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Archive for the ‘gender issues’

Ethics, sexism and incivility in gaming: Could 2014 be the year we implode?

September 05, 2014 By: Ladan Category: ethics, gender issues, media

I was reading a BBC article today where they mention Nicholas Boyle, a historian, who predicted that 2014 would be a year wherein a significant event could predict the outcome of the rest of the century. Apparently we’ve got a history with years ending in -14 or -15.

It’s hard not to feel like things are really wonky this year. Or maybe it’s always the year you’re in that you feel the most acutely.. either way, things like Ebola, Gaza, ISIS, 200 kidnappings of schoolgirls in Nigeria, the Ukraine, three terrible plane crashes, train crashes, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, cyberattacks, riots, hurricanes, earthquakes, volcanos, the list goes on… the world’s suffering can be overwhelming sometimes.

And when looking at the online world, it’s hard not to worry about what feels like a growing and flagrant expression of misogyny and general nastiness. Sexism in gaming or online communities is not a new problem, however. It’s just been amplified in recent months by a few high profile situations. While my cynical side finds it sad that it takes photos of celebrities to get us to suddenly take notice of this heinous crime of the theft of personal digital photographs or a troll attacking a celebrity via Twitter for it to get the police’s attention, at least it draws attention and perhaps gets a debate going. Then we had the latest series of debates around ethics (or the lack thereof) in online journalism, particularly in relation to gaming Web sites/communities. This all exploded a few weeks ago when news burst on the scene about allegations of game designers being in bed (literally) with gaming journalists and the blurry lines between nepotism and big money driving what gets coverage and what does not.

I won’t say much more than that (you can read the whole ‘GamerGate’ story and its related links above [good article, btw]) about the topic, but the issues of sexism, ethics in reporting, and this upswing in nastiness online seems to be the order of the day. I don’t worry about the impact on people like myself who’ve been around the Internet long enough to know how to compartmentalise nastiness and only focus on those things I can trust and respect, but I do worry about the upcoming generations of Internet-savvy kids (12 and up) who live on social media, games, and the various other outlets that mean more to them than anything else: YouTube channels, gamer community sites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.. if they aren’t seeing good practice on these sites, are we putting them at risk of growing up without good examples of how fair debate, journalism and reporting and analysis is supposed to be done? Will they even know what ethics are like in practice? I’m not saying that the mainstream media sites are much better, not by a long shot, but at least there’s a pretence of responsibility embedded in these other industries. And at least there’s a framework we can turn to to police and monitor these behaviours.

Maybe this is because a lot of us have come to gaming from a place of personal interest. Most of the guys who livestream, cast or have huge YouTube channels are gamers themselves who happened to be in the right place at the right time (and have a Webcam) and happen to possess a good sense of humour. Most of the guys who started the big gaming sites did it as enthusiasts or bloggers who never expected such success. And the game industry is dotted with people who loved games so much that they did everything they could to get a job working on them.

I remember when I started my PhD. I thought I had little to learn as I was coming to my work from a place of knowledge–being a gamer. But while I understood the community I was going to study, the actual professional qualification of doing doctoral research required training and supervision from those far more experienced than myself: my professors and lecturers who could guide me on how to be an academic. Sure I was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about games, but I had to accept that I had a lot to learn about knowing how to conduct and write up research.

Things being borne out of enthusiasm do not mean that they are bereft of expertise or ability, of course. It’s this very passion and creativity that has made gaming the exquisite cultural artefact that it is today; but being enthusiastic, knowing your field and having an opinion will only get you so far. Perhaps this current debate around ethics, sexism and incivility is just telling us that we need to make sure that our house doesn’t just have a wickedly awesome design, but that it’s clean and well kept as well.

Right now, the mainstream world doesn’t seem to notice or care much about how infantile or disruptively we are behaving toward each other right now. If anything, they’ll just use it as confirmation of our backwardness and the negative impact that games and social media are having on the world. But I’m feeling a bit embarrassed about what’s happening as I know this is not the face of gaming I want to see or promote…

I wholeheartedly agree with Adam Thomas (his article linked above) when he writes, ‘if this issue never gets looked into, then someone isn’t doing their job. Further silence basically goes to prove the point … of the lack of skill shown by gaming journalists, if nothing else.’ This issue should be looked into and it should be looked into by competent researchers. I don’t think leaving this up to the media, games industry or gamers to resolve will be sufficient in this instance.  It’s almost like we need one of those good ol’ white papers that we love to write here in the UK. An official ‘Report’ into the state of Sexism, Ethics and Abuse in the Gaming Community (community including all of those who work in/around and play in/around the games industry).

Either which way, whatever the outcome is from this summer of general nastiness in 2014, I’m hopeful that this only indicates that the gaming industry is just in its unpleasant teenager phase and will outgrow these outbursts of selfishness, moodiness and confusion so it can finally settle down into its true golden age where any and all gamer is welcome, people act like decent human beings toward each other while online, and the way the industry and media conducts itself is ethical and reasonable. Hey, anything is possible.. we’re talking about games, after all.

The Story About eSports and Sexism and How Gamers Can Change Things *Fast*!

July 03, 2014 By: Ladan Category: competition, eSports, gender issues, IeSF, SEUL

Anyone following news around gaming and the industry is likely to have seen the report that emerged from Finland’s Assembly event (their huge gaming convention which takes place each summer) that the Hearthstone competition was limited to male players only. This came up initially when a Reddit user posted the advertisement on the competition rules. This caused a lot of discussion and prompted criticism of the Finnish eSports Federation (SEUL), though the SEUL pointed out that they were restricted in this way due to standards set by the International eSports Federation (IeSF), of which they are a member nation. According to SEUL, they (along with other Nordic country members) had been actively lobbying to get rid of this segregated-gender approach without much success. But that all changed yesterday.


Until just recently (as in yesterday), and for quite a while evidently, the regulation had been in place to facilitate one competition pathway for female gamers and another for male gamers. And it wasn’t just that the pathways were gendered, the types of games available for males and females differed. Starcraft II could be played by both males and females; but Hearthstone (the trigger for all the forum and media coverage) was just for males. This was done, in part, to help eSports better mirror other types of sports (thus legitimising its place within the cannon of ‘sports’) and to promote and encourage eSports among female gamers, who are a largely underrepresented demographic on the competitive edge of the gaming sphere. This justification (on their Facebook page) did not satisfy the many readers/gamers out there who were suddenly tuned into the issue and as a result the IeSF called their Board together and made a decision (influenced by Blizzard, Hearthstone and SC2 producer, most likely) to change their approach, now having an ‘Open for all’ competition category (which all players can compete in regardless of gender) and another one for female players only (aimed at encouraging more women into eSports as they are so woefully underrepresented globally).


What I first found amazing in this sequence of events was how quickly this all happened.

1. The Reddit post was made on July 1.

2. A PC Gamer article (among others) was posted on July 2. There was a subsequent amount of negative backlash around this issue on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and elsewhere over these two days.

3. Blizzard got in touch with IeSF on July 2.

4. The Board of IeSF met and changed its regulations on July 2 to allow for ‘Open to All’ competitions while also maintaining ‘Female Only’ competitions.

This seems to demonstrate that gamers/the games industry can work together to effect change very quickly. That’s not to say that the arrangement is perfect, of course, but at least now a game like Hearthstone can be played by both male and female gamers (I play Hearthstone, for goodness sake!) in a competitive, sanctioned event sponsored by the IeSF.


I understand why IeSF felt that in order to legitimise eSports within the larger canon of Sports they wanted to do something to stem the major gender gap. I also understand that as an international organisation it has to consider how games are played in different cultures and regions.  But as Phil Savage (PC Gamer) wrote (in his article linked just above), segregating games that were not designed to be played by one gender alone does not seem to be the way to do it. I also don’t think that games companies are going to want their games to appear to be sanctioned by something like the IeSF as being for one gender alone–that’s a PR nightmare in the making… Even though I know it would be naive to suggest that a lot of the games we’ve evolved into an eSport aren’t designed with males in mind (even if that’s just a subconscious thing), I don’t think any games company wants to suggest that they would deny a 35-year-old woman a chance to play that game if she so desired to. So yes, have a ‘ladies’ only’ event, but make sure it’s the same games as the ‘all can play’ event.


Also, I think there are a few key issues that need to be addressed to better balance the gender gap in eSports:


1. Are we including the right games to attract more female players? I feel like we’ve just barely skimmed the surface of what’s possible with competitive gaming and perhaps the ones we’ve started off with are just generally less appealing to female gamers or have fewer of them playing in the first place. I’m not saying we perpetuate stereotypes of the types of games females play (the issue won’t be solved by having a Candy Crush tournament) but more that we ensure we really explore what games can be developed into a competition and perhaps look at proactive development with women in mind rather than following the market.

