Gender Normativity in Video Games: The Feminization of the Support Role in League of Legends (Sociological Research Paper)

Introduction and Research Questions

League of Legends (LoL) is a free to play game for anyone with an average computer and a decent internet connection. Despite the fact that there is no gendering of the game space in its mechanics[1], LoL has a player base that is over 90% male[2]. Two teams of five champions[3] compete to secure kills and destroy one-another’s buildings in efforts get to and destroy the opposing teams’ home base. Though it is not prescribed directly by the game developers, Riot Games, a meta[4] has evolved that encourages diversity in the roles that are selected to make for a more effective five-person team  There are six possible roles that a character might be listed as performing, always having one primary role and often a secondary role. For the Support role[5], the player community has formed stereotypes such as “All girls main[6] Support” and that “girls only play Support.” My personal experiences within this community have actually lent some credence to this belief; the majority of women I know that play the game do indeed main the Support role. It seems that there is some degree of feminization of the Support role occurring, so my question is: What factors are contributing to the feminization of the Support role in the League of Legends community?

The structure of this paper is as follows. After some brief remarks about online gaming and LoL, I begin with a section on the methodology, ethics, and importance of my research, then move on to a description of my research settings. After this, I will then explain my experiences and analyze my key findings in relation to theoretical perspectives from other online gender theorists, before drawing up concluding remarks on the factors affecting feminization of the Support role.

Online gaming is a space that is portrayed in media as dominated by men, yet there is certainly a large and growing female component to this community. Whether it is a response to this, or the cause of it, it seems more and more games are featuring female playable characters. I examined the community of the game that may have the largest active player base in the world[7], League of Legends, to discover more about the experiences of women in online spaces.

Methodology, Ethics, and Importance of Research

To get a more complete understanding of the factors that are contributing to the feminization of the Support role, numerous different methods of inquiry and data collection were needed. I spent numerous hours on forum boards, looking through posts and gathering relevant information about the perceptions of the Support role and perceptions of female players. Additionally, I polled users about their gender and preferred roles in order to try to understand the actual demographics of the LoL, rather than merely following stereotypes and assertions in the community. Further than this, I also spent time in the game as a participant observer, noting the interactions that a female Support player had in matches that we played together. The menus and pre-game screens were interesting as well, so I took an interview with a female Support player and another interview with a male Fill[8] player.

I prepared for potential ethical issues in my research, but as of the time of this writing there have been no incidences, and I do not foresee them in the future. In my polls on forum boards to ask what roles each gender plays most, I was aware of the risk of provocation of offensive or sexist comments further down the thread. To alleviate this, I had prepared to report these comments to administrators to have them removed, and failing that, I was ready respond to each in an appropriate manner to remind readers that every person is equal. Though participation was highly anonymous to most people[9] and also voluntary, I did my best to inform responders of the aims of my study and potential harms to them, encouraging them to thoroughly read the post before responding to the poll. Players that participated in forum polls and discussions were anonymized in this writing by using pseudonyms and by paraphrasing posts rather than directly quoting them. Interview participants were also anonymized with pseudonyms, yet direct quotes are used. Unfortunately, the poll did not actually receive a useable amount of responses, with a total of only 13 respondents across 10 possible choices.

This research is important to create a better understanding of the discrimination or subjugation of females in online communities. In particular, it may help to challenge assumptions that women should or would want to take on caretaking roles in video games. At any rate, it will help to raise awareness of potentially sexist practices of video game companies that make primarily female characters for caretaking roles and of the sexism of online communities to reinforce gender stereotypes in fantasy worlds.

Research Setting

I researched across three distinct settings in the LoL community: the forums, the game launcher, and the game itself. I do not intend to fully describe each, as some are too nebulous to avoid large irrelevant sections. Instead, I focus on providing a base understanding before diving into the core of what I found enlightening and informative in each.

