When video games first burst into public consciousness back in 1980s, they were a mostly male hobby. Popular media of the time portrayed the “gamer” as a shy, socially awkward white boy who used video games as a way to escape from the world around him, where he was frequently tormented by bullies, an unwinnable crush, or a rough home life. Video games allowed for a power fantasy, a place where a kid could go to become someone different, namely someone more confident and powerful.
As video games evolved into the 90s, this idea of power stuck. Heroes were mostly macho men (or the very occasional macho woman, like Lara Croft or Samus Aran) or powerful fantasy beings who had no trouble cruising through their environment and becoming the hero they were always meant to be. As alluring as power fantasies are, their popularity in games would lead to trouble further down the line.
Gaming eventually became more mainstream and shook its nerdy stigma. Straight white men had plenty of role models in video games that they could look up to (I use the term “role model” loosely), but women, people of color, and queer people who played these games often had few options as to who they could identify with. Women in early games were often damsels in distress or sex objects; people of color and queer people were nonexistent. The game industry reflected this, even as games became more popular with women and people of all creeds: it was mostly men who worked in development and brought games to life, so games were only showing one side of the multifaceted nature of human life.
Later on, games that became popular with women, like The Sims and Candy Crush, were ridiculed. They and other similar titles weren’t considered “real games” because they didn’t have certain characteristics that, upon closer inspection, didn’t really hold up under scrutiny. “Real games” needed guns and competitive multiplayer and…scantily-clad women? Questionable at best.
The rise of esports continued this gatekeeping against women, people of color, and queer people. Online multiplayer competitive games proved to be breeding grounds for misogyny, racism, and general hate towards anyone who didn’t fit the traditional gamer mold, a label that was once made fun of and called “nerdy” but that now was a source of extreme pride for some. Professional teams were overwhelmingly male; when Geguri, the famous Overwatch pro player, originally came onto the scene, she had to endure a cheating scandal that many said was fabricated in order to damage her reputation and prevent her from playing.
Now that gaming and esports have become multibillion-dollar ventures, the need for more and different perspectives has become increasingly apparent. People of all genders, races, nationalities, and identities play video games, and if we want the media we consume to reflect us and tell all of our stories, we must strive for better. This includes the realm of collegiate gaming, where teams and organizations are still struggling with how to welcome gamers outside of the traditional definition. I spoke to Holli of The Ohio State University about her experiences as a captain of one of the school’s Overwatch teams and member of their Magic: The Gathering Arena team.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for quality. Holli has approved these edits.
Emily: How did you get started with OSU Esports?
Holli: I got involved with OSU Esports my freshman year when I tried out for our Tespa Overwatch team, and I worked my way up until I became the captain of my own team. I still run that team alongside being on the MTGA team. I got started with MTGA when it was still in beta because I enjoy [playing] strategic single-player games in my free time. I played it quite casually and got a lot of my friends involved, but as my competitive side took over, I started playing it much more often. When I found out that there was a tournament offered by CSL, I leapt at the opportunity and stayed in touch with our coordinator to make sure I could be involved.
Emily: Have you met a lot of women or out queer or gender-nonconforming people playing MTGA and Overwatch? How about in collegiate esports in general?
Holli: I haven't met a lot of women or queer people playing collegiate MTGA/Overwatch, but I have met a lot of women that play Overwatch just in competitive play. Unfortunately, I've never had a girl or queer [person] on any of my collegiate teams for more than just a temporary roster/sub/ringer.
Emily: Does OSU have a big female gaming scene? Are there any women in your club?
Holli: There's lots of women in the club as staff members, but not as gamers. I don't think I know of even one girl gamer other than me [who’s] on a team, but I'm not certain. I think women are more comfortable in roles like secretary and treasurer and see the “stinky, smelly, haven't showered” gamer dudes as something they don’t want to be a part of.
It's just like culture [and] media and the lack of push for women in esports. A lot of people like to blame toxicity [and] sexism for why girls stop playing multiplayer video games, but I like to think [that] toxicity [and] sexism are very mild, if at all existent, in MTGA.
Emily: What do you think collegiate gaming can do to better serve women and queer people?
