Rachel Chai and I are sitting in an outdoor plaza of Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. It's an overcast Saturday afternoon. I, in undoubtedly terrible journalistic form, ordered a bowl of medium-spicy chashu ramen, and I'm doing my best to slurp away from the mic so as not to risk obscuring part of the conversation. Every minute is critical with her, as she deftly navigates from one topic to another without so much as a sentence break. Later, when I transcribe this interview, I will be eternally grateful that we went to lunch, as every pause for breath or food is a tiny opportunity for me to collect my thoughts. At just 21 years old, Rachel is a veteran girl gamer, and her insights into the male-dominated world of video games are something I don't want to miss - even if it means my ramen gets cold.
She sits back in her chair while we dance through the awkward small talk that precedes the actual interview stuff. She's just maybe a little taller than average, wearing jeans and a gray tank top that look comfortably casual, and her light skin and dark brown, highlighted hair betray her half Korean, half German genetic ancestry. I try to subtly nudge her into talking about the interesting stuff; namely, her time working at Gamestop (six months in two different locations). She wastes no time.
"All my real hardcore gamer friends were girls," she tells me. "We used to sit around and play all the time. At Gamestop, I was the only one working there. That was frickin' weird. I'd get hit on like mad if I was wearing something cute to work. They'd always try to get away with paying less, too - you know, 'Could you do this for me, just this one time?' and all that." She pauses to sip her water and continues, "You always get those guys who just wouldn't think that you know anything, so they'd just be like, 'Oh, can I talk to the assistant manager, can I talk to that guy over there instead of you?' And then they'd be confused when you, you know, actually knew something. Everyone was astonished when they found out I played roleplaying games - 'Do you play Final Fantasy X? Final Fantasy X-2?' - and get surprised when I started listing Illusion of Gaia and Soulblazer."
I'm a little surprised, too; not at the names she dropped to establish her gaming pedigree, of course. Being in this line of work shows you really quickly that there are gamers with much harder cores than yourself. What struck me was the organic ease with which she discusses issues of sexism, gender discrimination and Illusion of Gaia without stopping to pick at her noodle plate. It's as if dealing with this crap is just as much a natural part of life as Soulblazer, and that is genuinely a depressing thought.
She must have noticed the conversation's sudden mood swing, for she quickly switches stories to a slightly more upbeat anecdote. "This 18-year-old kid used to come up to me and ask me, 'What did you think of Super Mario RPG?' so while I worked we'd sit there and talk about role-playing games and stuff. And then when we were closing, I basically had to shove him out the door, and he asked me if I wanted to see a movie some time," she says. "I was thinking, 'Awww, you're cute, okay?' I ended up playing Smash Brothers at his house and kicking his ass."