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In 2012, Riot Games—an independent game company which had started life six years prior with only two employees—announced that its game League of Legends was being played by 67 million people over the course of a month. That’s one percent of the world’s population, almost three times as many people as live in Australia.
Those statistics, if reference is needed, are totally fucking insane—World of Warcraft, which has become so ingrained in our worldwide culture that there’s an episode of South Park about it, had only 12 million subscribers total at the height of its popularity. DOTA 2, the current runner up to League of Legend’s throne, had about 8 million registered players over the course of a month. Blizzard, of World of Warcraft fame, released its own contender recently in Heroes of the Storm. And there are dozens of smaller variations on the form.
All this is to say MOBAs, which stands for the equally undescriptive “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena,” might be the most popular genre of game in the world.
But in the same data set where Riot announced that its player base was expanding with the same frightening exponential rapidity of an alien amoeboid, they also registered that player base as being 90% male. DOTA 2 is even worse—according to a self-selecting questionnaire, 96% of its players identify as male.
How could a game with such a contagiously widespread appeal be so heavily weighted towards dudes? If you’re thinking it’s because they play more games than women, a study in 2014 found that almost half of all video game players are female, and that the number of women in games is growing rapidly. In Britain, women actually outnumber men, with fifty two percent of the gaming population. Taking those numbers into account, why do MOBAs remain so starkly male?
The origins of the genre might hold some answers. The first MOBA was Defense of the Ancients, or DOTA—you may notice I’ve already mentioned the sequel. DOTA was a game mode within a game called Warcraft 3, made by players, who used the game’s map editor tools to create a custom map with new objectives. Players controlled individual heroes rather than the fantasy armies of the original game, and teams competed to kill opposing heroes, smash through their defensive structures and destroy the enemy base.
It was essentially a speakeasy camouflaged not by intentional secrecy as much as obscurity, a game within a game playable only by those who knew the right sequence of knocks to get in. To make matters more difficult, the game was designed by and for fans already intimately familiar with the workings of a mechanically complicated strategy game.
The result was a game that was hard to locate, and that possessed a learning curve that better resembled a vertical wall than a real slope. It was practically unintelligible to most outside observers, but devotees of the game could not get enough. Inevitably, it became a staple of the “hardcore gamer” scene—whose demographic mostly was, and still is, young and male.
While subsequent entries have tried to be more accessible to new players, the learning curve is still a huge problem for getting new people involved with the genre. DOTA 2 players reported not feeling comfortable with the game until they had played 120 matches, each of which last anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour. That makes the entry-level time commitment for the game roughly 90 hours just to feel like you know what you’re doing.
And that learning curve might actually be worse for many women. While we should always be wary of citing biological differences, seeing as we’re all unique biochemical concoctions in our own regard, there is some evidence to suggest that brains with an excess of testosterone—a trait shared by many men—might be better at parsing the dizzyingly rapid pyrotechnical shows of games like League of Legends and DOTA 2. In a study at Brooklyn College, participating men showed “significantly greater sensitivity for fine detail and for rapidly moving stimuli,” which the study attributed to increased testosterone in the visual cortex of the brain (”One interpretation is that this is consistent with sex roles in hunter-gatherer societies,” the study’s conclusion explains).
That comes in handy in MOBAs, which almost always have a lot going on on-screen—like if you took professional football and gave every player the ability to teleport, turn into bugs or shoot lightning out of their eyes. Warriors try to stun and push the enemy characters off of their fragile, high-damage teammates while assassins from both sides dive in to kill high-value targets. Everyone is throwing around every ability at their disposal, and even keeping track of your own character in the chaos becomes a challenge. As someone who’s been playing games of this variety on and off for four years, acting with clarity and purpose in these situations, rather than confusion and panic, is something I’m still working on. And with a brain full of testosterone, I might have it easier than some.
This is not to say, certainly, that men are biologically better than women at these kinds of games. After all, those attributes are certainly not the only skills required to do well—coordination with the team is maybe the most vital trait of all. But a brain even infinitesimally better-equipped to track fine detail and rapid motion would certainly be a boon and would help to smooth out the rocky period of early play.
The sweetest rush games like League of Legends have to offer, the thrill of victory, is also something that men in America are culturally trained into valuing more than women. MOBAs are highly competitive; games are structured into matches, pitting teams of five against one another. There’s no real progression except refinement of personal skill, and no reward save the satisfaction of winning. A lot like, you know, team sports, the bane of America’s heartland youth.
I was lucky enough to never be forced into Little League as a kid, but I was part of an afterschool hockey league, and I was invested in the outcome of each game with a world-consuming pre-adolescent seriousness. In college, I started boxing. There are many aspects of the sport that I love—the rhythms, the process of overcoming fear, the intimacy it creates with an opponent. But I also loved winning.
We’re programmed to. From the media we consume to the sanctified athletes we’re given as role models, it’s such a constant axiom that it’s impossible not to subconsciously absorb it. Our society tells men that winning is important, even devoid of context. So mastering a game system, like a highly competitive MOBA, feels good and valuable.
Whatever the reason for the egregious gender gap in the MOBA genre, some will be tempted to shrug it off. If it isn’t hurting anyone, what’s the problem? Can’t some pastimes just be “guy things?”
Except, in this case, it does hurt people. Case in point: this summer, Maria “Remilia” Creveling, Support player for the eSports team the LA Renegades, became the first woman in the LCS (League of Legends Championship Series). Shortly afterwards, she announced her intentions of leaving professional gaming for good, citing as reason the harassment, stalking and threats she received just for being a woman. She ultimately reconsidered, thankfully, but if Creveling wasn’t the sole female player in the LCS, it would have at least been harder to single her out as a target. And while Remilia is a very visible example, she is by no means alone in her experiences.
So what are ways we could lessen that gap? Well, having more spaces specifically for women would help. The notion of having women-only eSports tournaments has been a subject of hot debate, and occasionally forehead slapping incompetence, but some argue that it would make life easier for women hoping to follow in Remilia’s footsteps. Seeing more female pro-gamers might encourage women to get involved with the game, as well.
And developers could put more effort into how they represent female characters in their games. League of Legends, by far the most popular game in the genre, is also one of the worst offenders. A look at the gender breakdown of their playable characters shows that only a third of them are female.
Of those female characters, almost all of them—even the monstrous ones, like the half-snake Cassiopeia—have costuming that shows a generous portion of skin. Alternate skins, purchasable with real human dollars, often fetishize these characters further into nurses, schoolteachers and bunnies. In other words, the female characters are designed for men to enjoy. If you’re a woman looking for some fair and equivalent man-candy in the League of Legends roster, you’ll be looking a long time.
There are historical, cultural and, according to some, even biological obstacles to overcome if we’re really interested in making MOBAs a place for women as well as for men. Before any of that happens, though, both developers and community members have to make it clear they’re wanted. We must reach out our hand and say, “I want you, as well, to know the glory of penta-killing some wayward scrubs.”
Roy Graham is a writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, Indiewire and upcoming short story collections. He lives in Brooklyn and thinks about fight scenes. Follow him on Twitter @Grayhaem
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