Panelists hoping to crack code of female acceptance in gaming

Kathy Chiang, who holds a lead role in UCI's new gaming arena, hopes to help destroy stereotypes about gender and gaming. Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences

Imagine this.

Two kids arrive home from school and bolt to the video game console. They're boisterous, competitive, and eager to earn bragging rights for the new arena warfare game that just reached store shelves.

Now, think about the kids you were envisioning. Were they boys or girls?

If your imagination generated images of two little boys, you're in line with how most view the gaming culture.

But on Thursday, in the shadows of a freshly constructed gaming center on the campus of University of California Irvine, a panel called "Women in Gaming" will set out to reshape these perceptions. Much like the physical space UCI has recently created to allow the world of esports and video game development to infiltrate the academic landscape, five female panelists will explore ways to increase the visibility and representation of women in competitive gaming.

One of the panelists will be Kathy Chiang, arena coordinator for UCI's new esports center, which opened Sept. 23 and provides students a hub to indulge in organized competitive multiplayer games for both academic and entertainment purposes. Chiang has immersed herself in the online gaming community since 2003, when she discovered the game Ragnarok Online at age 10. While others were emailing and Googling, Chiang was gaming. It was the only thing she did on the internet. And, in a sense, it became her social circle, virtually talking and playing with thousands of others.

"People knew me as my in-game personality or avatar," she said. "They didn't care that my name was Kathy or that I was a girl. I was even able to keep my age to myself because I didn't want to be judged by how young I was."

The daughter of a computer engineer, Chiang had at least a small sense that a career in gaming could be attainable, and her ears perked as a high school senior when she noticed UCI offered a computer game science major. The major isn't for playing; it focuses on the fundamentals of game design, gaming culture and computer science. Like gaming itself, jobs in the games field touch on a variety of skill sets.

"That was the first time I really thought about pursuing it as a career," Chiang said. "I never realized there could be such a direct option."

Chiang has flourished since matriculating at UCI. She joined the League of Legends club, a group of students who play what's currently the most popular esports title in the world. She saw potential for the club to grow into an outlet that encompasses more than a single competitive game, so she co-founded The Association of Gamers, which included four more games in its repertoire. She helped expand the club from fewer than 50 members to more than 500. She extended the community outside of the physical campus. Now, TAG has more than 6,100 members on its Facebook page, most of which participate in the group's online community.

Based on societal norms, none of this was supposed to happen. But there's a marked difference between what we think about video games and real player demographics.

"Video games are still commonly thought of as a leisure activity for boys and young men," said Amanda Cullen, a Ph.D. student at UCI who organized, and will moderate, Thursday's panel. Cullen has begun conducting research to dissect, in part, the societal stigmas dissuading females from getting -- and staying -- involved in gaming. "The video game industry has long operated under an assumption that boys and young men are their primary audience and, as a result, video games and gaming communities are often built to appeal mostly to that demographic."

According to recent statistics, the industry would be better off expunging that assumption. A 2014 report published by the Entertainment Software Association says 48 percent of gamers are female, and the gender breakdown of recent game purchasers is dead even. Even more eye-opening is that the number of female gamers 50 and older increased by 32 percent since 2012-13.

But the world of competitive gaming and esports is much different. There's an increased gender discrepancy in that space, and it correlates much more with the assumptions the gaming community has long operated under. Women interested in competitive gaming are battling an environment, Cullen said, that still thinks of itself as needing to separate genders and portrays men as both more serious and more competitive than women.

In this sense, Chiang is a unicorn in today's competitive gaming world, which is also woefully bereft of women in leadership positions. In a 2015 International Game Developers Association satisfaction survey of nearly 3,000 video game industry professionals, only 22 percent identified as female. That gender gap is further accentuated by a 2016 esports market report published by SuperData, which notes that 85 percent of U.S. esports viewership came from a male audience.

"You suddenly see all these people that might have felt video games weren't for them now say, 'Hey, here's a character that looks like me.' That's a really powerful moment." Amanda Cullen

So why don't women make it from casual gaming to the competitive scene or managerial positions? A seemingly oppressive culture that makes it psychologically draining for a woman to obtain -- and maintain -- certain leadership roles is largely to blame.

