ACCORDING TO a new study released last month, unskilled male gamers are far more likely than their higher-ranked peers to harass female players. As a woman who plays games, and has heard more than her fair share of sexist insults, I can’t say I’m surprised. Really, no one in the industry is, especially after the #GamerGate movement garnered national attention for its targeted harassment of female game developers and critics.
The study, called “Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behavior,” was conducted by researchers from Miami University and The University of New South Wales. Researchers recorded 163 games of Halo 3, in which they communicated sparsely with other players using pre-recorded messages in male and female voices. Players’ responses to these messages were analyzed and rated as either positive, negative, or neutral. The researchers also took into account responding players’ standings within the game.
For those of you not familiar with it, Halo 3 has an in-game skill ranking for each playlist. Unlike experience points, which players earn for each match they complete, skill only increases if the player performs well compared to teammates and adversaries. Because skill is relative to each playlist, gamers who play a lot of Lone Wolves will show a high experience rank, but low skill, upon entering a Team Slayer playlist.
Researchers chose Halo 3 because, in addition to these in-game determiners, the Bungie title does not have an overtly macho tone. There are no bro-culture call-outs, à la Gears of War. Player avatars may be male or female, but the differences between the two sexes are negligible. In short, Halo 3 has very little content that would turn away female gamers or create hypermasculine expectations in male players, and thereby skew the study results.
The study’s hypothesis was simple — “that female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status” — and the analysis backed it up. From the abstract: “We suggest that low-status males increase female-directed hostility to minimize the loss of status as a consequence of hierarchical reconfiguration resulting from the entrance of a woman into the competitive arena.”
TL;DR: low-ranking males are more likely to lash out at women when they feel that what little dominance they have is being threatened.
Unsurprisingly, “Insights into Sexism” has been criticized from almost every corner. Naysayers take issue with the study’s small sample size — both the number of matches played and the fact that it only utilized one title — and its opacity regarding the sexist statements recorded. To these arguments, I will say that most, if not all, research studies begin with a small sample size, which is generally the result of limited funding, and that the researchers did provide example responses from players, which included:
- “Shut up, you w**re. She’s a n**ger though.”;
- “Should’ve made me a sandwich, b**ch.”; and
- “It’s the b**ch stealing my kills.”
Most of the negative responses to this study that I have seen tend to fall into the #NotAllMen category. That is, they come from admittedly low-skill players who claim that, because they personally do not engage in sexist harassment of female players, such harassment does not exist or is not related to player skill. This is, of course, akin to the men who feel the need to point out that #NotAllMen are rapists, or the ignorant white folks who become irrationally angry when they are told that there is no such thing as reverse racism. These men are shouting and growing defensive because they think they are being called out. The irony is they don’t seem to realize they’re proving the very argument they seek to disprove.
When you look at the study objectively, it makes sense. How many of us know someone who is “a big turd in a little bowl”? They’re people who hold just enough power to make themselves feel super-important — an assistant manager, the head of a tiny corporate department, a police chief in a small town — and they don’t mind lashing out when they feel their authority is in question.
Anyone can experience this hypersensitivity to criticism, but it happens more often to those of us with egos, and the “fragile male ego” is more than just a stereotype, bub. It’s socially-constructed.
So fellas, if you’re reading this, let me be the first to tell you: scientific data is neither personal, nor an attack. It’s just data. If you’re an unskilled male engaging in sexist harassment of female gamers, it’s probably because you feel that your masculinity is threatened in some way. Trust me, it isn’t. No one thinks you’re less of a man for losing a game or going negative, but disparaging women isn’t earning you man-brownie points; it just makes you look like a big bag of dicks.
Image credit: GTFO: A Film About Women in Gaming