When US video game developer Riot Games held a highly anticipated League of Legends championship match in South Korea last year, about half of the spectators in the packed arena were women.
Waving glow sticks and handmade banners to support a top player called Faker, more than 1,000 young women — some of them dressed as characters from the game — erupted in celebration when the 21-year-old and his team sealed a 3-0 victory.
While the pastime is traditionally seen as the preserve of young men, the number of female gamers in hyper-wired South Korea has grown rapidly in recent years.
However, the South’s US$4.2 billion gaming industry has been hit by allegations of sexism and censorship targeting female game makers, likened by some to a modern-day witch hunt.
South Korea is the world’s sixth-biggest video game market, boasting 25 million players — half the population — and multiple TV channels are dedicated to broadcasting e-sports competitions.
About 65 percent of South Korean women aged 10 to 65 play video games, compared with 75 percent of men, and mobile games attract more female players than male, government data showed.
Women now account for 42 percent of all gamers in the country, industry tracker Newzoo said.
However, female game makers account for less than one-quarter of the male-dominated industry.
Despite its technological and economic advances, South Korea remains a patriarchal society in many respects and behind the facade of the global game powerhouse lies a heavily male-oriented culture.
The latest row began when Kim Hak-kyu, the CEO of Seoul-based IMC Games, launched an investigation into whether a female employee harbored “anti-social ideology” after complaints about her personal activity on Twitter.
Sung Hye-jin had followed several feminist groups and retweeted a post featuring a slang term describing sexist men.
Some of the industry’s key clientele of young, male gamers demanded her dismissal, calling her a “cancer-like creature” who “followed a dirty ideology.”
Sung apologized for the perceived offense, vowing to unfollow the groups in question.
Sung kept her job after Kim decided her actions were “just a mistake, but not a crime.”
However, he assured customers he would “remain endlessly vigilant” to prevent a recurrence.
Rights groups and the country’s top labor union have condemned the investigation.
Kim has since apologized in turn for his actions as the row spirals.
South Korea’s game sector has a history of firing women labeled as supporters of Megalia, a controversial online feminist group accused by many gamers of ridiculing men.
In 2016, top gaming company Nexon gave in to pressure from users to fire a voice actress after she posted a photograph of herself wearing a T-shirt sold by the group that read: “Girls do not need a prince.”
Another major developer, Smilegate, last month promised to remove images by female illustrators accused by gamers of being linked to the group for writing or retweeting posts about women’s rights issues.
Many South Korean gamers monitor female developers to check whether any of their tweets, retweets or likes involve feminism, and file complaints to their employers with boycott threats, multiple industry sources told reporters.
The female CEO of one gaming company said that Nexon’s move in 2016 had emboldened and convinced many gamers that they had a “right to witch hunt” female developers.
Many workers now take extra caution on social media and avoid posting “anything remotely related to women’s rights issues,” she said.
“It’s common sense that one should not be punished at the workplace for personal beliefs that have nothing to do with work, but that common sense is not accepted at all in this industry right now, especially for women,” the CEO said.
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