Phil Hartup on videogames

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Why can’t women compete against men at video games? Sexism, that’s why

The International e-Sports Federation has reversed their men-only policy in favour of one competition for women, and one for everyone else including women. What kind of message does that send?

A still from Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas.
A still from Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas.

Most sports can trace their roots back a very, very long time. Football dates back centuries but was first codified and played in the form we know it in 1863. Chess is almost as old as the feudal system it seems to resemble. The first Olympics took place nearly three thousand years ago. Sport and competition have been central to human society for as long as we’ve had human societies. So when the opportunity appears to create entirely new sports which can grab audiences immediately, are widely accessible and have the financial backing to bankroll professional competitors, it is an almost unprecedented historical position.

This position is exactly where we find ourselves with e-sports. Without centuries of tradition and historical baggage weighing them down, plus the many advantages unique to their digital platform, e-sports are in a unique position to establish themselves as competitions of our time. Of course that is an opportunity that presents as many pitfalls as benefits.

We saw one such pitfall appear last week when a Hearthstone tournament in Finland, which was linked to a competition in Korea, announced that no women would be allowed to compete in the event. Now the immediate reaction to this was obviously anger and the situation was rapidly solved. The International e-Sports Federation reversed their position and opted for a format of one competition just for women, and one for everybody else including women. Time will tell if this is the right approach, but it is not an unprecedented format.

Perhaps the highest profile sport to operate on a “one league for women and one for everyone” plan is golf. Women are free to compete in the PGA tour against the likes of Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, but to do so is, understandably, extremely difficult. Players such as Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam have competed against men, largely it has to be said unsuccessfully, although in a sport with many millions of players around the world to even get to that level in the first place requires a level of athletic ability only found in a tiny number of people, not to mention the sort of superhuman dedication to a sport from a young age that is more usually nurtured in boys.

Thus it is probably no surprise to anybody that e-sports, like most sports, are a predominantly male affair. However it does not have to be this way and one would hope that video games can become inclusive enough so anybody who wants to, and has the skills to do so, can compete at the highest level and earn a living at it.

The choice to maintain a women-only league as well is perhaps a trickier one. On one hand it might encourage more women into e-sports, but on the other hand what message does it send if women are only expected to compete at an inferior level?

The term E-sports covers a variety of different games that challenge the competing players in different ways, everything from the lightning reflexes and perfect muscle memory demanded by fighting games on one extreme to the thoughtful and measured strategy of Hearthstone. Hearthstone is unlike most competitive video games because it draws its inspiration more from card games such as Magic: The Gathering. The game is broken up into turns and though time is a factor the game is a world away from traditional competitive video games.

In the past the games were more limited in scope, first person shooters, fighting games and real time strategy games all played at absolutely blistering pace, but this has changed, with games like DOTA 2 and League of Legends being more reliant on teamwork and tactics than the number of actions per minute a player can perform. There really is no practical reason why women should have lower expectations in these games.

The current generation of e-sports competitors are typically young men who were born during the early phases of modern video gaming, planted in front of a console or computer from infancy and who are as skilled with a mouse and keyboard as a virtuoso musician would be with an instrument.

However, despite the apparent advantage of being raised a gamer, there is a marked difference between something like League of Legends or Hearthstone and a sport like golf – these games are very new. Give it a few more years and we’ll start to see competitors who have lived and breathed games such as DOTA 2 and Call of Duty from infancy, but right now these are games that have only existed for a few years, often in comparatively new genres. Beyond that, even if we do see players come through who were weaned on these games, who is to say these games will still be the ones that are played in five years, let alone ten? Players looking to make a career out of playing video games will have to be versatile and every new game that gains prominence will shake things up.

The last hurdle to inclusive gaming lies with the players themselves. The culture of games like League of Legends or Call of Duty has long been considered spectacularly toxic, and this might serve to deter women players, or indeed anybody who doesn’t want to deal with the occasional rancid rant from an opponent. Even the perception of a games community as being unpleasant will put players off, because even the best game in the world is no fun to play if you’re being called every name under the sun by a socially dysfunctional adolescent. This is an area where games are starting to change for the better. Hearthstone, for example, took the radical step of removing the ability for players to talk directly to their opponents completely. What seems like the most quintessentially antisocial move imaginable actually means that games are played with a sort of serene cordiality. By reducing online conversation almost to the digital equivalent of a martial artists bow, Blizzard removed the capacity to bring toxicity to the game.

Video games are ubiquitous; if you’re under a certain age you probably play them and probably won’t ever completely stop until you die, probably of deep vein thrombosis or choking on a Dorito. People already see video games as entertainment that can be watched rather than just played. The Youtube viewing figures stats for Felix Kjellberg and people like him bear this out, and it will be interesting to see if, and how, games manage to gain a mainstream foothold in the world of sport. We could be seeing the start of a brand new era.