Beginning with the forums, they are similar to a very standard format that is used for online discussions across the web. Important posts are stickied[10] to the top, followed by the most popular recent posts descending down the page by number of votes. Center at the top is the option to switch how forum posts are ranked, such as by age or by all-time popularity. To the left is the option to create a new post, a search bar, and a column of general topics to help users find discussions that are more specific to their interests. To the right, users can see how many views and comments a particular post has. For the purpose of my research, there was little of note about the visuals of the space. Important to the validity of my study however, is that forum participation for posting and commenting, rather than mere observation, requires an account. Accounts are free to create, but it does add a small amount of space between general web users and LoL players. I reasoned from this that my forum posts and polls and observations of comments were primarily from regular community members, rather than people from outside the community.

The LoL game client is downloaded onto a computer from the internet, and it performs numerous tasks for the player to prepare, learn, join and launch matches. There are also features to spend both in-game currency and specialty currency purchased with real money. The game client also requires an account to log in, which it uses to track all pertinent account information relating to the game and currencies earned or purchased. This space offers many things, but in the interest of clarity I have chosen to focus on one particular area, the “Champions” tab[11].

The Champions tab shows portraits of every champion that is in the game in an alphabetical grid layout, as well as visual information about relationship between them and the account. The background image is like ancient parchment, beige with fraying and

Champion Screen
Figure 1 – The “Champions” tab.

torn edges, adding to the fantasy atmosphere. Initially, many champions are not available to be played, and this is visualized by small padlock icons on the top edge of the portraits of those champions. There is a free-rotation[12], of champions that are temporarily available, and these are denoted by a small exclamation point in the top-left of the champion portrait. Whether they are on free rotation or they are owned any champion that is currently available to be played is shown by being coloured; currently unplayable champions, due to being un-owned and locked, are shown in greyscale. Since there are over 120 champions, a scroll bar is present to view more champions further down the page. Each portrait can be pressed to open up an entire information sheet about the champion, including abilities, primary and secondary roles, and lore. The affordances on the Champions tab were of key importance, so I will return to this in my section on data and findings.

Finally, the game space of LoL. This is where players compete for dominance and play for enjoyment alike. Blue and Purple spaces show the spaces that teams control, while Yellow is a sort of No-Mans-Land. The current meta has each 5 person team split into different positions, one for each of Top, Mid, and Jungle, while a pair of players go Bot lane[13]. Figure 2 shows the map from a bird’s eye view, while gamers participate in a three dimensional space shown in Figure 3. While there is some amount of correlation

LoL map by region
Figure 2 – Bird’s eye view of the map, by region.

Summoners Rift
Figure 3 – LoL as it appears to a player in-game. This place is located in Bot Blue Jungle in Figure 2.

 

between positions and roles, by far the strongest correlation is the amount that Supports and Marksmen go to the Bot lane together. Once again, the importance of this will be discussed in the following analytical section.

Key Findings and Theoretical Discussion

Starting from experiences in the game space, I found that the meta around a “proper bot lane”[14] was the most enforced. Some players would get in fits of anger or despair the instant that the Bot lane position had something other than a Support and Marksman pairing, typing their feelings about this to the team, or sometimes to both teams. In a few instances, there were requests that these players be reported for trolling[15] Others would not type anything at first, but if the game started to go poorly for them, the blame was frequently placed on the pair of players at Bot, regardless of their performance. Due to this large pressure to conform on risk of ostracism and harassment, most of my experiences in the game space allowed me to observe interactions involving Supports. As I played with Anne, my first interviewee and LoL team mate, I saw her select time and again female Champions. I later asked her about this. She told me that she liked to play Support, and that she didn’t like “ugly” champions. She did not seem to mind playing primarily females, and she had not thought too much about it before. “I dunno, I guess there isn’t much to choose from for Supports, so I go with what I’ve got,” she said when I asked her why she chose the Champions she did. That raised some questions in my mind: How many Champions are in each role? What is the gender distribution like? I got my answers in the Champions tab and through the forums.

