Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “As a woman, when you try to get into the community of geeks, [you get asked] ‘So sinong boyfriend mo dito?’” says Noelle Pico. “Hindi ba pwedeng ako lang?”
For female and queer gamers in the Philippines, existing in the male-dominated geek arena continues to be a challenge today. In response, a group of female and queer gamers decided to create Play Without Apology, an online magazine dedicated to representing geeks and gamers across the spectrum. Originally called Girls Got Game in 2013, PWOA (pronounced as po-wah) was founded by “site moms” Pico, Denice de Guzman, Pamela Punzalan, Mia Marci, and Marielle Baysa.
“Being female and being a geek are not necessarily [mutually] exclusive,” de Guzman says. As a group of girls who enter geek stores proudly wearing their MAC lipsticks, the team came together when they saw the lack of a safe space for them to proudly be both girly and geeky. There also was a lack of representation in the geek space, where most content available was written from primarily male, straight, and white perspectives.
Marci shares that growing up playing Street Fighter with other boys made her realize this gender discrepancy. “The way girls talk about games is different: we talk about stories, we talk about possibilities. [We realized that] we need a female voice for gamers.”
PWOA has since become that safe space for girls who had a lot to say about the stories they played. They talk about why the movie Venom is essentially a romcom or how tabletop can be an intrinsic part of a healthy LGBT+ relationship. PWOA exists to challenge the notion that fangirling and fanfiction are lower forms of appreciating games. “Personally, if I zoom in on a character, either crush ko siya, baby ko ‘yan, or that’s me in a different life,” Pico says. “But the moment you step out with people you haven’t vetted, they go, ‘Ah kasi crush mo lang ‘yan eh.’ Bawal?”
On July 2018, PWOA also organized LacunaCon in partnership with Gamers and GMs Philippines, a tabletop event where all the game masters (GMs), organizers, and volunteers were either female or queer, in celebration of June being “Women in Tabletop Gaming Month.” Pico shares that organizing the event led her to work with talented female and queer gamers: the girls of Adventurers League, the women behind homegrown game “Tadhana,” and other strong figures, such as Sin Posadas and Rachel Teng. Over 100 people attended LacunaCon, which the girls say is the highest turnout for any Gamers and GMs event so far.
PWOA also strongly believes that fun is political, countering the common misconception that politics and games are two worlds that should be kept separate. “All the games we know are good versus evil, down to Space Invaders and Pacman. That in itself is political,” Marci says. “We’re actually raised to prepare to kill the Boss.”
Likewise, the team wants to challenge gamers who think having fun at the expense of others is okay. “We grow up surrounded by stories, and if those stories are wrong and unfair, you will end up with those biases as well … Everything geek is about exploring possibilities. Why are you not letting me explore mine?” Punzalan says.
De Guzman echoes this sentiment, being a writer for comedy and a member of Deus Sex Machina, a collective of writers and performers of comedic erotica. “Punch up, not down. It’s not fun if you’re making fun of someone who cannot fight back; that’s just bullying. It’s not fun if someone needs to get hurt because you’re having fun.”
While indulging in geek culture can be a form of escapism, Baysa says that geekery is still influenced by real life. “How you consume the stuff you consume when you have fun still has an effect on you,” Baysa says. “If you support a writer who is racist or homophobic, they’re going to have a bigger platform to put out more of that and influence more people.”
With longform articles as their strongest suit, PWOA boasts of their column called Real Talk Tuesdays where they encourage their writers to talk not only about geeky topics but also about real life issues that affect the geek community, such as "Love and Geekery in the Time of Duterte" and "You’re Sorry About Filipino Gamer Behavior? That’s Cute." The geek community has responded, and PWOA has garnered the attention of not only female and queer gamers, but also male gamers who felt they needed a breath of fresh air above the hyper-masculine community. “It’s heartening to see that all of our longform, where we go into really heavy topics, are the ones people come back to: anywhere from politics to mental health,” Pico says.
Beyond writing articles, PWOA also organizes events such as the “Safe Spaces and Fun” panel in LacunaCon — where they dealt with questions such as “How do you handle someone who has table anxiety and mental health?” — and runs games where they challenge their GMs to build queer-friendly worlds and narratives. They also partnered with Great Games Done Slow from Australia, where they raised US $202 for mental health by streaming games such as Stardew Valley, The Sims, and Night in the Woods.
However, according to the team, there is still an act of silencing in the Philippine geek space — from being accused of acting too bitchy when they run text-based RPGs, to being asked 20 questions to prove that they actually have the “geek cred” to be among other male gamers, to being accused of trying out KeyForge because they had male friends playing.
De Guzman shares, “I was asked, ‘Why do you need a geek space for women when you consume geekery the same way? Everyone is equal, right?’” To this, the table laughs and cries out in unison, “It’s not!”
“I actually think it’s a straight thing. If you think heteronormative, it’s binary, it’s black or white,” Punzalan adds. “But if you’re a woman, your existence is gray. If you’re queer, your existence is even more gray. In fact, if you’re Filipino, you’re gray because you ain’t white. And where is the voice for those people?”
For PWOA, the site brings to light a myriad narratives that aren’t visible and stories that need to be heard. They write for the girls who are able to explore their sexuality because of fanfiction, for their students who are told they’re not consuming the right literature even as they read comics upon comics, for the queers who play games as a form of living out the fantasy of loving freely when the outside world proves to be hostile.
The only baseline is that articles have to be well-written and fair. In this space, they see writing as an act of self-reflection, and encourage their writers to admit blind spots and learn from it — in contrast to the “cancelledt” culture spreading online. As female and queer gamers, the team advocates for compassion and empathy: towards your narrative, yourself, and the other person on the other side of the screen.
In a time where misogyny and anger seem to be dominating the geek and political space, the PWOA team says that what keeps them going is the love from the community. “What gives me hope is having a community where I can express myself,” Baysa says. “[And] being able to have this space to reach out to other people and being able to create it for others.”
Pico shares that it was reading her mother’s romance novels that taught her to live out her fantasies, and that being with other geeks allows her to live for one more tomorrow. “Gaming got me out of difficult moments. If I didn’t have those people in the fandom space who told me ‘We love you, we’ll take care of you,’ I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
For Marci, she chooses to keep pushing for that one person, one comment, one student who wants to have a conversation. “If you breathe, you can be. And if you can be, you can grow … Living is a constant state of learning to listen and finding the cues to speak, and that in itself is a hope,” Marci says.
Fighting back against the evils in society — which de Guzman says is not necessarily doing the bad things but knowing the right thing to do and not doing that — requires the support of fellow female and queer gamers. “Now you can say these things, ‘di na siya internal struggle figuring out the words because other people can say it for you.”
“It can get very exhausting,” Punzalan says of PWOA’s efforts to support Filipino female and queer gamers as they try to live out their realities and play without apology. “But it’s the little ‘thank yous’ we get, the people who come up to us to say, ‘Thank you for articulating my reality.’ I know I’m not alone, and that’s enough for me. Because if we don’t speak up, who will?”