I have a problem with finishing projects. “Work in progress” is a phrase that describes me well – whether it be my attitude towards myself or with how my room is scattered with projects in various stages of progress. When I go climbing, I tend to either send a project or never try it again. It’s been a while since I just drilled out a piece on the piano to full mastery; my piano playing tends to be mostly as accompaniment when I’m practicing singing, or sightreading a new song. I tend to sketch out ideas that pass through my head, and I’ll spend a day immersed in the piece, only to never revisit it again after that initial spark of inspiration. More rarely, this also happens with books. I’ve currently been reading The First Cell by Azra Raza, and it’s been something I’ve been picking up and putting down for quite some time.
But I’m making progress. This post is one of those that’s been in the works for a while. I’ve written drafts, scrapped them, and started anew only to either stall out for months and desert the project, or start again into this cycle of madness. After I wrote my reflections on Riot’s culture during my internship, I had written out a draft where I wanted to talk about my own experience in gaming. But it didn’t feel right – it was too emotional, too personal, and didn’t seem to have enough value that I’d want to release it into the world. After Remilia passed away, I felt an urge to write again. About my own experience from when I first learned about transgender women, to my progress in trying to be a better ally, to what I’ve witnessed when the cause for women in gaming reconciles with transphobia and general bigotry towards transgender women. But that post never saw the light of day. It was again, too personal, and maybe I also felt uncomfortable with, as a cisgender woman, speaking as an ally-but-probably-not-ally-enough-where-do-I-exist-in-this-space but not a member of that identity group on subjects owned by that identity group. Then again, on International Women’s Day, I went to an event hosted by Riot’s RAD Genders RIG (RAD Genders stands for Riot Alliance of Diverse Genders, and it’s a Rioter Identity Group, much like Employee Resource Groups at other companies) where I listened to speeches and lightning talks from some of my peers that moved me deeply: it was inspiring, comforting, and touching. I cried and laughed at the stories that I heard. The talks were poignant and resonant, and the stories that those women on stage shared to me and others in the audience that day inspired me to add my own piece. I wanted to talk about, again, my experience in gaming and competing in a StarCraft 2 competition in high school, how my gender interacts with what I love to do and my work, and my experience being the only woman on my team and the first female software engineer ever hired in my department.
Yet, that post again never survived my unforgiving backspace key. I think it’s very hard to write about something you care about, because there’s simply so much you want to say and no perfect way to feasibly capture all of your thoughts, emotions, and passionate feelings you have about the topic because it’s such a dear part of your identity. I remember when I was competing at Princeton University’s Adlai Tournament, a motions tournament in the American Parliamentary Debate Association’s circuit, and there had been a topic about social media and privacy that I had felt so strongly about – I had done research for two years in this area as well – but when the time came for me to give the opening speech, I floundered. I wasn’t coherent, and my arguments were not well-warranted and lacked organization. I had this immense lake of thoughts I had regarding the topic, but I couldn’t distill it into a seven-and-a-half minute speech with any amount of clarity. Part of it is there’s foundational arguments and beliefs about the topic that, since you’ve been so immersed in it and for so long, you forget how to articulate. But they’re critical. So the words catch in your throat. It was frustrating, and that round still bothers me to this day. So, since then, I’ve been especially cautious about how to talk about something I am passionate about. I need to think about those foundations and communicate clearly.
So here goes. It’s about women in gaming and some things I’ve wanted to say about how although as a woman in gaming, there’s been times I’ve been an enemy to that very cause I hold so dear to my heart. There’s some overlap with women in technology, but I’ll try to keep that to a minimum just to have some more focus in this post.
I used to not like other women in gaming.
In my post about my summer at Riot, I talked about how I used to play StarCraft 2 and compete in the HSL, and how I eventually stopped. I’ll start from there, and talk about why I quit StarCraft 2. To start, and I only realized this recently (as in, I realized this listening to a lightning talk my friend gave at Riot’s International Woman’s Day celebration), I should give the context of I used to have a really poor opinion of women. It was internalized misogyny, and when I explain a bit about some of my first opinions about women in gaming, that’s reflected in them. That’s my disclaimer.
I used to want to be a pro-gamer. I know, I know! It’s something I look back and laugh at today. But it’s true. I wanted to become a pro StarCraft 2 player from almost the moment I started playing. I was always on the TeamLiquid forums, and once I got over my initial ladder anxiety, I was playing all the time. I hit Platinum league within a few months from when I first bought the game. I watched professional games all the time, and my friend group was full of SC2 fans who were just as obsessed with the game as I was. We’d watch tournaments, Day9 Dailies, and Husky StarCraft videos all the time; we’d watch each other’s replays and give critique, 1v1 one another, and discuss strategy. And, of course, we competed in Season 2 and Season 3 of the High School StarLeague together.
