"Excuse me for just a moment," IGN host Naomi Kyle says minutes after we sit down at a table in the lounge of the Hilton Anaheim for our scheduled interview. Just outside the hotel doors, WonderCon -- the sister convention to geekdom's high holy event Comic-Con International -- is in full swing, and a small group of fans who have wandered into the lobby are excitedly miming their desire to take selfies with her. Among them is a young girl who appears to be no older than 10; a beaming smile is splashed across her face.
Kyle patiently interacts with each fan, taking extra care with the young girl, asking her many questions about her favorite video games and all the different characters she loves to play before posing for pictures. Minutes later, as we resume our interview, the 5-foot-6 blond who has become one of the most recognizable faces of the video game industry as one of its original gamer girls shares how playing a video game changed her life.
"I still remember the first time I played Lara Croft in Tomb Raider," she begins, looking back over her shoulder at the young girl with whom she snapped selfies just seconds earlier. "I was 12 years old, and the fact that I could play as a kick-ass female who lived in a mansion, had a butler, and could do all these acrobatics -- it really empowered me and made me feel like I could be that sort of action hero. That's when I knew video games were going to be a big part of my life."
Today, Kyle says she's proud to be a pioneer in the heterosexual male-dominated realm of video games as a host and producer for IGN, one of the gaming industry's biggest news and entertainment outlets. However, she admits it took several years for her confidence to level up.
"I grew up in a small town in Canada and I was not popular in school," she says. "I was quiet and hung out with people who were good kids, did well in school, and didn't want to rebel. We were bullied a lot. Gaming for me became an escape from all of that. I couldn't be the popular kid in school, but I felt like it when I was playing video games. However, gaming was sort of like my dirty little secret -- it wasn't something I told my other friends about because I knew they weren't into it, and it just wasn't something I saw other girls doing."
Nevertheless, Kyle kept playing, and being able to see herself reflected in characters like Lara Croft had an enormous impact on her self-esteem.
After high school, she moved from her small-town home to attend college in Montreal, where she studied acting, cinema, and music. There, she says, she "came out as a gamer" and met several good friends who shared her interests and encouraged her to follow her dreams. She eventually signed with one of the top modeling agencies in the world, Next Canada, and soon began booking numerous high-profile campaigns before landing her first gaming gig as a podcast host for Gameloft.
"I had gained so much confidence by the time I began modeling, but I still felt like an outsider in the modeling world," she admits. "I wasn't into fashion like the other girls were or obsess over being super skinny -- I just wanted to be me. Landing that gig at Gameloft was like a dream come true because I was talking about one of my biggest passions."
However, she quickly found herself in a position where her gaming cred was regularly challenged. "Because I was a girl, guys couldn't understand that I just genuinely wanted to play games," she says, shaking her head. "It's so unfair because you never hear things like, 'He's a dude and he's just hired because he's hot.' Females in the industry, we hear that kind of stuff all the time, but I don't accept that that's the way it has to be, and I've never let it [deter me]."
Her persistence paid off. Kyle soon caught the attention of producers at IGN who offered her a job as one of the company's on-camera hosts -- a position she's held since 2011. Over the past four years, Kyle says she's happily watched the small gaming community that welcomed her during college grow to include thousands of girl gamers and people from all walks of life.
"I love that we now have access to people like us in the gaming world, whether we're female, male, transgender, gay, straight, bisexual -- whatever we are," she says. "Thanks to social media and [online gaming communities], we can now see there are real people out there who are just like we are, and we don't have to connect with just this character in a movie or that one supporting role on a TV show."
Though she's thankful for the role video games have played in her own life, Kyle says she's most grateful for the positive impact gaming communities have had on one of her closest family members. "My sister came out to me as transgender last year, and she's really into games -- not just video games, but tabletop role-playing games like Star Wars: X-Wing," says Kyle. "I'm so proud that my sister has decided to be herself and so happy she's been able to connect with others -- people who have also supported her as well as other trans people -- in the gaming world."
But Kyle says the video game industry has a lot of catching up to do before it can properly represent the diversity of the communities playing in those playgrounds of pixels. "We need more inclusion," she says, growing more animated as she continues. "Women, gay, transgender, bisexual, and every race in the world -- we need to see that representation in video games, because the more visibility there is, the more courage people will have to be themselves. I'd like to see more games where people can choose to a greater degree the characters that they play. Thank God we're beginning to see that with games like Dragon Age and Mass Effect 3 - games where [gender and sexuality are more fluid] -- but it's not enough."
She adds, "I want people from all walks of life to have that same experience I did when I played as Lara Croft for the first time."
Her passion to push the video game industry forward grew recently, she says, after a fan told her about the impact she was having on girl gamers around the globe. "I was speaking at a panel last year and a girl from Dubai came up to me and said, 'I need to hug you. You made it cool for little girls in the Middle East to stand up to boys in video games. What you're doing, it means so much to the female gaming community in the Middle East. Thank you for giving us a voice.'"
She pauses, obviously feeling the weight of the memory before continuing. "In that moment, the scope of my perspective completely changed. She inspired me and reminded me of the power video games have to show us the stories we have been told about how we're supposed to be because of who we are - they were never true in the first place. We can be anything we want to be."
As we begin to wrap up our interview, a group of three female fans dressed in elaborate costumes of characters from various games wave and call Kyle's name as they pass by our table next to the lobby. She stops and waves back, flashing a sincere smile before returning to our conversation. "Because games reach so many people today, game developers have the chance to change the world by showing there's more than one way to live your life, and I'm thankful to help pave the way for that change in any way I can," she says. "Soon video games may be the first place some people see someone like themselves and [those are going to be lifesaving moments]."
She adds, "But just being yourself, well, that's more powerful than you could ever be in any video game."
Watch Naomi Kyle deliver the latest video game and geektastic news at IGN and follow her on Twitter @NaomiKyle.