An inescapable reality within the eSports world, regardless of the game in question, is the stark contrast between male and female participants. Whatever the culprit, the stories of many female professionals are often squashed, missed or, even worse, stunted before they even begin.
Lilian "Milktea" Chen is, as her own website proclaims, a "semi-retired" professional Super Smash Bros. Melee player. Her pedigree extends back as far as the early 00's, when she travelled to and placed at regional and national tournaments throughout her teenage years, often as the only woman in the room. She has carried those experiences into a tenure with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), is a continued eSports enthusiast, designer, and a woman with a lot to say about the community she loves.
In terms of social inclusion, where do you see the professional Smash Bros scene in 2015? Is there any noticeable change from when you first began?
The strides regarding social inclusion in Smash can be seen for themselves! There are so many active women in the competitive Smash community, from talented players to tournament organizers. I currently do not actively follow Smash 4, but I've heard that there are several skilled female competitors in the scene. So badass!
Why is competitive gaming so hard on women? Can you use any personal experiences to illustrate this?
This is a hard question to answer without generalizing too, too much. To keep it short, I really liked one of Stef "PidgeZero"'s explanations I stumbled across online: socialization. I feel like many reasons for the skewed gender ratio in gaming can be traced back to this alone. The byproduct of the gender imbalance has definitely also lead to behaviors and social dynamics that are not always the most welcoming.
I've got a few personal experiences, but I hesitate to go into detail about them for two reasons. I don't want to accidentally speak on behalf of all women, and I also don't want to be accused of victimizing myself any further. The things I discussed in my TED Ed Talk give some introductory insight into some of the barriers I faced.
There definitely is some relation with social comparison theory, I think, especially when much fewer of something exists in one space. You can definitely see related effects in places like female NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, or other female athletes in which the highest accomplishments of one is seen as the highest standard for all who exist in that category. Even as you say you don't want to speak for all women, I'm curious if you've experienced people commonly interpreting your tournament results as the highest bar that a woman could reach?
I don't believe I've ever encountered any specific person who has outright told me that either I, or another woman I knew, has reached the peak for all women entirely. With that said, I've certainly experienced behaviors or comments that have made me feel that way, though.
In one of my first posts about my personal journey through Smash, I had written that I grew hesitant of playing friendlies at tournaments because large crowds would start to gather behind me. Large crowds make sense when there are top players or grudge-matches happening, but I can't help but believe that for me, it was solely because I was one of the few women in the room. It made me nervous that I was unfairly representing other women in the scene (since there were so few at the time).
Luckily, I think this accidental stereotyping has started to fade as more prominent women enter our community. One of the larger messages I hope to send out in the near future is that there doesn't have to be one type of ideal woman who games! Every type is welcome.
Let's talk about the TED talk you gave for TED Youth. How did you get to do the speech?
It's actually a funny story! I've always been rather quiet around new people. As a result, not many people at TED knew much about my alter-ego "Milktea", though a select few did. They tried very hard to persuade me to give a talk at our annual staff retreat about competitive Smash. I eluded her persuasion for years. The idea of public-speaking for an introvert just didn't appeal!
Fast forward a few years, I organized and moderated the The New Meta panel with the NYU Game Center. It was that year I decided to challenge myself and push my boundaries: I asked our staff if I could give a talk at our annual retreat. They were shocked, but happy. I think what caught *all* of us off-guard was the presentation and content of my talk. Nobody saw it coming (myself included).
My colleagues ended up really enjoying my first public speaking "event" ever! Before I knew it, I was invited to speak at TED Youth (and play Smash with the kids who attended)! My colleagues have been nothing but supportive from that day until now. I wouldn't be where I am now without them.
You say your colleagues...what do you do nowadays when you're not playing Smash?
I moved to NYC after landing a design job post-graduation at TED. I designed for them for three and a half years and only recently decided that it was time for a new chapter in my life. Despite having to part ways with my badass colleagues, I left TED so that I could pursue more forms of design and figure out what it is I want to do in the near future.
