The Trade-Off For Female Pro-Gaming: Visibility versus Meritocracy

Quite a bit of attention was focused this week on a Finnish International e-Sport Federation Tournament’s (IeSF) gender policies. It started as a segregated event, with male-only tournaments operating for DotA2, StarCraft 2, Hearthstone and Ultra Street Fighter IV, and female-only tournaments occurring for StarCraft 2 and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. After some public outcry, the gender restrictions were changed a bit, with the male-only tournaments and Tekken Tag Tournament 2 becoming open-for-all (i.e. no gender restrictions) and the female-only events remaining female-only and held in parallel to the open-for-all events.

Although many cheered this as a step forward for equality in gaming, I’m not so sure this was a good outcome.

Inequality Isn’t Solved By Just By Shoving Everyone Together

In relation to the original tournament arrangement, the thing that struck me was how limited the female-only gaming selections were. A number of the articles that criticised the IeSF were drawn to  Hearthstone being limited to men-only, which seemed unfair. I agree with this – why were the female-only pro-gamers only able to take part in a fraction of the games available to their male counterparts? That I don’t know.

The IeSF has said that they are aiming to increase female participation in events and had been following the lead of traditional sports that have separate female and male leagues. They recognise that e-sports don’t really have the same physiological gender differences to consider, but that having a women’s league seemed to be a way to “to increase the involvement of women in more easy and efficient way“.

The World Cyber Games Finals in Singapore, 2005. It was the first picture that came up.

It’s like the Where’s Wally books, only you’re trying to find a female competitor. (Image source from: Wikipedia Poland)

It’s a laudable goal, but having fewer options available to potential female pro-gamers before this week’s switch seems like an odd way to achieve it.

Having that ‘separate-but-equal’ goal didn’t stand long in the face of public criticism. Being reactive to public opinion can be a positive thing, but it’s important that such decisions are also carefully considered. Hasty choices that are made simply to sate negative PR can easily lead to poor outcomes.

Moving forward it will definitely be easier for the IeSF to only run open-for-all tournaments, but I don’t see this as encouraging more female pro-gamers to get involved.

It’s Not A Zero-Sum Game

There’s a trade-off here between the IeSF’s old and new position, and it’s visibility versus meritocracy. Under equally resourced female-only tournaments (i.e. both men and women play the same games, have the same prize money, etc.) female pro-players potentially get more visibility. Women are guaranteed in the winner’s circle alongside the men. This means that female pro-gamers have more greater visibility in e-sports.

Right now it’s recognised that only a very small proportion of pro-gamers are women, which means they aren’t very visible to the general gaming public (except when cases of gross harassment come up, which isn’t exactly going to encourage more women to get involved). Greater visibility leads to better understanding about the potential opportunity for women to be involved in e-sport, which in turn increases participation.

The IeSF agreed with this line of thinking, at least up to this week – “[i]t is the third year testing women promotion events, and we truly believe that [our approach until now] has grown the women player pool in competitive events,” said IeSF’s Alex Lim, general manager of international relations.

The famous (and apparently mistitled) Rosie the Riveter image.

Raising up the visibility of options that women have means that more women are likely to consider them. (Image sourced from: Wikipedia)

The flip-side is the meritocracy argument. Since video games don’t depend on physiology and are more skill-related, both men and women compete on equal terms. As such, holding open-for-all tournaments will mean that victory is gender-blind and the winner will be the person / people who most deserve it. As such, men and women should be put in the same, single tournament. This was the argument put forward by Polygon’s Ben Kuchera when he said, “[t]here is no physical reason, no good excuse, for why men and women shouldn’t compete together to find the best player. The idea that a ‘separate but equal’ women’s competition is welcoming is absurd on its face“.

Although this makes complete sense at first glance (as all “the best person should receive the reward / benefit on merit, not gender” arguments do) the problem with such a position is that it assumes a level playing field.

But that’s not the case. There’s plenty of evidence that female e-sport gamers face a much more hostile response than male e-sport gamers (which was a point that Polygon’s Kuchera attempted to use in his follow-up defence of having both open-for-all and female-only tournaments at the same event:I think many forms of competitive gaming have made women feel so unwelcome for so long that a female-only tournament here and there won’t be the worst thing” – so apparently gender segregation only ruins everything beautiful about e-sport gaming some of the time for Kuchera). So a female pro-gamer might be as skillful as her male opponent, but is also a lot more likely to have to deal with more psychological factors before, during and after they play.

