This week PC Gamer broke the story that a Hearthstone competition in Finland was open only to men. Now this wasn’t the fault of the Finnish eSports Federation – the organisers behind that particular event – who are actually very proactive in trying to include women in their eSports competitions. Instead, it was a result of a policy of the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF), which includes the segregation of men and women competitors.

The IeSF’s competition, for which the Finnish event was a qualifying round, does not have a women’s division for Hearthstone, meaning that if a woman was to win the Finnish competition, she would not be able to enter the subsequent IeSF event anyway. To prevent this, the Finnish competition was forced to not include an open ranked Hearthstone competition.

After big media outlets picked up the story following PC Gamer’s (brilliant) lead, the IeSF received quite a bit of feedback on the gender segregation at their tournaments. And, subsequently, the IeSF did the most beneficial thing possible – they changed their policies. And that is a huge win for everyone involved.

Why did the IeSF have a policy of gender segregated competitions in the first place? Well, according to the IeSF, they wish to position eSports as a viable sporting competition – and potentially one that would be accepted into the Olympics. Following the model of competitive sports the world over, many of which have gender segregated competitions, the IeSF decided that gender segregated tournament events would make eSports seem more “legitimate”.

Erm.

Let me say that again. The IeSF thought that a non-contact, minimally physical, mostly mental activity, where the sole physiological differences between men and women are entirely irrelevant, should be gender segregated because that’s what real sports do.

I don’t believe that the IeSF’s original intentions behind gender segregated tournament events was sexist. The idea that there is a “prestige” behind gender segregated events, however, is a little absurd. In reality, sporting organisations have traditionally applied gender segregation in physical sports where the very slight average differences between male and female physiology may potentially lead to gender-weighted results – it was largely a practicality issue. That less-physical competitive activities such as chess, which the IeSF cited (now deleted) as an example, are sometimes gender segregated – not ALL chess competitions – is rank absurdity. And the idea that a boy can click a mouse or tap a key faster or slower than a girl just because they are a boy (and vice-versa) is equally ridiculous.

Thankfully, the IeSF reversed their original decision to have men’s and women’s tournament events separated. Instead, they are providing an open event, in which men and women can both compete, and a women’s only event.

I personally think this is a great idea, and the best possible outcome – temporarily. Removing the gender barrier and consolidating the open tournament into a gender-blind competition is fantastic. It’s equality in action.

Keeping the women’s division is also a smart idea, for the time being. No, it’s not “reverse sexism” (hahahahaha as if that’s an actual thing). Instead, it’s providing a safe space for women to compete in a large, well renowned competition without the threat typical of male-dominated game spaces.

You know what I mean. Every time there’s a woman playing a game, you’ll get some wangbottle dude spouting the typical sexist garbage, creating a threatening space where subtle (and sometimes not subtle) gendered violence can be harmful. I wouldn’t accuse a professional eSports player of intending to do this in a competitive setting (although it wouldn’t be unheard of), but there is a lot of ingrained sexism in the gaming space. If we can create a safe space for women within the eSport framework, that could be a fantastic tool in increasing women’s participation in the growing competitive space.

Specific safe spaces, however, are a stop-gap measure in a longer plan and aren’t needed forever – as long as progress and acceptance continues. If there are more women participating in safe space women-only competitions, we build up a pool of talented, experienced women capable of integrating into the open arena, incorporating themselves in the wider culture and making the whole place safe for everyone. I think at that time the IeSF would be right to abolish the women’s competitions, and I think that should be their ultimate goal to create the most inclusive environment possible.

Most encouraging about this story, however, is that the IeSF was so willing to enact this change as a result of public pressure.

It’s reassuring that the IeSF as an organisation is demonstrating a will to change established practices to include women more effectively. It’s also great to see that they take feedback seriously, opting to take on board community ideas.

It’s also a great way to illustrate that hey, if people speak up about inequality, stuff gets changed. The commentators, the analysts, the critics are heard by the organisations. And the people, the gamers, the community, are heard by the media. This week, our community affected change in an institution that will actively make peoples’ lives better, all because someone saw something they knew was unfair and didn’t sit back and let it happen.

I think that’s the most powerful message here – speaking up about unfairness can lead to positive change.

Lachlan Williams
Former Editor in Chief of OnlySP. A guy who writes things about stuff, apparently. Recovering linguist, blue pencil surgeon, and professional bishie sparkler. In between finding the latest news, reviewing PC games, and generally being a grumpy bossyboots, he likes to watch way too much Judge Judy. He perhaps has too much spare time on his hands. Based in Sydney, Australia. Follow him on twitter @lawksland.

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