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The founders of Smash Sisters, an advocacy group that supports women and girls playing competitive Super Smash Brothers. Lil Chen, far left, and Emily Sun, far right, spoke about their experience at the 2017 GeekGirlCon. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

It’s no secret that competitive gaming can be a toxic place for women and girls.

Sometimes that toxicity comes in the form of outright sexism, but often the cuts that go deepest are more subtle.

“How many of y’all have ever heard the phrase, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good for a girl?'”

The question came from Emily Sun, an esports event organizer and a co-founder of Smash Sisters, an advocacy group that works to support girls and women playing competitive Super Smash Brothers. She was one of four women in esports who spoke at a recent panel at Seattle’s GeekGirlCon.

Pretty much everyone in the room raised their hand.

“How do you usually respond?” Sun asked.

“I like to be snarky back,” one audience member said. “You’re pretty good, for a guy.”

“Keep winning,” another piped up.

“It is definitely a hard phrase to hear and respond to,” Sun said. She said she often doesn’t respond, but talking to other women gamers helps her feel better.

Morgan Romaine, a professional esports community organizer and director of initiatives for advocacy group AnyKey. (Morgan Romaine Photo, via Tumblr)

Morgan Romine, a professional esports community organizer and co-founder of advocacy group AnyKey, had a more stark take.

“Men should be calling out other men on their shit,” Romine said.

She hit on a topic that can be a difficult one — allyship, or members of a group that holds more power (in this case men) speaking out against the mistreatment or oppression of another group (in this case, women).

In esports, like in many other communities, there are ample chances for male allies to step up and help make spaces less toxic towards women and girls.

But even for men who want to be good allies, it’s often hard to know what to do and how they can combat a toxic situation.

So, Romine, Sun and others on the panel shared their thoughts on how male allies can help make esports — and other male-dominated communities — less toxic for women and girls.

One of the common themes was exactly what Romine said — male allies can speak up when they see  innapropriate behavior.

Lil Chen, a former professional gamer and another co-founder of Smash Sisters, said there’s one situation she hears all the time from women gamers: They were mistreated, and their male friends said nothing.

“Silence means being complicit with the actions, even if you’re not malicious,” Chen said. She said male allies should “[speak] up on behalf of someone else, and [defend] them — just anything, not sitting there and accepting it.”

She also said male allies can show their support by elevating and supporting women’s voices, particularly on social media.

“Even if they don’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of women’s issues because they aren’t one — and they don’t want to cross that border — then empower people who are speaking. Help us promote our voice, retweet our events,” she said.

And finally, Chen said, it’s important for allies not to keep their support private.

“The most important thing is showing your support publicly, not behind the scenes,” Chen said. “You have to be the role model you want to see.”

Chen and Sun recounted a recent incident in the competitive Super Smash Brothers community as an example of a male ally standing up for inclusion.

When “Super Smash Brothers: Melee” formed an all-male 25-person committee to standardize rules and a code of conduct for competitive events, many in the community were outraged that no women had been included.

Smash Sisters Co-founder and esports events organizer Emily Sun, right, plays a round of Super Smash Brothers with a GeekGirlCon attendee during the weekend convention. (GeekWire Photo / Clare McGrane)

The committee organizers said they had asked two women, including Sun, who had declined to join the board. But Sun, Chen and others said that wasn’t nearly enough and took the organization to task for its weak effort at including diverse voices.

“It’s on allies to also be broadening their ask list,” Chen said at the event. She said organizations should ask “women who are up-and-coming, who need help professionalizing and perfecting their skills,” not just the few women who have already made it to the top.

Sun also wrote in a post at the time that she didn’t realize she was being offered a position on the committee and would have accepted if she understood there would have been no female representation otherwise.

Shortly afterward,  Adam “Armada” Lindgren — undisputedly the best Smash Melee player in the world — offered to resign his post on the committee to open up a spot for a female gamer.

His statement had a big impact — the organization agreed to compromise and allowed Sun to join committee, without Lindgren having to give up his spot.

Sun said Lindgren’s actions were a great example of an ally standing up for an inclusive community.

“Just the act of standing up for women was huge,” she said. “He actually got a lot of hate for it too… but then the next day, he said, ‘after all these responses, I’m really happy with the decision. I’m going to continue to hold down on that.’”

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