League of Legends and the Crisis of the Gamer Identity
Gaming culture is not new. From the first players of tabletop role-playing games in the 1970s, passing from the graphic adventures in the 1980s; to the first Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games of the 1990s, the gaming culture has been growing and changing. Consequently, these otherwise scattered players have gathered under the banner of the videogames they play, creating a subculture and a sense of identification around the videogames. According to the Handbook of Self and Identity, identities are:
“The traits and characteristics, social relations, roles, and social group memberships that define who one is. Identities can be focused on the past what used to be true of one, the present what is true of one now, or the future-the person one expects or wishes to become, the person one feels obligated to try to become, or the person one fears one may become. Identities are orienting, they provide a meaning-making lens and focus one’s attention on some but not other features of the immediate context” (Oyserman, Elmore, and Smith, 2012).
Hence, identities can be considered orientations according to which we live our lives. Following the proposed definition, we could consider the Gamer Identity as a social group membership that shape the social behaviors of its members and turn them into a conglomerate of people. Nevertheless, gamers cannot be considered an urban tribe because they do not gather around an image, or a particular videogame or genre. Instead, it is a loosely gathered, scattered group of individuals who use the internet and forums to talk and debate about whatever topics they want. Plus, given the rapid development gaming has experienced in the last years, more and more people play videogames each year. This makes asserting the identity of the people playing videogames, harder. Hence, the label “gamer”, which was formerly used to encompass that group of people who played videogames is now contested, given the evolution of the games surrounding the identity.
League of Legends (LoL), a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) has rapidly risen to the top among its competitors, surpassing DOTA2, the game that inspired it. According to Riot Games, the game’s developer there are “7 million [players] playing every month, 27 million playing every day, and over 7.5 million playing at the same time during each day’s peak play time.” (Riot Games, 2012). Likewise, on its competitive side, the game offers up to $2 million in prizes, along with sponsorships and thousands of dollars in stream watchers on Twitch.tv. On the other hand, there are three features that contribute LoL’s massive success. The first comes from its position as a free-to-play game with in-game purchases that change the cosmetic appearance of the champions (skins). Second the game requires little graphics processing, which makes entry-level computers capable of handling it. Third, the feature that interests this essay the most, the social feature.
As of 2014, 90% of League of Legends’ players are male, and 60% of them were enrolled or studied in college; hence, the majority of the players are around 18 to 25 years old. Consequently, with such a young population, comes a degree of emotional immaturity among players, who often behave inappropriately and offensively to other users (Summoners) (Caudill, 2015). To put a stop to such behavior, in 2011, Riot Games implemented a system called, “The Tribunal,” meant as a user-ran interface based on other summoner’s reports. In The Tribunal, players could punish bad behavior such as racism, misogyny, and violations to the Summoner’s Code, the LoL community’s set of rules. However, The Tribunal was discontinued not so long after, and the report system in analyzed by the Player Behavior Office in the Riot Headquarters. During the tribunal’s life, it became apparent that League of Legends suffers from toxic players who routinely complain (flame) their teammates and opponents, writing slurs and insults as if they were handing candy to kids. For this reason, during 2013, LoL did an experiment and conducted research on the player’s behaviors. According to ArsTechnica, a website that interviewed the head of the Player Behavior department,
“What we did is we took our whole player base and categorized the players who are known for toxic behaviors, all the players who are known for positive behaviors, and we can cross-correlate all the words that both populations use,” Lin said. “Any words in common we filter out of the dictionaries. What you’re left with is a dictionary for all the words the bad players use that good players don’t use.” The dictionary of common words for bad players falls along depressingly predictable lines, with a heavy weighting towards racial and homophobic slurs.” (Scimeca, 2013).
Lin’s research shows that given the fact that most players are male, they feel comfortable using homophobic insults and consider they are not likely to be policed by their behavior as if they felt the game a secure space to vent and be racist, homophobic and misogynist. Likewise, League of Legends caters to the tastes of heterosexual males, displaying often hypersexualized female characters with large breasts and scarce clothing, as if those clothes or lack of them would help them in battle. Even armor-clad female characters (Champions) are sexualized using skins. A recent example is the visual update Poppy, one of the female champions received. Poppy existed since the beginning of the game, and it was not until a few months ago that Riot decided to do a complete makeover to her, feminizing her strong features and giving her an overall more feminine appearance. Another example is Morgana, another champion whose bra seems utterly incapable of supporting her large bosom, rendering the clothing unsuitable for any battle. This calls our attention since the fantasy nature of the game seems more oriented to entice the erotic imagination of males by employing sexualized stereotypes of the female body to represent the female champions. This could also refer to the use of women as decoration, giving the game an edgy look by using scarcely-clothed females in power roles as a device to appeal to male consumers. Hence, in a game designed to call the male attention, it is not a surprise that discrimination against women, transgenders and homosexuals exist. Nevertheless, after two years of implementing better techniques of bad behavior deterrence, League of Legends has allegedly seen changes.
“As a result, of these governance systems changing online cultural norms, incidences of homophobia, sexism and racism in League of Legends have fallen to a combined 2 percent of all games. Verbal abuse has dropped by more than 40 percent, and 91.6 percent of negative players change their act and never commit another offense after just one reported penalty.” (Lin, 2015).
While 2% might seem low, League of Legends is a huge community and even the slightest improvement means change. The only sure thing in all this endeavor is that Riot Games has noted the subject and are willing to start changing the politics of the game. However, female and transgender players still feel discriminated or sexualized by the rest of the community. League of Legends is not an isolated example of a game with toxic players. On the contrary, toxic behavior has become a staple of online gaming interactions, sparking indignation among people who formerly dubbed themselves as gamers.
