More women are becoming hard-core gamers -- just don't call them sweetheart.
Jeanna McMahon's night-elf priest, Amallia, was taking damage fast. Hooded figures flung greenish-blue orbs that inflicted digital pain on the priest and her allies. Amallia set about healing the group, but it was too late. The explosions and cries of the skirmish faded. Amallia and her crew -- a mixture of bulky men, slender scantily clad women and misshapen monsters -- lay dead on the ground.
"And I just got rocked. That wasn't supposed to happen," McMahon concluded at the end of the battle.
McMahon shook it off and continued playing "World of Warcraft," a massive multiplayer online game, where players work together in a virtual universe to accomplish designated tasks. "World of Warcraft" is one of many role-playing games, or RPGs, that McMahon plays.
McMahon, 25, of Eagan is what many consider a hard-core or "core" gamer, a player who devotes countless hours to a specific video game, like the 157 days' worth of game play (3,768 total hours) McMahon has put into her "World of Warcraft" character, Amallia.
There's also 34-year-old Molly Glover of Eden Prairie, who plays RPGs like "Assassin's Creed: Revelation" and "Fable 3" about 10 hours a week on her PS3 or Xbox 360. And Carla Barnes, 26, of St. Paul, who is all about first-person shooters, also averaging 10 hours per week playing "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" online.
McMahon, Glover and Barnes don't fit the stereotype of an avid gamer. They're professional women, a far cry from a teenage boy in his parents' basement.
Although their numbers are growing, they are often viewed as anomalies in the gaming community, getting noticed more for their gender than their game play. But these women view themselves differently. .
"I'm a gamer. I happen to be a girl," Glover said.
Women comprise 42 percent of gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association, an industry trade organization. But that statistic includes many casual games played on handheld devices, such as solitaire and "Angry Birds," which are popular among women. Core games reportedly are approaching equal use among women.
Andrew Reiner, executive editor at Minneapolis-based Game Informer magazine, estimates 50 percent of the website's users are female.
"The storytelling has improved, as well as the graphics and realism," Reiner said. "The games have a wider appeal and more people as a whole are playing."
Reiner said both men and women get the same enjoyment out of popular games such as "Mass Effect" and "Call of Duty."
"It's escapism. It's competitive. It's fun. It's entertainment," he said. "And who doesn't like games?"
Need some help?
McMahon, Glover and Barnes have experienced varied reactions from male gamers, some hostile, but it doesn't detract from their desire to play with the boys.
McMahon said she's been the butt of "all sorts of sexist stupid jokes that you could think of ... [from] people that I've never met in real life."
The anonymity of online play helps enable this sort of behavior, according to Glover.
"No matter where I go there's always going to be that guy ... who thinks, 'Oh, sweetheart, do you need some help?'" Glover said.
To avoid some of that, Barnes said she chooses not to disclose her gender to other players.
"There's people who identify foremost with the whole point of like 'I'm a girl,' and they're almost making gender more of an issue than anyone else is," Glover said.
Despite a few bad experiences, Glover's found that many male gamers are accepting. "I've been blessed to know a lot of really mature dudes," she said of her male gaming friends.
That first joystick
For McMahon, the love of gaming started early. "When I was 3 years old, I remember Christmas," she said. "I think it's my earliest memory. My dad bought us a Nintendo, and my dad and I used to play Nintendo together all the time."
Glover started gaming when she was 10. "I videogame for the same reason I like to read fiction. I really enjoy being transported into other worlds, putting myself in the shoes of another character," she said.
And for Barnes, it's the stress relief provided by playing a first-person shooter. "It's fun to interact with people online," she said.
McMahon has gotten a bit of an equipment upgrade since her Nintendo days. She built her own computer, a sleek jet-black PC, specifically designed to handle the graphics demands of gaming. She also uses a specialized gaming pad, a controller designed to give her easy access to keys she couldn't quickly reach on a clunky old keyboard.
McMahon started playing "World of Warcraft" heavily while at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, logging 20 to 25 hours a week online. "The social aspect of WOW is what really drew me in," she said.
While women are making strides, male gamers, even those in the industry, often view them as a separate section of the gaming community. "If you talk to a guy they will call female gamers 'female gamers.' Female gamers will call themselves gamers," said Annette Gonzalez, a community manager for Harmonix, the game development studio behind a number of music-oriented games, including "Rock Band" and "Dance Central." "It's strange to attach gender to that, because it makes you feel like a bit of an anomaly."
Video games often portray women as characters that are acted upon, rather than protagonists. This portrayal dates back to the early days of gaming where, say, the princess is stuck in the castle and players must find her, as in the "Super Mario Bros." game. "It's like she could maybe get the key herself and get out of the castle," Gonzalez said. "She doesn't need a plumber to help her."
There are notable exceptions: Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider" and Samus of the "Metroid" series. Strong female protagonists are on the rise, according to Gonzalez. There are "more women stepping up to the plate and not being the damsel in distress," she said.
Gonzalez eventually sees a future where women are not viewed as an enigma in the hard-core gaming community.
Glover sees the gaming community and the larger "geek culture" as a place where any player can freely choose their mission, character and story line, independent of gender stereotypes.
"The geek culture in general tends to buck gender stereotypes, more often going both ways,'' she said. "I think that maybe being a geek ... frees you from needing to conform to what girls do or what boys do."
Peter Funk is a University of Minnesota student journalist on assignment for the Star Tribune.