No matter what gender you identify with, the idea of being able to slay bad guys, conquer worlds (real or otherwise) and set out on a quest to find your true calling from the comfort of your own couch can be pretty appealing. That’s probably why eSports, or professional and competitive video gaming, has emerged as an important cultural conversation over the last few years, opening up an entire industry for fantasy-seeking geeks to forge an all-consuming bond with technology.
But even as gaming becomes the hottest new subculture for all the cool kids, in India especially, it’s not unusual to see how the largely male industry systematically excludes the women. Regardless of the fact that the number of women in the industry has gone up to 32 percent, the industry continues to encourage stereotypical attitudes towards those trying to shatter the glass ceiling, regardless of their skills.
Often pegged either as highly sexualised beings with questionable hand-eye coordination, or incompetent anomalies that have no place in this sausage fest, Indian professional gamer girls are a growing tribe. And they’ve had enough of the unfairness. Be it male teammates hurling abuses, or online trolls with their rape threats, the stark gender pay gap or even the frustratingly dismissive attitude—gamer girls in the country deal with a lot of shit, and then some more.
For women, sexism is never subtle
While dealing with everyday sexism, racism and a whole lot of violence, competitive female gamers often end up living with the oppressive pressure to adopt gender-fluid screen monikers, or risk tepid responses to their gaming careers, which pushes most of them to take up alternate roles like commentary instead of console gaming.
Saloni Pawar, 19, who was the first gamer girl to represent India at international eSports tournament, Lenovo Legion of Valkyrie, in Thailand last November, tells VICE how her gaming career would have never been possible had she not been relentless. “It began with Barbie dress-up games on the internet. One day, the internet stopped working and I stumbled upon my brother’s ‘Counter Strike’ and other shooting games. I haven’t stopped since,” says Mumbai-based Pawar, who is popular in the gaming circuit as ''Meow16k”.
But there have been many hurdles too. For instance, Pawar was constantly heckled for being a gamer, and even held back from playing. “Not only did my brother refuse to believe that I could easily beat him, but my mother got worried that these aggressive games would turn me violent. I come from a middle-class Maharashtrian family, so obviously it wasn’t easy,” she says. “But my family eventually realised how dedicated I am , and have allowed me to pursue it professionally.” Today, Pawar has her own popular livestream channel on Twitch and YouTube.
Outside her home, though, there was more backlash. “It’s not easy being a girl in this industry. Online trolls tell you things like ‘Go back to your boyfriend’, or ‘You belong in the kitchen’. I remember my first tournament back in 2017, when my all-male opponents saw me and said, ‘Oh, this is already a win.’ Of course I beat them, and that seemed to shut them up. But it was a bigger win because it also boosted my confidence and helped me believe in myself.”
This is an issue even 19-year-old Monica Jeph, a professional PUBG player, who goes by the screen name 'Sherlock', can relate with. “I think it’s discouraging for girls to get into gaming because in an industry where boys have 100-200 teams, you will find only 2-3 girls doing it seriously,” she says. “So even if you are good, they will assume you are either having a fling with one of the guys or are incapable.” Both Pawar and Jeph say that the lack of female role models adds on to the pressures of gaming in the all-boys’ zone.
The problem of fetishisation and exoticisation
What Pawar and Jeph feel are not isolated sentiments. But Apollonia ‘Apo’ Hinds, a 25-year-old Caribbean-African pro-gamer from Singapore—who heads India’s first all-female professional team GEms—has a different story to tell.
“When I moved from Singapore to India six years ago, people were very accepting. They recognised me for my talent and encouraged it,” she says. “But a major reason why they accepted me as an equal in the playing field was because I wasn’t from India.” Being a gamer in Singapore was a tough stint because of similar cultural expectations. “I was mixed race, loud and big-sized, whereas in Singapore, only stereotypical slim and soft-spoken South Asian girls are considered beautiful and relatable, especially when it comes to cosplaying,” she says.
Hinds says the Indian gaming scene has not been as confining, and people are not as judgemental or mean about her being a girl. But one can see how Hinds’ social acceptance in the industry on account of her origins could be as problematic as Pawar’s experience of being overlooked or sidelined.
Dating is anything but easy
Professional lives often spill over into the personal front to affect all our relationships. And it’s the same with the gamer girls. “I’ve found that dating a non-gamer can be difficult because they don’t understand why we put in so much time and effort into playing online games, instead of spending time with them or studying,” says Pawar, who is currently a final-year mass media student. Then there’s the pressure of what her profession demands. “I’m always so busy practising for tournaments that I barely get time. And even when I meet the occasional nice guy online, they’re always jealous of me gaming with so many other guys,” she says.
Hinds however, feels that being online and anonymous has the potential to add a “sense of intimacy” to dating, where one can be more open about themselves with someone new. The Singaporean herself met her husband while playing League of Legends online, when they both chose the same character despite being in opposing teams and ended up clicking. “Until I came to India to meet him, most of our dates were either through IM or watching movies together on screen share, which, to me, is such a classic gamer thing to do because nobody else really bothers using screen share,” she says.
Looking forward to inclusion
When Hinds’ moved to India in 2018, it wasn’t just to bridge the gap between her boyfriend and her. Today, she has brought her A-game to expand what used to be Girlaxy, to a larger association of India’s first all-female team, GEms. Here, she conducts training workshops and boot camps for all genders. And 2020, she adds, is all about inclusion.
“I am currently working with Global eSports to create a safe space for women to come together, be totally comfortable and just get, set, game,” she says. Should girls carve out their own niche, instead of having to explore the existing, male-dominated one? Hinds is quick to point out the shortcomings in this utopia. “As girls, we have to be more careful because people are waiting to pounce on us for the smallest of mistakes, which wouldn’t happen if we were guys,” she says. “And although people are trying to debunk them, there are scientific studies about women’s reflexes not being as quick as men, putting us at a disadvantage. So, it’s important to build our confidence and practise enough to make sure that we step into this field with all guns blazing.”
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