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

Photo: Getty
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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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