Opinion: Why We Must Open the Doors for Young Women to Participate in Esports

In this opinion piece, CSL Esports Marketing and Social Media Manager Haleigh Durkin talks about the ongoing challenges of making esports more welcoming and safe for women and girls and what we can do about it as an industry.

Have you grown into someone your younger self would have respected? The question lingers in my mind whenever I consider the role I’ve played in helping develop the scholastic esports scene. My name is Haleigh Durkin, and every day I am trying to become the person I needed most as a role model in gaming when I was a child. 

Growing up, video games were the clothing equivalent of hand-me-downs in my house. We were a big traditional sports family, and naturally competitive by nature, so my older brothers and I would constantly play games with one another. Attempting to beat the others’ best scores, or longest runtimes. However, where both of them eventually “outgrew” their dated Nintendo 64s and Playstation 2s, I continued to try and fit in a few extra minutes of playtime before each softball practice or departure for school.

For a long time, it seemed like a very simple notion: I enjoyed video games, so I played them. However, as I got older, it became apparent the rest of the world didn’t think I should be enjoying them nearly as much as I did. Commercials for new games were always filled with these young boys and cool blue aesthetics. Whereas everything marketed towards girls like me was much pinker, so to speak. My friends in middle school didn’t want to stay inside where the air conditioner and big TV were, they wanted to go swimming and play soccer! So, as any child who didn’t want to be left out, I followed.

The discrepancy that I believe becomes mistranslated between adults whenever we discuss video games, is that they are not a social initiative. That they encourage behavior that would make their child more susceptible to that all too real loneliness of being too different for the other kids to get along with. No one wants their child to be hurt, however, like any double-edged sword, you have to wonder where the line is drawn between “protecting” them or stifling their interests.

The more independent I became, the less I understood what exactly there was to “protect” me from in gaming. The answer became apparent when I started playing competitively online.

Much like how my brothers had outgrown their consoles, I’d thought I had outgrown the notion of my gender being an issue when playing a game. You can imagine my surprise when the very first game chat I ever joined became deafening with a sudden bombardment of sexist comments the second I opened my mouth to speak. That rabid onslaught of hatred was not unique, nor singular in instance. The same cruel reminder that people would judge my performance based on my sex has reoccurred now more times than I care to count. No matter what team-based game I switched to, it was clear to see that the precedent I grew up noticing in commercials and advertisements, had become deeply ingrained in the psyche of some of these male players. 

That alone spells out half the challenge of what we are facing going forward as women in gaming. 

In the last decade, esports have surged forward in public notoriety both on a professional and scholastic level. What we risk losing here if we do not change the tone of inclusion and diversity within the world of gaming, is insurmountable. How many talented and passionate young women will be lost or discouraged from even trying to pursue a higher education through esports by the mere statistics alone? During my time at Rutgers Esports, I was one of four girls on the executive board out of 33. That is coming from the largest student-run collegiate organization on the East Coast, and even with the efforts made before and after my time, that massive percentile of a difference still stands. I hear it day in and day out from my female friends, how they have suffered equally if not more so from unwarranted comments made on their appearance, voices, and especially their gender. It’s not simply “unfair” it’s sickening, and can’t be the future we allow the next generation to live through.

It is not a new idea for me to want to change the gender inequality in esports. In fact, during my senior year at Rutgers, I was even given the opportunity to apply for an early consideration into a media-focused Ph.D program based on the cultural significance of gender bias in esports. That drive stems from something far more real than just experiencing the issue first hand, it is for the girls who are not even alive yet who are going to want to play video games in their youth. Who are going to grow up and want to pursue esports as a career and profession. We as a community cannot morally stand by and allow these girls to enter such a merciless status quo, where we overlook and excuse the “offhanded” comments male gamers make about women. The detriment done to their self-worth will be unthinkable with time, and I refuse it wholly. I refuse it as a minority, as a woman, and as a person. 

Change will never come from nothing. We have to make the space better with our own actions every day. It’s a tired saying, but how many of us actually practice it? If you hear your friend say something unintentionally horrible in the heat of the moment, correct them every single time until they unlearn it. If you see someone struggling to be heard, help amplify her voice. Gaming has come so far, and now more than ever we can offer life-changing opportunities to students through this medium. We can give them the social structure and life balance they’ll need in order to go beyond college successfully. But this future can not exist discriminately. We can’t allow it to. 

I’ll repeat my question from before, have you grown into someone your younger self would have respected? If not yet, when will you begin?

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