Writing about women in esports is a challenging task. Our industry is constantly growing, but the absence of women becomes more apparent with each passing milestone. We have record-breaking prize pools for tournaments, yet we only have a handful of women involved in the production of these events. We have new “esports” games released every month, but only a few professional female players. Recently, Dexerto published an article called “Women in Esports Part 1 – Prejudice and Performance” written by JolyThePsych. Her article’s focus is to examine women in esports through a psychological frame of reference, with the intention of drawing attention to the noticeable lack of women in the community and how to solve this issue. Unfortunately, the article received more criticism than support when it was published.
JolyThePsych’s article examines the concept of prejudice and how it might affect the performances of gamers. The basis of the argument is a connection between female streamers on platforms like Twitch and professional female gamers. She argues that there is an abundance of hypersexualized female streamers who are responsible for creating and shaping the stereotype that woman gamers are only to be viewed as sexual objects rather than competent gamers. Joly argues that female streamers are, ultimately, synonymous with female professional gamers. The prejudice attached to female streamers is therefore transferred to professional female gamers as well. The fundamental issue I have with this association is her basic assumption that most ‘amateur’ women who stream are using their sexuality for followers.
Harassment still exists
Harassment in gaming is a common problem across all levels of play and all genders. One point that Joly made about prejudice was that while women are still treated unfairly, demeaning statements didn’t occur too frequently. Joly argued that, “Interviews with professional players indicate that there is still slight prejudice against women in esports, but thanks to societal undesirability, statements like “you belong in the kitchen” don’t happen that often.” Normalizing harassment by ignoring its prevalence in the gaming community is a big oversight, regardless of how you define harassment. In our online communitites, harassment isn’t simply restricted to comments like “go back to the kitchen.” It’s the verbal harassment that comes from teammates when a woman accidentally uses the mic. It’s the negative comments about a female broadcaster that focus on what they’re wearing instead of how well they did their job. Harassment is often directed towards women who work in the esports industry, but it’s pervasive in almost every online gaming community.
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Emma Featherstone’s “Women in eSports” addresses the issue of cyberbullying that occurs at the professional level for women like MissHarvey. In Featherstone’s article, MissHarvey spoke about her own experiences with harassment and acknowledged that she encounters this behaviour frequently when she’s gaming online. Dismissing the reality that female gamers face, whether in competitive play or causal, only normalizes this behaviour.
How to control ‘context’
One of the reasons this article caught my attention was the header image that was used on Twitter when the article was published–a sexualized cartoon of Tracer and Widowmaker from Overwatch. The choice to attach such an image to an article like Joly’s doesn’t properly reflect the importance of speaking out about the idea of women as entertainers versus professional gamers. Joly argued that “although mostly unconscious, women are seen only as the bearer of sexual stimuli than persons of competence at some point,” but the image chosen to promote the article on Twitter actively reinforces these kinds of attitudes.
There were a lot of critiques of the image from individuals in the esports industry, which eventually led Dexerto to take the tweet down. Many people were upset with the oversexualized image, and while the publisher might not have intended for the image to cause such a reaction, arguing that the image was taken out of context doesn’t erase the public’s interpretation of the image. Context is important, but you can’t explain away someone’s reaction. If posting a hypersexualized image of two female heroes Overwatch makes a woman feel uncomfortable, it isn’t anyone’s place to explain to her why she shouldn’t feel that way.
With the issue of the header image aside, the article highlights a larger problem in the esports industry: how do we have a productive discussion about gender issues in esports? A productive discussion needs to be based on logical arguments that are supported by facts and humanized by experience. It’s daunting to draw attention to a sensitive topic like gender disparity and harassment, but it’s necessary. By having these conversations, as controversial as they can be, I’m inviting my readers to become involved in a larger dialogue about gender issues. Productive discussions don’t happen at a round table or with a committee. They happen when we openly write about issues we face in the hopes that our community takes action. They happen when we draw attention to incidents of normalized harassment with the intention that the next time it occurs, the community recognizes it for what it is.