Though the meta at a given time in LoL often means players are using Champions to perform tasks outside the role descriptor assigned to them, the game designers do not follow the meta and change the roles described for the Champions. Since I was curious about the feminization of the Support role, the affordances of the sorting features at the top of the Champions tab interested me the most. Affordances, a concept discussed by Mel Stanfill, refer to those features of a space that “reflect, and help establish, cultural common sense about what Users do (and should do), producing the possible and normative” (2014, p.3). Searching by role allows players to quickly find champions that were designed to fit certain niches in LoL. Out of the six roles, Support is the smallest selection of Champions when viewed with the primary role sorting tool. Many Champions also are assigned secondary roles, but there is no way to filter by this category, and thus only 11 Champions are shown as Supports. Interestingly, of the 11, 6 were male and 5 were female. These numbers, and the even representation of genders, surprised me as I felt it might be hiding the true number of Supports in the game, especially female ones. Though a useful tool to help find Champions, the search functionality might also be hiding the feminization of the Support role in the secondary designations. I went online for some more answers.

LoL, as a male dominated space, does have some telling visuals that make it quite clear who it is tailored to. Mattias Lehman, a blogger, certainly captured the vast disparity between the sexualization of female characters and that of male characters in LoL. He found that nearly half of male characters had no revealing clothing options, whereas just under half of the female characters had no clothing options that were not revealing. This is just one of his many findings regarding female characters and their differential status in LoL.

Now, in my experiences, I found that the dominance of the maleness norm in video games can sometimes be hidden. In LoL, humanoid Champions show an even distribution of genders. However, as a fantasy game, it is also populated by a cavalcade of non-humanoid, monstrous Champions. Amongst these Champions, despite being visually agendered, over ninety percent are male[16]. In concrete terms, out of over 125 Champions available in the game, there are only 3 female non-humanoids and over 35 male non-humanoids. It is in this way the gender balance gets thrown off completely, as nearly every time a new non-humanoid Champion is released it is a male. This demonstrates the fact that in the North American context most things (ideas, objects, agents, places, etc) are masculine by default, and these Champions are no exception. As such, the digital environment of LoL also reproduces the cultural discourse of inequality by making agendered characters male by the vast majority.

One thing that was not covered by Lehman was the gendered nature of the different roles available to players. I found a post on the forum that listed the Champions by role, including for each role any Champion that had it as a primary or secondary role. Not every Champion has a secondary role, but those that do were placed once in each role. Though I had done the legwork of my own research prior to reading his blog post, Lehman and I took very similar approaches to the categorization of champions. We both divided Champions up by gender, as well as a cross-section of humanoid/non-humanoid for my research whereas Lehman’s secondary categorization was human/monster/cute. For my research, I deemed any Champion that was more humanoid in their face and torso as “humanoid”, while those Champions that deviated in a major way from these features were counted as “non-humanoid”. Once divided, I looked at the roles listed for each Champion and totalled them to discover the distribution of roles to each gender and species.

For Marksmen, Assassins, and Mages, the gender distributions were nearly equal when counting only humanoids. Fighters and Tanks were dramatically male dominated when only counting humanoids, whereas Support was the opposite by being female dominated. Therefore, only one role, Support, has a significantly higher proportion of female humanoids compared to male humanoids.  Where there are similar amounts of male and female humanoid Champions, the role becomes male dominated by non-humanoids. Table 1 has the data.

Table 1 Support Marksman Assassin Mage Fighter Tank
Total # of Champions designated (primary or secondary role) 26 22 33 51 63 35
Male Humanoids 5 10 13 19 31 14
Female Humanoids 15 9 13 21 12 3
Male Non-Humanoids 5 3 7 10 19 18
Female Non-Humanoids 1 0 0 1 1 0

