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Academic Study Examines The Link Between Gender Cues and In-Game Harassment


Verbal abuse is a pandemic in the online gaming community. And while it affects all sorts of gamers, there’s a select brand of vitriol reserved for women who venture into voice chat. This is an oft-discussed issue, and we still don’t have a good understanding of the root causes, or of what we can do to alleviate it. But some recent academic research provides a interesting (and sobering) look at how persistent the problem is.

Last week, Gamasutra featured a blog post by graduate student Wai Yen Tang, who discussed a study entitled “Communication in multiplayer gaming: Examining player responses to gender cues.” The study was published online in September of last year by Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff and Lindsey M. Rose, two PhDs from Ohio University’s School of Communication Studies. The study addressed two main questions: does player gender affect the types of comments received in-game, and is player skill a factor? 245 multiplayer matches and 1660 individual players later, they had some answers.

If you have the time and patience for academic writing, I highly recommend giving the full study a read. The findings are interesting enough, but I found their research methods to be quite clever. Halo 3 was used as the staging ground, chosen for its popularity and its random matchmaking system. In order to standardize the experimental conditions, verbal messages were pre-recorded in both a male and female voice. These were made up of unassuming things such as “hi everybody,” “nice job so far,” and “thanks for the game, bye.” The researchers then played public matches, transmitting the messages via voice chat. Matches played without engaging in voice chat were used as a control.

Before I get into the results, I have to say that the choice to study gamers in their natural environment deserves some kudos. One of my frequent quibbles with formal research of in-game behavior is that it happens within a laboratory environment. You can’t expect someone playing twenty assigned minutes of Call of Duty in a research lab to behave the same way as s/he would after hours of voluntary gameplay at home (presumably including snacks and a comfy couch). By observing gamers in the field, without informing them of the study, Kuznekoff and Rose acquired some rare real-world data. The downside is that said data is pretty depressing.

Findings indicate that, on average, the female voice received three times as many negative comments as the male voice or no voice. In addition, the female voice received more queries and more messages from other gamers than the male voice or no voice.

No real surprise there. But what’s noteworthy is there was no correlation between negative feedback and skill level. As Kuznekoff was an experienced Halo 3 player and Rose was not, they had the opportunity not only to interact with players of both high and low skill levels (Halo 3 uses performance-based matchmaking), but also to see if there was a relationship between the player’s skill level and the types of comments received. The study showed that regardless of skill, the rate of negative comments directed toward all voices stayed the same. And while the male voice did receive negative comments as well, there was a difference in language usage. The authors noted a “a clear pattern of negative comments associated with the female condition.”

On several occasions the female condition was exposed to derogatory gendered language. For example, in one particular game nearly every utterance made by the female condition was met with a negative response by a particular gamer. When the female condition said ‘hi everybody’, the other gamer responded with ‘shut up you whore’ followed a few seconds later with ‘she is a nigger lover’. When the female condition said, ‘alright team let’s do this’, the other gamer replied, ‘fuck you, you stupid slut.’

Neither this sort of language nor the frequency of this behavior will be news anyone who’s spent time in voice chat, but it is the first time I’ve seen it described in formal research (if there are other examples out there, do pass them along). So often, conversations about in-game harassment are anecdotal, and while personal experiences should absolutely be talked about, it’s helpful to see some objective data that illustrates what a problem this is. One of the common counter-responses in discussions about harassment is that it isn’t that big of a deal, or that men suffer plenty of trash-talking as well. That latter point is true, and there are guys out there who avoid voice chat or multiplayer because they, too, are sick of the toxic social environment. But the use of gendered insults and the tripled rate of negative comments, regardless of skill level or win percentage, indicates that something more than just a proclivity for trash-talk is at the core of this particular problem.

Now, it’s important to remember that this study is reflective of one isolated gaming environment, not of video games as a whole. As the authors note, “Caution should be shown when generalizing the findings of this study to other games or genres.” It’s because of that specificity that this study leaves me with many more questions. What would the data gathered from other games look like? Would there be a difference between genre or platform? Does the average age of a player base change anything? Does the style of gameplay or intensity of competition affect the rate of harassment? Does the game content — such as stereotypical portrayals of female characters, or the inclusion of military combat or other traditionally male environments — have an effect? What might we learn about other forms of verbal abuse, such as racist comments directed toward someone with a different accent or dialect, or homophobic language used as a general purpose insult? And though all of these factors are more reflective of larger societal problems than of the gaming community alone, is there any way this information can be used to help make multiplayer gaming a more inclusive place?

That last question is what’s important to me. Online multiplayer is a spectacular idea, in concept. Playing games with people all over the planet, working together with strangers to tackle a shared challenge, making friends with folks you never would have met in the pre-internet world — that’s awesome. And in many ways, multiplayer gaming has been good to me. I have great fun taking part in it, and I’ve made some wonderful friends along the way. But I’ve also heard from people of all genders who have chosen to skip out on multiplayer entirely because of the bad behavior of others. That’s sad, but understandable. I myself always feel anxious about outing myself as a woman when playing with strangers, and I’ll often listen to in-game banter for a little while before I decide if the social atmosphere is one I feel comfortable joining. I’m not proud to admit that, but I think that’s an experience shared by many women gamers — the choice between speaking with my own voice and having fun in the games I love.

So, I welcome this kind of research, and I hope to see more like it in the future. A learned approach here is exactly what we need. There won’t be any magic bullet for this, no matter what we dig up, but by understanding the problem, perhaps we can eventually make it better.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also always be found on Twitter.

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