Imagine an unusually rainy winter in a washed-out beach town.  The town is called Seal Beach, and on the creaky wooden pier sits a bronze statue of a cheerful, whiskery seal with a uranium symbol on it.  The city is still the primary source of munitions for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but you wouldn’t know it from the old wooden storefronts.

It’s 1991, and the rain is relentless.  Huge puddles begin to form all over the high school; soon the area below the library is flooded and part of it collapses, creating an enormous, muddy lake.  Students have been advised against venturing into the flooded areas, but a few brave boys from my weightlifting class are trying to create some kind of paddleboard.

The gray sky smells fishy; rain pours into our gray lockers, forcing every student to carry a huge stack of books.  There are no cell phones, laptops or MP3 players to worry about.  The school is mostly outdoors, so when it rains everybody has to eat lunch in classrooms, lecture halls or the gym, which smells and sounds like squeaky sneakers.

The outside of the library (microfiche!) has several alcoves above the temporary lake.  I’m the blonde sitting in one of those, dry and cozy, one boot dangling over the water, wearing a dark green and black poncho-thing I bought in Tijuana for $15—a fortune for a high school student, but I really wanted it.  It feels nice to be small, to be a girl, to fit in this alcove and watch the boys’ books.  There’s a teal Walkman with bright geometric buttons in the kangaroo pocket, and the earphones are tucked under the hood.

Everybody thinks I’m depressed, but I’m just introverted.  Also, I’m 14, and that’s depressing on its own, especially in 1991.  Conformity is the order of the day, and that’s something I’m not good at; my hair won’t stand up no matter what I spray it with.  I feel most at home when I’m listening to old LPs (the Bangles, the Cars, Human League) and making tapes of punk and college rock from the radio.  I love Siouxsie and the Banshees but don’t know they’re English; I don’t know that gothic rock descended from punk, although I like both.  This is how things were before the Internet—you could love music without knowing anything about the musicians.

My parents divorced a few years ago, and I’m still spending weekends with my dad.  It’s emotionally taxing at times, since he’s dating and often makes bad decisions I don’t feel qualified to lecture him about, but for the most part we eat junk food, watch television and talk about music and current events.  We discover that we share a deep love of modern novels and video games.

A little background: I always enjoyed my arcade excursions with him as a child (excepting, perhaps, the time when I was five or so and wandered off into the Marina Pacifica mall when he reached the upper levels of Tutankhamen, which was in a high cabinet I couldn’t see—in retrospect, I’m not sure who to side with; I still can’t make it to that point in the game, and my mother probably wanted to kill him when she found me a while later, but hey, I was angry that nobody would hold me up).

In 1986, most of the local video arcades closed.  I didn’t understand what was happening; home versions of arcade games were awful, and the noise-and-neon atmosphere of an arcade is still impossible to recreate.  Pretty soon, all I had were my handheld games from Japan and the occasional PC RPG on my aging Tandy 1000 EX; my console gaming had to be squeezed into the weekends.

The first post-Mario console game that really grabbed my attention was Shadowgate, an NES adventure game (actually a Mac port) that was similar to text adventures but had a wicked sense of humor and demonstrated how visuals could change the storytelling process.  It wasn’t long before I’d worked all the way through the game rental section of the video store.

It was hard to find new games to play, tough to acquire them and impossible to find people who shared my interest.  I lacked a word-of-mouth network because nobody at school talked about games beyond Mario and Zelda titles, or perhaps they just didn’t talk to me; I can’t blame my gender here, since I was born with the unfortunate quality of being either loved or hated, so I never fit in.  I got my tips and tricks from paperback library books, the existence of which told me there were other fans, but those people were far away, which mattered back then.  The arcades were gone, I’d played everything available, plus my immediate family didn’t approve; I probably would have given up on games entirely if Final Fantasy IV hadn’t been released in North America.

FFIV puts you in the role of an army commander who makes a conscious decision to fight back against the evil empire that employs him and ends up saving the world.  It stitches together elements of traditional fantasy (castles, a shapeshifter, magic), tragedy, romance, humor, martial arts, a trip to a futuristic Moon, a right-hand man who betrays you over and over again and a very hard-won happy ending.  I cried when it ended; I wanted more.  It was the most finely crafted story I’d ever played.

It took six weekends to beat FFIV, and during those weeks, I was alive in a different way—I noticed things I normally wouldn’t have and related to people on a new level.  I couldn’t sleep; my gears wouldn’t slow down.  At school, I couldn’t stop writing.  Halfway through the third week, it started raining.

I had a song stuck in my head and would have given anything to hear it as I sat in that concrete alcove, watching the silver sheets wreck my high school.  It’s a theme that plays in some of FFIV‘s dungeons; it’s called “Into the Darkness”, but I didn’t know that  because game soundtracks didn’t exist in the States.  Even if they did, obtaining one would have involved procuring $25 somehow, getting a ride to another county, getting someone to read a Japanese label, getting back home and transferring the newfangled CD to a cassette tape.  I was not allowed to ride in other students’ cars.  So instead, I hummed the song, laid a sheet of paper on top of my binder, took out my favorite pen and started writing a story about Kain and Rydia from the game, complete with pictures.