These issues influenced the identification of individuals as gamers and shaped the idea of being a gamer. According to a study, males are more likely to identify themselves as gamers, while females and non-cisgender individuals did not identify as gamers like the males did.
“Although gender was not mentioned as a reason for identifying as a gamer or not, there was a definite correlation between gender and gamer identity. Male interviewees were much more likely to identify as gamers than female, transgender or genderqueer interviewees were. Of the 29 interviewees that played games (…) twelve identified unequivocally as gamers (four female-identified and 8 male-identified). Three ― identified as gamers (two female- and 1-male identified) and five asserted that they are ―not gamers (4 female- and 1 genderqueer- identified). Eight said that they were unequivocally not gamers.” (Shaw, 2010).
This not only shows that there is a visible bias in the idea of being a gamer. To the audiences and the developers, most players are male, and they have to cater to their tastes, even if that means using xenophobic and misogynistic approaches to the audience. For this reason, the lack of self-identification around the idea of a gamer might be related to what media and videogame critics have dubbed, the crisis of the gaming identity, a situation on which, given the increasing amount of stereotyping, people do not want to be associated with the gaming culture that caters to such behavior. Thus, videogaming as an industry is actively reinforcing the stereotypes it should be fighting against. Instead of mobilizing the multi-billion dollar industry and use it as a media to criticize the inequality of society, it chooses to cater for their audiences, showing us gaming is a business for the companies, and developers are going to side with the money, not with dissident voices who want these critical issues fixed. Consequently, it is not hard to find instances of discrimination in online games. Arguably, these places are filled with manifestations of hatred that would be frankly frightening. For instance, the acclaimed MOBA, League of Legends has become a hub for this type of situations, allowing this increasingly violent behavior to occur.
Furthermore, while the industry of videogames wants to draw more and more clients with games that are perceived as “casual,” “hardcore” players around the world have gone against this identification, considering that those “casuals” are not gamers, nor the games they play are real games. This increases the gap between “casual” and “hardcore” players, making it harder to assert a unique “Gamer Identity.” According to a study conducted by the Pew Research in 2015, “49% percent of the adults under the age of 25 to 40 play videogames, and only 10% of them consider themselves as gamers” (Duggan, 2015). Thus, “Gamer” as an identity might not exist, since most videogame players play different types of games, and with this broadening in the players’ demographics, the label could fade away from its original meaning of a subculture and start being used to identify only professional players. Moreover, with the myriad of genres, subdivisions and gaming devices, asserting a unique identity that encompasses such a broad population might be impossible. Being gaming a typically male activity, the increasing number of female players pose a question regarding the way media has portrayed gamers, causing more difficulties in defining the identity.
Consequently, as an effort to offer a broad enough definition around the figure of a gamer, a Blogger called Murf proposed gamers as “[Someone] who loves games and want to broaden that love.” (Murfvs, 2015). However, his definition, although highly democratic, does not deal with the issues related to the gaming culture and the new players whom day after day swarm the internet and the game stores looking for something entertaining to play. Plus, given the fact that current games emphasize connectivity and interactions between players, even from players in opposing teams, interactions have become increasingly violent. Threats, xenophobia, misogyny. Name a social issue, and it will probably exist in the videogame you choose. However, it is not only an isolated problem of videogames as entertainment. People could argue that the mentioned issues exist not only in the gaming culture, but in the sports culture, or in any culture, you care to name. Nevertheless, in the “Gamer” culture, these issues did not have to appear, given the underground and inclusive outtake gamer culture had.
Moreover, considering the videogames’ penetration in the market, these issues might occur as they occur in larger communities. On the other hand, developers, software companies and even personalities associated with the gaming culture perpetuate stereotypes and disregard more considerable portions of the gaming community with hate comments that seem out of place in the community. For instance, 2013 E3, during the XBOX One presentation of Killer Instinct, Microsoft put two players, a man and a woman against each other and during the presentation the man made rapist-like jokes such as “Just let it happen, it’ll be over soon” (Youtube, 2013). These commentaries are commonplace in the interactions between players and the fact that the man, acting as a spokesperson from Microsoft, chose such a joke, and the audience laughed, reflects the state of the relations between sexes in games. Likewise, Mike Krahulik, one of the creators of the Penny Arcade eXpo (PAX) did a series of offensive comments on his Twitter feed that attacked transgender people, and for a person who has the responsibility of making such an important expo for gamers and developers, his comment is incredibly tone-deaf, considering the demographics of the gamer community (Storify, 2013).
Ultimately, it has become apparent that the gamer identity is at stake at this moment. Issues of discrimination in a community that was historically inclusive and sought to integrate the marginalized youths, giving them a place where they could have fun and connect with like-minded individuals have become in a growth medium for hatred and misogyny. Nevertheless, these issues are not as connected to the offenders as the games are. For instance, if League of Legends featured less sexualized female stereotypes and acted responsibly toward the accusations of discrimination among the users, it might alleviate the problem in its community, but being the internet as big as it is, change might be slow. While games themselves might not be racist, they might stereotype and mistreat minorities. Last, it is possible the label of gamer as we know it might disappear in the following years it is likely to be replaced by something different, as most labels are, and for true gamers, people who enjoy games and take part of the gaming community with responsibility, gaming will still provide both fun and grounds for criticism and improvement.
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