1. 23-year-old Reisa Nongrum began to play video games a little over a decade ago at a small gaming café in South Mumbai. Wired was an airy, well-kept space with a painted glow-in-the-dark dragon peering over the thirty odd players stationed at their computers. Despite a strict no-food rule, the cafe’s denizens would play for 16 hours at a stretch on some days. Starting off with generic car and bike racing games and later moving on to the popular shooter game Call of Duty, Reisa played with a group of boys who, over time, became her proxy family.
It was at Wired where Reisa was introduced to the popular Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) game, Defence of the Ancients (DotA). MOBAs are one type of massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), capable of supporting large numbers of players simultaneously. In DotA, multiple players form two clans, or teams, that fight each other to ultimately destroy the rival team’s ‘ancient’ building. Calling the game immersive would be a giant understatement.
‘I played it nearly all day, every day, for three years,’ Reisa recalls. ‘When DotA became available on Steam [a digital gaming distribution market allowing users to play online], I no longer had to leave the house to play.’ Constraints on time got harder as Reisa dropped out of college to start her own restaurant, which took up 18 hours of her day. ‘I’d do just the bare minimum when it came to anything non-DotA related. I had to eventually stop playing the game just so I could get on with my life.’ Reisa imposed a self-ban to see if she could restrain herself from DotA for a year. Her experiment has been a success, but come 19 August 2015, she has every intention of jumping right back in.
2. Rashi Chandra, a self-taught artist based in Noida, began her ‘romance’ with games after she joined gaming company Apra Infotech. Her mostly male colleagues were excited by the novelty of a female gamer, and introduced her to various gaming genres, encouraging her to play. There would, however, always be the one odd perplexing conversation about gender. ‘A few people seemed amused at my gaming. They often asked me whether I played Candy Crush or FarmVille, making jokes about those games being “girly”.’
Rashi, currently a Witcher 3: Wild Hunt addict — the alleged new Mt. Everest of gaming with a vast open world structure — explains that her parents were always supportive of her, and sometimes even helped her buy hardware or software. For most gamers, though, parental concern often clouds their experience.
3. While no parent needs a(nother) think piece to know that several hours of gaming may have unhealthy consequences, 21-year-old gamer Meghna Pradhan points out that their concerns are often misguided. ‘Earlier it was concern about us not acting like girls — me and my sister that is — along with fear that we will not do well on exams. Now, wrecking our careers is the major concern.’ To avoid her mother’s ire, Meghna resorts to online games and getting her cousins to smuggle in the odd offline game for her.
4. When writer Nadika N, a Chennai-based intersex transwoman, logged onto Second Life (SL) for the first time in 2008, she hadn’t yet begun her gender transition. She tells me, ‘I joined Second Life for two reasons: one, to explore my gender identity and two, to learn more about archaeology.’ SL has had several educational gaming partnerships, and at the time, the University of California was using the platform to recreate a historical site. Nadika, who later went on to formally study archaeology, was drawn into the possibilities of avatar choices that SL presented. As you develop an SL avatar, you can choose to be, among other options, male, female, trans, an animal, a robot, an alien, or any combination of the above.
Looking back Nadika says, ‘SL helped not just in exploring my identity online; it helped me define it for myself offline, and build a network that supported me through various stages of finding that identity.’ During her time on the platform, her avatars were all either women or genderqueer, but greatly varied in their physical appearance — fat, thin, exaggeratedly hot, subtly pretty, some that looked closer to her real appearance, and some customised to look the way she wanted to after her transition. She goes on to say, ‘Being on Second Life made me think, feel, talk and react like a woman or a genderqueer person,’ and ultimately, there was not much disconnect between her avatars and her ‘real’ selves.
5. ‘Sexy badass females are awesome,’ Niha Patil states simply. The 22 year old from Mumbai is a professional costumer, makeup artist, and cosplayer — a performance artist who uses detailed costumes and jewellery to dress up as different characters from manga, anime, comics and videogames. In this way, Niha has figured out a way to monetise both her avid interest in gaming and her costume design skills. Her Facebook fan page, Niha Novacaine, has over 7300 fans who log in to catch Niha’s frequent transformations into video game characters.
But to put yourself up for scrutiny on the internet is a difficult task. ‘I have to heavily moderate my page; the amount of hate mail I receive is ridiculous. The thing is, most people objectify cosplayers,’ Niha says dismissively. In fact, swimming through a sea of hate seems to almost come with the territory of being a woman gamer — or simply a woman — online.