Riot Games and Ninja Controversies Spotlight Gender Inequality in Gaming
Bryce Blum; Rachel Feinberg; Breanne Harrison Pollock•@esportslaw
This past week, conversations surrounding gender discrimination in esports came to the fore as two separate incidents sparked significant discussion and debate throughout the esports community. First, Kotaku released a lengthy feature entitled “Inside The Culture Of Sexism At Riot Games,” which detailed both systemic and anecdotal instances of discrimination, as well as an overarching “bro culture” at the publisher of the biggest esport in the world, League of Legends.
Later in the week, gaming superstar Tyler “Ninja” Blevins came under fire when an interview with Polygon resulted in an article titled “Ninja explains his choice not to stream with female gamers.” In this interview, Ninja explained his fear that if he streamed with female players, the toxic internet culture would twist that interaction to the point where it could cause significant issues for his family: “’If I have one conversation with one female streamer where we’re playing with one another, and even if there’s a hint of flirting, that is going to be taken and going to be put on every single video and be clickbait forever.”
Let’s start by calling a spade a spade: gender discrimination in gaming is real, and a real problem. While it certainly wasn’t the prevalent reaction to last weeks’ news, a sizeable percentage of the gaming community continues to feel these issues are overblown and they are just plain wrong.
While the problems raised by these two situations are relatively distinct, they highlight an important aspect of gender discrimination in gaming that is often overlooked; while there are many instances of discrimination stemming from a single bad actor, the reality is discrimination in this industry is systemic—it exists at every layer of the funnel. From the earliest days, societal norms encourage boys to play games while girls are made to feel video games aren’t for them. Game publishers often make pivotal decisions ranging from game design through the portrayal of female characters that cause games to be more appealing to men than women. Moreover, the toxic internet culture—which is perhaps at its worst in the gaming community—can lead to so much harassment for women that they hide their identities or simply give up games altogether.
The Kotaku article helps frame this issue in the context of Riot’s hiring practices, which put heavy emphasis on whether a prospective employee was considered a “core gamer.” While not a discriminatory criterion on its face, the way in which “core gamer” was defined internally, coupled with the wide array of upstream discrimination that causes many women to play fewer or different games, had the net result of Riot pulling from an extremely gender-biased talent pool.
Ninja’s situation is also indicative of the larger problem. While I personally might make a different choice on how to handle unfounded backlash from the community, there can be no doubt that Ninja’s fears are very real. The level of toxicity in the gaming community and the clickbait culture where every action he takes become the subject of YouTube videos and various articles cannot be underestimated. This same culture causes much of the harassment female streamers face while simply trying to do the same thing as their male counterparts. Such harassment is normalized in gaming to the point where it is viewed in many circles as acceptable and/or inevitable. We can and should do better on this front.
At the end of the day, this problem is as far reaching as it is complex. It doesn’t just apply to gaming, but a wide array of industries that have historically been male-dominated. We’re not going to solve the problem overnight, but we’ll never solve it period if we don’t think more critically about how systems fail to create an equitable playing field, not just how micro manifestations of discrimination play out on a day-to-day basis. The Kotaku article did an excellent job highlighting such points, and I hope conversations surrounding gender discrimination in gaming and esports will raise to this level moving forward.
While I cannot speak on the specifics mentioned in the Kotaku article, I can speak on my experiences. Esports, at its best, has offered me moments of inclusion unrivaled by others in my life. But at its worst, it has offered me moments of disgrace and fear.
Just like the workplaces of other industries, the esports workplace should not be a space riddled with exclusion, offense, or hate. Rather, it should be a workplace that encourages ideation and creation; it should praise merit on a gender-free, ethnic-free, and judgment-free basis.
We, as its members, are responsible for making our industry a hospitable and enjoyable environment. As such, we must speak up for those unable or unwilling to speak up for themselves when they need our voices most.
We have now seen, repeatedly, the call to action from women. The events of this past week are not unique to Riot or Ninja but are part of a conversation that has been happening in pop culture over the past year. Women feel discriminated, marginalized and silenced by the people in power and are speaking up about the changes they seek.
A change will only come when not only women speak up, but the people who control the power also commit to change. As a woman in 2018, I rely heavily on my male colleagues and counterparts for help questioning, acting and committing to help. My voice only goes so far, as well as the voices of the (few) other women in the room. Women can fight hard to get to the door, but if men don’t open it for us what good will come?
Men seem to think we don’t notice they are uncomfortable- to have us in the room, to take meetings alone, to commit to help us. We notice, and we are just as uncomfortable. We have to fight every step of the way to ensure our treatment is like any other colleague. We monitor how we communicate, how we give feedback, how we provide follow up information, how we dress. Giving into that uncomfortable feeling is what keeps the door closed. For both parties, it’s the easy choice not to open the door.
I’m lucky to have had male colleagues who have made the hard choice, who ask questions, who include me, who stand up when I am spoken over. However small their actions, as simple as a ‘hold on, let her speak’, has contributed to where I am today. The difference between one or two words may not seem like much, but the effect is enormous.
No massive, positive shift in society has ever come from one type of population nor has it ever been easy. It has come from making new choices, from sharing the burden, from making uncomfortable choices.