Female e-sport gamers are currently also rare – one study put that figure at 3% of a sizable number of tournament players. And that’s just showing up to compete. As far as winning competitions, which goes along with an opportunity to earn enough money to make pro-gaming a viable career, there haven’t really been any major success stories. The most notable female pro-gamers have generally been found in StarCraft 2 tournaments, with Scarlett generally being named as the most successful female pro-gamer to date. But she’s the exception, with entire e-sports tournaments  held without female players participating.

At the very least, it’s a numbers game. If only 3% of players who start an open-for-all tournament are female, then the odds are against a woman appearing in the top-tier of players. This is the point where meritocracy runs into visibility issues – success is required for visibility in pro-gaming circles. If you don’t have visible female pro-gamers showing that a path can be made in e-sports, then fewer women are likely to even consider the journey.

A roulette wheel, which is completely fair, except that the house wins most of the time.

There’s an issue when a game tries to pretend that it’s fair, when actually the odds are stacked against you. (Image sourced from: Wikipedia)

Which is ultimately where I think IeSF’s decision to shift to open-for-all tournaments lets women down. By having an open-for-all tournament PLUS a separate female-only tournament, it only reinforces the fact that the women entering the female-only contest aren’t good enough for the open-for-all games. Further down the line, it also potentially reduces the opportunity for women to be pro-gamers if tournaments stop offering female-only opportunities – after all, if you take the meritocracy argument to its conclusion, you shouldn’t need female-only contests anyway.

At this point in time, visibility for female pro-gamers is arguably more important than offering a perfect meritocratic experience.

Short-Term Pain for Long-Term Gain

My support for segregated male / female tournaments over open-for-all tournaments is only for now. If the current approach was increasing the size of the female pro-gamer base (as the IeSF suggests it was) then segregation is working as a way of developing and encouraging player talent. Give it some time, and when there is a higher proportion of female pro-gamers engaging in tournaments, then the idea of open-for-all tournaments becomes workable in a self-sustainable way.

The classic-and-still-horrible segregated drinking fountain image.

Of course, when you start talking about segregated leagues, people starting thinking about it in the above terms and it’s all downhill from there. (Image sourced from: Flickr)

I’m aware that other game-sports such as chess and poker have open-for-all tournaments at the top-level and what we have seen here is that while the rare woman succeeds in this environment, it is generally dominated by men. Which is exactly where I see e-sports heading if open-for-all becomes the defacto standard and the IeSF abandons its current female-focused efforts.

I want to see equitable treatment of men and women in the gaming scene. However, I think this particular decision by the IeSF might make a lot of people feel like equality has been delivered while actual structural inequality has really been reinforced.

6 thoughts on “The Trade-Off For Female Pro-Gaming: Visibility versus Meritocracy

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  2. “Visibility for female pro-gamers is arguably more important than offering a perfect meritocratic experience.”

    Great article, going beyond popular arguments and the usual ra-ra BS that comes on bandwagon social media. My favourite e-sports player is Scarlett (just recently watched her sweep Polt in Red Bull, and just miss out in MLG Anaheim), and while it’s great to see her take on the big boys and win, expanding the female player base might be the more prudent short-term objective. It’s a tough call either way, but it’s nowhere near as cut and dried as others have tried to make it out to be.

    • Yes, there are good arguments for both sides. But if the aim is to get more women involved, I can’t see it happening without some kind of development / feeder league that allows more female pro-gamers to develop. A separate-but-equal tournament system allows this.

      Going open-for-all actually makes it easier for event organisers to claim that women aren’t interested in pro-gaming, because if they wanted to they could take up the opportunity and play against the (much more established) male players.

      • Hmm, I sorta agree with both of you, especially as far as the alternative solution thinking goes. But separate is inherently unequal. Investing in segregation in this particular case could be detrimental long term, because it allows current systems which are biased towards men to continue on the basis that women have their own thing.

        To increase female visibility, the best long-term course of action is to encourage women to play. That means finding women, recruiting women, and recognizing all the women who already play games. Traditionally we do this through representation: use of female avatars in promotion and marketing, and not the sexualized type, but the competent type. Game conferences are already crawling with women so this shouldn’t even be difficult.

        The best way forward to increase the participation of women is to encourage them. And that requires addressing the bias towards men in esport.

      • I agree it’s not an easy trade-off. However, I do think that you have to consider what you are encouraging women to join in e-sport and how you promote participation there. Because right now you might be able to find and recruit women, but getting a larger proportion of women engaged enough to stay in e-sports is a bit tricky given the additional social / psychological burdens they are often forced to carry by certain segments of both e-sport players and their viewing public.

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