Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft is a digital trading card game based on Blizzard Entertainment’s massive multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft – you may have heard about it. Many were looking forward to the Hearthstone tournament, where contestants from all over the world would compete for a $250,000 prize and the title of “Grandmaster of the Hearth” – that is, until the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) refused to let women compete in the tournament alongside men. They didn’t even provide a female-only tournament, as they had done with two other games, Starcraft and Tekken.
The IeSF stated that “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 sport.” This statement was met with reactions from confusion to accusations of sexism. A day later an emergency session was called and the IeSF retracted its policy, allowing women to compete alongside men in tournaments for multiple video games including Dota 2, Starcraft II, Hearthstone, and Ultra Street Fighter.
It wasn’t until pressure was put on the IeSF that it abandoned its sexist policy. This misstep speaks more to the video game industry’s desire to mimic other sports. But for the fighting game community, unwelcoming and misogynistic scandals are abundant.
A toxic relationship with women is a recuring theme in the world of video games. The community’s sexism manifests in many ways, from the parade of game trailers featuring prominently white men, pandering to macho fantasies at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, to the constant humiliation of female developers, to the threatening of female academics involved in the field, seemingly just because they are women.
Rightfully or not, video game culture is imagined as an escape from an alienating world. Gamer culture, as gaming journalist Bob Chipman argues, defines itself as “willingly separate from a larger and more powerful and infrequently threatening mainstream culture.”
The context of gamers breaking away from the mainstream should not absolve gamers of accountability, or excuse them of violence – yet this attitude is given power in the community, feeding into the exclusionary and violent atmosphere.
Two years ago, Capcom’s Cross Assault, a competitive gaming show centred around the release of Street Fighter 4, was marred by controversy when a leaked video showed competitive gamer and gaming coach Aris Bakhtanians sexually harassing his own teammate, Miranda “Super_Yan” Pakozdi. Bakhtanians filmed Pakozdi, his lens focusing below her neck and hips, asking her, repeatedly, to “stand up.”
“I have to have fun,” Bakhtanians quipped, continuing, until she left the room. The objectification of a female athlete’s body during competition is something that has happened countless times in the sports community, but what makes this case especially troubling is the blatant enjoyment the perpetrator derived without ever pausing to consider how harmful his actions were.
People were not happy. Jared Rea from twitch.tv interviewed Bakhtanians, asking him such questions about whether it was unacceptable practice to use words such as “rape” when describing the defeat of an opponent, especially if that opponent was a woman. Bakhtanians responded by denouncing the criticism as an infringement on his freedom of speech, comparing the suggestion to self censor to living in North Korea. After Rea asked: “Can I get my Street Fighter without sexual harassment?”, Bakhtanians responded by saying: “You can’t. You can’t because they’re one and the same thing. This is a community that’s, you know, 15 and 20 years old, and the sexual harassment is part of a culture, and if you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community – it’s Starcraft.”
What puts into question the legitimacy of e-sports is not only segregated games, an issue which sports culture as a whole has grappled with, but more significantly these kinds of attitudes that openly accept and perpetuate rape culture as an immutable part of their community. The IeSF is trying to expand the market for e-sports, but when figures like Bakhtanians are ubiquitous, it is clear that it is an exclusionary league.
To address the outrage, Bakhtanians took to where all sincere and heartfelt apologies are given, Twitter: “When I made these statements,” he wrote, “I was very heated as I felt that the culture of a scene I have been part of for over 15 years was being threatened.”
Bakhtanians also reminisced on Twitter about the golden age of coin-fed arcade machines. “People didn’t like newcomers [...] I think the sink-or-swim mentality is something that defined our culture.” Yet this culture also defines itself by being exclusive and violent; any glorification of the culture also glorifies this aspect of it.
However, the Bakhtanians case is not an isolated incident, as any gamer who has ever played a few rounds of matchmaking on Ghosts, or traded in EVE Online, can tell. Bakhtanians is also not some obscure troll; he has a huge presence and fanbase. Without this fanbase, Bakhtanians would not have a platform to spew his sexist rhetoric. The fact that he still has this platform speaks to the sexist culture of video games. And this is no accident, but a deliberate move: Microsoft even recently capitalized on his popularity by having him as a main presenter at its 2014 Gamescom keynote.
Despite constant harassment from Bakhtanians and other members of the community, people are taking a stand. Jackie Lee, semi-finalist in the Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix Baltimore, endured anonymous insults from livestream viewers of her games simply for being a woman. Despite this, Lee ranks in the top 100 Magic players in the world. Lee explained that she had endured this sort of harassment before, that the comments did not personally bother her, and that she is in gaming “for the long haul.” She refuses to let the sexist nature of gaming culture win, but instead directly challenges it by doing what the sexist gamers hate the most: beating them at their own game, literally.
Hope lies not only in players like Jackie Lee, but in the conversations within the community and gaming enthusiast press. From Chipman’s web series episode With “Great Power,” to the increased visibility of inclusive gaming blog The Mary Sue, to Ross Lincoln’s Escapist Magazine article “Geeks Should Argue Politics,” opening up a discussion around these issues is the first step to creating a more inclusive gaming community.