Gaming as an industry has always been a tough nut to crack for many women, both around the globe and here in Singapore as well.
Toxic behaviour stemming from its perception as a “boy’s club” has often led to gatekeeping actions – attempts to control access to gaming for “casual players” – including sexist remarks and verbal abuse.
This firewall of toxicity has proven to be a hurdle for many women who enjoy games and who work in the industry but who are often turned off by a hostile reception.
In recent years, however, gaming seems to have softened its hard, unwelcoming shell, thanks to trailblazers who just wouldn’t take “no” for an answer – women who are stepping into the spotlight and taking their place alongside male counterparts.
BEHIND THE SCREEN
To reach such a promising outlook, however, was no mean feat. This was especially so behind-the-scenes, where prejudiced behaviour was often hidden.
Marjorie Poon, the deputy CEO of Emerge Esports, a local talent management company, said that being a woman in the gaming industry does present different difficulties.
“E-sports is very male-dominated in the first place, so being a woman in the industry means that we have to prove ourselves in a different way,” said the 27-year-old. “There are perceptions that we have to overcome and they are usually negative.”
The co-founder and managing director of Eliphant, Elicia Lee, recalled instances where she had to send male colleagues to business meetings as the other party did not want to deal with her. Although such incidences were rare, this was still the case despite Eliphant being one of the largest e-sports marketing and events management companies in the region.
“Obviously, it’s not ideal. What you want is not to even have to deal with things like this. But that’s unfortunately how it is. It’s very annoying and unnecessary. But if you still want to do business with that company then sometimes that’s what you have to do,” said the 39-year-old. “You just have to take it as it comes, and when there’s an opportunity to educate people you take it,” she continued.
Lee describes herself as a “massive” World Of Warcraft player, although the rigours of running a business have left her little time for gaming nowadays. Still, despite some sour experiences as a woman in the gaming industry, Lee said that she has been seeing an encouraging uptick in the number of women trying to enter the gaming sphere.
She noted that in recent years, Eliphant has seen more women applying for job positions in the company. Eliphant also recently hired its first woman to fill the position of project manager, which Lee said has helped the company to bring a “new perspective and way of doing things”.
The same goes for Emerge Esports, said Poon, who has hired female talent managers for their roster of content creators and other e-sports personalities.
“There are issues we want to address as a company,” she said. “I do want to make a difference in female leadership and empowerment.”
The incredible growth of online streaming, in particular, has made gaming even more accessible to a female audience, many of whom take to streaming themselves, diving headfirst into the lands of shooters and battle arenas.
A report by Streamlabs and Stream Hatchet published in April this year showed that video live streaming service Twitch's viewership has more than doubled in just a year, from 3.1 billion hours in the first quarter of 2020 to 6.3 billion hours in the first quarter of 2021.
Women streamers are enjoying their slice of that growing pie. According to the same report, top names such as Rachel “Valkyrae” Hofstetter and Imane “Pokimane” Anys drew 12.2 million hours and 6.8 million hours, respectively, of viewership duration during the first quarter of 2021.
With streamers like Valkyrae reportedly earning around US$170,000 (S$225,000) each month through her 3.3 million subscribers, it’s no wonder that some local players are looking to pursue the camera-facing life as a career.
Take, for instance, local Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) player Silver Chen. In 2018, the 31-year-old admin executive began her first attempts at streaming on Youtube, before moving to Facebook as she felt that the platform had better potential for viewership.
Today, the MLBB streamer has more than 8,000 followers on her Facebook page. Although she has a full-time day job, she said that she tries to stream every day, with each session lasting roughly three hours.
“While streaming is a hobby for me, I hope to become successful too,” she said. “It’s brought me a lot of fun and enjoyment, and it’s helped me to improve a lot. Sometimes I get feedback from my viewers telling me what I should and shouldn’t do.”
And although Chen seems happy to take advice, it doesn’t seem like she’s in desperate need of it herself. She’s reached the rank of “Mythic”, a designation reserved for the top tier of MLBB players.
Chen also noted that mobile games such as MLBB have helped more women enter gaming due to their ease of access, as they only require a mobile device as compared to an entire PC set-up. A report by mobile advertising company Jun Group in 2019 showed that women mobile gamers outnumber their male counterparts, with 63 per cent of mobile gamers being women.
However, there are downsides to being put in the spotlight. Most streaming services come with a chat function for viewers to interact with the streamers themselves. While this can be used to promote fun discussions or a way for viewers to react to the streamer’s gameplay, the flipside is that it also provides an avenue for toxic behaviour like misogynistic or objectifying comments, a problem faced by many women streamers.
