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Like many dedicated Dota 2 players, Jen Tracy is aware that playing this much of a single game might not be good for her. She’s been playing games in this relatively young genre—the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA)—since 2009, but she’s racked up more hours in Dota 2 than many people have at their part-time jobs.
That sort of dedication comes with the territory. MOBAs are packed tight with obtuse rules, obscure spell combinations, and minor techniques to refine. It’s the genre where even after 100 hours of game time, you still have no clue what you’re doing.
Another aspect that seems to be inseparable from MOBAs: terrible people. Not the kind that don’t know how to play the game, but the kind of malcontent, immature, toxic miscreants that permeate all of online gaming. Ask any longtime MOBA player and they’ll tell you war stories about some of the most awful people they’ve played with. They freak out over the most minor failures or hiccups, often using racial and homophobic slurs.
But for Tracy and other people who play Dota 2, it’s much worse. When other players conclude from her voice that she’s a woman, all hell breaks loose. “People would be throwing [intentionally losing the game] because there was a woman on their team,” she said. The mere presence of another gender seems to unhinge some sort of pent up rage these gamers have. And the kind of harassment women gets goes beyond players being mean.
Pudge “You opened your whore mouth to piss me off.” Game hasn’t started yet.— Woman In Dota (@WomanInDota) February 6, 2016
“When I won’t add them on Facebook they’ll march into the enemy fountain [to kill themselves],” Tracy said. “I remember a particular game with a Pudge player where I said something about placing wards early game, or ‘have fun,’ or some innocent early game comment, and he just started walking into the other side of the map. That happens more often than I wish it did.”
The harassment and poor sportsmanship continued unending, and in June of 2014, Tracy decided to do something about it. She began chronicling as many of the obscene, sexist and awful comments she was getting from her teammates on the Twitter account @WomanInDota.
A FORM OF VENTING
“The sheer amount of comments I was getting was absurd,” she said. “So I started the Twitter as a kind of cathartic venting…to throw that back out into the void, because it was kind of harming me.”
But as many of the comments as she documents, it’s impossible to really jot them all down, especially in a game like Dota, where players can end up stuck with awful teammates for over an hour.
“I tend to tweet at least once when somebody does that, but I don’t tweet every single thing that particular player said. Once someone opens their mouth, it’s the entire game that they’re like that. I don’t necessarily follow through with every quote.”
About a year and a half after she began the Twitter account, Tracy decided she needed to do something more than merely document the abuse. A 10-year professional illustrator and painter, she decided to use her art skills to illustrate some of the worst and most notable comments. Simply tweeting them wasn’t enough to vent her frustration anymore.
“There was this game with this Zeus player, and he was horrible, he was just a terrible person,” she remembers. “He said the worst things. And Tweeting what he said didn’t feel healing enough. It didn’t do what I needed it to do. So I made the painting of Zeus and one of this player’s quotes just to get it out of my system.”
Though Tracy began the account and art blog with the simple intention to vent, it’s become more than that. It’s begun serving as evidence of the rampant, aggressive sexism that pervades online gaming. It serves as a place where women like Tracy can find solace in the fact that they are not alone. In the last couple of years the harassment of women in online spaces has taken center stage (for good reason), but that wasn’t the case when Tracy began the account.
Viper “I want to fuck. bitch.”— Woman In Dota (@WomanInDota) January 18, 2016
“When I first started tweeting about this one of the more popular things to say was ‘this doesn’t happen,’ that everybody gets harassed and that women aren’t alienated,” she said “So I really like the idea of being ammunition. If someone says this doesn’t happen to you, you can link to this account and say ‘this does happen to me, and it happens here too.’”
Tracy views the harassment as part of a larger problem Dota 2 has with women. The game’s approach to gender is incredibly lopsided compared to more popular games like League of Legends. The game’s player base is also predominantly male, though it’s hard to find solid numbers on this (here’s a recent informal questionnaire that was 96% male, 3% female, and 1% other).
