The women who make a living gaming on Twitch

Women battle old-fashioned sexism and new forms of harassment to become big players in the world of professional gaming

Two years ago Chelsea quit her job as a pharmacy technician to play video games.

“I went to work one day, and I was like, ‘I would actually be making more money if I had stayed at home and kept playing video games than coming here,'” she says. That week she handed in her resignation.

Chelsea is one of a growing number of women making a living from Twitch. Going by the username Xminks, Chelsea has become renowned for her skills in Call of Duty – so much so that playing it online has become her bread and butter. Every night about 10pm she turns on her webcam, chats to some of her 330,000 followers and gets to work.

“I didn’t have gamer friends… and it’s not something that you would just stumble across,” she explains. “When I found Twitch and saw that so many people have all these friends and were doing amazing things and sharing their experience together, I just really wanted to get on board.”

Mia, whose screen name is SeriesofBlurs, dived straight in. “I was working my normal full-time job and then I would come home and start streaming straight away… and then go to midnight and then repeat,” she says.

She knew very quickly that she wanted to become a full-time streamer, but building up a following while holding down another job was hard. Then there were the social implications. “I would constantly be having to defend it, not only to my friends, who were like, ‘Why aren’t you coming out?,’ but to myself as well, because I had a lot of self-doubt.”

Being a professional gamer sounds like a dream come true and an increasing number of women are making it their profession – many of them using Twitch as a platform, making anywhere between the equivalent of the minimum wage to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Whether or not it can be a decades-long career, though, remains to be seen. While there are numerous men whose live gaming careers seem not to be hampered by their age, the number of women over the age of 30 visible in the gaming sphere is comparatively low.

Growing up in a girls’ school, it wasn’t really common to be into video games – Mia

“It depends on the game,” says Chelsea. “I’ve seen some Sim City and Civilisation games, and I’ve seen older women there, but it’s very rare.”

Kat, whose username is Loserfruit, is another high-profile gamer with about 240,000 followers on Twitch. “It is a dream job,” she says. “It’s a lot of money for playing games. It is a dream. So it would be kind of hard to go away from that. So I would like to be doing it as long as possible until I burn out. But I am open to and I’m exploring other things as well.”

Like much of the online world, streamers and their followers are often known only by their first name or chosen on-screen handle. This semi-anonymity is both a boon and a burden for female gamers. Harassment often comes via a pseudonym. At the same time, to protect themselves, some women deliberately keep their personal details, such as their surname and location, even their age, out of the equation. Guardian Australia is using only first names and screen handles in this piece for that reason.

Mia, Chelsea, and Kat are positive about their career choice. “As long as I keep putting effort in, I foresee that I could do it for the next five or 10 years at least,” says Chelsea.

Mia says: “At the end of the day, I’m doing what I love.”

How gaming became a boys’ club

The gaming industry markets itself unequivocally as a boys’ club. As a consequence, women’s entry into this space is accompanied by dangerously loaded assumptions from a chunk of their male audience.

“I feel like being a gamer has always isolated me,” Mia says. “Growing up in a girls’ school, it wasn’t really common to be into video games.”

Chelsea remembers having similar feelings. “I would always be so excited for my friends to leave so I could sit down at my computer and play games all night,” she says.

She didn’t tell her friends about her gaming at first. “It was a thing that I kept on the lowdown. It wasn’t so much shame, it’s just I felt like [they] wouldn’t understand it the way that people who play the games do.”

Kat says: “I had a few good girlfriends that did play games in high school, but they kind of grew out of it. And I guess that was the thing: they grew out of it and I never did.”

It was boys who introduced Kat to gaming. “I had boy cousins, older boy cousins, and you just can’t help it. If they’re playing it, you want to play too.”

But if half the gaming population is female, how could a generation of female gamers grow up knowing so few other women who play?

“It’s no accident that most video game retailers plaster their walls with promotional posters for action games, shooters and war games,” writes Tracey Lien in a piece for the online magazine Polygon.

Lien explains how in 1983, the video game market spectacularly collapsed, largely as a result of being flooded with sub-par product. An industry that was, until then, mostly gender-neutral, and included many women at both the executive and development levels, began scrabbling around for a way out of a financial hole. Lien writes that after the crash, “the game industry’s pursuit of a safe and reliable market led to it homing in on the young male. And so the advertising campaigns began. Video games were heavily marketed as products for men and the message was clear: no girls allowed.”