A study published by researchers from Indiana University in 2017 showed that women streamers on streaming platform Twitch were more likely to receive chat comments related to their looks, compared to male streamers where viewers focused more on their gameplay. This sentiment was echoed by Poon, who noticed the same tendencies amongst the talent roster of Emerge Esports.
She said: “For female streamers, people focus on whether they are entertaining or as an opportunity to see an attractive woman playing games.”
Beyond external interactions through streaming, in-game interactions also present a hurdle for women gamers, who might not be seen as playing on an equal skill level as their male team mates.
“Sometimes because you are a female player, they will look down on you,” said Chen. “Even if I showed my win rate in games, they would think that it’s nothing because you’re female and you can’t play as well as a guy.”
“But I will always try to prove them wrong,” she continued. “I think that we shouldn’t compare male and female gamers, because I think female gamers can perform as well as male gamers. I just try to do my best in both streaming and gaming and put in effort.”
GUNNING FOR THE TOP
With such an intimidating atmosphere for women gamers, even fewer of them end up taking the less beaten path of becoming a professional competitive player.
Tammy “furryfish” Tang, 37, who started off competing in games like Counter-Strike and DOTA, founded one of the region's first all-female competitive teams, Team Asterisk, in 2005.
She recounted an anecdote told to her by the female captain of Team Asterisk’s League of Legends team that suggested why women gamers might not be interested in joining mixed-gender teams as they could become scapegoats for poor results.
According to her, when the team did well, it was often attributed to the male players in the team “carrying” them to a win. In gaming terms, “carrying” often refers to a player outperforming others in his team in order to win the match for them. However, when the team lost games, female players were blamed and deemed “a burden”.
To provide a “safe space” for women gamers who wanted to experience a competitive environment, Tang created the Female Esports League (FSL) in 2012. According to her, the FSL sees about 2,000 participants each year across the various titles that it holds competitions for, such as MLBB and DOTA 2.
“Our aim at FSL is to reach out to female gamers who might want to try competitive gaming and haven’t gotten a chance but would love to do so,” said Tang, who is still in charge of running the FSL today.
To do this, the FSL allows players to sign up individually for competitions and matches them with other players to form a full team.
“I see ourselves as a stepping stone for them to transit into being pro gamers, part of gaming organisations or mixed teams, wherever they want to go,” She added. “But for those who feel like this is all they want to accomplish and this is where their space is, we can also be that for them.”
In 2019, Katherine “Kimiko” Ho joined the FSL to participate in MLBB competitions with a group of friends, with the team eventually placing second. Ho, who works as a nurse at a general practitioner’s clinic, said that she liked playing in the FSL as it was “more comfortable to play with other girls”.
The 29-year-old also makes sure to train hard by watching recorded replays and learning from videos on YouTube, which often take hours out of her schedule. This, she said, is because she believed that women can outperform men if they are willing to grind out the hours in training, which also served as a motivation for her to join competitions as well.
Recently this year, Ho joined an open competition organised by Moonton, the publisher of MLBB. Her team managed to win a hard-fought second place, even against other teams that consisted of all-male players.
Despite the promising advancements made in the gaming industry to become more welcoming towards women gamers as a whole, Tang believes that there is still room for the sport to grow when it comes to gender equality.
In order to break this “invisible barrier”, she said that one way forward was for women gamers to become more common and normalised, in order to minimise gender being a stand-out characteristic of being a gamer in the first place.
Still, there's plenty to cheer for for women in gaming. Cheryl Allison Lim, 25, a local streamer and social media executive, said that streaming has helped shift perceptions towards women gamers. More skilled women taking to streaming means that viewers are now able to see first-hand how good women gamers can be.
“They respect (them) because they can see their skill level,” she said, citing examples of highly-skilled players like Jiadota and Kohaibi.
Lim, who counts the character of Disruptor in DOTA 2 as her favourite one to play as, added that men could play their part in supporting women gamers as well.
“In-game, if you see a girl being scolded or looked down on, you can stand up for her,” she said. “If a guy stands up and tells off another guy, it will make him take a step back and think. I really respect these guys who do this for women out there.”
But more than that, more women getting into gaming also means that there is also strength in numbers.
“Women are already at a disadvantage because people won’t take you seriously. A lot of women don’t have the confidence to step out there,” she said. “When you come together to support each other, we are a lot stronger as a community.”