A still from Hearthstone: Curse of Naxxramas.
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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?

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.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

NANCY JO IACOI/GALLERY STOCK
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There are only two rules for an evening drink: it must be bitter, and it must be cold

A Negroni is the aperitif of choice in bars everywhere from London to Palermo - and no wonder.

The aperitif has the odd distinction of being the only alcohol that can always rely on a sober audience: it is the opener, the stimulant, a spur to the appetite for good food and good conversation. This preparatory beverage is considered the height of sophistication, and certainly nobody labouring in field or factory ever required a pep to their evening appetite. Still, to take a drink before one starts drinking is hardly clever behaviour. So why do it?

One reason is surely the wish to separate the working day from the evening’s leisure, an increasingly pressing matter as we lose the ability to switch off. This may change the nature of the aperitif, which was generally supposed to be light, in alcohol and character. Once, one was expected to quaff a pre-dinner drink and go in to dine with faculties and taste buds intact; now, it might be more important for those who want an uninterrupted meal to get preprandially plastered. That way, your colleagues may contact you but they won’t get much sense out of you, and pretty soon they’ll give up and bother someone else.

The nicest thing about the aperitif, and the most dangerous, is that it doesn’t follow rules. It’s meant to be low in alcohol, but nobody ever accused a gin and tonic or a Negroni (Campari, gin and vermouth in equal portions) of that failing; and sherry, which is a fabulous aperitif (not least because you can keep drinking it until the meal or the bottle ends), has more degrees of alcohol than most wines. An aperitif should not be heavily perfumed or flavoured, for fear of spoiling your palate, yet some people love pastis, the French aniseed drink that goes cloudy in water, and that you can practically smell across the Channel. They say the scent actually enhances appetite.

Really only two rules apply. An aperitif should be bitter – or, at any rate, it shouldn’t be sweet, whatever the fans of red vermouth may tell you. And it must be cold. Warm drinks such as Cognac and port are for after dinner. Not for nothing did Édith Piaf warble, in “Mon apéro”, about drowning her amorous disappointments in aperitifs: fail to cool your passions before sharing a table, and you belong with the barbarians.

On the other hand, conversing with your nearest over a small snack and an appropriate beverage, beyond the office and before the courtesies and complications of the dinner table, is the essence of cultured behaviour. If, as is sometimes thought, civilisation has a pinnacle, surely it has a chilled apéro carefully balanced on top.

The received wisdom is that the French and Italians, with their apéritifs and aperitivos, are the experts in these kinds of drinks. Certainly the latter are partial to their Aperol spritzes, and the former to such horrid, wine-based tipples as Lillet and Dubonnet. But the English are good at gin and the Americans invented the Martini. As for Spain, tapas were originally snacks atop a covering that kept the flies out of one’s pre-dinner drink: tapa means lid.

Everywhere, it seems, as evening approaches, people crave a drink that in turn will make them salivate: bitterness, the experts tell us, prepares the mouth to welcome food. The word “bitter” may come from “bite”, in which case the aperitif’s place before dinner is assured.

I like to think that a good one enables the drinker to drown all sour feelings, and go in to dinner cleansed and purified. Fanciful, perhaps. But what better lure to fancy than a beverage that exists only to bring on the evening’s pleasures?

Nina Caplan is the Louis Roederer Pio Cesare Food and Wine Writer of the Year

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times