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How I responded to sexism in gaming with empathy

Peking House is my family-owned Chinese restaurant in Willimantic, Connecticut, where I spent nearly 20 years growing up, before we sold it. My brother and I spent most of our time in the room in the back called “the office.” “The office” was really just a storage room, but it had our gaming systems, and the game that we played the most was called Super Smash Brothers Melee. For those who don’t know, Super Smash Brothers Melee is an older fighting game made for the Nintendo GameCube. My brother and I spent hours playing this game, so much that we even challenged restaurant customers to matches.

Eventually, my friends dragged me out to a local tournament, where I ended up placing 13th out of 33. Not bad, but definitely far from the best. After training with higher level players, and taking notes on matches I found online, I started to travel to national tournaments, and before I knew it, I was being whisked around the United States at the age of 17, all because of a video game. Totally living the dream life, right? This is how I ran head first into the competitive Super Smash Brothers Melee community, a scene that I’ve been a part of for nearly ten years. I’m sure that when I say competitive gaming, you guys are imagining a room of people hunched over their laptops.

Sometimes it can look like that, but more often it looks something like this. (Laughter) Because Smash Brothers Melee is such an old game, it requires those big, boxy TVs to be played on. Our players are so dedicated, that they will actually lug these things onto their flights as carry-ons. (Laughter) The community is also absurdly diverse. This is a photo of Apex, an annual tournament held in New Jersey. In 2013, over 1500 people showed up from 16 different countries. I feel like if 16 countries are flying out to New Jersey, that’s saying something. Sorry, New Jersey. (Laughter) In the gaming community, I was known by my gamer tag “_milktea,” but in real life, I was still very much just Lilian. When I was 17, I was shy and quiet, and I was often bullied by my classmates for being different, for being Asian.

Some of them made fun of the clothes I wore. Others asked me out on dates as a joke. Another called me a Chinese prostitute. But when I was “_milktea,” I was part of a community that welcomed and accepted me. Except what’s missing from this picture? Do you see any women? When the gender imbalance is this large, social dynamics can become a bit skewed. You get a lot more attention than you normally would. [milktea is an angel] At the time, I didn’t understand why I was getting this attention. I just knew that it was so much better than what I was dealing with at school. [I love Milktea.] Here’s one of my favorites.

[Milktea chan you are really attractive.] [If I had to rate you for beauty I give you a 8 out of 10] [Only because I’ve been crushing on another girl for a long time] (Laughter) But then, things took a turn for the worse. [Why is everyone blaming milktea lol?] [She is a harlot.] [She doesn’t like Smash, she just wants attention.] And then you started to see comments like this. [coz you’re only known in the scene for being the subject of nerdy fantasies] [suck a **** in crappy smasher’s dreams] Over years, I began internalizing all of this, and then I took these attitudes and projected them onto other women. “Ew, why is she so girly? Is she even a real gamer?” I felt my voice shrinking and the resent growing inside of me, and eventually, I distanced myself from the Smash community altogether. Fast forward a few years.

I landed my first job in New York City. There, I realized that sexist behavior didn’t have to be the norm. But nevertheless, I stayed quiet and withdrawn. Public speaking? Never going to happen. (Laughter) But then, this Facebook comment appeared in my feed. [Stop chalking up the terror of the internet to the Smash community.] [In general, we’re very accepting of females] I swear, at that very moment, my inner wallflower spontaneously combusted. I started writing blog posts that talked about my experiences and issues I had faced within the community, and to my surprise, they went viral within our scene.

A well-known fighting game website picked up one of my posts and later on, Polygon, a gaming site, covered my future work. All of this led to the creation of The New Meta, a panel that I cofounded and moderated with the NYU Game Center. We roped in tons of women from different gaming communities to talk about issues of sexism within gaming. But the entire panel’s point was to raise awareness in a way that did not shame male gamers. As a woman, I was sexist, and even misogynistic, against my own gender.

Sometimes, when you’ve been immersed in an environment for long enough, it can be hard to differentiate between harmful behaviors and normal ones. While some gamers are intentionally malicious, some may not even realize that they’re perpetuating sexist behaviors in the first place. Empathizing with these gamers is more productive than outright dismissing them. Initiate a conversation. Deconstruct these behaviors, no matter how obvious they might seem to you. And please, leave the accusatory tone behind.

If I had been dismissed as a sexist neckbeard, I wouldn’t be on this stage talking to you right now. And to my surprise, I found that people were willing to change, and they wanted to help. [As a guy, how to treat girls in eSports equally?] [Trying my hardest, but advice would help.] And whenever I had any doubts, I started to receive feedback like this. [I got a few female Smashers into the scene because of you.]

This entire experience has shown me that my silence only further enabled sexism within gaming. Nobody is perfect. Internalizing biases and becoming lost in them is deceptively easy. By being vocal, you force yourself and those around you to reevaluate their actions and their perceptions. Everyone in this room has a voice. You have to use it, and you have to use it responsibly. Not only can you provoke change, but you can empower others to do so, too.

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