Holli: It’s hard to say. I hate the idea of an “all-female team”; that's not what we should be aiming for. I also hate the idea of "diversity quotas" on teams. If I ever made a team and was constantly [told] I only got it because I was a girl (which I've gotten a lot of messages about, actually), it would make me really uncomfortable. People are always trying to diminish female players’ skill and come up with reasons as to why they can't POSSIBLY play on the same [level] or [at a] better level than them. Maybe [I’m on the team because] I have a positive mindset and work hard rather than find excuses for [my] shortcomings. Maybe that's why I got picked for a team. Who knows?
As for what [collegiate gaming] can do, I don't think it's much. They have to just keep reaching out to those groups of people and express genuine interest. It shouldn't be [based on] “Oh, we want to increase diversity in collegiate sports.” [They should think about] how to create a program that everyone can enjoy, not just the majority [of people]. Eliminating toxicity, sexism, and harassment is the only way. We can't do much about those people who say "Being around groups of men intimidate me”; that's their personal thing. But we can make it so that intimidating and toxic people aren't involved, which will increase how welcome people feel.
Emily: Who were those rude messages from? Random people online or members of other collegiate teams?
Holli: Randoms online, but people from my own club (the Overwatch section) have suggested that I don't need to worry about tryouts for our official premier team (which is sponsored by the college, finally) because I'm a girl and I'm biracial so I fit their diverse quotas.
Editor’s note: Holli shared a screenshot here of the message in question.
I put in too much of my time and life to raise this team; [I] care about things other than JUST being good at the game. I look at personality, communication, motivation and drive. I take people from a wide range of skill levels and put us together [so we can] work together…and someone said that I will probably make the team, not because of my leadership skills, dedication, skill, or personality, but because of my God-given sex.
Emily: We’ve probably answered this one already, but do you feel gaming in general is welcoming to women?
Holli: To be fair, there's a lot of hostility among all-male teams too. Like, just thinking people don't deserve spots and you do. I think certain games are [welcoming to women]! I think Magic is super newbie-friendly and [the community doesn’t really care] about gender. Women are the minority, but it's not because the Magic community is bad.
I [do] think other games like FPSes and perhaps more mechanical skill-based games are not as welcoming.
Emily: Do you think that has to do with something the developers/publishers are doing or more with the way the community organizes itself?
Holli: [I’m] unsure. I know that with Overwatch, they tried to stop toxicity with their endorsement thing. I don’t know how that was supposed to help, though. The most important thing [the development team has done] is the “avoid a teammate” feature, which they should've had on release. But I don't think people purposefully make their games for men.
Actually, never mind. Think about League and Overwatch, two really big games. All the girls are hot with big tits and revealing skins. They’re for men.
I think when games [include] fanservice, it will appeal to multiple groups. A lot of girls are open about recognizing attractiveness and will be like, “Wow, this new Ahri skin is so pretty.” [Fanservice] attracts people of different genders and orientations, but I do think at the core of it they tend to sexualize female characters more, which attracts a largely male fanbase.
I remember that Blizzard made two of their characters queer (Soldier and Tracer). Straight men of the community didn’t like that, but queer people and allies either enjoyed them or had a neutral feeling. So…maybe companies are moving away from their gathering support from the community via fanservice.
Emily: Have you encountered any positive examples of allyship? Women supporting women, guys making sure your voice was heard, etc.
Holli: When some people say sexist or harassing stuff in voice chat in random games, usually some guy will be like "Alright, stop, no one wants to hear that," etc. I really appreciate the people who do that. If I say something in return, I usually just get flamed more, so it's better to not say anything.
As far as guys making sure my voice is heard, often people [will] repeat what I say after I say it and then people agree with it. It's basically “he-peating,” and it's annoying, but I can't get too frustrated since at least they're doing what I suggested.
Emily: Any last thoughts on collegiate gaming in general?
Holli: I think it's a great experience that everyone should have at least once if they have any interest in gaming. Whether as players, analysts, coaches, writers, etc., I think it's an absolutely wonderful environment and experience that will only improve as better and more passionate people enter the field.
Emily: Anyone you’d like to shout out?
Holli: RobAJG! For being my favorite caster and for hyping me up early in the season.
Diversity in gaming has come a long way since the inception of the medium, but we still have a long way to go. If anything, Holli’s responses give me hope that there is a brighter future out there, one where everyone is treated equally and underrepresented voices are given a chance to speak and be heard. Support the female, queer, and people of color gamers in your life, and think twice before you say something rude online. Together, we can make gaming and esports a field that's welcoming to all.