I scroll through the names of players, looking for Yuudai Sato. I'd never have the guts to play him and it's probably the middle of the night in Japan, where he lives, but I always look.
I get an invite from VoldermorT. Who the heck is that? Got nothing else to do, so I accept.
I've had my new ArcadeStix controller for two months now. The company recently sponsored me, which means they gave me this controller and they want me to compete at tournaments and represent them using it.
The thing is huge. Bigger than my lap. And it's beautiful – red with the Cross Ups logo on it. It’s got a stick on the left and six buttons on the right, laid out perfectly for my fingers. The top row of buttons is for punching – light, medium, and hard. The bottom row is for kicks. It's like playing a real arcade game in my living room. I love it!
It took a while to master. You have to practice. Like playing the piano – except way more fun. I spent the first month in training mode, perfecting my Dragon Fire Super, until I had the timing down perfect. But tonight I'm off my game.
And VoldermorT is loving it. He's playing Saki, and he's good. Icicles fly from his beard and slice my arms. I try the Dragon Fire Super, but Kaigo just jumps up and spins around. No dragon. No fire. Definitely not super.
Saki throws snowball after snowball. They smash me in the head, the knees, the gut. This is the slowest possible way to kill me. It's like he's taunting me.
If I had a confidence meter, it would be empty. I can’t stop thinking about how [my friend] Cali beat me. And when I overthink things, I choke.
I grab another forkful of [dinner] and press Start to get back to business.
VoldermorT messages me: HEADSET.
Who is this guy and why does he want to talk? He's probably not going to say anything nice. I consider a rage quit, then decide to suck it up. I grab my headset and hear a girl's voice. Do not tell me I'm getting my butt kicked by another girl.
"Are you letting me win?"
Wait, that's not just any girl's voice. "Cali?"
Jaden, 12, is so good at video games that he has been sponsored by the team ArcadeStix. Jaden is enjoying the summer playing Cross-Ups as much as possible with his closest friend, Cali. They're playing online because Cali's staying at her dad's in Montreal while her mother is in hospital. Jayden's mother decides to sign him up for a day-camp that focuses on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in the morning, and then he joins a sports program in the afternoon. In theory, the kids in STEM apply what they've learned in the morning to a sport in the afternoon. But in reality, Jaden is humiliated by mean-spirited boys in front of the most popular girls in his class every afternoon. Meanwhile, Cali doesn't seem to be herself, but she's not telling Jaden what's wrong. So, things are looking up when ArcadeStix invites Jaden to represent them in Montreal at an all-ages tournament that will also be streamed online. His older sister, Melanie, accompanies him and they stay with Cali's family. The first evening there, Jaden starts to learn why Cali has been acting peculiar: according to Melanie, Cali is being stalked online by another gamer. Even though Jaden is shown the 'creep's' messages and sees that they make Cali's hands tremble, he doesn't agree that there's anything wrong with the communications, dismissing them as typical player's 'trash talk' and 'mind games’.
Cali decides to register for the tournament, too. During the tournament, Jaden, the youngest on the ArcadeStix team, gets tired of being called either a 'kid' or SheStar, a distortion of his gamertag, JStar. Meanwhile, Cali discovers that her on-line 'creep' is one of Jaden's teammates. Jaden and Cali's relationship becomes strained because of Jaden's misguided attempt to help Cali. It isn't until Jaden is in a Cross Ups battle with ORevoir, the French-speaking competitor who first called him SheStar and is now taunting and threatening him, that Jaden suddenly understands the difference between trash-talking and real, physical threats mixed with ageist or sexist abuse. Cali defeats her on-line 'creeper' in a Cross Ups game and goes on to win second place in the tournament. Jayden tells the head of ArcadeStix he wants to quit the team because of his (creeper) teammate's unacceptable behaviour. Instead, the stalker is turfed from the team. When Jaden goes back to STEM and Sports camp, he finds that his worth has risen with at least one of the popular girls who had followed the tournament online.
Anyone's Game, the second book in the “Cross Ups” series, is fast-paced and engaging. Narrato Jaden, his two buddies (who tag along to Montreal), and Cali, are all credibly sketched 12-year-olds who care about each other but are struggling with outdated sexist assumptions. For instance, as per the above excerpt, Jayden assumes that he is gaming with another guy. And, when his older sister – simply drawn, but also believable – asks Cali why she didn't sign up for the tournament, Cali replies:
"Not my scene."
"Why not? You obviously love it, and you're really good." Melanie has a point.
"It's more for guys," Cali says. That's true. There aren't many girl competitors. …
"So what? You could totally whip their butts." Melanie's voice rises, the way it does when she's in the mood for a fight. … "I'm a role model! I show that girls play golf too."
"Shut up, Melanie," I say. "Fighting games aren't like golf."
Jaden's eventual moment of comprehension regarding Cali's emotional state – which occurs during his Cross Ups battle with ORevoir – feels somewhat forced. Plus, at least, for this non-gaming reader, there's more gaming description than needed. However, most young readers – gamers or not – will likely enjoy Anyone's Game. It's a well-written story with a thought-provoking look at gender stereotyping.
Karen Rankin is a Toronto, Ontario, teacher and writer of children's stories.