Dota 2’s problem with gender also has a lot to do with how many of the major figures in the game’s competitive scene act. “It’s tough because a lot of the pro players are kids,” Tracy said. “I think a lot of them just need image consulting, especially in their personal streams. The things they say or do are just sexist or racist or bigoted or homophobic and that’s mirrored by these people who look up to them, other players who want to be like them.”
This kind of behavior can alienate women on both a casual and competitive level. “I remember I was watching an all-woman pro match and it was being commentated by men. One of the things the caster said was ‘women don’t pick enchantress because they can’t multitask’,” she said. I couldn’t find the exact line, but this is the match in question. Other highlights include “Chen, Enchantress, girls…eh,” and “Are you asking for logic from a woman?”
“And this was in an all-girl competition!” Tracy said. “It’s everywhere. It’s even in places organized to prevent sexist comments. It’s really rampant.”
Tracy doesn’t want to pin this issue on just one game. Dota 2 is just another in a long line of games where she was singled out for being a woman. “I first [encountered] that in Left 4 Dead, and it’s happened up through Heroes of Newerth, up to Dota 2,” she said. “It’s just always been there, in any game with voice chat.”
Dota 2 is the kind of a game where you need to cooperate in order to get any real momentum going. This makes it much harder to fully shut the harassment valve off. “The saddest part about Dota is that it’s [only] your own team that can hear you, you know?” she said. “You’re not being harassed by the enemy, you’re being harassed by your team.”
A HUGE HANDICAP
Not communicating in a game like Dota 2 is a huge handicap. This makes voice chat that much more necessary. You do have the option to mute toxic players, but more often than not you can never avoid the first blow. And by then, you’re already saddled with the burden of having to play well just to show teammates you’re not as bad as they’ve already assumed you to be.
Tracy tries to combat the aggression she encounters online, and over the years has come up with a few rules to follow. She doesn’t correct people who call her fat because it’s none of their business. She doesn’t “virgin-shame” men. For her, it’s important to find the right way to call someone out about their behavior.
“I think one of the things you can say to make someone really mad who’s harassing you is address the rest of the team and say, ‘this is what women have to put up with every game. Do you see the sexism in this community?’” she said. “[Harassers] don’t like hearing that they’re part of a larger problem. They don’t like hearing that they’re not being a unique individual snowflake. They don’t like that they’re part of the hatred. They think that they’re a singular entity.”
Tracy slogs through these kinds of comments practically every time she plays Dota 2, and as much as she tries to stand up for herself, she admits it can be too much for her to handle on some days.
“I’ve had nights where I’ve decided not to use my microphone. I think all women have those nights,” she said. “And it makes the game worse; you can’t communicate and sometimes you lose a game because you’re not in the mood to deal with sexual harassment.”
Phantom Assassin “if we don’t win this I will beat up my gf.”— Woman In Dota (@WomanInDota) February 6, 2016
Reactions to Tracy’s drawings and tweets have varied depending on where she posted them. On Reddit, they caused people to rationalize, accuse her of wanting attention, and shrug it off as coming with the territory. On Tumblr they were far better-received. On Facebook, they were mostly ignored by her friends and family, who didn’t quite understand what the images meant. Occasionally, she’d get a comment from a friend who didn’t play games asking why she didn’t simply stop playing.
“It is very often implied that it’s my fault that this is happening, because I’m stepping into a man’s space with a microphone, opening my mouth,” she said. “And I don’t really like that response.”
To tell Tracy to stop playing Dota 2 because of the harassment she’s faced is ludicrous. So despite all of the harassment she faces in her favorite game and the widespread sexism in gaming culture, she’s going to keep fighting for her right to keep playing.
“I love playing Dota,” she said. “These comments aren’t gonna make me stop. Some people don’t love it as much as I do, so the comments probably may make them stop, but I love it enough that I’m still in it.”
Suriel Vazquez is a freelance writer who doesn’t use his microphone as often as he should. He also doesn’t ping, call missing, or join teamfights, either. He’s written for Playboy, Paste, ZAM, and many others. You can follow him on Twitter
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This article was edited once post-publication for tone.