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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - Saudi Arabia’s esports industry looking to create ‘safe spaces’ for female gamers
RIYADH: The gaming and esports industry is considered one of the fastest-growing entertainment sectors globally, and especially in the Middle East.
With this increased popularity and participation and new initiatives designed to develop and enhance the industry, there is a growing awareness of the need to address some of the underlying historical issues with the sector, including inclusivity, sexism and sexual harassment.
During the inaugural Next World Forum in Riyadh last week, industry leaders and creators emphasized in particular the importance of creating safe and inclusive spaces for women.
Haya Al-Qadi, marketing manager with esports and gaming organization Galaxy Racer, told how her journey in competitive gaming began about 15 years ago playing Call of Duty with an otherwise all-male group of gamers. A lot has changed since then, she explained.
“Today it’s different because people don’t realize that there are more female mobile gamers than men and there’s a 50-50 split between console and PC gamers,” she said during a panel discussion.
“There’s no excuse that there aren’t enough tournaments for women, especially when it’s a mental game.”
Female gamers have often been forced to hide or “anonymize” their identity and conceal their gender because of the threat of online abuse and other dangers they might face in a male-dominated online-gaming field, she added.
“Here in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, and even in North America, it’s still quite a taboo,” Al-Qadi told Arab News. “We’ve hosted a lot of discussions on how to embrace women in gaming, provide female-only tournaments, so that we can help them grow and accelerate.”
Carlos “Ocelote” Rodriguez, the founding CEO of G2 Esports, said: “What I have seen over the years is that most teams and leagues and people with any power in the industry have over-nurtured women as if they were helpless, as if they didn’t have the skills on their own.
“What I do think they (women) appreciate is to be treated with dignity, as equals … it’s that simple.”
Tournaments and festivals exclusively aimed at women, such as Girl Gamer, are designed to empower and create more opportunities for female gamers, provide incentives, increase participation levels and the player base, and give them a chance potentially to profit from their skills.
“As someone who’s competed in female leagues, I think it’s a very good thing to have,” said Madiha “Maddy” Naz.
“Initially when I started competing in tournaments I’d be in mostly male-dominated scenes but when I got professionally signed, it was for female leagues only. I think what it does for females is that it provides them with competitive experience in a safe environment.”
Until a few years ago, gaming and esports were commonly regarded simply as hobbies in Saudi Arabia and the wider region. But as the industry continues to grow in the Kingdom, leaders and experts are increasingly finding ways to create sustainable job opportunities for individuals who want to build a careers out of digital sport.
As Gamers8, the world’s biggest gaming and esports festival which took place over the past eight weeks in Riyadh, showed, efforts to produce local content and opportunities are developing and growing.
“With the changes — with Vision 2030, Gamers8 and all that — I believe we’re headed to greatness,” said Ghada Al-Moqbel, CEO of GCON, a community dedicated to women with an interest in video games. “There are so many great things awaiting us as women and as gamers.”
Still, ensuring that female gamers feel safe online and are protected from harassment or abuse are important challenges for the sector. Experts define a safe space as one that feels comfortable, and which motivates and encourages women to compete with their peers in an environment that recognizes and understands their wants, needs and boundaries.
Any male-dominated field naturally comes with its own set of issues. In gaming and esports, female gamers can experience verbal, and sometimes sexual, harassment, stalking, a lack of opportunities, and gaps in skill sets.
Given that events primarily take place online, the anonymity this provides is a significant contributory factor to problems within the wider gaming community such as harassment, sexism and racism. It creates an environment where toxicity and lack of accountability are common.
“Toxicity and harassment, unfortunately, is not something alien to women when it comes to gaming,” Al-Qadi told Arab News.
“It can really discourage some women from continuing. Or they hide their identity, which is also a problem because it means they can never show their face and build a brand identity (for sponsorship purposes).”
According to Al-Moqbel, 46 percent of video gamers in the Kingdom are women. Raising awareness of the industry and creating safer and more supportive spaces in which they can develop skills and compete are seen as important aims to increase participation.
Experts say that a great way to address these issues is to build on the success of existing gaming communities and start conversations about problems that need to be addressed.
Sylvia “QueenArrow” Gathoni, a professional gamer from Kenya, told Arab News that she made peace with the fact that no matter her achievements, she will always face criticism and contempt from some quarters simply because she is a woman. She decided to take steps to address this situation.
“I found my own community where I felt welcomed and loved and I know that I can lean on them for the support that I need,” she said. “That’s been what’s been keeping me strong as one of the pioneers in this space.”
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