In our current project on implicit bias and stereotype threat, we are making some games for middle-school aged girls. One of the problems we consistently encounter in designing these games is the societal taboo against girls gaming, and its effect on our target audience. This piece by Clementine, a lab affiliate, sheds a little light on why there is a dearth of women and other marginalized groups in online games, and why it’s important to have a welcoming community.
So about two weeks ago, I got the email that I’d been waiting on for AGES – the invite to play the Dota 2 beta. If you don’t know, the original DotA (Defense of the Ancients) was a custom Warcraft 3 (a game of which I am very fond) map that has been described as “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” or “Action Real-time Strategy”. Basically, it’s a real-time strategy game where the player manages a single hero with unique abilities, with a heavy emphasis on tactics and teamplay. Whatever. You can go read about it by yourself. It’s spawned its own genre, more or less, with other games like League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth patterned off of the original DotA map. Dota 2 is supposed to be a remake of the original DotA, keeping almost everything intact, except with a stronger game engine with more opportunities, since it’s not limited to the Warcraft 3 map editing capabilities (which are basically ancient at this point).
I’ve always loved playing DotA, except for one thing – I HATE the DotA community. You have to play with 9 other people in a proper DotA game to get the full effect, and teamplay and communication is absolutely key, so dealing with other players is unavoidable. The first problem is that it’s extremely noob unfriendly. What I mean by this is that there is a really steep learning curve. Even for a seasoned RTS player, it sometimes takes a while to get the hang of the DotA genre and know exactly what your team expects of you when you play your particular hero. While this is not in itself a bad thing, the real issue is the DotA community, which is extraordinarily unforgiving of errors. Make one slip-up, or be late for a team battle by just a few seconds, and you might get bombarded with “NOOB” or “LEAVE THE GAME”, or a horrible racist, homophobic, or sexist remark. Or maybe all of them at the same time. I’ve seen loads of my friends, whom I’ve tried to introduce to DotA, stop playing after a few games because they can’t deal with the hostile environment, which I think is more hostile than most other games I’ve played. As my friend puts it, “The DotA community is definitely known for its toxicity.”
Dota 2, on the other hand, has presented an entirely new problem that I didn’t need to deal with regularly before. Dota 2 has a new voice chat capability, so that you can actually talk to your teammates whom you’ve never met before. To be sure, it has amazing strategic advantages: you can tell teammates that the rune is on the top side of the map, or that the other team is probably about to gank the crap out of them. But now people can quite readily tell that I am, in fact, female. When I played the original DotA, I usually played with a username that clearly indicated that I was female, but usually people don’t notice screennames. Occasionally people would notice that my screenname was female and harass me for it (you can see a lot of it on “Fat, Ugly, or Slutty”, a great blog that documents the common reactions that female gamers get). But usually I could count on it being able to play the game without being specially targeted for my gender. But now this happens with great regularity in Dota 2. If I choose to use voice chat, I run the risk of being harassed for it.
If I’m lucky they’ll just express surprise that women use the internet. Sometimes they ask for sexual favors (“MAY I TOUCH YOUR VAGINA”, said one guy. “NO PLEASE. I WILL MAKE YOU FEEL REAL GOOD”). Sometimes they just yell “Go make me a sammich” (seriously? That would also be bad for the team if I left the keyboard to prepare foodstuffs. Smart.) Or if I mess up or die even once, I am told that “This is why women shouldn’t play games.” If I don’t use voice chat, we are losing a great strategic advantage for the team. If I mute an asshole on the team, then I can’t hear what he or she might have to say, which is also a strategic disadvantage if they actually decided to use voice chat for strategic purposes.
This kind of harassment is incredibly harmful to girls’ development and entry into traditionally male-dominated arenas, such as the STEM fields or games. A recent study has shown that half of middle school and high school girls experience sexual harassment, and this affects what they can accomplish. Despite this obviously gendered harassment, according to a recent AAUW report, sexual harassment and bullying can work together to obscure the fact that many bullying situations “obscure the role of gender and sex in these incidents.” When it comes to playing games, this often takes the form of players urging women to “grow a thicker skin” or “learn to take a joke”, or, even worse, to leave games altogether if the experience is too hostile. One prominent and recent example is a Texas Battlefield 3 launch party, which rather than ask male players to be respectful of others, simply decided to ban women from the event altogether. MIT Gambit lab has started a Hate Speech project to investigate exclusionary speech in online games, investigating Xbox Live community practices. This research points to a continuing problem about gender in games that isn’t changing fast enough.
Of course, this sort of harassment doesn’t only happen to female DotA players. There are a shocking number of homophobic, racist, and rape threats that happen in DotA (and a lot of other games). However, most of the harassment I’ve personally received is because I am female, not because I am a person of color (I was born in America and speak unaccented English, so it’s hard to tell via voice chat that I am also Chinese-American). The community was also especially hostile to Asian players. Players in DotA 1.0 who messaged in Chinese but played on a US server (or maybe even just lagged slightly) were often bombarded with comments about “chinks” with “tiny dicks” who couldn’t speak English.
I am very curious to know what happens in the future of Dota 2 with regards to the reporting function (where you can report someone for text or voice abuse, among other things). Currently, I do tend to report people who have been sexist or racist to me in text or voice chat, but there is no evidence that that currently has any effect on actually banning repeat offenders. Instead, from what I’ve read online, it’s mostly for research purposes right now. One goal of games like Dota 2 and League of Legends is definitely to reduce the hostility of the community, but so far developers have mostly been implementing ways in which novice players can be integrated into the community more easily (for example, by having an experienced player observe and instruct new players), and not paying much attention to other types of harassment that occur.
So I am waiting with bated breath to know how Valve is planning on making the community less toxic and more welcoming of players who are not white, straight, or male. It’s still early in game development yet, and the Dota 2 community has not been set in stone. There are still plenty of opportunities for game developers to incorporate mechanisms that can make a more civil community, and it is absolutely imperative that they don’t ignore or excuse offensive behavior, even when used “jokingly”. It might seem harmless, but it makes for a really crappy playing experience for women, people of color, and other marginalized groups who would otherwise participate fully. It’s in everyone’s best interest to have a civil community. Teams would communicate better. People would talk more in chat. There would be less muting going on. And it’d just make for a better experience overall if players aren’t flinging rape threats and racist epithets at each other: Dota 2 would be more attractive to a wider fanbase. Lots of my friends stopped playing DotA 1.0 and switched to League of Legends because the community is a little nicer. Plenty of my female friends have been turned off by the horrendous DotA 1.0 community, and I’d like to see them get a fair chance at Dota 2.
Valve Software – Take this stuff seriously. Building a more civil community is only in your best interest. Don’t excuse sexism, racism, or homophobia, and give players better mechanisms for reporting folks who give MOBA games their bad reputation.
Players – don’t be assholes, and don’t let other people be assholes. Speak up and say it’s not okay, and definitely take advantage of reporting. We could all benefit from fewer assholes in our games.
Clementine is a 19 year-old woman of color and a Geography major at Dartmouth College. In her spare time she plays way too much DotA and reads way too much feminist literature.