© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Women gamers talk opportunity, inclusion at Midwest Gaming Classic

Women share their passion for games during a female-led panel at the Midwest Gaming Classic. From left: Jess Hutfless, Erika Philipp, Kelsey Lewin, Rachel Ristow.
Eddie Morales
Women share their passion for games during a female-led panel at the Midwest Gaming Classic. From left: Jess Hutfless, Erika Philipp, Kelsey Lewin, Rachel Ristow.

At the Wisconsin Center last weekend, iconic video game music playing from a jukebox brings passersby to a halt. At a grouping of air hockey tables, the sounds of pucks ricocheting off walls are met with yells of victory and defeat. When a pinball player loses their third and final ball, the Star Wars machine makes it known.

The Midwest Gaming Classic is an annual trade show that features tournaments, presentations, live performances, panels and over 100 vendors. At a Sunday panel called Gamers (Who Happen to Be Women), five female speakers detailed their contributions to the gaming industry.

An extended conversation with Kelsey Lewis, a Seattle-based retro video game store owner and co-director of the Video Game History Foundation.

Erika Philipp works at Milwaukee Company of Gamers. She also goes by the name Verika Model & Gamer Gal. Philipp combined her fashion modeling background with her hobby of tabletop gaming, which led to her work on several Dungeons & Dragons modules and other board games.

"Stepping into that space, taking kind of a couple of hobbies, playing dress up, getting into a theme — I like board games that have a deep theme and a story," Philipp says. "I like becoming the character and making those decisions and seeing how that evolves."

Philipp says making connections with a variety of people and gamers is what led to her greatest achievement of being brave and stepping into an unknown space.

Jess Hutfless was also on the panel. Hutfless works at Marco Specialties Pinball Parts and is a podcaster and video game livestreamer. In 2020, Hutfless decided to create daily TikTok and Instagram content because she hadn’t seen much representation of transgender people just living their lives.

"I'm a transgender woman," she says. "There's a lot of misinformation out there about what transgender people are. A lot of it's kind of scary."

As her videos of playing pinball and other games became popular, she was invited to join the podcasts Dungeons and Dorks and Unprepared Casters. For Hutfless, these communities are special because she says it’s difficult to find safe spaces in public areas.

She lives in South Carolina, where an optional initiative for small businesses led to storefronts displaying window stickers of pride flags.

"Those are places where we know we can go in and we can eat a meal and be safe and not have to speak hushed because you can hear my voice, right? My voice doesn't sound particularly feminine all of the time, sometimes more so than others. There are some places where I'm afraid to speak up."

Hutfless says it makes a difference when she goes into a coffee shop and the employee has a pin with their pronouns on it, or when there's a small pride flag near a register.

"Things like that, that are just like hey, we're acknowledging that you exist and we're acknowledging that we're okay with the fact that you exist."

Guests at the 2023 Midwest Gaming Classic play a variety of pinball tables.
Eddie Morales
Guests at the 2023 Midwest Gaming Classic play a variety of pinball tables.

Rachel Ristow runs a competitive pinball tournament series for women called Ladies Flip Wisconsin. Ristow says pinball events are places where people can be vulnerable and be themselves.

"Women's pinball is a very special thing," Ristow says. "I don't even know how to explain it. I want to cry about it — I probably will. It's a very special thing to me because it's just a way of showing if I play a tournament, there's 100 players and there's maybe 10 women. That's the number one reason why I try to do this and try to promote women's pinball and get them to come into the hobby to play."

Ristow says meeting people is the best part of playing. She says the highlight of hosting a tournament at MGC was that people she knows would ask:

"Hey, do you need a water, or do you need something to eat? Do you need a hug? Yes, please give me the hugs."

Ristow says she wants everyone to feel that energy and to know that they're just as welcome.

"When women are able to come to a women's only event, not only do they feel a safe space, but they feel they can just be themselves. I think that's all we really want in the world is just to be ourselves and to be heard and to be seen."

The MGC website says a few years ago, they heard about a girl who loved coming to the show, but was worried that girls aren’t supposed to like games. So, they created the panel to show that not only can girls enjoy games, but they can also do amazing things with them.

Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.
Related Content