Imagine a sports arena full of cheering fans. Are you picturing basketball, or perhaps hockey? Actually, that image also applies to high-level e-sports (short for electronic sports), the competitions where fans watch people playing popular video games. E-sports have experienced a surge in growth in recent years, and boast their own professional teams as well as partnerships with major team sports. But how diverse are e-sports? A little over two years ago, an initiative called “AnyKey,” co-directed by MIT’s T.L Taylor, began examining that question. The group has released a series of research papers and worked to establish codes of conduct for e-sports. Taylor, a professor in MIT Comparative Media Studies|Writing, recently talked to MIT News about the challenges in the field.
Q: What is “AnyKey”?
A: AnyKey was started as a project supported by Intel and the Electronic Sports League, and our mission is to foster more inclusion and diversity in e-sports. Lots of people are playing e-sports competitively, and some of them are playing for money. AnyKey is trying to foster fairness and inclusivity in that space.
The way I often talk about it is: Imagine how traditional sports were pre-Title IX, [in terms of] trying to get women on the playing field. AnyKey is tackling that with digital sports. Women actually play a lot of computer games. … But we still do have the hurdle of women feeling that they cannot be competitors and play on a professional level. We also think about how to support people of color, how to support LGBTQ players as well, and we put out guidelines recently about how to help tournament organizers create trans-inclusive spaces.
Q: What have you found in the project’s two years of study?
A: One thing that’s clear to us is not only do women want to be participating in competitive e-sports, they have been doing it for a very long time, but often in spite of the culture present. Things like harrassment or other barriers to access pose tremendous challenges to bringing women into the space and keeping them there. This affects not only women who want to be pros, but those who just want to play or spectate in e-sports games. So we’ve been active in trying to help organizations and communities think about practices, cultural shifts they can make to open that space.
That means everything from putting in codes of conduct to supporting communities that are trying to build healthy cultures. We have an affiliate program where we amplify the work of communities that are providing spaces for people to come into these games. We highlight role models to help people see the range of ways they can be involved. We do research to provide data to help better inform people working in the space. There are a lot of people in e-sports who want things to be better, even tournament organizers who want it to be better, but they often either don’t know how, or are crunched with just trying to keep the ship afloat. So we provide information and prefab solutions people can use, and support the good work that’s already being done.
Q: Where do you go from here?
A: We’re in the next round of finding sponsoring partners for AnyKey. We’ve created tremendous momentum we want to keep building on. For example, back in October we ran what we thought was going to be a very modest initiative where we said to people, come sign our code of conduct, the “Good Luck Have Fun” pledge, to show your support for the values of inclusion and open participation in gaming and e-sports. We were blown away when we got a quarter of a million signatures! This is encouraging and shows a lot of people want things to be better. But there’s more work to be done.
We’d love to help launch something like a co-ed tournament to support more men and women playing together, like mixed doubles, and we have some fantastic partners we’d like to keep supporting. We’re at a really important point, because e-sports is getting commercialized very quickly and getting the attention of traditional sports entities who now own e-sports teams (including the Boston Celtics). There’s tremendous potential, but it would also be easy to close down possibilities or slot e-sports in narrow models about who wants to compete. We want to keep people thinking expansively about what participation and inclusion in these new digital playing fields can, and should, be.