Hey friends, Kenny Wisdom here. This time, we’ll be doing something very different from what you’re used to, but also very important. This is an article that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, and I finally feel comfortable and confident enough to do it. Thank you to SixPrizes for giving me the platform to speak about uncomfortable, and sometimes unpopular topics. SixPrizes is a treasure to the Pokémon community, and their willingness to publish this article is a testament to that.
Today, we’re going to address a major problem within our community, and work together to do what we can to fix it. Specifically, we’re going to talk about how non-male players and would-be players are treated in the community. I know that this will not immediately resonate with everyone, and I know that a large majority of readers will not agree with everything I’ve written here (I wouldn’t even be writing this if everyone already agreed!). All I ask is that you give me the next few minutes of your life, read the article in it’s entirety, and take what you’ve read to heart.
Before we get started, I want to make one thing very clear:
I am the author of this article because my position of influence allows me to reach the widest number of people, but ultimately, I could not and would not write this independently. The things I’m about to say, the experiences I’m going to share, and the solutions I’m going to offer have all been shared with me and suggested by women.
Listening to affected groups about the things that affect them is a big part of what this article is about, but we’ll get to that later. For now, I just want to make it clear that, while I try to do the best I can every single day to amplify the voices of women, there wouldn’t be anything to amplify without them.
The problem is that the competitive Pokémon community is overwhelmingly toxic. Have you ever wondered why there are so few women who play Pokémon at a competitive level? Contrary to what you may believe, it’s not because Pokémon appeals to men more than women, or that women inherently don’t like games (???): it is because, by and large, the words and actions of the community create an enormous barrier to entry.
I’ve been around the game in some form or another since 2008, and started attending large (Nationals (RIP)/Worlds-level) events in 2011. Throughout this time, I’ve witnessed constant misogynistic behavior at every level of the game. Though I believe the community at large is skewing slightly older and wiser these days, the immense growth in recent years and an increased social media presence has led to more toxicity than ever before.
The main purpose of this article is to convince you of three things:
Firstly, that everyone should feel welcome playing Pokémon. This should go without saying, but, unfortunately, it does not. Regardless of age, gender, sexual preference, or any other factor, everyone should be able to attend a Pokémon event without being made to feel uncomfortable. Pokémon is great, and everyone should be able to experience it without fear.
Secondly, that not everyone feels welcome playing Pokémon.
Lastly, that everyone reading this article can do their part to make everyone feel welcome playing Pokémon.
Before you say it: Not everyone is toxic. Not everyone is misogynistic. I know this. I’ve met nearly all of my closest friends through Pokémon, so I am no stranger to the wonderful people that exist in the community. However, I am also no stranger to statements like these:
“Oh, her? She’s So and So’s girlfriend.”
“She was only featured on stream because she’s friends with one of the casters.”
“Did you come here with your boyfriend?”
Chances are, you’ve heard statements like that before as well. You likely hear them at every Regional you attend (and if you don’t, trust me when I say it’s not because they go unsaid). Many of you have likely made those statements yourself (I know that I have. I started playing Pokémon long ago, and am far from infallible). Now that we recognize these sorts of things happen, we need to also understand that they are unacceptable. They do nothing but alienate an entire group of people. They are harmful.
This is what we call casual sexism, and I believe it is the number one problem in our community today. It is important to understand that casual sexism is still sexism, and speech that is not meant to be harmful can still be just as harmful. I have no doubt that a good number of you reading this article immediately thought “Well, I only referred to X as Y’s girlfriend because that’s how I know her!” or “I was just curious if she had come with her boyfriend, I didn’t mean any harm.” I believe you. Having these thoughts and saying these things does not make you a bad person. It doesn’t make you evil. It does mean, however, that you are not acting in the best interest of the community and the game you love so dearly. This is the most important thing to understand. No amount of good intentions can make systemic, ingrained sexism go away.
Many of my closest friends in the world are women, and many of them play or have played Pokémon. All of them have been made to feel uncomfortable at an event. That is not hyperbole, that is the truth. Every man that reads this article has played a role—whether actively or passively—in making a woman feel uncomfortable at a tournament. That, too, is the truth. Accepting these truths, however uncomfortable they may make you, is paramount in having a complete understanding of the problem, and being able to contribute toward finding a solution.
The last thing I’d like to impress upon you before we move on is that these behaviors do drive women away from the game. You may not believe it’s as serious of an issue as you do, you may not fully “get” it, but that doesn’t change the truth. This alone should be enough to convince anyone to change their behaviors. Why would you want to do something that both hurts someone else, and a game you love?
