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Aori Nishimura in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 doing a flat ground trick Image: Vicarious Visions/Activision

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Two decades after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, I finally got on a skateboard

Do you even skate, bro?

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

The first day I wore my oversized Volcom hoodie to school, a floppy-haired boy with torn-up shoes told me I couldn’t wear it. He asked me, Do you even skate?

No, I didn’t skate. When I got home, I put the hoodie in my closet next to a pair of bright white DC-brand skate shoes and left it there. If this sounds like a meme, that’s because it is. Do you even skate? was the rallying cry of “real” skateboarders in the ’90s and early 2000s, a way to weed out the posers. The people, like me, who approached skateboarding now because it was suddenly mainstream and cool — thanks, in part, to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which was released in 1999. The game, along with the X-Games airing on ESPN, brought the sport to new audiences who might not otherwise have participated. The first time I ever saw a woman skateboarding was in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I saw Elissa Steamer and thought, What if I tried that?

The shoes and my Volcom sweatshirt were my baby steps to a skateboard, but I never actually got on a board in my teens. I put the shoes and the sweatshirt into the closet, and I tried not to think about them.

It’s not a unique experience. Nina Moran, a skateboarder and actress who plays Kirt in HBO’s Betty, talked about her own experience in a TED Talk in 2017. “When a boy first starts skateboarding, nobody cares that he sucks — he just started,” she said. “When a girl starts skateboarding, she doesn’t even get the chance to try before getting judged by everybody. This is what makes it so intimidating to enter the skate park in the first place.”

And so, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, played on my cousin’s PlayStation, remained the closest I’d get to a skateboard — until I turned 31.

Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2, a remaster of the two original games, was released on Sept. 4. Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, this is also the year I started skateboarding in earnest. I actually bought a skateboard in 2017, but didn’t end up riding it much and soon put it into storage. When the pandemic lockdown began, I wanted to get a pair of roller skates — the same idea everyone else had. But I couldn’t get roller skates, because they were sold out everywhere. That’s when I turned back to my skateboard, and decided to try learning how to ride the thing for real.

Learning to skateboard at 31 is like nothing else. It doesn’t make sense. In the middle of a pandemic, it makes even less sense. Everything already feels out of control, so why not take on an arguably dangerous hobby? (At least, more dangerous than my other pandemic hobby, watercolor painting.) The thing is, skateboarding is really hard. It’s very unnatural, and every time I learn something new, it feels like I just shouldn’t be able to do those things — I’m on a small board with tiny wheels. And yet, after falling hundreds of times, I am sure that I’ll eventually make it. When I enter the skate park, I feel free.

This is a place where active failure is encouraged — it’s the only way to actually learn. In the middle of an out-of-control pandemic, my skateboard acts like a shield. Even with bruises and scrapes, I am in control of what happens when I’m riding a skateboard, how to move my legs in ways to go faster or more slowly. Which ramps to cruise down, which cracks I want to ollie over.

Ardelia “Dede” Lovelace, Moonbear, Nina Moran Image: Alison Rosa/HBO Max

It’s been nearly 20 years since that boy in school told me to take off the Volcom sweatshirt. I don’t have it anymore, unless it’s stuffed somewhere in my parents’ basement. But my created skater in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 does — it’s a generic sweatshirt, but it’s also my own personal fuck you to gatekeepers in any field.

Feeling unwelcome isn’t unique to women who want to skateboard. It actually reminds me a lot of my experience as a woman reporter covering the video game industry — both fields have a history of being male-dominated or downright hostile to marginalized genders, sexualities, and races. The industries both have the same tagline they attach to women who want to be involved: You belong in the kitchen. Moran brought this up in her TED Talk; it’s actually where the name Skate Kitchen (the 2018 film from which Betty was spun off) came from. Rachelle Vinberg, another Betty and Skate Kitchen star, came up with it after seeing people online commenting that skateboarding girls should be in the kitchen.

When I’m not skateboarding, I seek that same feeling of freedom through media like Betty and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 — but in different ways, of course. So much of Betty’s cinematography luxuriates in showing its women cruising around New York City. The Betty teens see the world differently, because to them, everything is a skate park or a prop they can play with. The show smartly balances these lush ride-alongs with depictions of optimistic and heartbreaking issues within the hobby, like racism, sexism, and sexual assault. The friendships constructed by the sport help support the weight of it all.

Nicole takes a spill while ollie-ing
I take a spill while ollie-ing.
Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater remaster, though, is a more idyllic world without any troubles, a place without the pain of falling or being told “no.” The game also showcases a better representation of the world of skateboarding by including a wider range of personalities, like Leo Baker, Leticia Bufoni, Aori Nishimura, Tyshawn Jones, and Nyjah Huston. (The original games’ skaters, too, are aged up, which is, frankly, inspiring.) I wondered, at first, if I could play the game realistically, as myself — you know, at my skill level. But I quickly realized that that’s not what the game’s for. After all, I can barely ollie. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 is an optimistic world without fear. As much as I embrace the pain of skateboarding, I do have to consider my body. It’s the balance between my current ability and where I could be that makes the sport thrilling, but also sort of scary.

My ability in the video game really has no bounds — at least, when it comes to my physical safety. Landing an ollie in real life or a 900 in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 is absolutely not the same as doing it in real life, but it’s close enough to create that serotonin burst.

Despite skateboarding’s brutal reality, the vision embraced by both Betty and the Tony Hawk remaster helps me see a world where everyone is invited to the sport.