An in-game screenshot from Hearthstone - unsuitable for women? Image: Blizzard
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Men-only pro gaming events ended after everyone points out how ridiculous they are

A Finnish games tournament has raised the strange issue of a gender divide in professional esports - apparently, because the international body wants to be taken seriously.

Professional gaming - or “esports”, to give it its proper term - is one of those significant pop culture things that rarely gets its due in mainstream attention. The video games industry is bigger than Hollywood, and gaming cuts across almost every single demographic that it should probably be surprising that the professional version isn’t more well-regarded.

The International e-Sports Federation is a little like the FIFA of esports, and it’s very keen to establish its credentials as a serious, respectable sport, with athletes and icons and lucrative sponsorship opportunities. To that end it engages in what games journalist Ste Curran accurately described as “cargo cult” impersonations of “real” sports, like signing up to the World Anti-Doping Agency, even if it doesn't entirely make sense for people playing computer games.

One thing that the IeSF decided it really liked about those proper sports was the gender divide. If football and hockey and golf do it, why not us as well?

Karuta, a poster on reddit, linked to this image from the entry requirements for the Hearthstone tournament - it’s an online collectible card game spinoff of World of Warcraft - at the Finnish gaming event Assembly Summer 2014. Highlighted was this sentence: “The participation is only open to male Finnish players.”

Redditors were incredulous (and it takes a lot to get reddit incredulous when it comes to matters of gender equality), as was PC Gamer’s Phil Savage, who went digging. He discovered that, since Assembly Summer 2014 is a qualifier for the IeSF’s global Hearthstone championship, and since that’s male-only the Finnish eSports Federation couldn’t risk a female player taking part and winning, and being unable to qualify for the next round.

The IeSF’s statement was bizarre, too:

The decision to divide male and female competitions was made in accordance with international sports authorities, as part of our effort to promote e-Sports as a legitimate sports."

Yep. The IeSF sees all those other sports sticking to a sex-based division, and decided copying it was the obvious thing to do.

Lest this be seen as merely a 50/50 split, however, it’s also important to make clear that the games open to males (Dota 2, Starcraft 2, Hearthstone, Ultra Street Fighter IV) were different to those open to females (Starcraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2). It’s completely arbitrary, and notably excludes female entrants from an extremely-popular fighting game. Maybe it was too violent?

Thanks to Savage’s work bringing the issue to attention, the IeSF has now backed down (or “absorbed feedback”, in its own words) - those events that were previously male-only will now be open to all, while those events which were reserved for female-only contestants will remain female-only.

Gender or sex divisions in sports (and the two are usually considered the same by the authorities, which is an entirely terrible issue of another kind) have many defenders, who have many justifications. Take a sport like golf, for example, where female players are given tees that are further forward to compensate for their supposedly weaker swings. As of 2013 the gap between the average driving distance on the men’s tour and women’s tour is about 40 yards (most holes are between 200 and 600 yards long), yet the distribution of average distances off the tee is such that there are many top male players with drives that are shorter than the longest female drives.

Those who argue against mixed golf tournaments point to those few top female golfers, like Annika Sörenstam, who entered male-only tournaments and flopped. Never mind that her stats placed her among the top performers for drive distance and shot accuracy, and that her nerves affected her putting (possibly because she was pursued by cameras and crowds throughout her round) - her failure was seen as further evidence that women cannot compete with him men under the same conditions.

There are all kinds of pressures working against female golfers, holding them back before they ever get to earn the chance to play with men. Its culture is dominated by wealthy, older white men, and cases of discrimination against women who apply to join golf clubs are rife. Augusta, one of the two most prestigious clubs in the world, only began accepting female members last year; the other, the Royal & Ancient in St Andrews, won’t get around to deciding on the issue until September this year.

When a teenage girl starts playing golf she will be taught to expect to be weaker, and will accordingly practice on courses using the shorter tees - and rarely with the experience of competing directly against male players of the same age. Many pro tournaments are technically open to all, but are de facto men-only because the entry requirements involve having a handicap or playing record that is based on past performance on the male tees, barring those who haven't had the opportunity to play that way. The average pro female player earns a fraction what the average male pro player does in tournament winnings, and at the top end of the scale sponsorship deals mean there’s simply no comparison - in 2013, Tiger Woods (who is nothing like the player he used to be) still earned $83m, while the highest-earning female player, Paula Creamer, won $5.3m. She was the 48th highest-earning player in the sport, and the only woman in the top 50. That money pays for further training and travel, of course, as well.

That is, golf and video games have some major similarities: the differences in ability, or interest, between men and women are attributed to a fundamental difference between men and women, and not the cultural handicap that comes from being a woman in a male-dominated industry. Switching from male-only/female-only to open-to-all/female-only is a good move for the IeSF - if they really want to encourage women to get involved, and not to feel alienated in a male-dominated environment, then female-only spaces have to be an option.

Yet it's interesting that the organisation also cited chess as an example of a sport with a gender division, and in a way the IeSF could probably look to it as a vision of what might happen in the future as the sport does achieve respect and recognition. Chess still has to deal with women who would otherwise be excluded by mixed rankings and tournaments, but it is also grappling with the problem of successful female players feeling stymied by the segregated system, as if pushing up against a glass ceiling. Integrate everything and women who cannot commit to chess because of wider societal issues, like childcare, will leave; keep them separate and the best female players will feel unappreciated and patronised.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: Getty
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem