La Verne junior art major Dynasty Nakatani returned to her room after a long day of classes and plopped her bag on her bed. She reached for her laptop, loaded one of her favorite games, Blizzard’s “Heroes of the Storm,” and selected the Shaman of the Earthern Ring, Rehgar, as her starting character.
Nakatani joined a server as “Lunabird12” and plugged in her headphones and micro-phone as she waited for her fellow Gamers Guild members.
The lobby soon filled with familiar names – “Taylorgang,” “VurkGol,” “Marbs1” and “Themegalt” – as her friends joined the server room. They all readied up, and the game selected a random team for Nakatani and her friends to play against.
“Let’s have a good game, gentlemen,” VurkGol typed into the chat.
The message was transmitted to both teams and after reading it, Nakatani sat up in her chair. She began to type her own message to the other team’s players.
It only took a few seconds for someone on the other team to respond with a “thank you.”
Although there is a considerable number of women in the gaming community, some still feel uncomfortable participating in this hobby because of sexism and harassment. They believe the community is male dominated, when in fact, the disparity is not as great as many perceive it to be.
“I don’t think (the greeting) was something that was intended to be sexist, but it’s something that’s internalized and learned,” Nakatani said. “When women see messages like that, it ruins their confidence and makes them feel like it’s difficult to be included in the community.”
Video games are for everyone
Gaming is not really a male majority hobby like many perceive it to be. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, there is almost an equal number of men and women playing video games, with 50 percent and 48 percent respectively.
However, many people have a misconception about the actual ratio of gamers because of how male-dominated the hobby currently is.
Pew reported that about 60 percent of American adults believe most gamers are men, with 57 percent of women gamers also sharing this perception.
Nakatani said she thinks many women often will not admit they play video games because of difficulties they face feeling included.
For example, some women may not engage in a conversation about video games if those involved are all men. Sometimes, men would doubt a woman is a “true gamer” and ask them questions about games just to make her feel ashamed for not knowing an answer.
“It makes you not want to try again, even if you have the skills,” Nakatani said. “When you get hate messages, it’s really hard. Even if you have strong confidence, it really knocks you down.”
University of La Verne students in the two-year-old club Gamers Guild share concerns about sexism in the video game community. The Guild was formed in 2014 by sophomore history major Jack Bowman as a way for students to come together to share their common hobby of gaming.
The club currently has 136 members, with just 39 of them being women, Bowman said.
Fifteen guild members were surveyed about their gaming preferences and their estimates for the ratio of men to women in the general gaming community. Only four of those who responded to the survey were women, but almost all believed there is a significantly larger ratio of men to women.
Nakatani knows that the statistics are not as skewed as many think, but she hopes more women will get involved in the community after they learn about how many women are actually interested in gaming.
“The unfortunate thing is that statistics say a lot of the female members in our club don’t like the play competitive games,” Nakatani said. “It’s hard to find females who play games like ‘CS:GO,’ but that’s because there’s a lot of deterrents that women have in gaming.”
The deeper effects
More significantly, video games can affect how women are perceived in the gaming community and can also especially influence young people, documentary filmmaker Elke Teichmann said.
Teichmann co-produced and co-directed the documentary “Boys’ Toys?” in 2014 for her master’s dissertation in digital media production. The documentary examined how women, both in the gaming community and as in-game characters, are viewed and treated, and it analyzed how the representation of female characters affects one’s psyche.
Seeing these unrealistic body types not only affects young girls’ psyche, but they also skew the way young boys may view girls, women and themselves, Teichmann said.
In her documentary, she explores how many female characters, such are “Tomb Raider’s” Lara Croft, are portrayed with unrealistic body types including large breasts, hips and butts.
“You have all of these unrealistic body types that very few people in the world actually have and when you see it as a gamer, whether you are male or female, it affects what you expect out of reality and the two just don’t go hand-in-hand,” Teichmann said.
According to a study titled “Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions” by Karen Dill and Kathryn Thill, professors of social and behavioral sciences at Lenoir-Rhyne College, female characters in top-selling video games are 60 percent more likely than male characters to be sexualized.
Teichmann said being exposed to the oversexualization of female characters may impact how young women see themselves.
“It impacts how we view our relationships, our friendships, how we should treat people,” Teichmann said. “You see these things that aren’t portrayed in reality, and so your expectations are very skewed.”
Nakatani said she has noticed the increase in women with enlarged breasts, curved bodies and dressed in scanty outfits in some recent games including Blizzard’s “Overwatch.”
“On the outside, I don’t consciously realize it affects me, but I’ve always had more body confidence,” Nakatani said. “I’m sure others recognize it on a subconscious level, it’s impossible not to.”
The effects are not just limited to psychological impacts; being a women in the gaming community is also difficult, Nakatani said.
According to the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace” by Danielle Keats Citron, law professor at the University of Maryland, 70 percent of women gamers still choose to play as male characters to avoid harassment from male players.
“It’s already difficult to be included in the community, but a lot of females use male characters or male pronouns like ‘guy’ and ‘dude’ and other inclusion language,” Nakatani said. “Treating women no differently than men matters.”
Breaking the barrier
Although video gaming may still be widely seen as a hobby for men, this misguided assumption is slowly fading as more women are becoming involved in professional gaming and speaking out about the struggles they face in the community. To be considered professional, a gamer needs to play for money, whether it is a salary or prize for a tournament. Women are still considered the minority when it comes to the male-dominated competitive realm of gaming, however, some women are proving that being a great gamer does not correlate with one’s gender.
Nakatani competes as the only woman on the University’s five-person “Heroes of the Storm” team. The team competes in tournaments against other college teams in the nation. The tournament is divided into rounds, and teams advance by beating their opponents.
After going through auditions for the support role, Nakatani was given the position based on her abilities as a gamer.
“They were not looking for a token female,” Nakatani said. “I was chosen because I did the best job.”
The team competed in this year’s “Heroes of the Dorm” tournament, advanced the fifth round and placed in the top 6 percent of teams nationwide. Although Nakatani played the support role, which she calls the “stereotypical female role,” she said she does not see it like that.
“I was the best support that tried out,” Nakatani said. “I just enjoy doing it, it’s not like it was ‘Oh, I have to play support because I’m a woman and no one else will. I’m fine with doing it and now I want to play other (positions).”
Other women have also been breaking the gender barriers on the professional level and are encouraging more women to be involved in the competitive gaming (eSports).
Lilian “Milktea” Chen is a designer living in New York who is now a retired “Super Smash Bros.” competitive gamer. She was active in global tournaments before stopping in 2008 because of how the community treated her as a player. She began to receive backlash commenting on her gender, including being called a “harlot” and “nerdy fantasies.”
“When the gender imbalance is this large, social dynamics can become a bit skewed,” Chen said in her TED Talk “How I Responded to Sexism in Gaming with Empathy.” “You get a bit more attention than you normally would.”
She later co-founded The New Meta, a panel discussion that looks at sexism in eSports.
Chen and other women in the eSports community hosted their panel “Growing the Participation of Women in eSports” at Game Developers Conference 2015, where they shared their experiences and encouraged women to emerge in the community not only as professionals, but also fans and players.
The conference featured various panels addressing the emerging presence of women the video games community.
Chen said it is important for women in competitive gaming to be models for young people, not just other women.
“I think everyone can acknowledge that we have an issue when it comes to women in gaming and eSports, but the next step is what are actually going to do about it?” Chen said in the panel.
Emily Lau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special Report: Fighting the Status Quo