In my TeamLiquid blog post, I talked about how I first got into StarCraft from watching professional games – I was watching professional games before I even first played (which I think speaks to the appeal of esports as a spectator sport with a surprisingly broad pull). And, there were no women who were professional SC2 players. In fact, there were just no women who were good SC2 players. This dismayed be slightly, but moreso, it inspired me: I wanted to be the first professional female gamer. So from the very beginning, I wanted to aim for the very top. I once wrote a debate case related to Brown v. Board of Education (inspired by this episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History), and while doing some research for that case, came across some interesting conclusions about minorities entering majority spaces. A lot of times, people will talk about contact theory – for example, when it comes to racism, saying that contact theory could solve for racism by having prejudiced whites come into more contact with blacks, and dispel of their bigoted opinions of blacks and come to see them as equals. But that’s not always how it works. A lot of times, when a prejudiced majority group first encounters a member of a minority group, there’s instead a great amount of pressure on that member of the minority group to defy the stereotypes that the majority group has about them. And, depending on how they fall according to those pre-existing expectations, either serve to weaken and help break those stereotypes (as contact theory suggests) or, if they meet those expectations, only serve to further re-entrench those harmful beliefs. Take the example of a black child first entering an integrated school. If you’re a white child who has beliefs about say that black children were inferior to you and less intelligent, and then you encounter a black child who didn’t know something that you did (perhaps because the textbook they used at the black school was outdated), meeting this child doesn’t help make you less of a racist. In fact, having this experience might further validate all of the bigoted opinions that you hold and help you further justify the stereotypes that exist about black children.
That’s a bit of why I had such an extreme goal when it came to SC2. It was a burden that I felt, an obligation – like the weight of the reputation of women in gaming was resting on my shoulders. If I was going to identify as a girl gamer, I needed to be good at the game. Because there was a stereotype that girls weren’t good at video games. Most girl streamers were only doing it for attention and would always have face cams on their stream with a full face of make-up and low-cut shirts. Or, if the girl was good at the game, she was probably ugly. And then there were also transgender women in gaming, and them being, well, not really counted as a real “woman” in gaming. Because they weren’t considered a real woman.
One night, I was browsing through the top streamers on Twitch when I stumbled across Kaceytron. Holy moly, I still remember how livid I was that night. I even texted my friend and linked her stream. She’s a smart businesswoman honestly; she knew what she was doing – her logo was even colored like the Brazzers logo. But it upset me. She would essentially act out the stereotype of the “attention-seeking girl gamer” to a full, perfect performance: the large face cam that was centered mostly on cleavage, the male duo-partner, the raging and emotional tantrums she’d throw on stream, the terrible game performance, and the “SJW” attitude. She was the perfect embodiment of all that was deplorable in that niche (as the text under her Brazzers-themed logo reads: “Respect. Dignity. Gameplay.”) and people loved to watch her stream and leave demeaning, cruel, and mean comments on her stream. People would donate to insult her. She knew the satire of it and was established in the gaming community as a troll. She was a great entertainer.
But as somebody who was a girl gamer and who resented the reputation that girl gamers had, Kaceytron and her entire gig frustrated me to no end. And I still think, to be honest, that her stream is more than just harmless fun. It’s a space with misogynistic norms, and to claim that the bad behaviors her stream encourages is limited to just her stream and that her viewers, after experiencing her stream, go on to be respectful towards women in other online spaces now that they’ve shed their pent-up misogyny, à la Two Minutes of Hate from George Orwell’s 1984 is just pure naiveté. It’s a space where women are demeaned, and her stream fostered and sheltered abhorrent behavior. It was a place where that kind of behavior was validated, which is incredibly dangerous.
Team Siren also happened, and it was a face palm. It was the first professional League of Legends team that was comprised of entirely women. Which I think is an awesome thing I’d like to see, and I’m supportive of. The problem was how it was executed: for starters, they weren’t even close to a professional skill level. Platinum? Diamond? And you’re trying to be a professional team? In what world is that level professional? There are many ordinary gamers who are better than you; what makes you think that you can even begin to play at a competitive level – because of your gender? Not only that, but the promotional video for Team Siren was terrible: it featured each member, done up to the nines and striking poses, and clips of their gameplay along with their KDA. In what world do we care about a professional player’s KDA? Pretty much all new members that get added to a team usually get a line about their rank, such as “We’d like to welcome [insert generic player name here], a top Challenger player who mains [champions here] and is consistently in the top 5 of the NA ladder”. But right. Team Siren didn’t have high-ELO members.
Team Siren frustrated me because of the earlier standards I had talked about re: a minority group entering a majority space. If this is the first encounter that many people in the gaming community see of what a professional girl gamer looks like, this just served to further reinforce and re-entrench stereotypes about girl gamers: we’re bad at the game. We’re attention-seeking. When there was public fall-out and drama with some of the members of Team Siren and a member’s boyfriend, it was just even more of a bad look.
