But at the same time, kids in kindergarten nowadays know how to use a cell phone. The Electronics Age is very much upon us. Gaming is still, to me, a young person’s thing, and that’s who they appeal to. To find a gamer who games regularly on their Wii or PlayStation and is over 40, I think you’d really have to look. There isn’t anyone I know that’s my age and does gaming. They think it’s weird that I do gaming on my phone. But a lot of people do have stuff on their phones… But I think the console gaming is staying with the younger generation.
It’s interesting you mention the Wii, because that was heavily marketed as a ‘family’ console, with the Wii Play and Wii Sports.
We haven’t done the bowling in a while. That was a hoot. How many people did I kill when I let my ball go backwards?
No, no, they’re fine!
Wait, there goes Jesus! [We have a Jesus Mii.]
And then there was Dance Dance Revolution. People were so into that. I don’t know if that one’s faded out. That one seemed like amazing exercise for kids, disguised as gaming. Kids would be pouring sweat and panting because they were really physically challenged by it. I thought, that was really sneaky. You had all these stay-at-home kids and you got them up and exercising. Probably not anyone that’s 60 or over will be caught on those machines, though.
Prooobably not the dance games, no.
The arthritis and artificial joints wouldn’t allow it.
It’s okay, we’ll get you on the taiko drum game instead.
I’m not sure I’d be very good at them.
Like you said earlier, it doesn’t matter if you’re good at them.
Both your kids play video games. Do you feel like you were an influence on that?
Nah. I think advertising did its job. But it worked on us, too. I think we bought your brother his first PlayStation because I looked at it and thought yeah, kids would find that fun. Good advertising, it’s amazing what it does. Lately they’ve been advertising the XBox Four or whatever number we’re up to…
I think it’s the XBox One, which makes no sense. Anyway, I remember being intrigued by the Game Boy when it first came out, because you could take it with you and it was affordable. But at the same time, I played a lot with your Intellivision. I was sad when you got rid of it.
If I’d thought about it, I would’ve just given it to you. I put it in a yard sale because it was gathering dust.
Thanks so much for sitting down with me to share your experiences, Mom. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go search eBay for an Intellivision…
Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.