A Female StarCraft Player’s Entry into the World of Competitive Gaming


September 7, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up

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According to a StarCraft self-reported community survey, only 1.8% of respondents are female.1 That is a very small number. Why are female gamers nearly absent from the StarCraft community site?

Among the female participants in StarCraft II, some are doing very well – both as competitors in the game and as community leaders. Among them, I interviewed Mona Zhang, the female founder and leader of the Collegiate StarCraft League. Mona is also a Master Level player, meaning that she is among the top 2% players in the U.S. Mona is a powerful player and a community leader, potentially a strong role model for other female gamers. Yet, why are female gamers a smaller group relative to males? What other factors are holding back their participation?

So I talked to Mona, to find out her secrets – how does a female develop into a role normally dominated by nerdy male college students?

Like most active StarCraft participants, Mona’s experience with computer games started at an early age.  She first played StarCraft when she was 11 years old. Like other gamers, her brother was playing it, and she wanted to do the same. Her relationship with her brother has always been friendly, and she was motivated to emulate her brother’s interests. Other than StarCraft, she shared with her brother console games, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Tiberian Sun. And like some other gamers, Mona at a young age started by playing games casually, e.g., doing comp stomp (beating computer opponents) and having fun. Later, she found videos of professional gaming events on the openly networked Internet, and fell in love with professional competitions. But can having geeky male siblings influence females to explore gaming and potentially become serious gamers?

“There’s always that issue of access.  You don’t have girls saying, ‘Oh, video games, I should play them because they’re cool’,” and Mona continued, “What I mean by that is that a lot of girls, when they’re brought up, they basically do things that their peers are interested in or that their parents give them access to. Because no one tells me that I’m not going to say, ‘Hi mom, get me an N64.’  That’s what my brother did because he was like, ‘Oh, all my guy friends are getting N64s. Mom, get me an N64.’ Otherwise, girls are only exposed to things like shopping.  Your peers are really interested in shopping.  Your peers are really interested in books and ‘hanging out.’  It’s very different, and because of the different exposure that you are given, I feel like it’s more difficult to learn how to read a game or learn how to play a game.” 

Mona suggested that girls learn to wish for culturally appropriate objects from their parents. If her brother had not wished for video games, she would never have had the opportunity to play them.

Having access to video games at home, all without asking, is not the only influencing factor in Mona’s development of a geeky interest. She also had the luck to meet like-minded geeky peers at the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. IB programs expose students to mathematics, science, and critical thinking, which may explain why Mona found many other geeky kids to hang out with. “A lot of us were nerds,” she said.  There, she met three other female friends with similar background – had geeky siblings and were interested in StarCraft. They became best friends. They picked up the Protoss race, which is the “prettiest” among StarCraft races. Playing competitively online for the first time is a nerve-wracking experience for all StarCraft players. Mona and her friends supported each other, socially and emotionally, such as to cheer each other on until they overcome the nervous feelings. At school, they even managed to beat the other StarCraft boys in their class.

Had Mona not had geeky siblings and peers in her early life, she reasoned that she would have found it difficult to pick up video gaming at college. She provided us with an example, “What is WASD? You move using those controls in a game. If you only use your computer to check your email, it’s incredibly difficult for females to get into the gaming scene.” Mona told us that many college women she had met are facing similar difficulties. Gaming skills are more complex than simply controlling your mouse to click on icons. Avid gamers develop fine keyboarding skills, such as clicking on the right keys without even looking at the keyboard, through their frequent usages of common game controls like WASD. These gamers can pick up new games and become good at them much more easily than others.

Bearing what Mona has told us, the environments in which girls grow up may explain in part the smaller participation of females in significant roles in gaming or geeky communities when they are older. She makes two interesting points about her personal experience, which may be shared by other female StarCraft players. One is the technologies that she had at home, so that she had an early exposure to video games. Two is the type of peers she had at school, so that she had the social support while pursuing a gaming interest. At the very least, these conditions had given her a choice – whether to spend more time in video games or other activities. And that choice which Mona had made, has brought her a long way in the StarCraft community. 

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1 We assume the respondents of this survey are mainly competitive ladder match players. So of those types of players, it is safe to say that 1.8% are female. The percentage of total female StarCraft II players may be larger.

  • We began playing World of Warcraft in our family when my daughter was 5 and my son 7.  We would sit around the table and say, “C’mon honey, it’s time to rain death upon the heads of your enemies.”  4 years later, my son is challenging himself on the Starcraft II ladder, while my daughter downloads casual games involving animals to her iPad, though she is proud of being geeky and asks for things like the Lilypad Arduino rather than the N64.

     

    As a former high-tech engineering executive, I found that women and men, by and large, approached engineering differently, with men going home to read Dr. Dobbs and “play” on their computers, while most women didn’t.

     

    There sure seems to be something important beyond peer pressure and access at work here…

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