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Equal eSports - From cliché to strong heroine

Bonn, August 24, 2022

Until August 28, 2022, video game dreams will come true at Gamescom. A look at the new games shows an exciting development: More and more games have strong female characters. The scene is thus setting an example: against gender stereotypes and for more diversity.

At Gamescom in Cologne, retro games lined up with new releases, strategy games with shooters and, increasingly, male protagonists with female main characters. In "Syberia: The World Before," players in the role of salt mine worker Kate search for their identity. In "Age of Darkness," they summon their subjects as the Queen of Nothingness. In "The Knight Witch" they fight their way through an underground city as a knight witch. All three games are part of this year's Gamescom. With their female characters, they are also the result of a new movement. For many years, the portrayal of women in video games was highly problematic.

"Visibility of women has been around for a very long time, but for a long time we didn't see real representation at all," explains Finja Walsdorff, a scientific expert on games and gender at the University of Siegen. According to the scientist, female characters in games have mainly been reduced to clichés. Be it as a drive for the action of the male hero, as an ornamental accessory, as a reward or as a sexualized object. There are many concrete examples, such as "God of War", where players can sleep with female characters in a brothel and thus generate "power ups". Or Lara Croft, the epitome of the sexualization of female characters.

Games as Boys Toys

According to Finja Walsdorf, the reason for the stereotypical images is the anticipated target group: "To this day, games have the image that they were boys toys." Advertising and forms of representation were primarily adapted to an imagined white, male, heterosexual audience. This is despite the fact that women have had a strong interest in digital games for decades. According to the German Games Industry Association, almost 50% of the 34 million gamers in Germany are female. So women are a relevant target group - with their very own interests and needs. And the industry is increasingly taking them seriously and meeting them.

In the context of gender, games have evolved very much in a positive direction. More and more developers are breaking with stereotypes, integrating female characters, making them more diverse and placing them at the center of the plot. Gaming culture itself is still lagging behind this progressive trend on the representation level, the researcher says. "Above all, it is parts of the predominantly male gaming community that have a problem with the fact that, for example, the portrayal of women has changed. For parts of the gaming community, gaming culture remains a male domain."

So-called dark participation, i.e. phenomena such as hate speech, trolling or fake news, are the result. Finja Walsdorff adds that "sexism remains a structural problem of gaming culture and the gaming industry despite the change in the level of representation of games."

The hurdles for women in eSports

This is also evident in the professional arena. In eSports, "women already have a much bigger hurdle at the lower level, as they are confronted with sexism and insults much more often," says Kristin Banse, an experienced gamer and member of the Equal eSports Council. This already starts with amateur* female players. Here, female gamers are attacked in voice or text chats because of their gender. Many women stop gaming because of such experiences. The career ends before it has really begun.

At the semi-professional level, the next challenge is that it is difficult for women to find a team. There is a great reluctance to recruit female players. Kristin Banse speaks of a "no girls allowed" mentality. If talented women do make it onto a team, they sometimes experience discrimination there as well. This continues in top-level sports. Instead of constructive feedback, female players receive derogatory comments - not only from their teammates in the game, but also from the public. "The woman always has to be three times better, because otherwise people always say you slept your way up. And that's why it's super difficult to get to the top as a woman, and that's why there are so few."

Kristin Banse is nevertheless positive about the future. Because the difference is already visible, she says. For example, the large number of female spectators at eSports events. Moreover, eSports itself offers ideal conditions for equal rights for male and female players: "eSports offers a charming opportunity for everyone to play together. Instead of physical attributes, gender-independent skills such as mental strength, good reactions, strategic skills and a high level of concentration count.

With women's advancement on the way to mixed teams

"The goal is to one day have mixed teams, that everyone competes together. The detour is through women's teams because it is not yet possible with the social problems we currently have. To promote women, we have to take this detour," says Kristin Banse. The Equal eSports Initiative, among others, plays an important role here.

Since September 2021, Telekom has been working with SK Gaming and the esports player foundation as part of the initiative to provide an entire ecosystem for talented women. And according to Antje Hundhausen, Telekom’s Vice President Brand Experience and initiator of the Equal eSports Initiative, this goes beyond just gaming. "We want to provide a protected space with the initiative. The initiative is a kind of academy in which we offer players training, continuing education, education and media skills, and also show how to deal with shitstorms and discriminatory statements. It's a social opportunity for us to support the eSports movement to jointly develop key topics such as diversity, equality, values, health and digital education."

Three times as many talents applied for Equal eSports Initiative funding this year. A clear sign that change is in full swing - in front of, behind and on the screen alike.

Copyright Photo: Ulf Preising/Deutsche Telekom