DreamHack is the world’s largest eSport and computer festival, held twice a year in Jönköping, Sweden. Along with gaming competitions DreamHack also offers competitions in demo scene, 3D-modeling, animation and music, much like its Finnish equivalent, Assembly, yet in a much bigger scale. Last year DreamHack had almost 23 000 visitors and over 17 000 connected computers. Simple festival of people gathering together to game, first founded in 1994, has now grown to be a massive LAN-party, with attendants from all over Europe, Asia and America.
However, a little while ago Aftonbladet’s Eva Franchell wrote an article about DreamHack and made a notion that the event has in a very short time turned from a whole family’s activity back to its roots: to something that more men and boys are joining, while merely 10 % of the attendants are now women. On the other hand, statistics also show that over 40% of the overall gamer crowd consists of women, and the numbers are constantly going up. In order to understand the contradiction, I asked two gamer women who are familiar with DreamHack how they’ve experienced the event themselves. Is there something that causes this? Is DreamHack sexist?
At best – A great place for a gamer
Madeleine Leander, more often known online as MaddeLisk, is one of the 10%. She recently won the female world championship in StarCraft 2. To eSport enhusiasts like her DreamHack is the most important time of the year. Leander has done casting in DreamHack Winter’s finals for Swedish tv, and has all and all attended DreamHack four times. Outside the event Leander is a part time programmer and caster and is working on her PhD in mathematics. As a phenomenon that is competitions, expos and other programme in one, DreamHack holds clear significance to Leander. ”I haven’t been to a lot of other events like DreamHack. DreamHack is very special. Often there are events just for competitions but I love the fact that DreamHack is something more. There are so many people bringing their computers there and so many things happening.”
In the competitions, Leander says she has faced demeaning comments in the event because of her gender, but that those are in the minority and that the atmosphere in general is actually very positive. ”Most of the other players are very supportive and think that it is really good to see some girls competing too.” Leander argues that DreamHack is better in this sense than some of the other similar events.
Elaine Boström, a board member of Sverok (Swedish Gaming Federation) and the project manager of Network Leia (a mentorship program in Sverok for women), on the other hand sees a lot of sexism in the event. Boström, who describes herself ”a feminist, human Swiss army knife and geek” is an avid League of Legends and Halo gamer, but she doesn’t want to attend DreamHack until there are some major actions taken against the attitudes on the event. She hopes for a change and thinks that DreamHack has a social responsibility for the community it creates.
At worst – A boys’ club
Two years ago DreamHack raised heavy uproar with its plan to include a booth babe contest in the event. The competition was to be hosted by MSI Computers. Only after strong social media resistance MSI cancelled the whole thing. Yet again DreamHack Summer 2013 stirred up attention with its talent show, which included a female contestant deep-throating a banana, while hosts encouraged and cheered her. The act was later chosen a winner by the talent show crowd, and approved by the jury.
Although perhaps a marginal moment in the whole festival, it did leave its mark on Boström’s mind. So much indeed, she wrote an article about it. According to her, what DreamHack allowed to happen reflects one the worst sides in the gaming culture, the ”it’s a boys’ club” attitude. Even in an event which can otherwise be fun and accepting, female objectification still pops up for absolutely no reason what so ever, but to be there for boys.
For comparison, a similar case, IGDA’s (International Gaming Developer’s Association) party with scantily clad female dancers caused Brenda Romero, a co-chair of IGDA’s Women in Gaming special interest group, to resign her position during GDC (Game Developers’ Conference) last March. To a female game designer such as Romero who had worked hard to raise equality issues in the gaming world it was a necessary statement, one that has been missing from DreamHack.
Accepting women as gamers
Boström says she’s wanted to attend DreamHack since she was a teenager, but kept hearing the event was ”for boys” and that she’d be treated like a ”LAN-whore”. Boström explains the common term being used at DreamHack for “girls that only come to the event to get attention from the boys and to have sex. Sometimes this is used to describe a woman who is visiting the event without a computer… and sometimes even just single girls visiting the event.”
In the online world surrounding the event, Boström has experienced the whole spectrum of hate. “One thing that separates the gaming community from other communities in pop culture is that the boys were here first so as time goes by and more girls begin to get interested in gaming, the immune reaction to this “female bacteria” is getting more and more severe. We didn’t have a place in the hierarchy in the beginning, so we have to fight to the last drop of blood until we get our “acknowledgement” from “the male jury”. Even if some guys won’t see it, some feel like we are intruding on THEIR territory in THEIR world.”
She demonstrates the beliefs that women are not interested in games, at least not seriously, and that they’re there to be looked at. “The usual three attitudes that I encounter face to face are 1) “Oh, whose girlfriend are you”, 2) “Oh, are you single? Nice body!” and 3) “Prove yourself worthy, what is [insert random(difficult according to the man asking) question about gaming]?””
Leander too notes that even though she herself has been left alone, she’s aware that some women are indeed treated disrespectfully because of what they wear. ”There are however (as everywhere) quite some girls that dress a bit challenging. They often get judged as attention whores and their interest for games is questioned.”
Guidelines to change the attitude
The ruthless online conversations along with the public mishaps give outsiders the message that DreamHack may not have been trying to willingly give out. Leander thinks the organizers have good values, but ponders if DreamHack could benefit from simple guidelines that could aid controlling its entirety. ”In general I think it would be good with more rules. Rules compared to what we see from WCS (World Championship Series) now, but extended. I think it could be clear that they don’t allow racism, sexism etc. Some casters could also be a bit more aware. ”
Boström thinks the problems she sees will always be there if they do not take a stand and come up with a larger, more coherent solution. ”Sverok, the organisation in which I have been active for at least 8 years, surveyed within the federation to map out the norms, attitude and behaviors among the associations. After that, they’ve set a equality plan with goals and guidelines.” Also any action taken with troublesome situations would be a step up. ”During the eSport cup, Svecup, they suspended two players that harassed the other team and the administrators. This is the first time I’ve heard about a suspension of players that have been misbehaving in Swedish competitions.”
Even amongst the girls in DreamHack, Leander laments that girls who compete are a rarity. ”Maybe 5% or less.” She hopes more girls will be able to take part in competitions, and predicts a natural change in the gaming culture. ”I’d love to see more girls attending DreamHack and in general I’d love if there were more girls in eSports. I think it’s mostly a matter of time, the view on games is changing a lot these years.”
Whether the change will come naturally or by action will remain to be seen. Leander encourages all gamer girls to be brave, no matter the bad response, and game on. ”To all the girls that love eSports or just to play I just want to say: stand up for yourselves and don’t listen to people trying to take it away from you. Do what you love!”
The fact that DreamHack is such a a big event also means it has power to affect this situation, other events and visitors in a positive manner. Even if there are good things in the event, negative cases often overrun them, and not least by the bad PR. So instead of that, the other option would be to try to be inviting and positive towards its potential, and much needed female audience. Something that instead of a scary change could be seen as an actual selling point towards young female gamers who often get overlooked.