Featured Artist Interview: Keisha Howard of Sugar Gamers
I have to admit, while getting my ass royally kicked at Playstation Allstars while hanging at her crimson colored gaming den alongside a mutual friend Becca Rothschild, I had to wonder where it all started for this girl. Keisha Howard, CEO and Founder of women’s gaming and geek culture organization Sugar Gamers is a friend of mine, a beast of a gamer girl, and an entrepreneur who’s on a mission to change the world as we know it. But how did her adventure begin?
CC: So how old were you when you started gaming? I read somewhere that your brother had a big influence on you as far as gaming goes. What’s that all about?
KH: I was about 10 when my brother got his first Super Nintendo. I wasn’t really into gaming, but I didn't make friends easily as a child, so my brother was my playmate. He always wanted me to watch him play video games and wanted me to be the 2nd player, and I would always die in all of the games. But yeah, it was at about 10 that my brother forced me into gaming, and I got to a point where I was like, “You know what, I’m tired of getting beat. I’m gonna play Streetfighter so much that I can beat him with Vega.” So one day while he was away, I spent the whole day practicing until I was really good at it. I finally beat my brother and uh…yeah he didn’t wanna play anymore.
We took a moment to laugh at the sweet victory of woman over man, a triumph that never gets old.
KH: But that’s kind of how I got started, and that feeling of victory just sort of stayed with me, and I’ve always kept a quiet competitiveness when it comes to video games.
CC: What were your interests before video games, and are those things somewhat reflected in what you do now? Have those things been incorporated into your business?
KH: My interests before video games were anime and reading, so I always liked cartoons, and anything animated. I always felt it was limitless in what animators could show. It’s not like a regular movie where they’d need special effects…they could just draw something beautiful for us to watch, and it'd be awesome. The first anime that I watched was Vampire Hunter D, and I decided then, “This is something I’m gonna do forever.” When Final Fantasy II came out on Super Nintendo, my brother made me read the dialog for that RPG, to help me with my reading and comprehension for school. In that respect, RPGs continued the process of me reading a lot of fantasy and sci-fi literature. At a very young age I started reading these genres in addition to horror, like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Christopher Pike. I surpassed Dean Koontz when I was like 7 or 8, so I was reading about beheadings and rape at a very young age.
Keisha can barely get out the last without bursting into laughter.
“Wow, that’s so healthy of you," I say, poking fun at her. Her hidden morbidity is one of several reasons why I find her pretty and interesting, and worthy of bear hugs upon every greeting.
CC: So do you have any favorite games or comics?
KH: My favorite game franchise…well… my favorites haven’t always been great games, but my favorite is Tomb Raider. It was the first game that I played that had a female hero, and I’ve always had a taste for adventure. Tomb Raider creates an entire environment around being an adventurer, finding treasure, and discovering hidden places. Also, the female character is hot and intelligent. They gave her a lot of flack for having enormous boobs and whatnot, but when she first came out, she was sexy and racially ambiguous and very smart and badass. I love that game. I was like, “I wanna kill wolves and T-Rexs!” To this day I still hold a lot of nostalgia for it, and I’m ready for the next one to come out. My favorite comic book is The Darkness, published by TopCow. To me, The Darkness is just the epitome of an ‘anti-hero’, which I’ve always had an affinity for…heroes that fall into the grey area. They’re not all good, they’re not all bad.
CC: You mean heroes that are a bit more human?
KH: Yeah, they’re very much people you can identify with, because they have a better range of emotions. They may make bad decisions, but comprehensively they may be a good guy or whatnot. Also, as a protagonist I think Jackie Estacado is sexy. I feel like men always get really sexy, large-breasted, shapely women characters as eye candy in comics, and I feel like Jackie Estacado almost makes up for that. We finally get a character that we can look at and be like, “Oh, he’s fine.”
Keisha erupts into another fit of girlish laughter, flashing her pearly whites, hinting at her inherently flirtatious nature.
KH: If I can’t pick The Darkness, I really like some of the Vertigo comics like Fables, and Y: The last Man.
CC: What inspired you to create Sugargamers? When did you realized what you wanted to do and why you wanted to do it?