This issue is complex, and deeply ingrained not only into our culture as gamers, but also society as a whole. I’m not certain we’ll ever be able to make everyone feel entirely comfortable playing Pokémon, but that isn’t going to stop me from trying. Below are a few, small and large, steps that everyone reading this can take to make sure that Pokémon is a much more inclusive game than it currently is. Know that every time you do one of the things on this list, you are making someone’s life better.
So much of the language that we use at tournaments and on social media is deeply sexist. Taking a little time out to consider the words we’re using and if we can be using better ones is one of the most simple actions any of us can take.
Firstly, it should go without saying that using any outright aggressive and offensive language is not acceptable in our outside of a tournament venue. If you are regularly referring to women (or anyone else!) by derogatory terms, you are a major part of the problem.
I don’t think that is the main issue regarding language, though. I think most members of this community understand they shouldn’t call people bad names. I’m not sure if all of those same people recognize that referring to their PTCGO opponent using male pronouns is problematic. Telling your friend you’re playing in an “8-man” side event at Internationals, similarly so. The example I used before, about referring a women as someone’s girlfriend? Also problematic. These things, while they may seem small, are not inconsequential. Most importantly, they cost you nothing to change! Refer to your opponents using non-gendered pronouns if you don’t know them. Call those small tournaments “8-player events.” Using language that you know will not harm anyone is just a freeroll, and everyone should be taking advantage of it.
It’s also important to consider the type of language we’re using when making jokes, or otherwise when we’re not entirely serious. Last year, a woman made a thread on one of the Pokémon Facebook groups (probably Virbank City, but I genuinely do not remember). She was a new player, and she was asking if there were any women who had been successful at the highest levels of competition. The very first comment was someone tagging a male friend of theirs, making the “hilarous” (if Facebook reactions are any indication) suggestion that this friend, because of the way he looked, was a woman. This, of course, suggests that being a woman is some sort of joke. It’s funny to call your friend a woman, because being a woman is an insult. I get it! (I don’t).
For most, this is likely the single most difficult point of this entire article, but it is also one of the most important (the number one most important is down below!).
You can put a lot of effort into changing your language. You can be more empathetic. You can go out of your way to make women feel comfortable at events. You can dedicate your life to the study of feminist theory. Regardless of any of this, if you sit idly by while your friends use problematic language, harass women, or otherwise make anyone feel unwelcome, you are part of the problem.
This is applicable to everyone reading this article, at every single level of involvement. If you overhear someone at your local league make a suggestive comment about a woman, call them out! If you walk past a group of players at a table loudly using sexist terms, say something. If one of your closest friends in the world does something to make a female player uncomfortable, let them know that their behavior is not acceptable, and will have a detrimental impact on your relationship with them.
This is not easy. Very little of this is easy. Very little of anything worth doing is easy, if you ask me. It is, however, important, necessary, and the right thing to do. You should hold your friends to the same standard that you hold yourself, and should not let their poor behavior slide for fear of confrontation. If they are truly your friend, they will respect that you’re being honest with them about your feelings. If they are a person worth being friends with, they will listen.
Please note that this doesn’t just apply when you’re at a Pokémon event. If you see toxicity on HeyFonte or in your group chats, call it out. Just because something is said in private, where it may not directly harm anyone, doesn’t mean that it’s okay. The way that a person speaks and acts in private says a lot about the way they feel.
I’ve done this many times, and recently, have even gone so far as to cut ties with someone I would’ve called my best friend a year ago because of the way he treats women. This was not an especially pleasant experience, and hopefully, by having productive conversations at the first sign of problematic behavior, you can encourage positive behaviors and won’t lose any friends. If you have to, though, just know that it’s possible, your life will be better in the long run, and you’ll be doing the right thing.
Lastly, if you feel that you aren’t in a position to confront someone at a tournament, feel free to call a judge! According to several judges I’ve spoken with about this issue, harassment and the use of any type of slur fall under Unsporting Conduct, and the participants can be given penalties. Even if the situation isn’t quite to that level, being spoken to by a judge will go a long way in showing that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.
The most simple and most important factor in all of this is to listen to women when they talk about their experiences. Actively listen, consider what they’re saying, take it to heart, and believe them. Don’t immediately try to disprove them. Don’t become defensive. Don’t discount their experiences because they are not your own. Listen when they tell you the things you can do to help. Listen when they tell you things that don’t help. Truly, honestly, listen.
This is an incredibly complex topic, and we haven’t begin to even scratch the surface. Like I said at the beginning, I hope you read this with an open mind and took the things I’m saying to heart. I hope that this article can spark discussions, and I’m going to do everything I can to be a part of as many of them as possible. I love Pokémon more than anything in the entire world, and I want as many people as possible to love it, too. We’ve got work to do