Examining The Performance-Gender Link In Video Games

Like many people around my age or younger, I’m a big fan of video games. I’ve been interested in these kinds of games for as long as I can remember, and they’ve been the most consistent form of entertainment in my life, often winning out over the company of other people and, occasionally, food. As I – or pretty much anyone who has spent time within the gaming community – can attest to, the experience of playing these games with others can frequently lead to, shall we say, less-than-pleasant interactions with those who are upset by losses. Whether being derided for your own poor performance, good performance, good luck, or tactics of choice, negative comments are a frequent occurrence in the competitive online gaming environment. There are some people, however, who believe that simply being a woman in such environments yields a negative reception from a predominately-male community. Indeed, some evidence consistent with this possibility was recently published by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) but, as you will soon see, the picture of hostile behavior towards women that emerges in much more nuanced than it is often credited as being.

Aggression, video games, and gender relations; what more could you want to read about?

As an aside, it is worth mentioning that some topics – sexism being among them – tend to evade clear thinking because people have some kind of vested social interest in what they have to say about the association value of particular groups. If, for instance, people who play video games are perceived negatively, I would likely suffer socially by extension, since I enjoy video games myself (so there’s my bias). Accordingly, people might report or interpret evidence in ways that aren’t quite accurate so as to paint certain pictures. This issue seems to rear its head in the current paper on more than one occasion. For example, one claim made by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) is that “…men and women are equally likely to play competitive video games”. The citation for this claim is listed as “Essential facts about the computer and video game industry (2014)“. However, in that document, the word “competitive” does not appear at all, let alone a gender breakdown of competitive game play. Confusingly, the authors subsequently claim that competitive games are frequently dominated by males in terms of who plays them, directly contradicting the former idea. Another claim made by Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) is that women are “more often depicted as damsels in distress”, though the paper they link to to support that claim does not appear to contain any breakdown of women’s actual representation in video games as characters, instead measuring people’s perceptions of women’s representation in them. While such a claim may indeed be true – women may be depicted as in need of rescue more often than they’re depicted in other roles and/or relative to men’s depictions – it’s worth noting that the citation they use does not contain the data they imply it does.

Despite these inaccuracies, Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) take a step in the right direction by considering how the reproductive benefits to competition have shaped male and female psychologies when approaching the women-in-competitive-video-games question. For men, one’s place in a dominance hierarchy was quite relevant for determining their eventual reproductive success, leading to more overt strategies of social hierarchy navigation. These overt strategies include the development of larger, more muscular upper-bodies in men, suited for direct physical contests. By contrast, women’s reproductive fitness was often less affected by their status within the social hierarchy, especially with respect to direct physical competitions. As men and women begin to compete in the same venues where differences in physical strength no longer determine the winner – as is the case in online video games – this could lead to some unpleasant situations for particular men who have the most to lose by having their status threatened by female competition.

In the interests of being more explicit about why female involvement in typically male-style competitions might be a problem for some men, let’s employ some Bayesian reasoning. In terms of physical contests, larger men tend to dominate smaller ones; this is why most fighting sports are separated into different classes based on the weight of the combatants. So what are we to infer when a smaller fighter consistently beats a larger one? Though these aren’t mutually exclusive, we could infer either that the smaller fighter is very skilled or that the larger fighter is particularly unskilled. Indeed, if the larger fighter is losing both to people of his own weight class and of a weight class below him, the latter interpretation becomes more likely. It doesn’t take much of a jump to replace size with sex in this example: because men tend to be stronger than women, our Bayesian priors should lead us to expect that men will win in direct physical competition over women, on average. A man who performs poorly against both men and women in physical competition, is going to suffer a major blow to his social status and reputation as a fighter.

It’ll be embarrassing for him to see that replayed five times from three angles.

While winning in competitive video games does not rely on physical strength, a similar type of logic applies there as well: if men tend to be the ones overwhelming dominating a video game in terms of their performance, then a man who performs poorly has the most to lose from women becoming involved in the game, as he now might compare poorly both to the standard reference group and to the disfavored minority group. By contrast, men who are high performers in these games would not be bothered by women joining in, as they aren’t terribly concerned about losing to them and having their status threatened. This yields some interesting predictions about what kind of men are going to become hostile towards women. By comparison, other social and lay theories (which are often hard to separate) do not tend to yield such predictions, instead suggesting that both high and low performing men might be hostile towards women in order to remove them from a type of male-only space; what one might consider a more general sexist discrimination.

To test these hypotheses, Kasumovic & Kuznekoff (2015) reported on some data collected while they were playing Halo 3, during which time all matches and conversations within the game were recorded. During these games, the authors had approximately a dozen neutral phrases prerecorded with either a male or female voice they would play during appropriate times in the match. These phrases served to cue the other players as to the ostensible gender of the researcher. The matches themselves were 4 vs 4 games in which the objective for each is to kill more members of the enemy team than they kill of yours. All in-game conversations were transcribed, with two coders examined the transcripts for comments directed towards the researcher playing the game, classifying them as positive, negative, or neutral. The performance of the players making these comments were also recorded with respect to whether the game was won or lost, that player’s overall skill level, and the number of their kills and deaths in the match, so as to get a sense for the type of player making them.

The data represented 163 games of Halo, during which 189 players directed comments towards the researcher across 102 of the games. Of those 189 players who made comments, all of them were males. Only the 147 of those commenters that came from a teammate were retained for analysis. In total, then, 82 players directed comments towards the female-voiced player, whereas 65 directed comments towards the male-voiced player.

A few interesting findings emerged with respect to the gender manipulation. While I won’t mention all of them, I wanted to highlight a few. First, when the researcher used the female voice, higher-skill male players tended to direct significantly more positive comments towards them, relative to low-skill players (β = -.31); no such trend was observed for the male-voiced character. Additionally, as the difference between the female-voiced researcher and the commenting player grew larger (specifically, as the person making the comment was of progressively higher ranks than the female-voiced player), the number of positive comments tended to increase. Similarly, high-skill male players tended to direct fewer negative comments towards the female-voiced research as well (β = -.18). Finally, in terms of their kills during the match, poor performing males directed more negative comments towards female voiced characters, relative to high-performing men (β = .35); no such trend was evident for the male-voiced condition.

“I’m bad at this game and it’s your fault people know it!”

Taken together, the results seem to point in a pretty consistent direction: low-performing men tended to be less welcoming of women in their competitive game of choice, perhaps because it highlighted their poor performance to a greater degree. By contrast, high-performing males were relatively less troubled by the ostensible presence of women, dipping over into being quite welcoming of them. After all, a man being good at the game might well be an attractive quality to women who also enjoy the world of Esports, and what better way to kick off a potential relationship than with a shared hobby? As a final point, it is worth noting that the truly sexist types might present a different pattern of data, relative to people who were just making positive or negative comments: only 11 of the players (out of 83 who made negative comments and 189 who made any comments) were classified as making comments considered to be “hostile sexism”, which did not yield a large enough sample for a proper analysis. The good news, then, seems to be such comments are at least relatively rare.

References: Kasumovic, M. & Kuznekoff, J. (2015). Insights into sexism: Male status and performance moderates female-directed hostile and amicable behavior. PLoS One, 10: e0131613. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0131613

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