Over the past year and a bit, someone I am close to has made a handful of references to me being part of gamer/gaming culture, and it’s always evoked a slightly defensive response. She doesn’t necessarily mean it as an out-and-out insult, but she doesn’t mean it as a compliment either - she is referring to some of the problematic archetypes of “gamers”, a word which seems to have evolved in its meaning over the past few years to mean something less literal than it once did. To be honest, it has caused me to have something of an identity crisis - I love video games, am I problematic or complicit as a result of my involvement with their communities?
I’ve spent a lot of hours over my life playing games, and in particular have dedicated a lot of time to competitive multiplayer titles like Dota, Rocket League and Counter-Strike. Games are designed to be as emotionally involving as possible, and each of these games have ranked ladder matchmaking systems, which give the feeling of stakes being higher than just having fun. Players invest their time and energy into these games. These players are inherently privileged - to be able to be in a position to dedicate a large amount of time to something with appreciably close to no payoff is not something most people can do. As is often the case with particularly privileged people, there is often a sense of entitlement that goes hand in hand with it. Furthermore, they are completely anonymous, and therefore cannot be held to account. The combination of this manufactured investment, anonymity and entitlement have upsetting, but predictable consequences. In my thousands of hours of solo queue grinding over the years, I have experienced an overwhelming amount of toxicity, and I am sure that everyone who has spent any meaningful amount of time playing these games has encountered the same. If I had a pound for every time I’d been told to kill myself by a stranger online, I could buy a Ferrari and then drive it off a cliff. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to value my free time more and am less willing to risk being verbally abused in order to play these games, and so I’ve stopped. I recognize that a big part of the reason why I was able to tolerate this for so long was because it was something I never encountered outside of the sphere of gaming - I’ve never faced any meaningful abuse or harassment for simply existing. But this is not the case for a lot of people, and there is absolutely a problem with misogyny, racism, homophobia and any other kind of discrimination you can think of in these kinds of games and their communities - the toxic cocktail as described above will mean that people will use any information they can to lash out and try to hurt other people. The fact that people can choose to remain anonymous as a way to avoid targeted hatred isn’t good enough anymore - women should feel just as comfortable using a microphone to communicate with their team as men, and it’s impossible to imagine any woman feeling that way at the moment.
The flipside to anonymity is that it is easier to try to stand up to these people than it is in real life. Ultimately I can just mute/block anyone I interact with and forget they ever existed. And I have definitely tried to reason with toxic screennames in a way in which I don’t think I ever have in real life, again especially as I have got older, hopefully more emotionally mature, and less willing to spend my free time allowing myself or other people to be verbally abused. I don’t know exactly how many times I have tried, but certainly enough that I feel like I have a comprehensively representative sample size, and I feel like I have never made a single shred of progress with anyone, no matter what angle I tried to take. I have tried empathy and compassion, and perhaps I am not empathetic and compassionate enough. I like to think that maybe once I ended up blocking these people, they went away, really thought about what they did, and perhaps made the slightest of changes; but I doubt it. It was incredibly draining, and ultimately I gave up - and again, I recognise that I am exceptionally privileged to be able to give up in this situation and move on with my life. Is there a way in which I could be a positive example and make even the slightest bit of difference - to be honest I’m not sure. I don’t really participate actively in the gaming community anymore - I don’t play those kinds of games anymore, I don’t post on Reddit, I don’t tweet about games or comment on Youtube videos or chat in Twitch streams. I still love games, but now I participate very passively in them, playing single player games, or watching Starcraft tournaments but not participating in conversations about them. In many ways I would love to participate in these conversations - few if any of my in-real-life friends share my interest in gaming and it can feel lonely not being able to share something I’m passionate about with other people. I tried participating for a long while, and any attempt to have a positive impact ultimately felt futile.
There is a reason I chose to write this blog today, despite it having been on my mind for a long time. It concerns esports, rather than gaming in general, the specific niche of gaming I am most interested in. As I alluded to above, “gamer” as a word has taken on a new meaning and I think I allow my passion for esports specifically as a way to distance myself from being a participant in “gamer” culture. I have no interest in Fortnite or Call of Duty which tend to attract huge numbers of younger players and mainstream media attention, and who’s public figures seem to display a particularly distilled form of toxic masculinity. I think of esports titles as by and large being more mature, akin to being a fan of football or basketball or tennis. I tell myself that the toxic “gamers” are another subset of people, and that I am not one of their number.