2. Does the way we set up an eSports federation or standardisation of eSports rules necessarily have to follow what we do with other Sports? I don’t see why they have to. It’s a whole new way of competing. Yes, it’s a lot like a sport, but that does not mean it has to be exactly like other sports. No one would ask that how we approach Athletics (Track and Field) is identical to how we approach, say, Darts or even the Luge. And there are well-established sports that cross the gender barriers: Equestrian events, some Sailing, Chess, etc. Maybe this is a GameSport or a SportGame… or a whole new word.

3. Are we encouraging enough women/girls in the right way to get into and consider competitive eSports? There aren’t many opportunities for kids of either gender to get into competitive eSports (I saw a BBC piece recently where eSports organisers were lamenting how UK gamers don’t play enough computer based competitive sports–but I didn’t hear how they are setting up local leagues with younger players to encourage them to get involved and coach them to compete) but as boys tend to gravitate toward computer/console gaming at an earlier age than girls (if ever) perhaps it’s not surprising that for some teenaged/young adult males, it’s not such a huge leap to go from amateur PVPer to a pro-gamer as they’ve been doing that with their school mates for years already. Girls may need more structured encouragement or training to realise they can compete.

4. Is it helpful to lump all types of computer/videogames under one single eSports Federation or set of regulations? As with item 2, I don’t think we’d regulate Baseball in the same Federation as Rowing.. but at this point we seem to be doing that with eSports. I realise that’s because things are fledgling at this point and there may be ‘sub-federations’ or categories of eSports in the future, but this could be another reason why this gender divide is perpetuating itself.


The IeSF is located in South Korea and while it aims to represent the world and promote eSports as a legitimate sporting activity, it is just six years old and has only 42 member nations. Most notably, countries such as China, Germany, the UK and the US are not members, despite being what I’d term ‘gaming nations’. What is notable about IeSF, though, is that the federation does have a wide geographical range and a nice mix of emerging and developed economies. What is laudable about organisations like IeSF is that they are actively trying to make eSports part of the larger body of sporting.


And of course, ‘everyone’ out there (with the exception of the ‘pro-gamer’, the eSports fan, the eSports industry, games designers, and the very fledgling eSports regulators) is still coming to terms with the idea that little Joey who likes to play DOTA2 so much could a) be GOOD enough at it that he might win a world championship, b) actually win some prize money for his efforts, and that c) we’d actually call it a sport. But that’s how things emerge and become mainstream: slowly but with a growing body of understanding around how the ‘sport’ works and re-evaluating our own personal definitions of sport. I still remember being surprised that there’s a competitive sport that combines mountain climbing and ironing. Who wants to iron at altitude? Blech.


In my own research, I engaged–more on serendipitous terms than with any strong intentionality–with studying the emergence of eSports during my three-year study of raiding in WoW. In the final weeks of my thesis write up, in fact, top ranked raiding guilds had begun to engage in ‘boss fight’ raid races to see who would clear a dungeon the fastest. They were remarkably fun to watch, well cast and demonstrated how very large teams (up to 25) could compete against each other. It wasn’t just the rapid responses of two SC2 players competing against each other or the 5-player teams engaged in PVP.. eSports was emerging and growing in scope. I won’t deny that the majority of gamers I spoke with tended to be male. I noticed that while many female players were raiding in casual or more relaxed types of guilds, the higher up the competitive food chain I went the fewer female gamers there were. This was largely due to either an issue with time (many female gamers I spoke with just didn’t have time to raid as much as the competitive guilds required), a lack of confidence or experience (many doubted their abilities to ‘keep up’), or certain highly ranked guilds choosing to restrict membership to males only (it reduced the ‘drama’, they claimed).


Since its fledgling beginnings around the turn of the milennium (though there was a lot of such competition happening well before then), the activity of gamers engaging in organised competition began to be termed a kind of ‘electronic sport’ or eSport, though most conventional sports fans might (and still do) roll their eyes at the idea of people with computers or video consoles ‘playing a sport’. I still remember going to a Leisure Studies Association conference in Leeds some years back (early into my PhD) and going through the dynamic features of raiding and gaming in an MMO. I was still struggling with a kind of vocabulary around what mattered to serious raiders and how you could qualify their approach to play. As I showed other academics my screenshots of player-modified UIs and how ‘add-ons’ enabled and sustained competitive gameplay, one of them chimed in ‘Well, it looks like a sport to me.’ I was gobsmacked. I mean I’d been feeling this way myself, as many of us have within the world of game, but I felt really validated to hear from another person–one who researched conventional sports science and one I would have cynically predicted to critique or knock down my notion of raiding being a kind of sport–that this looked like a sport. This had a major impact on my approach to my research going forward.


