Joining Girls in Capes for the Destruction Issue is guest writer Beth Williams of LoLBoost.net. Beth has been playing MOBA game League of Legends for quite some time, and she answers one question that women interested in trying out League may have at the back of their minds: is League of Legends unwelcoming to women?
The quick answer is no. The real answer is more complicated.
Competitive online gaming has long been a male-dominated space, and that’s absolutely true for League of Legends. The great majority of its players are men (in 2013, 92% of the players were male) all the way up to the top tiers of eSports.
But I’m a woman, and a few of my friends who play League are women, and we’ve all had mostly positive experiences playing League of Legends, with sexism rarely even entering the equation. I’ve been playing League of Legends since season 1, nearly 5 years, and I enjoy the game thoroughly, so much so that I run a business that offers elo boost and coaching services to League of Legends gamers. I wouldn’t have stuck around so long if I felt unwelcome.
So, if our experience has been so positive, then why do so few women play League and other MOBA, or multiplayer online battle arena, games?
On one hand, there’s no active bias against women playing League of Legends soloqueue. Because there’s no voice chat in League, there’s no way to identify the gender of any other player unless they have an obviously feminine or masculine summoner name, which even then is no certainty. Though this means players usually assume that they’re playing with 9 other men.
However, there is sometimes an explicit attitude of sexism from players of the game – simple things like sexist slurs that pop up in all chat during gameplay (b-words, c-words, etc., when they can get past the auto-censor) whether or not they know you’re a woman.
However, it’s hard to call this a League of Legends problem. It’s more of an Internet problem: one can find this in forums and on message boards everywhere, from the comments sections of Reddit posts to the feedback areas on news stories. In scenarios where players have found out that I’m a girl from my summoner name or a friend calling me “she” in chat, responses range from indifference to polite surprise from players who are genuinely intrigued by seeing a girl play a game with so few female enthusiasts. I can’t think of a single case when I was verbally attacked for being a woman (which is not to say it doesn’t happen).
The most unsettling thing that came of it – once, a cyberstalker tracked down my social media accounts. That was a little worrisome, but nothing ultimately came of it, and again, this isn’t anything that couldn’t happen on some other game or website.
However, there is sometimes an explicit attitude of sexism from players of the game – simple things like sexist slurs that pop up in all chat during gameplay (b-words, c-words, etc., when they can get past the auto-censor) whether or not they know you’re a woman.I don’t think the culture of the LoL playerbase is to blame for the lack of interested or engaged women, except insofar as the entire video game/Internet community’s culture is to blame (which is a much greater debate that I won’t get into here).
I’ve seen a lot of reasons thrown out there to explain why women don’t play LoL: that the companies who promote MOBA only target men with their marketing (a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here – do they target men because men play, or do men play because they are targeted?); that women encounter sexism from players in-game (again, I believe this happens sometimes, but I haven’t encountered much of it, and I can’t imagine it prevents women from playing by such a wide margin); the champion models are sexist, discouraging women from playing (I promise, I really don’t care if my champion shows cleavage – although I do agree that this can be sexist).
And there are a few sexist elements to the culture, but they’re not so damaging as to exclude women from wanting to play – these things generally happen outside of the game itself, on the Internet, where the level of sexism can vary from one community to the next.
Or is it something sexist in the gameplay itself? One of the more interesting analyses I’ve seen showed that female champions tend to fall into more passive “support” roles, while male champions are typically junglers and melee carries. I think these are all examples of sexism in LoL, but I don’t think these are the things keeping women from wanting to play LoL.
I think the reality is simpler. MOBA is a relatively new genre of video games, and because men have long been the majority in online gaming (arguably due to sexist expectations from society about who should and shouldn’t play video games), they were the “early adopters” of LoL. And once men are established as the playerbase majority, those who make money off these games (streamers, advertisers, the developers themselves) start catering to men.
This doesn’t mean that MOBA will always be this way – that’s just why it is now. And it doesn’t mean that League as a game or a community is deeply biased against women, though it certainly doesn’t exonerate society’s attitude towards women and video games as a whole.
The male-majority playerbase can also encourage strong reactions to the status quo. For example, take Team Siren‘s famous introduction as an all-female pro team; the team was ridiculed for marketing themselves as women rather than as players and eventually disbanded. It’s easy to watch the video and cringe at how heavy-handed the “girl gamer” marketing angle is emphasized here. However, consider that this team would never have existed in this form if there weren’t so few women playing LoL competitively to begin with.
So how do we solve this problem of too few female LoL gamers? Rather than just getting upset at the lack of women, I think we should focus on things we can control to make video games more open for everyone. Play games that you want to play, regardless of whether the game’s image or tone seems to be targeting your gender. And if you feel that a game crosses the line into sexism, you should speak out against it to the developers or in the media, or vote with your wallet and not play. Speaking out definitely makes a difference, and if the women who do love to play League make an effort to truly own their place in the community, we can make LoL even more inviting for the next generation of female MOBA gamers.
Header image contains a screenshot from the League of Legends website provided by Riot Games.
Interested in more on women in gaming? Our gaming writer, Joel Wallick, discusses concepts of motherhood in the game Mass Effect.