The song is here.

Several years after that storm, the Internet became something much larger than CompuServe.  I reached my full height, went through three hair colors, worked odd jobs, fell in love, lost him, dropped out of college, fell in love with Los Angeles and started my career in advertising.  Everything was fantastic.  Final Fantasy VII came out, and I fell joyfully into it—I was that girl in the alcove again, lost in a very different world of wonder.  Final Fantasy games deserve real titles and freedom from numerals; they have nothing to do with each other.  In 2003, I dropped everything and switched careers.  Imagine my mother’s delight as I left my lucrative web design career to develop video games!

My new career in game development was fulfilling but excruciatingly lonely.  I couldn’t even make imaginary friends.  In this age of game journalism, it’s easy to find a video of a [young, conventionally attractive] woman talking about games, usually in the company of a [young, conventionally attractive] male, but in 2003 that wasn’t the case.  Every game magazine had one token woman on the staff roll and she always seemed to list a “girly” game as her favorite.

All that time alone gave me time to read a lot of those magazines.  It gave me time to wander the mall during the holidays and get chased out of GameStop for photographing their “Games for Girls” display, which comprised a bunch of pink-and-purple two-star titles for children and, amusingly, Cooking Mama.  It gave me time to play MMOs and catch up on older platform titles.  It gave me time to think.

Games ARE music, movies, novels, television, art, history, poetry and something totally removed from all other forms of entertainment, far beyond simple interactivity.  There is nothing sad about gaming, and why we’re still opening game music concerts with jokes about how it’s “not all bleeps and blips anymore” is beyond me.  It’s been twenty-five years since it was bleeps and blips.

The media’s profiles of this mythical “female gamer” baffle me.  She was the pretty blonde in your weightlifting class, and her brunette friend who was into the Crow, who played games with her in a garage on a hot summer afternoon.  She’s your flight attendant, your Senator, your waitress, the badass interviewing you for that job you don’t actually want.  Why does it matter that she’s female?  She’s just a gamer.  Good games don’t have a gender.

Games made me a more social person.  No, that doesn’t mean I’m into multiplayer—quite the opposite.  Sure, I like stomping through a dungeon with a friend late at night, but my idea of Heaven is still everyone leaving me the Hell alone for a few days with an excellent single-player game and a really big bag of cheese popcorn.  They give a person who doesn’t watch television something to make small talk about.  Games increased my confidence, my comfort level with my own personality.  They showed me that there is nothing pathetic about enjoying something alone.  You can live a very rich life that way.  You can also live a very rich life with a partner, if you choose wisely.  Games spark fantastic conversations.

As far as I can tell, the meaning of life involves helping out where you can, finding what you enjoy, what you care about, and not letting anything or anyone rip you away from it.  I don’t subscribe to the idea that everyone can and should find something they both enjoy and can make a living at—that’s unrealistic, but in your personal time, you deserve happiness.  No, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to clean your house, but for God’s sake, if you want to listen to some game music while you’re cleaning, or reward yourself with a level here and there, do it.  (I’m sick of the gamer-hygiene jokes, too.  They were never funny.  Ever been to a NON-gaming trade show?  Suits stink!)

If you traveled back in time and showed the girl in the alcove a headset, Steam, Skype and a 3DS, then clicked a “link” on a smartphone (!) to play the song she wanted so badly to hear, her head would probably explode.  But if you told her that in twenty years we would be quibbling over peoples’ credibility as gamers, joking about “girlfriend mode”, and that every blockbuster at E3 (whatever that is) would be part of a franchise in the true, non-Final-Fantasy sense, and that all the female characters in games would be young, thin and half-naked, she would have been very disappointed.

I’m still asked if I’m looking for a gift every time I walk into GameStop.

Slowly, the industry is changing, but I often wonder if there’s something more I could have done, twenty years ago, to make this a less hostile environment for people who don’t fit the expected demographic criteria.  If I failed you, I am so sorry.

Leave the beach town behind (thank you for visiting, though, and please buy a souvenir fishing lure!) and think back to the day YOU first fell into a game.  What was that world like?  How did it affect you?

Look for me at trade shows.  I’m the late-thirties blonde with the bucket of cables and the little silver Space Invader around her neck (it’s become a sort of religious symbol to me).  Never mind if I’m the technician or PR person on duty.  It’s okay.  I’ll make time.  I want to talk with you.  I want you to tell me about that game, about what was going on with you at the time.  Maybe if we all go back to that moment, if we all tell each other about it, we’ll get a better idea of what games mean to us and how we can improve this beautiful, educational, antagonistic, sharp, soft, nostalgic, progressive, sexist, stigmatized, lifesaving art form to make better games and a kinder community.