Since players have no control over the gendering of the Champions, I was led to start considering more possible structural factors arising from the decisions of Riot. Andrea Braithwaite[17] explains that video game spaces are not separate spaces, but reflections that are embedded in the hegemony of male dominance and normality. In Braithwaite’s examination of forum posts, she found that players who became upset at stereotyped game dialogue and voiced their opinion were seen as troublemakers, challenging the “normative standards of the virtual community”[18] So when the normative cultural standard is that of male domination and prevalence, it was not surprising to me that five of the six roles were represented by more male than female characters. This makes these roles “normal” as they do not challenge the assumption that maleness is to be expected. However, the Support role is populated by more female than male characters, and thus it appears to deviate from what is “normal”. The overwhelming feminine representation of characters in the Support role is then perceived by players as a role for females, rather than a role for “normal” (male) players. In a study by Joseph Lanfranchi and Mathieu Narcy about the female workforce in France (2015), they found that feminization of certain occupations occurs at least in part due to the overrepresentation of females in these occupations. So, in this way, the norm of maleness by default and the influence of female Champion overrepresentation for Support may be one of the contributing factors in the increasing feminization of Support.

Though it may be the case that there are more female Support Champions, the question of why it is the only role with more females remains. Each of the roles has certain characteristics that map them onto media archetypes of different varieties. For example, the Fighter role contains characters that succeed best when played aggressively, at the heart of a fight, dealing damage and taking some in return, somewhat like Bruce Willis in Die Hard. The Tank is able to handle a beating, taking large amounts of damage while remaining alive, a sort of “tough guy” stereotype, more like Rocky Balboa. These media archetypes are very masculine and male dominated, which is likely why the game developers made the majority of the Fighters and Tanks into men.

Similarly, in LoL, the Support role is essentially a caretaker, providing healing, shields, buffs for their own team and debuffing the enemy team to make them less dangerous. If we look at humanoids, there are five male Supports and fifteen female Supports. This shows that not only is the support role feminine, it is necessarily recognizable as feminine by having obviously female characters make up the largest proportion of them as Lanfranchi & Narcy (2015) explain. Adding the non-humanoids, there are ten male and sixteen female Supports, which makes the distribution not as drastic, but it remains the only role that has more females. Since Supports are caretakers, and women are frequently seen as “natural” caretakers, mostly female characters performing the role is expected. This resembles Braithwaite’s (2013) examination of gender relations being represented in discussions as evolutionary and the “natural order of things” (p.9)

Whether the game developers intentionally recreated stereotypes in their character creation to make the game non-controversial[19] or they merely made the characters without a critical eye for their cultural assumptions, there is now structural factors within the game that lead the players to certain patterns of thought[20]. Kyle echoed some of these statements in his own manner. “Girls like Support ‘cause they’re too scared to fight,” he said, following with an impersonation of a person scared of a spider. Anne, laughing , said “they’re the nice characters! I think girls are better at it too, we know how to take care of people. Guys are oblivious” in response to my question about why she thinks that people expect girls to play Support. Both interviewees seemed able to justify the stereotype based on what they internalized about the female gender. Forum users had a wide range of responses, with some misogynistic users claiming females need to play Support because they are all too unskilled for solo positions[21], and some female posters saying that they play Support because they are good at it[22]. The visibility of female Champions in the Support role is a structural factor affecting players perceptions. Inevitably, it makes females seem good at Support, because people primarily see female Champions doing it.

Concluding Remarks

We now return to my question: What factors are contributing to the feminization of the Support role in the League of Legends community? Riot, as an institution, has created a roster of Champions that fit the gendered expectations and tropes of North American society. This has led to the creation of structural factors, such as the disparity of gender representation across roles, which continually means that players see female Champions in the Support role, doing what girls “naturally” do best. The visuals of the game client and game space create a discourse[23], that females are Supports and men are not. The production of normativity in the community for females to play Support happens when the players internalize what the structure presents them, regardless of the designers intentions[24]. My research shows that the Support role has become feminized in LoL due to the combination of structural factors and overrepresentation of female characters in that role. When higher proportions of females are perceived in a space, setting, role, et cetera, that thing is feminized (Lanfranchi & Narcy, 2015). Since game spaces in particular are very male dominated to begin with, overrepresentation of females becomes all the more obvious when it occurs. As Braithwaite (2013) explained, game spaces are extensions of cultural views and stereotypes, thus women are created primarily as caretakers in digital worlds as well. In LoL, new characters are created to perform certain roles, but they also frequently fit the expectations of who should perform the role. This leads to some structural factors (Stanfill, 2014) that further feminize the Support. Players of LoL have no way to decide which characters have which skills, abilities, and traits, but must use the characters made by the game developers that recreate stereotypes and cultural norms. When players play a Support, more often than not they are playing as a female. Additionally, the developers have included interfaces that help a player search by role, thus allowing players to see the disparity between gender representations across numerous roles. Together, the creation and visibility of females as Supports forms both sensory and functional affordances (Stanfill, 2014) that have contributed to the feminization of the Support role.

