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Move Over Instagram Husbands. This Is My Life as a Gamer Girlfriend

We've been around as long as gamers have existed.
Kate Ryan
May 17, 2021 @ 10:02 am

Female gamers are often under-recognized and discredited within their male-driven industry, despite making up nearly 41 percent of all gamers in the United States. That's why this month, we're highlighting the women who are changing the gaming industry with The Game Plan. Here, we're diving into the world of drag queen gamers, the surprising ways gaming can affect your mental health, and so much more. Play on.

You've all heard of the Instagram boyfriend by now. The stereotypically subservient, meek wallflower who follows his influencer-to-be girlfriend around with a camera, helping her create the narrative of her fabulous, globe-trotting life. I pegged them for dolts who never stepped into the spotlight with their partners and instead stayed behind the scenes. However, in a post-COVID world, I find I've made a horrible misjudgment about them, as I've taken on a similar role in my own relationship—the gamer girlfriend.

While gamer girlfriends (who provide support during a gaming session by grabbing drinks, making snacks and meals, and pressing buttons on the game controller while our partners are in the bathroom) have been around as long as gamers have existed, they have surely grown in numbers during quarantine. With millions of people losing jobs and receiving more encouragement to stay home, playing video games has become an integral outlet for 55 percent of the American population, according to a 2020 survey by The Nielsen Company. Suddenly, many people (like myself) found themselves quarantined with their partners who spend endless hours playing video games as a form of entertainment.

My girlfriend, Ashlynn, and I were both performers who became out of work when the pandemic hit. To make things worse, our side hustles in the service industry were effectively snatched from our hands. With no opportunities knocking, we had endless hours to fill. I turned to books and television, voraciously consuming new content as quickly as I could. I also kept up with friends through occasional phone calls, FaceTimes, and Zoom meetings. Ashlynn, though, turned to playing Xbox. She would log on in the morning and play into the evening. For a while, doing our own thing each day was a nice break from reality. It felt like we were both on mini vacations. 

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Credit: Photo: Jenna Brillhart; Illustration: Sarah Maiden

However, not long into quarantine, I started to dread the ping of the Xbox powering up. I knew it meant that Ashlynn would be on indefinitely, and I'd be left to my own devices until she logged off. Ashlynn started playing regularly with her brothers and their friends, which meant she would have a great day filled with laughter and entertainment. Meanwhile, my "mini vacation" only kept my attention for a few hours a day, so I would wait around for Ashlynn to finish gaming so we could hang out. 

While I played computer games as a kid, it was never a full day affair for me. Now I was anxiously waiting for my girlfriend to grow tired of her game so I could have a meaningful social interaction. It didn't occur to me, at first, to try to join in on Ashlynn's gaming. I didn't think it would satisfy my feelings of restlessness. Because of all of this, I turned inward, as I couldn't socialize with my friends safely in person, and the Zoom/FaceTime fatigue was real. I began to feel lonely and isolated.

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Credit: Photo: Jenna Brillhart, Illustration: Sarah Maiden

On top of it all, being the gamer girlfriend who was asked to do menial tasks, like grabbing Ashlynn a glass of water or a snack, irked me more during the pandemic.

While Ashlynn grew closer to her brothers and bonded over a shared experience while playing video games, I became more and more withdrawn and increasingly envious of Ashlynn's ability to connect with others while normal life was put on hold. 

Three months into quarantine, I began to hit my breaking point. I resorted to daily solo happy hours on my fire escape and enjoyed the not-so-occasional edible. My sadness was palpable, but I shoved those feelings down and tried to keep moving through the days as if nothing was wrong. I didn't mind being a gamer girlfriend, but I hadn't found something that filled my days with excitement, and I took it personally that Ashlynn was engrossed in something other than spending all day, every day with me. I didn't want to worry her, though, so I never told Ashlynn how I was truly feeling. 

Then one day, Ashlynn could see my pain growing, and it opened the floor for us to reconnect. She saw my daily happy hours as a cry for help before I even realized they were. I was unaware that I was letting these feelings of loneliness, restlessness, and deep sadness affect my day-to-day behavior. 

When we talked, we realized we were at a crossroads: I felt neglected because I couldn't find an outlet for my social needs, and she felt stuck between her video game self-care practice and making sure I was okay. I also felt like I was constantly in service of her as the gamer girlfriend by taking the brunt of our household responsibilities, like preparing meals and doing the laundry. With all of my passions and other forms of self-care stripped from me, I felt removed from my identity, while Ashlynn was able to make gaming a bigger part of her identity in order to cope.

When Ashlynn apologized for playing long gaming sessions, she let me know that gaming had been a lifeline for her throughout quarantine. Choosing to open up to one another changed everything. I didn't realize that playing video games helped her feel like she was working toward something, like a goal. For the first time in months, I saw that I wasn't the only person struggling with isolating at home. That's when I realized that Ashlynn was able to channel her nerves and anxieties into something that chipped away at her sense of existential dread, rather than what I was doing—letting it fester quietly until it became something I didn't know how to control. 

It sounded nice to kick back, blow off some steam, and work toward a goal. So, after months of pursuing our own solo pursuits, I decided to join and play rather than continue to feel left out. 

I felt foolish at first, since I previously made Ashlynn feel guilty for using her console. I didn't think that it would be possible for me to find a sense of release through gaming, since I used to get frustrated when I couldn't immediately win. All of those feelings went away when I allowed myself to have a good time and get lost in a whole new world. Because of this, being the gamer girlfriend took on a fresh, new meaning. I began to fall in love with the stress release I felt after a gaming session. Ashlynn and I have even added gaming to our date night repertoire, too, which has made us closer. When we play, our quality time is active—we're not checked out on our phones, but fully tuned in with one another, and it keeps the playful spark in our relationship alive.

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Left: Credit: Photo: Jenna Brillhart; Illustration: Sarah Maiden
Right: Credit: Photo: Jenna Brillhart, Illustration: Sarah Maiden

Now, after months being in quarantined, I have embraced my gamer girlfriend title.

Ashlynn has encouraged me to game on my own if I'm feeling particularly stressed or discouraged. While I love easier video games like MarioKart or Crash Bandicoot, I've even picked up more complex games, like Assassin's Creed, which is totally out of my comfort zone—and I'm having a blast. Now, playing a challenging video game allows me to sharpen my reflexes and fully enjoy myself for a couple hours. 

After this experience, I've realized that it's perfectly normal for two humans to deal with a huge change in their lives differently, and it doesn't make one way right or wrong. While we can fall back into our own coping mechanisms, Ashlynn and I are now more actively aware of how we spend our time. Yes, there are days where she wants to play video games, and I'll still need to grab her a glass of water, but there are also days that I want us to watch a television series, and Ashlynn will sit down and watch it with me. 

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Credit: Photo: Jenna Brillhart, Illustration: Sarah Maiden

We've opened the floor for honest communication, and if I need a little more quality time or help in picking a new project to keep myself fulfilled, Ashlynn is there for me. She's lifted me up and encouraged me to explore new forms of stress relief, and we've grown closer to one another in being comfortable with expressing our daily emotions. So, on Ashlynn's gaming self-care days, I remind myself when she asks me to press a button on the controller that it doesn't take anything away from my day, and I can contribute to her self-care during these wild times, just as she has tended to mine during the harder quarantine days. 

To all my fellow gamer girlfriends out there, know that you provide a sense of peace to your partners during the pandemic. So pick up the extra controller and practice some fun self-care together. 

Read more stories in The Game Plan here.