We know some things about video games: they can influence us to take real-life risks, they can be addictive, and they may even be the next great art form. We also know the gaming world is a bastion of chauvinism. Feminine hyper-sexuality, female passivity, and violence against women are three common themes in the fastest growing form of mass media.
But sexism is not constrained to the portrayal of women within video games, asserts a recent study published in New Media and Society. Researchers from Ohio University looked to determine whether gamers reacted differently to male and female voices within a multiplayer game that allows players to communicate with other people in real time, using their own voice.
The experiment was situated within a natural online gaming environment: Halo 3, which made $300 million within the first week of its release, via Xbox Live. Two automated accounts, one male and one female, played with actual online gamers who didn’t realize they were part of a study. Identical phrases “designed not to illicit a negative response” were prerecorded by a man and a woman, to be played through an iPod touch during live play. The accounts, which also included a control account with no audio recording, only varied in two ways: their Gamertag and gender representation. There were 245 games recorded and played live, and 163 of those included verbal communication and were later analyzed.
The female condition ultimately received roughly three times as many directly negative comments as the male and control conditions. The authors state:
Even though the female and male conditions had nearly the same win percentage (56 percent and 61 percent), nearly the same number of games with verbal communication taking place (79 percent and 77 percent), the same average adjusted skill level (19 out of 50) and nearly the same number of total games played (82 for female and 81 for male) gamers reacted differently to the female condition.
Hostile reactions to the female player were frequent; the phrase “hi everybody” alone sparked reactions ranging from “shut up you whore” to “so whatever that voice was, are you a hooker or are you a dude?” When the female wasn’t receiving derogatory gendered language, it was asked out.
Anonymous online rage is obviously not exclusive to video games, but with an estimated 211.5 million gamers, it’s a relatively large issue. Lack of accountability and a low expectation of ever meeting the female player, the authors believe, fueled much of the hostility in the Ohio University study.
Stereotyping all male gamers as sexists is just as wrong as saying female gamers just play Bejeweled. (The latter was an assertion made in the comments section of a study claiming 45 percent of all gamers are women: “This just in: housewives like Bejeweled and Angry Birds.”) But the study shows just how prevalent in-game harassment, often excused as “trash talking,” is in the virtual world—as it often is beyond the screen.
In her TEDx talk, media critic Anita Sarkeesian discusses her ongoing experience as the target of an online hate campaign, which began when she created a Kickstarter account to help with a series of videos about women in video games. The cyber movement against her wasn’t just a discourse against her opinions; it consisted of gender-based attacks that included rape threats and derogatory slurs.
While all is not totally lost and you can read a story about how World of Warcraft, another multiplayer online game, is helping gamers find their spouses and significant others, most of the time it's doing the exact opposite.