‘Players threaten to rape and kill me. It won’t keep me from the sport I love’

I always feel a bit weird talking about how much I like playing video games, I’m not sure if it’s because it’s something I picked up at university as a fully-grown adult; the gatekeeping that a lot of games enjoyers like to partake in (yes, you can still enjoy video games even if you only play Animal Crossing); or the gender bias making women a bit of a minority in the gaming world – perhaps it’s all three.

Outside of work, I play a lot of games. In the last two weeks I’ve racked up almost as many hours as a full time job playing things like Stardew Valley, Cat Café Manager, and Breath of the Wild, but no game can ever come close to my main love, Dota 2. The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) sees teams of five go up against each other to try and destroy the enemy team’s base building which is protected by a series of towers and each player. It’s horrifically complicated if you’re new to the idea, but terribly addictive once you’ve got a taste.

In the last six years I’ve spent more than 2,000 hours playing this game, playing nearly 3,000 matches with almost all of the 123 heroes available to play in the game. It took me from a casual gamer to an esports enthusiast, flying out to Sweden last month to watch some of the best teams in the world play against each other for a slice of the $500,000 prize pool. I’m even going to be playing for my country in August, representing Wales in the Commonwealth Esports Games in a women’s Dota 2 team.

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It’s been incredible. These opportunities have given me the chance to finally meet dozens of people I’ve only interacted with online, people I consider to be true friends, and I was even recognised for the work I’ve done commentating games, a practice known as casting, over the last year.

But none of that love and joy is a true representation of what it can be like to be a girl interested in gaming. In the last few years, for every positive comment or person I’ve surrounded myself with, I’ve received dozens of horrible remarks and messages – telling me to get back to the kitchen, calling me worthless, saying I should take my own life, and threatening to rape or sexually assault me.

I once even had someone threaten to kill me, but because the worst of these threats take place over in-game voice chat, there’s very little evidence to submit reports to the game company to get these players punished for their conduct.

Players have threatened to, or actually go through with, leaving the game or intentionally trying to lose the match after hearing my voice, harassed me into trying to date them, and blamed me for every little thing because of my gender.

I have very little fear that any of these threats will come true, but that doesn’t make it any less exhausting or acceptable to hear them in the first place. Obviously, working as a journalist means I don’t expect everyone to like me, but I never expected one of my hobbies to be the main source of hate in my life.

It’s not just exclusive to me, with other players sharing their experiences with sexism fairly regularly, shining a light on the toxicity in the scene. Mary Gushie, a games journalist from Canada, regularly opens up about the obnoxious sexism she’s met with, including some very graphic rape and death threats, writing about some of that experience in an article for Games Industry. Mary’s work, and her ability to stand up and call out this abhorrent behaviour, helped other people like me see this wasn’t a problem with us, it was a systemic problem with sexism throughout the entire scene.

People in every game experienced similar levels of vile hatred, threats, and harassment from people around them, with almost every comment either thirsting after the rare girl people had found in their games, or slamming every possible thing they could think of to degrade the woman in question.

There are some amazing groups who are very vocal about the right to have a welcoming and non-toxic space for women to enjoy playing their favourite games. I volunteer with Dota Valkyries, an organisation for women interested in the game, Women in Esports, an initiative run by British Esports, and Esports Wales, my national body for gaming, to help other women feel more confident to speak up and just enjoy the game in the same way their male counterparts are able to.

Even without the degradation there’s still very clearly something not right in the gaming industry – there’s a disproportionate amount of men in high-level roles in esports, and a huge difference between the number of men and women attending professional events, which can’t be put down to no women playing games.

Studies suggest that around 40 per cent of console gamers are women, whilst women make up the majority of the market for role-playing games like The Witcher, Elder Scrolls, and Fallout series on PC. The problem isn’t that women don’t want to play games, it’s that sexism and male-dominated spaces push them away from certain aspects of gaming and esports, making it even harder to bring new women into the community.

In one game, three of the four people on my team instantly reacted negatively when they heard my voice, berating me with sexist and sexual comments until I muted everyone on the team

You might not think it’s important but the sexism in the esports industry is absurd. Last year ESL, one of the biggest tournament organisers in the scene, announced the GG For All initiative, which included a $500,000 women’s only competitive scene for Counter Strike Global Offensive (CS:GO), and was met with dozens of messages protesting the scheme, with people complaining that women were given an unfair competitive advantage, “wasted money”, and didn’t deserve a spot in the limelight.

Why? It’s hard to say for sure but elements of bigotry and hurt egos were displayed out in the open as people opposed the idea, which would spread that $500,000 out into two leagues, each with a total prize pool of $150,000 for 24 teams, and a $100,000 event between the two leagues.

All in all, it’s a pretty small amount of money compared to the $1m events known as Majors, available for professional CS:GO players, of which there are usually three in a year. But even if those opposing the scheme are right, why does it matter? There are currently no women competing on the main stage of any CS:GO or Dota 2 competition, leaving people like me without role models to aspire to.

Dota Valkyries is one of the main groups supporting women interested in the game, and I’ve been on the commentary team for several of their tournaments

It’s not a case that women just aren’t good enough because there are plenty of high-ranked women in the scene. The reasons behind there not being any professional female players are far too complex to be solved by a simple “get good”, but of course, adding levels of nuance to the discussion would completely destroy the “gotcha” type arguments many of these people like to engage in.

The most heartbreaking thing for me is that people fail to consider how this vile hatred affects the women around them, the players who have no ability or desire to become professionals or see their faces on the main stage broadcast. It means women don’t use their microphones to talk in game, play alone, or even don’t play at all for fear of being abused.

It stops women from feeling like there’s a place for them playing games and reinforces the gender split we see imprinted on children from a young age with Xbox and PlayStation accessories made for boys, with nothing about video games targeted to girls.

I’m proud to stand up and put myself out there and say I like playing video games. The hatred I get hurts, but if just one other woman can see me and feel more comfortable booting up one of her favourite games, then I’ve achieved something incredible that makes the pain worth something.

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