It will take a long time before we’ve worked through the nuances of what competitive gaming really is and if it’s truly a sport like other sports or if we even need to mirror it like everything else. Maybe it’s more like a GameSport or SportGame. Maybe that very hybridisation transforms the idea of play and gaming and sports in a way that we’ve not really considered yet. And we have a very long way to go before female gamers feel like they’ve got a place at the eSports table and that they are even welcome to take place. In those cases were women really were equally part of the gaming equation, I felt like the gamers had stopped focusing on ‘who’ was playing, but more about what they were doing. At the very least I don’t think we’ll get any closer to sorting these issues out any time soon–the gender divide is huge in many areas of modern society and seems to be taking a few steps backwards in some alarming ways. But the good news is that in a very short period of time a major issue that IeSF’s member nations had been debating about for quite a while was resolved–with some fan critiques, some belief in gender equality, a lot of social medial and a (very big) games company. Maybe we can teach the rest of the world a few things?



The gender mix-up in raiding

February 10, 2011 By: Ladan Category: gender issues, Polls, raiding group size, raiding guild

We’ve all seen it before… a 25-man Horde raid with about 19 female blood elf characters… or a 10-man Alliance raid group with 6 female draenei and 3 female night elves… but that’s not a demographic correlation with who are actually playing those characters. We don’t have more female players than male. We just seem to like playing female characters. I remember this one time in my guild (Alliance). Over the course of one week about six of the guys (and I knew they were guys from talking to them on vent or knowing them in RL) had suddenly changed their previously very male character to a female character. Of course I had no idea until I took 5 seconds to look at them during a raid and then had to do a double take. “Weren’t you a guy last week?,” I wondered, alarmed at this sudden decision of quite a few guys to head to the gender reassignment clinic and get certain things snipped off while adding other parts…

Of course, changing gender isn’t a painful and prolonged surgical procedure in World of Warcraft (unless parting with cold, hard cash is painful to you) and from my chats with raiders it’s almost never done because the person has a deep need to explore their issues of gender identity through an online game. It’s usually far more practical or aesthetic in origin. Here represents a composite of comments I’ve heard from male players about why they’ve changed their character from male to female or why they prefer to play female characters:

  • A shapely female draenei is nicer looking than a male draenei. [Many raiders have commented that they think male draenei look like unattractive bricks; kinda feel sorry for them.]
  • Male blood elves look lame. [Actually some players use a more derogatory word here but I won't include it myself. :P ]
  • They would rather stare at a female character’s posterior while they play.
  • Their gear looks better on a female character.
  • They heard that female characters get more help. [This is an intriguing one, because it can also carry through to female players--to controversial effect.]

In my informal discussions with female players, it is rarer that they will intentionally create or roll up male characters. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but I will say that I have one male character (a death knight) and I am not as comfortable when I play him. It does not feel like a kind of virtual extension of myself. I wonder if the gender character choice is less important for some players because they have a more detached relationship with their character. They look at it as a kind of conduit, a conduit that connects them to the game world and is merely the means by which the player does his or her actions inside the game. As a result, there is no great deep thoughts (like what I showed you above) as to why they pick a female character over a male one. But then again, I do know quite a few raiders (myself included) who do put thought into their character’s look and name, so I’d not say we’re all completely arbitrary about it. I just think it’s not as important as, say, how we like to set up our UI for raiding or what spec we’re using.

So we like the look of a female character, apparently, but that’s not who’s sitting behind the computer. Based on the informal results of the poll (with almost 200 participating), it’s extremely rare that female raiders (that’s the player, not the character!)  are equal to or exceed the number of male players in their raid groups. Anecdotally, and after almost 4 years of raiding, I have to agree with this. Before the poll I actually posited that most raid groups would include 10-20% female players. I’d say 39% is not a majority, but it’s a significant amount, and it gets even more significant when you add the less than 5% to 33% results as well. Let’s look at the results:

What is your estimated average male/female player (not your characters!) ratio on your raids?

