Who gets to play the game? by Rebecca Zahabi #TheGameWeavers

Seo is Twine’s youth champion.

We are in a darker Britain and the national sport is not football but Twine, a game where weavers craft creatures from their fingertips to wage battle against others in vast arenas, watched by thousands.

But we are living in intolerant times and Seo harbours a secret. When he is outed as gay by the media, Seo cannot use his magic to save him

With the help of his brother Minjun and Jack, the man he can’t quite decide if he loves or not, Seo has to fight to get this life back on track whilst facing the biggest match of his career.

A fantastical yet hauntingly contemporary debut novel from Rebecca Zahabi.

Who gets to play the game? by Rebecca Zahabi

Football is where it started

I started writing The Game Weavers while I was working as a tour guide at the Manchester United stadium. This was not my usual crowd. I was used to quiet bookshops and University libraries. But here, there was an interesting clash in the staff room: half the tour guides were older men who’d loved the sport since boys and did this job to keep busy during their retirement; and the other half were students who needed the part-time work. It’s not that easy to meet people who don’t share your world views – this unassuming staff room tucked beside the stadium was the perfect place to break out of the echo chamber and share ideas.

As I worked as a tour guide, I was struck by how much football brings people together, but also isolates some parts of the population. Sports culture can be notoriously toxic, and football in the UK has a history of being hostile to the LGBTQ+ community. Most often players don’t risk coming out until their careers are over, afraid of the backlash – and even then they can suffer from the fans’ reaction. This got me thinking abouts sports, and how to tell a story in that environment with a central queer character.

(There is actually a character who is a tour guide in the novel, as a nod to the way this story started. If there is anyone in the story who is an author insert, it’s Laura, the woman watching everything unfolding from the side-lines, cheering her friends on.)

One thing I learnt in that staff room is that reality is messy. Very nice people will defend different ideas from yours. People aren’t good guys or baddies – some people will be open-minded on some subjects, but not on others. I had a couple of difficult conversations, including why it was wrong to poke fun at the two trans women who had come for a tour, but I also found lots of support and guides who defended progressive ideas.

This was something I wanted to show, too. One of the key scenes of the novel is a fight between the two brothers – one of whom has just come out as gay – and how that fight spirals out of control. I was trying to show that sometimes conflict and love aren’t exclusive. It’s because they’re intertwined that life can be so difficult.

From football to e-sports

Because I was more interested in magic than football, I replaced the game central to the story with Twine, a magic practice which lets weavers craft creatures to fight for them. The games of my childhood – Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh – had the usual cast of boys, and one token girl who was also the love interest. I don’t think I ever met a LGBTQ+ character on screen or in books during my childhood. That was something I wanted to change. I wondered how the King of Games would have managed if he’d had to handle coming out alongside his fame, and I wanted that story to be out there.

From there, it was natural to think about e-sports – often competitive online games have an element of magic or fantasy included in them.

In League of Legends (the e-sport game I’m most invested in), there are currently no professional female players. There have been a few, sometimes only invited to play as marketing stunts, but no-one managed to stick. When you watch the world championships or the big leagues, all you see is teams of men. For football, the excuse might be the difference between a man and a woman’s muscle mass – what’s the justification here? The required skills should be the same to acquire for men and women. The history is recent (the oldest online competitive games are only about 20 years old) so there shouldn’t be years of inertia behind us to slow down inclusion. In that case, why is there such a huge disparity?

To be honest, I don’t know. But I think it has something to do with competitiveness. To want to win, to put yourself first, to be driven, people assume you need to be macho. Or dominant, somehow, not soft – and all these cliches correspond to a certain kind of masculinity. I don’t believe that assumption is true.

Why I write

For me, fantasy, e-sports, role-play games, the whole magic and weirdness of the geekdom are my home. I want it to be a welcoming place. I reasoned that, if the real world lacked role-models, but performance wasn’t the issue, then maybe if I wrote a role-model I would be able to break the mould; which is why I sat down to write The Game Weavers.

I wanted the game to be fun and challenging, and the environment to be highly competitive, without the champions of the sports having to be macho. In the novel, the world champion is Woolfe, the first female champion of Twine, and her runner-up is Seojun, a young Korean player who is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Together, they represent what I want to see more of – people coming together, not being afraid to make a stand, and showing they can do as well, or better, than the people who tried to marginalise them.

Rebecca Zahabi is a mixed-race writer (a third British, a third French and a third Iranian, if the mix is of interest to you). She has written a few short stories featured in ‘The Magazine of Fantasy & Science-Fiction’ and is also a game writer for Choice of Games. The Game Weavers is her debut novel.

https://www.rebeccazahabi.com/

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