KH: I always wanted to have a female gamer group, but I never had the balls to start it.
CC: So you’re saying from a young age you were thinking, “I want other girls to do this with me.”
KH: Absolutely. I always wanted to have more female comradery, because all of my friends have always been dudes. In 2009 there was a casting here in Chicago for WCG’s Ultimate Gamer, and I ended up being a semi-finalist to be on the show. They flew me out to California, for 7 or 8 days to test our skills, and do psyche evaluations and everything. I was completely confident that they had picked me for the show, but right before I was supposed to fly out for the show, they called and told me that I wasn’t picked, because my gaming skills didn’t really compare to the other contestants that they had already chosen. They asked me if I wanted to be on any other show, and I declined saying that I didn’t want to be on a show unless it emphasized some skill or ability that I had. Something that would make me look smart, so not a dating show or anything like that, but they didn’t have anything available at the time. I was a little butt hurt, but it was still a great experience to have, and it inspired me. I thought, “Maybe I should start something competitive here in Chicago.” When starting, all of the women that I found kind of had the same gaming level that I did; they weren’t great at games, but they were interested in being gamers. They wanted a group that they could identify with, of nerds, and anime watchers and cosplayers and so on. These women wanted this, but they weren’t competitive. So, with women who were interested but didn’t have the skill level, I realized that there was something that these women were asking for. There is a community of women who are super into games, anime and such, but they just don’t have the competitive aspect. There needs to be a community for casual gamers as well. So that’s why I started SugarGamers…it just sort of organically developed. It wasn’t my intention, it just sort of happened.
CC: What are your thoughts on the fake gamer girl/fan girl hype that‘s going on right now?
KH: In my eyes, there isn’t such a thing.
I nod and smile in agreement, throwing a high-five in her direction. This is undoubtedly the best answer she could have given.
CC: Have you seen the Tumblrs though? I mean REALLY??
She laughs a knowing laugh, and Ms. Rothschild, still glued to her PS3 controller, pipes in from beside us about how atrocious they are. Keisha speaks up on the subject, giving us more reasons to admire her.
KH: They are pretty bad...but I just feel like I would rather see a girl being a fake geek or fan girl, than trying to be a fake Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton. There’s nothing wrong with the hustle, but I at least feel that in being a fake geek, gamer girl, or comic book nerd, you have an interest that’s based in something somewhat productive. There are a lot of intelligent people in these industries, and I would much rather a girl fake being smart, than fake being a beautiful socialite, which has no substance. So for me, I’m like, “Do it!” If this becomes trendy, then we’ll have more women who
want to get real jobs in these industries, because it’s a popular thing, and the lifestyle seems fun and glamorous. For so long, being a geek or a nerd wasn’t glamorous, it was something that got you bullied. So if being a geek gets you attention now, regardless of what kind of attention it is, I think it’s a great change in direction from how women have previously been portrayed in the media. It may not be the BEST thing…I may talk to some of these individuals and they may not know everything, they may not be genuinely be interested, and it may root itself in getting attention, but I feel its much better than being shallow or completely superficial.
CC: As head of an organization like SugarGamers, what advice do you have to give to gamer girls out there?
KH: Do it for fun! Really take the time to see all of what really goes into gaming: the fashion, the music, the design, the writing, y’know. It’s not just about someone sitting in their living room, playing a game vegging out. That’s only part of it.
“Vagging out?? Wh—what?” I say, mildly sarcastically.
“VEGGING out.” She replies, an outpour of high-pitched and wide-mouthed laughter filling the room to its brim. Even Becca has a whining laugh squeezing out of her. The thought of girls gaming up a storm, bottomless in batman t-shirts springs to mind, but I keep it to myself.
KH: There are so many other parts of gaming and geek culture that are significantly productive to other things that contribute to society. Being a gamer is making you a part of an industry that is a very smart and successful industry. Not that it’s better than other professions, but there’s something productive about being a gamer. It’s not just watching tv.
“It’s cerebral!” Rebecca yells out from the depths of the scarlet den. “Keisha likes it because its goal oriented.”
And goal-oriented are definitely two words that sum up who Keisha is.
Find out more about Keisha's women's gaming organization Sugar Gamers here.