Notes

[1] The game-play and base structure of programming, not including the art, sound, or lore. To be clear, if all parts of the game were represented by different polygons but played the same, I do not think there would be anything inherently gendered.

[2] Infographic in Gallegos, 2012.

[3] In-game avatars, created by the Riot.

[4] “Meta” is essentially a set of player-driven cultural standards for what is currently the best way to play the game, and although there is nothing in the games rules to enforce this, fellow players will often verbally abuse those that do not wish to follow it .

[5] A caretaking role, explained further on page 12.

[6] “Maining” a role is which role you prefer to play, and are typically best at.

[7] Infographic in Gallegos, 2012.

[8] “Fill”, while not a definite position, denotes the players willingness to play whichever role the team needs.

[9] The possibility exists that Riot employees could access further information, or that hackers may steal Riot client information at some point and be able to reveal their identities.

[10] Hold a more permanent position, typically controlled by forum moderators, for extended periods of time.

[11] See Figure 1, page 5.

[12] Bi-weekly, Riot allows all players access to 12 champions for free. Typically, champions must be purchased with in-game currency or specialty currency before a player may use them in the game.

[13] “Mid” is for middle, “Bot” is for bottom.

[14] Kyle, Interviewee

[15] Reports go to administrators who can decide the validity of a case and mete out punishments such as temporary or permanent account suspensions, chat restrictions, and more. Reports can be given for numerous offences such as trolling (intentional misplay to aggravate others), harassment, or even negative attitude.

[16] Their maleness is denoted by their masculine names,  in their lore they are referred to as “he”, and in-game they have male voice actors.

[17] 2013

[18] Braithwaite 2013, p.9.

[19] At least not for men. (Braithwaite, 2013)

[20] Stanfill, 2014

[21] Top, Mid, or Jungle.

[22] Gender is not evident from screen names, though some forum users chose to reveal their gender within their posts.

[23] Stanfill, 2014

[24] Stanfill, 2014

 

References

Braithwaite, A. (2013). ‘Seriously, Get Out’: Feminists on the Forums and the War(craft) on Women. New Media & Society 16(5): 703–718.

Figure 1: Screenshot of League of Legends game client, taken July 25th, 2015.

Figure 2: Narishm, (2013). “League of Legends – Summoner’s Rift Regions Map” Retrieved from http://orig08.deviantart.net/2621/f/2013/317/5/c/league_of_legends___
summoner_s_rift_regions_map_by_narishm-d6u3f5p.jpg

Figure 3: Screenshot from League of Legends gameplay, taken August 7th, 2015.

Gallegos, A. (October 15, 2012). Riot Games Releases Awesome League Of Legends       Infographic (Image on a news blog) Retrieved from http://ca.ign.com/articles/2012/10/15/
riot-games-releases-awesome-league-of-legends-infographic

Lanfranchi, J., & Narcy, M. (2015). Female Overrepresentation in Public and Nonprofit Sector Jobs: Evidence From a French National Survey. Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector         Quarterly44(1), 47-74.

Lehman, Mattias (2014). Gender Representation in League of Legends. Retrieved from           http://gentlemangustaf.com/2014/03/15/gender-representation-in-league-of-legends/

Stanfill, M. (2014). The Interface As Discourse: The Production of Norms Through Web Design. New Media & Society 0(0): 1–16 (accepted and published online)

 

One thought on “Gender Normativity in Video Games: The Feminization of the Support Role in League of Legends (Sociological Research Paper)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s