  • Between 10% and 20% female players. (39%)
  • An average of 20% to one third are female raiders. (22%)
  • Less than 5% female in our raid groups. (22%)
  • No female players raid with us at this time. (11%)
  • We’ve got an even split (50/50) of men and women. (3%)
  • We have more female than male raiders in our group! (3%)

If you exclude the extremes (even split of male/female players, more female than male raiders, and no female raiders at all), 83% of respondents have at least 1 female player raiding with them. And this can go up as high as 22% of respondents having as many as 8 female raiders in a 25-man raid group or approximately 3 (I can’t really say 3.33, as that would require slicing up raiders.. unless 1/3 of a raider is a gnome?) in 10-man raiding groups.

What I’d love to break down further are roles and responsibilities of male and female raiders next. Of those women in your raid group, what percentage are healers? Ranged DPS? Do you have any as tanks or melee DPS? Again, speaking here from my own observations, it’s less common (though it definitely does exist!) to have female players playing tanks or melee DPS. I seem to be quite stereotypical: I’ve only ever raided as a healer or ranged DPS.

And what about roles on the raid team. Do you have a male or female raid leader? What about class leaders? Who hands out things like loot? Calls out commands? Maybe you find it easier to hear commands from a female voice, if it’s less common? I myself have been in a raiding guild with a female raid leader and I thought she was excellent. There’s at least one other highly ranked raiding guild on my server that has a female raid leader and a couple of the world’s best guilds have female raid leadership. But you may find it more common to have female raiders in your guild taking on the role of GM or other administrative jobs (the Web site, social gatherings, etc). Often viewed as a job that requires intense people skills (especially if you have a really big guild with a raider/social member mix) and management ability, it may be a more natural draw for a female player. Also, a 2008 study of EQ players found that  female players tended to spend more time in the game, (Williams et al, 2008)  maybe making it more feasible for them to manage the house, as it were. The same study, incidentally, said that about 80% of EQ players were male, while 20% were female. I believe we may have a slightly higher percentage of female players in WoW (maybe 25%?), but I think, on average, we have less female raiders. The EQ study did not look at raiders, just MMO players in general.

Also, if any of you are in or know of an all-female raiding guild, I’d love to hear about that. I know there are some all-female competitive gaming teams out there, but I wasn’t sure how many were represented among MMO raiding. I do believe that part of the reason we have fewer female raiders than male are practical reasons: time and skill. Despite the fact that female MMO gamers may spend more time in an MMO (or in EQ at least), we don’t know when they are in game. Evenings (when raiding happens) may not be as feasible for them to participate, especially if they have household or family obligations–or feel more guilt if they don’t tend to them, at least. And with less available time, it may be harder to develop their characters to be raid ready, along with learning the fights. But this also correlates to busy guys who aren’t raiding. Some of us just don’t have the time to commit to raiding.

As far as females being excluded from raiding, I really can’t find any evidence of that. Even when I spoke to the world’s best guilds–who generally, though not always, have fewer females than the lower ranked guilds–they were emphatic about not caring if the raider is male or female. They worried more about performance. If a female raider can carry her weight, she’s more than welcome, is what I’ve been told time and time again. In my interviews with some of the guys from Paragon they have been almost forceful in their emphasis that when they raid, Xenophics (their only female member at present) is never even looked at as a girl, just as a raider. Some have pointed out those cases where a female player has tried to use her status as a woman (see the last bulleted item above, too) to get preferential treatment or attention. That is viewed as extremely offensive to players who have seen that in action. Often called the ‘tittie ticket’, there has been a practice reported of some female players who flirt their way into a high performing guild to secure valued raid spots and gear, despite their inability to perform. And often this causes a lot of tension amongst the raiders in the guild. It’s an ironic manifestation of the “sleeping with the casting director” problem that has many of us cynical over why a physically gorgeous woman who can’t act might get a part in a movie, when an ordinary looking woman who acts as well as Meryl Streep never gets a chance.

But this is where it always confuses me. We don’t judge raiders by looks. Often we may not even know what they look like (can you really trust that pic you were sent?). We judge on performance. So how can we allow a poor performing raider (of any gender) to stay in the group. Well, I suppose that’s our overall performance and forgiving nature coming into play. We can (especially in 25-man raiding) tolerate one really poor performer as long as everyone (or some of the group) exceed the average. And we do it a lot. And we usually do it for social reasons; they are a friend, they are family, they are the partner of one of the raiders, they are just a nice person with just crappy lag/gear/computer.

But at the end of the day, while elite guilds may have had the problem of the gender card being manipulated for personal gain, I think in general, a female player–as long as she can perform at the same level as everyone else–is as welcome on a raid as any other player.


Williams, Yee and Caplan (2008) Who plays, how much, and why? Debunking the stereotypical gamer profile. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13 (2008), 993-1018.