I'm interested in several forms of design: product, UX, front-end, visual, and identity. What surprises me most is that recently, I've found that a lot of these skills are needed and overlap within the growing eSports industry. There are so many roads, I just have to spend some time narrowing it down to which few I want to walk down.
I grew up following professional Smash Bros as both a player and a fan. Given that the Smash Bros. scene had before - and in some ways continues to - struggle with sexist attitudes, much of your early playing career was inexorably tied by several within the game to your personal relationships. What were some of the difficulties balancing the game you loved with your personal life, as both a young person and as a woman? I remember some of the vitriol, even as just a bystander.
Ah. I assume when you say "personal relationships" you are referring to the people I dated from within the Smash community? I tried to tune most of the gossip around that but now that you've asked, I do recall a lot of unsolicited remarks about my relationship history.
Some of the most frequent comments I heard were various forms of slut-shaming and/or accusations that I only acknowledged/dated top players. Given the fact that some of my best friends I've met through Smash are players that nobody has heard of, I can't say I agree.
That aside, I still have yet to figure out why it should be perceived as a horrible taboo if people pursue dating others who clearly share common interests in a very niche community. Have you ever tried explaining streaming, tournaments, and who the heck Mew2King is to a non-competitive gamer? It's tough! Hah.
It is difficult to answer how I balanced my gameplay with these types of attitudes since it has been so many years. If I recall correctly, I tried my hardest to take all the vitriol with a grain of salt. It's very easy to buy into gossip when you don't know the individual being gossiped about personally. I stuck closely to my trusted friends within the Smash community and focused on the gameplay itself.
I still remember meeting one of my more recent homies in Smash, the memory sticks out rather vividly. Upon bonding with each other, he told me how surprised he was that I was so "cool", given all the terrible things he had heard about me for the past several years. You might find that remark to be harsh, but it's something I've grown accustomed to and I appreciated his honesty. It just goes to show: Be yourself and in due time, you will begin to dismantle those preconceived notions.
I asked because I wanted to gauge whether you were content to continue moving the needle on social issues or not. There definitely has been a recent trend of notable female gamers who continue face harassment from strangers, and often the debates objectively fall outside the line of anything resembling a true dialogue. Do you have any aspirations to continue raising public awareness on feminist and other human right issues in the eSports community?
The short answer is yes. From time to time I realize that my odd upbringing in the Smash community has given me this ability to approach these topics in an oddly empathetic way. As a result, I genuinely believe that I can help to some capacity, and I'd feel terrible if I neglected that feeling. Though, I'll have to somehow figure out a way to pursue this while also juggling my design career!
You released a pretty cool video on your trip to the Smash Bros. Invitational at last year's E3. Can you talk about that experience, and what it was like interacting with Nintendo first hand?
Thanks! Flying out to partake in the Smash Invitational is definitely not a thing I ever expected to do, ever. I was in shock from when I first found out I'd be attending until probably after the event itself ended. How was it that playing a video game enabled me to experience this awesome adventure!? I have no idea.
To sum up interacting with Nintendo in one word: Fun. Not kidding. Not only were they fun as a group of people, but they wanted us to solely focus on having fun. Everyone I met who worked with them simply wanted us to have an amazing time, and they made that crystal clear to us. It was a very stark contrast, going from the workholic New York city to the Invitational! I'd say that was probably one of the best weeks of my life, so mission accomplished, Nintendo!
Where do you see the Smash Bros community at large years down the road?
If we can continue the pace we're going at right now, it will potentially be HUGE! Smash is one of those classic games that can be played at a massive range of levels, from party game to competitive. I don't doubt that the scene's growth will continue to grow at its accelerated rate, especially considering the expansion of eSports overall. The question is, how many women will we have in the scene in a few years?
We'd like to thank Lilian Chen for her time.
Main Image credit: Ryan Lash