The game developer Leena Van Deventer argues that the effects of this gendered mass marketing is most apparent in the current generation of 20- and 30-something gamers. “Women have always been there,” she says. “Women were instrumental in the birth of games and tech but our generation is still very much dealing with the hangover of being told it’s not for us and the result that has had in our institutions and in our culture.”

In other words, if a generation of women grew up thinking they didn’t know any female gamers, it was because they had been cowed into silence by a culture that repeatedly told them games were not for them.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the development of Gamergate – a largely anonymous online harassment campaign, involving rape and death threats, which focused on discrediting a number of women in the gaming community, including the developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu and the critic Anita Sarkeesian. It demonstrated, more than anything, that there are deep pockets of vitriol in the gaming world reserved especially for women.

There are some weird things that streamers get asked to do, like sending panties – Kat

“Women’s appearance plays a bigger role [in their success] than their actual gameplay,” Chelsea says. “Whereas men’s appearance, it does not matter if their gameplay is amazing.”

And when it comes to making money, there are added expectations. “I was really worried about getting donations because of what would be requested,” Kat says. She started streaming while she was at university studying journalism. Her connection was low quality – “I don’t even know how people saw me through the pixels” – but it was enough to allow her to build a strong following which resulted in some very generous donations.

“There are some weird things that streamers get asked to do, like sending panties – people email and ask for that,” she says. “Or like, pictures of their feet in exchange for money.”

‘All of a sudden I’m a cam girl?’

The women on Twitch don’t see themselves as pornographers or sex workers – far from it – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t audience members who feel they are owed more than witty banter and good gameplay, particularly if they are handing over cash.

“The way some people treat you because you’re a woman on the internet is disgusting,” Kat says. “They think they can just give you money and expect certain things or just say something in chat and expect something – for you to take your clothes off and that sort of stuff. There are people who actually think that’s how it works.”

I have a legit career as a gamer and you can’t take me seriously as a gamer? – Mia

It’s no secret that porn is one of the primary drivers of technological innovation, but there are a striking number of structural similarities between Twitch and some forms of online pornography. And it is women who bear the brunt of the association.

“I had one of my friends make a joke about me being a cam girl and I got really, really offended about it,” says Mia. “Not because I think there’s anything wrong with [being a cam girl], but what I am doing is very different… Like, I have a legit career as a gamer and you can’t take me seriously as a gamer? You see me on camera and all of a sudden I’m a cam girl?”

The fact that Twitch now seems to be borrowing features from porn-site architecture only increases the association. New features on Twitch called “cheers” – animated emojis purchased by viewers as tips and sent as chat messages – closely resemble functions on the webcam porn platform Chaturbate, in which livestreaming video performers are paid through tips, and use apps to set tip goals and associated “rewards”.

But there are points of resistance. At a platform level, Twitch does give users some control, allowing streamers to ban abusive or unwanted users from interacting with them in chat. And, in 2014, the company banned both male and female users from appearing topless on cam or dressing “suggestively”, in what might arguably be a corporate intervention into a culture of expectation – or perhaps, a move to protect its brand.

At a grassroots level, though, women streamers have started banding together to help each other navigate the volatile space of online gaming.

“It’s really important to me to try to help [other streamers] out,” Chelsea says. “Because I know it’s super hard when you first start and it’s really overwhelming.”

Sometimes it is surreptitious. “There’s definitely like, a secret girls’ club, where we all just know each other and we’ve always kind of lurked each other’s stream,” says Kat.

For those interested in a ready-made community, there’s Widget – a not-for-profit feminist organisation with more than 650 members, set up to support women in games, development and technology. Established in 2013 and operating mainly through a Facebook group, Widget provides everything from moral support to fundraising assistance for members experiencing domestic violence and financial hardship.

But some women just do it the old-fashioned way: by seeking out kindred spirits.

“We call it a stream team,” Mia says. “And basically it’s four girls from all over the world and if we need advice or something weird is happening, which occasionally it does, we just ask each other… we’re just there for each other.”