Strength and solidarity in times of crisis: three female pro gamers on the
perks of belonging to an online community
Vogue, May 2020
This article, originally written for Vogue Global Network, has since been published on British Vogue, Vogue Germany, Vogue Japan and Vogue Poland.
The online gaming industry is growing at an exponential rate, attracting major talent, radical innovation and seemingly limitless investment. More importantly, millions are flocking to the close-knit community of gamers offering refuge and support to those seeking a sense of belonging
What do a transgender esports virtuosa, a YouTuber-cum-cosplayer with 19 million subscribers and the highest-earning female gamer of all time have in common? Ricki Ortiz (HelloKittyRicki), Alia Shelesh (SSSniperWolf) and Kat Gunn (Mystik) have all found success and a sense of belonging in their respective online communities. We talk to the pro gamers about gender stereotypes, overcoming hardships and camaraderie.
Ricki Ortiz (HelloKittyRicki)
After beginning her transition in the public eye in 2014, thereafter identifying as female, American fighting-games powerhouse Ricki Ortiz battled depression as a result of vicious cyberbullying. Here, she explains how the online gaming community helped her overcome her demons and how today, she feels more like herself than ever.
What initially attracted you to the world of gaming, specifically fighting games?
“Growing up, I would watch my cousin Sonny play games on his Atari. That was my first foray into the gaming world. Every now and then, we would visit our local arcade, where I first discovered Street Fighter. I was hooked. The first time I entered a competition, I won third place. I was 13 years old. To this day, what keeps me interested is the thrill of the competition. You just don’t get that feeling anywhere else.”
What was it like transitioning in the public eye?
“Even when I identified as male, people had negative things to say. You can’t please everybody, especially not online. After I started transitioning in 2014, people stopped talking about my skills as a gamer and instead focused on how I looked. That was the hardest part to deal with. Thankfully, the people around me, those in the community, have been incredibly supportive and accepting from the start. It feels like a process you go through together.
A lot has changed since 2014, and it seems as though people are more aware of the transgender experience now.
“Definitely. Back then, there was nobody to look up to in that respect. You would read all these horror stories about about transgender people being assaulted or killed. As a child, the only person I had to look up to was RuPaul, who isn’t even trans. Now, people seem to have a much better understanding of the transgender experience. Even in the gaming world, you have more people coming out. Some of them have told me that seeing me being open about my experience has really helped them, which is amazing.”
Has your view of gaming and the community changed as a result?
“It feels like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders. The breaking point for me was 2012. All I could think about was transitioning, I couldn’t focus on anything else. It got so bad that I even thought about hurting myself. It’s just not a good place to be. Now, competing is a lot more carefree for me. I’m just being myself and having fun.”
Were there times you wanted to leave the community altogether?
“All my friends, and the community as a whole, were so supportive. Initially, the thought of having to come out twice — first as a gay man and then as transgender — was daunting. But as soon as I did it, I realised it was much easier than I’d anticipated. Leaving the scene was never an option for me. I feel like I am competing.”
What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your career in gaming?
“Share your knowledge with others. You can’t get better at a sport, or anything in life, without having someone there who pushes you to do better. If you’re good at what you do, help others get better too. Help them figure things out they can’t yet see themselves. You grow together.”
If the gaming industry didn’t exist, what would you be doing instead?
“I would either work in dermatology or in the fashion industry. I love to dress up. I watch all the fashion shows. Right now, I’m obsessed with Saint Laurent. Vaccarello just knows how to make a woman feel sexy and empowered. When I wear Saint Laurent, I feel like a bad bitch.”
Alia Shelesh (SSSniperWolf)
With more than 19 million subscribers on YouTube, English-American cosplayer, social-media maven and Gamer of the Year 2019 SSSniperWolf has lucrative partnerships with Disney and EA Sports. Today, she’s one of the most recognisable names in the industry.
What initially attracted you to the world of gaming?
“When I was younger, my brother and I would get into a lot of fights. So my dad bought us a PlayStation in the hopes that it would calm the waters. It worked — we’d play everything from Metal Gear to Digimon World. I also loved watching Call of Duty videos on YouTube, and one day thought to myself, ‘Hey, I can do that too.’ So I started my own YouTube channel. “
Why do you think there’s such an unwavering interest in the online gaming community?
“We saw a tipping point a few years ago; it was the perfect storm of game quality improving, the rise of social media, esports and streaming all happening at once. When I was a kid, I was made fun of for liking video games. Now, gaming is seen as mainstream.”
Are there any double standards you face as a female gamer and cosplayer in a largely male industry?
“[People] just don’t really expect a girl to be a gamer. You don’t call men ‘boy gamers’ so the term ‘girl gamer’ shouldn’t even exist. Why bring gender into it?
“The past few years have witnessed the rise of female streamers, community managers, game developers and so on. It’s exciting to see our community changing for the better. The best thing about being female is you don’t have to wait in line for the bathroom at a gaming event. But jokes aside, most of us struggle getting on mic while playing for fear of being judged or scrutinised.”
Fashion is an essential part of cosplay. How do you create your perfect outfit?
“I try to cosplay only characters that I really love or can relate to. I usually go to a craft store or order similar clothing online, and then put it all together myself.”
What is it about cosplay that attracts such a wide variety of people across the globe?
“Like myself, I think a lot of people like the idea of being able to transform into someone else for a day. My first cosplay was a Halloween costume that my mother helped me make; it was Bulma from Dragon Ball Z. No one recognised me when I went trick or treating. Cosplay attracts such a wide variety of people who have the same thing in common: a passion for dressing up as someone else, a character they love.”
Kat Gunn (Mystik)
Holding the Guinness World Record for highest-earning female gamer, American esports master and cosplayer Kat Gunn has a loyal following on Twitch, YouTube and Instagram. She has competed in the Champion Gaming Series, is a host on YouTube show GamerChix and in 2010, won TV reality programme WCG Ultimate Gamer.
What has been your proudest achievement to date?
“The moment that stands out most is winning WCG Ultimate Gamer Season 2. I was on stage in full makeup, with high heels on. It was surreal.”
How would you describe the typical gamer?
“There’s no such thing. A gamer can range anywhere from age 5 to 85, male or female. It’s a form of play that is equally fun for [any age]. Gaming has created this incredibly close-knit community of individuals. Meeting each other online allows you to explore and share parts of yourself that you otherwise might not feel comfortable showing.”
What is it like being a female gamer and cosplayer in a largely male industry?
“The fascination with girl gamers isn’t reserved for the gaming space. Successful women seem to cause furore in almost every industry. That double standard carries over in every way. A lot of assumptions are made about a woman gamers, and I think the dichotomy of having an attractive female with a keen eye for things traditionally considered masculine makes people sit up.”
What role does fashion play in cosplay?
“Fashion gives you the means to express your personality, and cosplay allows you to take that to the next level and express yourself through the characters you gravitate towards. It’s a way of paying tribute to movies and animation that have filled your life with meaning.”
Why do you think so many individuals flock to the online gaming community in times of crisis?
“Gamers were experts in self-isolation long before the current crisis. Kidding aside, the gaming community provides support and camaraderie for individuals from all around the world. There’s no judgment, just people having fun, being there for each other. The world would be a much scarier place without it.”