Esports grew up insanely fast. At the expense of being pretentious, I remember when Heroes of Newerth had their world finals in a school gym’s basketball court - it was every bit as bad as it sounds. I remember Dreamhack Winter Dota having a $30k prize pool and that being a huge deal. I remember major Starcraft tournaments being bring-your-own-computer brackets up until the round of 16, because organizers couldn’t afford to make that many PCs available. All that was less than 10 years ago, and now major esports events are played in stadiums, with global multi-billion dollar brands as sponsors, and the industry itself is of a similarly power-of-tenned status. Esports used to be kids with poor social skills playing in their parents’ basements, and now they are legitimate mainstream celebrities - even more so during the pandemic which has confined traditional sporting events to the sidelines. Over the past couple of days, esports’ growing pains have caught up with them in a major way.
Across a variety of major titles (Dota, Starcraft, and Counter-Strike being the ones I have paid closest attention to), an alarming number of women (and a handful of men too) have made statements detailing their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault at the hands of prominent figures with the esports community. Their accounts have been appalling to read, but in many ways not surprising. In the basketball-court days, there were exceptionally few women involved as public figures in the scene, and that number has grown over the years, however esports is in some ways the extreme end of gamer culture - its participants are rewarded for spending thousands of hours on a very singular task, and attracts privileged men who tend to have a poor understanding of how their words and actions affect those around them. Now a significant number of people serve as role models to their communities, and there are huge LAN events at which people can no longer hide behind their anonymity - but at which already unacceptable abuse can also progress past purely verbal. These people have gained a lot of power and status in a very short period of time, and have never been held accountable for it, until now.
Thanks to the bravery of these survivors, the whole community is now talking about this issue. Some of the commentators still choose to hide behind anonymity and peddle toxicity, but from what I have seen on Reddit, Twitter, and in various esports news and journalism outlets, these people do not appear to be the majority. People are recognising that this is a huge issue, and that steps need to be taken to address it. Some of those who have harmed others have lost their platform and had the community’s support rescinded, and other prominent figures in the scene have called for changes such as harassment training at events. Every major figure in esports, both individuals and entities, are going to have to acknowledge the current situation and engage in a dialogue about it. It’s horrific that it’s a discussion that has to be had at all and that things have been allowed to happen in the way that have and that people have got hurt - however this is the first step towards fixing this issue which is shamefully at the core of esports/gamer culture.
I really, really love video games and esports. Playing through Disco Elysium was the most I have enjoyed consuming a piece of art in my recent memory. Watching Starcraft gives me a feeling of pure, untainted joy that virtually nothing else does. I think Dota is the most masterfully crafted strategy game ever made, and it will always have a special place in my heart. I want to share the feeling I have with as many people as possible, and everybody has the right to enjoy them without fear of harassment or abuse. As described above, a bottom-up culture shift seems hard to bet on given the toxic blend of characteristics that most problematic players have. A top-down approach could be what’s needed, and now the community is engaging with that conversation, I am hopeful that meaningful progress can be made.
So that leaves me, and what my participation in esports and gaming means. It has historically been my primary pastime and, to be honest, a big part of my identity, so to confront that it is problematic has been painful - hence this post being over a year in the making. I have learned a lot in the past few weeks about privilege, confronting the fact that aspects of myself have been damaging to others, and the difference between silent complicity and active allyship. Has my own experience with gaming culture left me problematic tendencies? Absolutely. Being exposed to that toxic environment so immersively for so long is always going to have an affect, even if it is subtle and subconscious. Now I can recognise that, I am actively going to put in the time and effort to correct those behaviours.
Earlier in this post I said that I felt as if I had largely withdrawn from the gaming community as I found it overwhelming, but that in many ways I would like to return to more active participation within it. Having written the rest of this, I think I have somewhat talked myself into it - a very important conversation is being had right now, it is an opportunity for change, and if there is the change that my voice makes even one iota of difference, then it is worth participating in that conversation. I’m not quite sure how to contribute in a meaningful way right now, but I will write about it in the future, and in the meantime I will be listening to the people speaking out.
Much like the Black Lives Matter movement has recently taught me that my lack of understanding of race is unacceptable, these past couple of days have reminded me that there is still a lot I have a responsibility to do in order to combat misogyny and discrimination in my life away from the keyboard. I need to educate myself and engage in open conversations with others, even (especially) when they are uncomfortable, and hold myself to a higher standard than silent complicity.