Even as more women begin to break into competitive gaming, the industry still largely consists of men. Out of several professional esports teams, there have been very few women. Even among pro-esports commentators, women only comprise a handful of them. Given their lack of numbers, it's no surprise that women face daily harassment and misogyny from male gamers.
A survey conducted in China, the U.S. and Germany found that 59 percent of women conceal their gender identity to avoid harassment from male players. Many women have also reported being sexually harassed over the medium of online gaming. Riot Games, creator of the game "Valorant" and the multiplayer online battle arena "League of Legends," cited racist and homophobic slurs among the top spewed in chats.
I don’t play competitive games, but I have female friends who have experienced harassment doing so. I have often been questioned by men in gaming spaces about my knowledge of a certain game, something I rarely see happen with men. Instances like these tend to drive women away from an excellent and extremely creative medium.
Rutgers Women’s Gaming League (WGL) was officially founded in February 2020 to foster a safe and welcoming space for women and gender minorities in gaming. Since its inception, the club has grown into a community and has further gained status by partnering with other Rutgers clubs, more recently, the Creation of Games Society for a game night.
I spoke with WGL to understand its mission, initiatives, events and how it works to combat toxic misogyny in gaming.
Member Kaizen Lee, a junior in the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, said they joined WGL as a first-year to make friends. They joined some of the esports umbrella organizations at Rutgers, like the League of Legends and Valorant communities. But Lee felt as if the other members were more skilled, and Lee did not feel like they belonged in that gaming environment. After joining WGL, they stated the club felt more welcoming.
“It feels a lot homier than I imagined it would,” Lee said. “I think a lot of the people there are more casual players, like they don’t really care about your rank or how well you do in a competitive game, so I feel like it’s a lot safer to be there.”
Current President Melissa Mezzina, a senior in the School of Arts and Sciences, said she also joined to find a community at Rutgers. At first, she considered joining a sorority, but plans fell through. It wasn’t until she saw an announcement in one of the esports Discord servers about open board positions for WGL that she considered joining another club or organization.
Mezzina also spoke about the difficulties in leading a community of women in a space that is predominantly occupied by men and her personal experiences with WGL. She said that when she first started gaming, she would pretend she was a guy so her gender would not be used against her. Now, she feels proud to be a woman in gaming. She knows there's a strong support network behind her.
“A lot of (challenges) come up. Misogyny, of course, and honestly, a lot of clueless men,” Mezzina said. “One that easily comes to mind is that every year, at the club fair, a guy will always come up to us and ask if there’s a men’s gaming league, and I just stare at them, hoping they can see the irony of that question. They never do.”
Treasurer Arushee Sinha, a senior at the Rutgers Business School, says that she believes women in gaming are held to a higher standard. It's not that they're wholly not taken seriously, but Sinha feels as if women who like games need to be more knowledgeable about and play better in them. She also, similar to Mezzina, spoke about men asking members of WGL if there is a male gaming league.
Lee feels like the club creates a safe space for newer players to explore a game. If someone wants to try out a game but is afraid of doing it alone, Lee believes the club creates a non-toxic environment for people, especially women, to try out competitive games as they feel safer communicating with a group like WGL.
Sometimes, due to the isolating nature of geek culture, women can often feel as if they don’t belong in gaming spaces. Mezzina spoke about her experiences in the gaming community, saying at first she did not feel welcome but believes it is getting better.
“Even still, I hear from a lot of my members that they had very similar experiences (to me),” she said. “But I do believe it’s turning around for the best. I'd like to hope so. I notice a lot more women in higher positions in these esports clubs and administration roles, and as of lately, we have been collaborating with a lot of clubs, and they have been very welcoming. It's a step in the right direction.”
Sinha said she believes something similar. She believes that there have been positive changes in the Rutgers community, adding that most of the prominent members of the esports clubs she has interacted with have been women.
“The people who come and the people who play are all there to have a good time rather than to hold each other to a specific standard,” Sinha said. “And that’s the community we’re trying to create (at WGL).”
If you're interested in joining Rutgers' WGL, meet the club at 8 p.m. every Friday at the Science and Engineering Resource Center on Busch campus.