But to be honest, in explaining my perspective on women in gaming above from when I was younger, there are definitely some misogynistic undertones in even what I’m writing. For example, the perspective I had on girl streamers was honestly problematic. It’s okay for attractive girls to stream. And our gaming space is going to be even more of an unwelcoming place for women if we hold different and unfair expectations for them. There is no obligation for women who play games to have to pick up some flag and bear the weight of everything that they’re doing being good or bad for some overall social cause, and bearing any kind of guilt for that. When men start playing games, or are bad at a game, nobody says anything. Why should it be spelled out in particular for women? It was unfair for me to hold others to that standard. In fact, holding myself to that standard is what made me leave SC2: I basically just burnt myself out. I would cram in game after game and was hitting a plateau. I once played straight for 36 hours, trying to get promoted before the ladder lock. I started at Rank 1. I ended at Rank 8. I never played SC2 again. And holding myself to that standard leaves out why we play games and why the gaming space is awesome: it’s fun! If other women are playing games and having fun, we should celebrate that. We shouldn’t be blaming or shaming other women in gaming, or gate keeping them to be any more or less valid as a gamer.
I met the friend who gave the lightning talk last summer at Riot Games when she interviewed me about my experience competing in the HSL. I remember when she reached out (she was trying to conduct interviews with women who had experience with professional play), I laughed and told her, hold on – I was not even remotely close to being a professional SC2 gamer. I was definitely better than the average SC2 player. But by absolutely no means did I have experience with professional play. She still insisted, and we met. I am happy she insisted, because she’s somebody I admire quite a bit and am glad to have in my life. That day over lunch in our cafeteria, we also talked about Team Siren. She told me how she had interviewed an anonymous member of Team Siren, and told me a bit about how that member had been against that infamous Team Siren promotional video. They knew they weren’t close to the professional level yet. But the believed they could make it, however they’d need coaches and funding. So it was proposed that they go public to try and get support from the public, and perhaps some sponsors and funding to help them get to where they needed to be.
And that was the moment I thought about the girls from Team Siren as actual humans. My heart broke a little bit. They were probably a lot like me. Honestly, to this day, I know that I’ll probably cry the moment I see a woman on a professional team in LCS. They probably wanted exactly what I wanted: women in professional gaming, and they were trying to make it happen. I wondered how hard it must be to be hated by me, and so many others in their own gender identity group that they were trying to move forward. And feeling like they let that group down.
As I’ve gotten older, my perspective has changed. I’d like to say I’m supportive now of other women in gaming, and am working every day to be a better ally to myself and others in my gender identity group. Part of that change is because I’ve met other awesome women who I admire and look up. Who’ve been supportive of me in my career and have been vulnerable and candid to me in their own stories about being in gaming (or working in gaming).
I still think there’s many barriers to entry to women in gaming, and a side project I’ve been dedicating some of my time to at Riot (aside from my primary role as a software engineer) is helping tackle the problem of how LCS has no women in our league. I also recently started playing StarCraft 2 again – casually. It’s been a lot of fun. And cathartic in a way.
Transgender women in gaming are women in gaming. Women in gaming doesn’t implicitly mean cisgender women in gaming.
If you’re a StarCraft 2 fan, you might have read the above section and wondered: “What about Scarlett?” – for those who aren’t familiar, Scarlett is a professional Zerg player in SC2 who has won tons of major tournaments. She was at some point arguably the best foreigner and could compete as an equal against Korean players. She’s racked up countless accolades and has an incredibly impressive career. She’s also a transgender woman. I like this article covering her if you’d like to learn a bit more about her experience.
She came out while I was watching high school, and whenever she competed, Twitch chat was always full of incredibly transphobic comments: that she wasn’t a real woman and comments about her looks or voice and how well she passed. My friends and I would shake our heads and comment on how bigoted that behavior was. But to be honest, looking back, I was also ignorant in some ways myself. I also had a friend, Zoe, on my SC2 team who came out as transgender as well, and she was a Masters Zerg (who later on hit Grandmaster some time after I quit playing). And I think in this proximity to a transgender woman and the support I was able to show her, I felt like I was a good ally – in much the same way that some people justify not being racist (despite doing or saying indisputably racist things) because they have a close friend who is black. But I was reflecting on that time, and that perception and voiced support for the transgender community was probably mostly to feel good about myself and hid some of my own personal prejudices. Implicit in my view of wanting to support women in gaming, was wanting to support cisgender women in gaming. I used to always tell people I was the only girl on my team in high school, and I still thought about wanting to be the first woman in the professional SC2 scene despite Scarlett being around because I didn’t really count transgender women as women at that time.
When Remilia passed away, I revisited my beliefs about women in gaming. Remilia’s story is pretty fucking awful, and I’d encourage others who don’t know about what happened to try to educate themselves about the exploitation and transphobia she experienced from the entire League of Legends community and her team. And her story made me revisit and check myself about how I’ve previously had opinions that were transphobic, and how I could be a better ally in the future.
Women in gaming and thoughts around it should reflect its name and truly be from the perspective of all women. There isn’t an implicit “cisgender” in front of that; transgender women in gaming play an important role for our entire gender identity group and trying to exclude them does a disservice to all of us. Learning how to better support and include transgender women is important. So as a side thought, I’d like to ask anybody reading this who is also not a part of that identity group to join me and check yourself, and think about how to be a better ally.
A good rallying call
My friend who gave the lightning talk also said one more thing I’d like to share:
For those of you [who are also a woman in gaming]: instead of defending the niche you occupy as a woman in the gaming space, make more room for others.
I’ll try to do this too.
Some other articles I liked