Female gamers have it bad: Study suggests women are targets for 'low-status, low-performing' male gamers

Photo: Olly Curtis/Future Publishing via Getty Images

There’s a pretty strong correlation between male game players’ sexist remarks towards female game players and how bad those men are at playing games, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One last week, which also sheds some light on the behaviours and attitudes of men that act anonymously online.

Jeffrey Kuznekoff and Michael Kasumovic — researchers from Miami University and University of New South Wales, respectively — watched how male players treated female players during 163 sessions of “Halo 3,” a popular Xbox 360 first-person shooter game that debuted in 2007. The game has an online multiplayer mode that enables actual human beings to speak with each other live, in real-time.

According to researchers, players only spoke in 102 of the 163 total matches, but in those games, “a total of 189 players spoke…all of them were male. This is not to say that women did not play, just that they did not speak.”

Unbeknownst to the players, the researchers had connected an audio playback device to their Xbox controllers, which allowed them to “broadcast pre-recorded audio clips to other players as if they were speaking to each other through the real-time voice channel.”

People playing xbox liveLauren Fievet/Getty ImagesFemale gamers playing games on Xbox Live.

There were three experimental “manipulations”: a control, where matches were played as normal, as well as male and female manipulations, where the researchers broadcast pre-recorded phrases made by male and female voices to the players over the real-time voice channel on Xbox Live.

“These prerecorded phrases were identical in the male and female condition, harmless in nature, and designed to be inoffensive,” the researchers said. “Phrases included: ‘I like this map’, ‘nice shot there,’ ‘I had fun playing that game,’ ‘I think I just saw a couple of them heading this way,’ and ‘that was a good game everyone.'”

You could probably guess what the researchers concluded. Here it is, from the discussion in their paper:

We found that skill determined the frequency of positive and negative statements spoken towards both male- and female-voiced teammates.

In addition, poorer performance (fewer kills and more deaths) resulted in more negative statements specifically in the female-voiced manipulation.

We thus argue that our results best support an evolutionary explanation of female-directed aggression. Low-status males that have the most to lose due to a hierarchical reconfiguration are responding to the threat female competitors pose. High-status males with the least to fear were more positive, suggesting they were switching to a supportive, and potentially, mate attraction role.

What’s perhaps most interesting about this experiment is that the study’s conclusions could be applied to other settings where online users are allowed to act and say things anonymously — like Twitter, or Reddit. Here’s more from the study:

Our results support an evolutionary argument for why low-status, low-performing males are hostile towards female competitors. Dominance is tightly linked to fitness in men…Low-status and low-performing males have the most to lose as a consequence of the hierarchical reconfiguration due to the entry of a competitive woman. As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status, the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female’s performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank. This idea is reinforced by the fact that higher-skilled males that should not feel threatened by a female increased their number of positive comments.

While the researchers note it is novel for male players in their data set to play with females in a male-dominated shooter game like “Halo 3,” they still hope it could show some young male players — and perhaps male online users, too — that “losing to the opposite sex is not socially debilitating.”

The whole study can be found here; it’s really an interesting read. We first saw this study mentioned on The Washington Post.

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