A mystical, foggy forest surrounded my older sister Joanna and me. Tall trees with thick, dark trunks sprang up everywhere, as did a maze with caves that we wanted to explore. Chasing the sounds of a laughing child, we inched forward into the dark together. Predicting what the woods might hold was impossible, but we kept going anyway, until a wrong step sent us careening forward. We tumbled over a cliff and a fearful, guttural cry ripped through the air. We hit the ground but emerged unscathed, if a little dazed, lying on a large pink flower. Phew.
It was the summer of 2000, and we were two girls, 8 and 10, playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on a Nintendo 64 in our parents’ bedroom in Sugar Land—the only TV in the house that possessed the holy trinity of red-yellow-white cable jacks necessary to hook the thing up. To fire up the Nintendo, we learned that summer, was to discover a world that belonged to us and us alone.
But let me back up. Months earlier, we learned that our cousins had gotten The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which featured not a laughing boy but an adult male protagonist with magical floating boots whose mission involved navigating a temple full of grasping, zombified hands. That very day, Joanna and I went to our mother and pleaded incessantly for “the Zelda game.” In trying to oblige us, she inadvertently bought the sequel to Ocarina. That would be Majora’s Mask.
When Joanna and I started it up and saw the world of the little boy and the falling moon and the ticking clock, I was stunned. Every Legend of Zelda, it seemed to me, must be its own completely unique adventure, with no two cartridges the same. (It didn’t occur to me that we might be playing a different game altogether from our cousins.) Majora’s Mask was my own special story—well, mine and Joanna’s. No one else had ever played this game, nor would they. Ever.
My parents, if you’re wondering, did set limits on our screen time: only after homework and chores, only before dinner, only two hours a day on the weekends. But what they didn’t realize was that whenever we weren’t playing Majora’s Mask, we were playing pretend Majora’s Mask. In our bedrooms, we’d gab endlessly about the locations of secret treasures. In the pool, we made awkward attempts at doing dolphin kicks like a Zora. And in the puddles and overgrown greenery next to the bayou, during my walks to Colony Meadows Elementary that fall, I saw towers and forests, mushroom-loving swamp creatures boiling monkeys amid mossy green bubbles, and wooden sprites with petals for hair, hopping from lily pad to lily pad. My humid hometown had transformed into the stuff of fantasy. (Admittedly, it was all a lot easier to conjure than snowy Hogwarts winters and magical rolling hills à la Harry Potter.)
Such were the leaf-hopping days of my youth. Soon enough, I realized that Majora’s Mask was an experience anyone could have. And not long after that, I learned that to be a gamer and a girl was to inhabit yet another world dark and strange, one packed with traps and landmines and adversaries all its own.
It was during my high school days, specifically one day while browsing at the GameStop in Sugar Land Town Center, that it first hit me: I was being stared at, and not just by teenage boys. Grown men too.
The days when I could peruse the stalls at EB Games on Highway 6 uninterruptedly for hours were gone. In the past, when I talked to the sales associates, they encouraged me, offering advice and suggestions on the Nintendo versus Playstation battle then raging. Now that I’d matured enough to fill out an hourglass, things became different.
Every purchase I made was an occasion for comment. If I bought Harvest Moon, which was known as a feminine game, they gave me a proverbial pat on the head. When I didn’t—when I picked up Red Dead Redemption, say—they warned that “this isn’t your sort of game, sweetheart.” Even a friend and fellow gamer (albeit one with a Y chromosome) told me that I didn’t deserve Wii’s then-new Monster Hunter Tri. “You won’t be able to appreciate it,” he told me. “You’re not a real fan.”
Things didn’t get any better when I started attending gaming conventions at the George R. Brown Convention Center, or began playing competitively at Clements High. Indeed, the older I got, the more I felt like a gazelle dropped into the middle of the lion's den. “Oh, yeah, just take it, baby. You know you want it,” yelled some creep during a Super Smash Brothers tournament. “I’ll let you win if you tell me your bra size,” said another during a group Mario Kart game.
After a while, I have to admit, the threats and intimidation began to get to me. For a long time, I retreated to the games of my childhood, to Kingdom Hearts and Okami, until I’d found every secret weapon, till I’d memorized the curvature of every imaginary coastline. I returned to a land before misogyny, in other words, along with many, many other gamer girls.
Even though my fascination with my Nintendo 64 was long gone by the time I went to college, I took the old device with me. One day, feeling homesick, I turned on Majora’s Mask again and almost began to cry. It occurred to me that it had been almost eight years since my sister and I had gone mushroom hunting among the swishing leaves, snapping turtles and murky water.
I set aside my schoolwork and dueled with the undead ninja king of Ikana Canyon until the wee hours of the morning. For one night, I was returned to my innocence, to the days before I was bombarded with bikini chainmail and spandex cat suits. When a little boy’s laughter was the only sound that mattered, and falling through a crevasse was the worst thing that could happen. And even then, you almost always had a pink, marshy flower to catch you.