Listen to the full interview.
Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and it’s The World from PRI. Okay, confession here. Aside from playing a bit of Pacman at the arcade years ago, I have little experience as a gamer. And I know even less about the world of competitive gaming. But Lilian Chen, she can tell you all about that. She’s a former competitive gamer, one of relatively few female competitive gamers in fact, and she recently wrote about her experiences for the Ted Blog. Today, she says, competitive gaming is bigger than what most people imagine.
Lilian Chen: I have often had to dispel this myth of people crowded in a living room over their computers. Imagine gyms, people logging into their own SRT TVs in, playing, totally self-ran, no support from any larger companies. But now, think Vegas, think giant hotels, big screens set up, projectors, entire auditoriums dedicated to gaming and thousands of people shrieking at the top of their lungs.
Werman: Well, let’s start from the beginning. You started playing video games in the back of your parent’s Chinese restaurant. Where was that, and just tell us what that was like.
Chen: That restaurant was located in this tiny suburban town called Willimantic, Connecticut. My family had that restaurant before I was even born, so it literally defined most of my life.
Werman: What was the name of the restaurant?
Chen: It’s called Peking House.
Werman: And so you’re in the office of Peking House playing video games?
Chen: It wasn’t technically an office, it was a room in the back, way back, where we stored things and there was a video game console and my brother and I would just play for hours at a time back there.
Werman: What kind of games were you playing at the time and why was that so much fun?
Chen: I always watched my brother play. I played a bit but I was much more of a studier in his ways of playing, except for this one game that I currently play, called “Smash.” It’s competitive, it’s fighting, so you always want to beat your opponent and there’s just this drive, which is why customers would even come in and play with us in the back.
Werman: Now, your parents and grandparents immigrated here to the US - how did they feel about your playing video games?
Chen: I recall when I first started playing, they were really confused as to why I was hanging out with a bunch of boys instead of girls. They were looking forward to me being like a delicate, gentle, calm woman figure who had interests in piano and studying. But nope. I was really loud and very tomboyish and hung out with all the boys, which confused them because I think maybe, in their generation and in a different culture, it wasn’t normal for boys and girls to be hanging out so platonically. They were really against my brother and I playing video games, in fear that it would affect our schoolwork. I recalled that they hid our Gameboys from us when we were younger. But as an effort to continue pursuing the game, I remember trying really hard to do well in school, just so that they had no reason to ban me from going to tournaments.
Werman: But what it sounds like you’re describing is that you grew up with feet in two worlds, this English world in Connecticut and living with your grandparents also in Connecticut but in kind of this Chinese world. Where did gaming fit in to each of these two worlds?
Chen: I guess you could consider it another world. I didn’t really fit in at school and I was harassed a lot for being different, for being Asian, for being weird, so I took a lot of interests into more subcultures, like video gaming or Japanese animation and that was where I thrived. So in essence, that’s almost like another world coming into play.
Werman: It’s odd to hear a woman say she thrived in the gaming world. What is it like being a woman in that universe? Gender imbalanced, does it mean gender bias?
Chen: I remember when I was young, maybe 16, 17, and I first made my presence known as a female gamer on the websites. I got a lot of attention and I didn’t really understand what it meant to me. It was just like “Wow, this is such a different reaction than what I get at school. I need to take advantage of this, this is awesome.” It wasn’t until pretty recently that I realized where this attention was really coming from, the root of it.
Werman: So being a woman didn’t matter at all?
Chen: No, being a woman did matter. It was almost like miraculous because there weren’t many female gamers at the time.
Werman: Lilian Chen, a former competitive gamer. She now works as a designer at TED. Lilian great to meet you, thank you.
Chen: Thanks for having me Marco. Nice chatting.