An insight into video game sexism? I’m in two minds…

A graph - go and read the paper.
A graph – go and read the paper.

There is an interesting paper (with an odd flaw) on sexism in online video games. It was published the other day on PLOS ONE and can be read in full here: Hoorah for open access! [You can even download their data and their R scripts]

Two researchers (Kasumovic from UNSW in Sydney and Kuznekoff from Miami University Middletown in Miami) used Xbox Live to play Halo 3 and recorded audio and video of their team games. They also created three special accounts: one nominated as male, one nominated as female and one nominated as a control. The control account was used to play the game without any verbal input. The other two accounts used a set of pre-recorded audio phrase which were identical between the two accounts but one recorded with a male voice and the other with a female voice.

These prerecorded phrases were identical in the male and female condition, harmless in nature, and designed to be inoffensive. 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’.

Having collected audio files from a bunch of games they then transcribed the comments of the other (real) players assigned to them by the game and then they coded those transcripts to identify sexism in the comments. In addition that they had a range of performance values for each of the players (number of kills etc).

The upshot was that more poorly performing male players were more inclined to direct negative comments at the female-voiced player. That is, sexism was related to losing.

Now I think that is an interesting result and the experimental design was a clever way to collect real data on online behavior in an a male-dominated environment.

The flaw is that the whole research is wrapped in an evolutionary model of male-female interaction that seems largely unnecessary to the core of the research. This is how they describe their perspective in the abstract:

We argue that a clearer understanding of sexist behaviour can be gained through an evolutionary perspective that considers evolved differences in intra-sexual competition. We hypothesised that female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status. To test this hypothesis, we used an online first-person shooter video game that removes signals of dominance but provides information on gender, individual performance, and skill. We show that lower-skilled players were more hostile towards a female-voiced teammate, especially when performing poorly. In contrast, lower-skilled players behaved submissively towards a male-voiced player in the identical scenario. This difference in gender-directed behaviour became more extreme with poorer focal-player performance.

That all seems rather forced. Alternate socially-constructed viewpoints of sexism would also recognize that individuals will perceive a degree of relative status in such social situations. Given that and given the very obvious presence of sexism it is not surprising to find actual instances of negative comments being generated by men who are doing poorly in a game. That isn’t to say their research doesn’t help support their perspective, but it doesn’t particularly support it more than the alternative.

[Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour, Michael M. Kasumovic , Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, PLOS Published: July 15, 2015 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131613]

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