Maria "Remilia" Creveling, League of Legends' first professional female player, was the target of online harassment after appearing on her first live stream with Renegades, a pro esports team. Months later, she left the game entirely, though she has returned to League since on smaller-budget squads. Other women in the industry say they've been the target of death threats. The abuse is so prevalent that it was a topic at last year's South by Southwest Conference.

The very reason that anonymity lured Chiang into competitive gaming could well be the reason that harassment of females is disturbingly prevalent. It's because of anonymity on the games' online message boards and social channels that faceless players can harass others without repercussions.

Today, a flourishing esports community finds itself at a crossroads. Moving in one direction is a flashy, competitive, machismo culture that is penetrating mainstream sports. In another, a uniquely competitive opportunity for males and females to coexist at the highest level.

Chiang's ascension to a lead role in UCI's snazzy new gaming arena is indicative of what could be a stereotype-shattering revolution on Irvine's campus. Women are starting to take notice of other women in the community and forming a support system. Jenny Song is an English major at UCI but decided to take a leadership position in The Association of Gamers after joining what was then the League of Legends club.

"I was definitely intimidated at first," said Song, now the vice president of TAG. "But I think because there were already females in the club, it made me feel a lot better."

At UCI, an extensive amount of work is being done to recruit more women like Song, who see gaming and esports as not just a competition but an industry.

"[TAG] puts a lot of effort into creating a more friendly and social space overall," Chiang said. "Promoting social activities, such as icebreakers, lunch and dinner outings, traveling to esports events -- beyond just playing the games or participating in tournaments -- has resulted in a more inclusive and engaged community. We've noticed that this direction leads to more female members and officers."

Rebecca Black has been on the UCI faculty for more than a decade and just switched to the Department of Informatics from the School of Education. She is part of a study looking at cognition in esports and dissecting the decision-making, skills and strategy that UCI's gamers use during competition.

A lot of the traits that separate esports players in terms of talent, according to the research, are unprejudiced to the identity of the gamer. Still, in 2016, 65 percent of players and participants in esports' top titles were male, according to SuperData.

"Women are underrepresented for many different reasons, but as the sport grows in visibility and programs like ours pave the way in how to be more inclusive along many different fronts, that will help other programs think about how they can make strides in that direction," Black said.

The financial chasm is wide. The highest earning female player, Sasha Hostyn of Canada, has earned $161,499.98 playing Starcraft II, one of the first esports titles. The highest-earning male for the same game, Jang "MC" Min Chul, has made more than $500,000.

But Cullen has noticed a ripple in the gaming industry that could be intensifying into some cultural waves. A driving force -- and certainly an impetus behind their research -- is video-game-maker Blizzard Entertainment's Overwatch, a first-person shooting game released in May 2016. It has quickly become one of the more popular esports titles, and its focus on diversity among its characters has fueled part of that growth.

"There's no reason to stop doing something you love." Kathy Chiang

"They come from a variety of countries, there are both men and women, and a few of them have a disability," Cullen said. "That's what drew me to the game."

Nearly half of the human characters in Overwatch are women. Of the nine female characters, four are Caucasian. The other women are represented as characters from China, Egypt, India and South Korea.

Although it's hard to determine specific demographics in the 20-million-user Overwatch population, Cullen says she notices a more diverse community.

"You suddenly see all these people that might have felt video games weren't for them now say, 'Hey, here's a character that looks like me,' " Cullen said. "That's a really powerful moment."

Make no mistake: The worlds of esports and online gaming are still dominated by men in the highly visible positions. Watch any competition on TV, and almost every gamer you see is male. The announcers are mostly male. And males still make up the majority of senior positions at game development companies.

Aaron Trammell is another member of the informatics faculty at UCI and has teamed with Cullen in her research.

"The sort of work that we do doesn't necessarily question disparity," Trammell said. "The question is not, 'Can women play as well as men?' We know they can. But there are many societal reasons for the discrepancy, and it starts at an early age. Boys get Nintendo systems for Christmas; girls get Barbie dolls."

That's changing, though. Women -- and, perhaps more important, young girls -- see a female presence in the gaming industry. It's still a minority, but it's there. They can take an informatics class by a female professor. They can join a gaming club with a female VP. They can talk to Chiang about potential careers in the industry.

"Keep gaming," Chiang said when asked what advice she'd give a 7-year-old girl. "There's no reason to stop doing something you love. At some point, you'll find someone you connect with and the place that makes you comfortable and where you fit in."