Men are bullies — at least online, in games, and disproportionately towards women, an international study has found. The kicker though, is that men are most likely to harrass women when they’re being beaten by them.
In their paper “Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour”, Michael M. Kasumovic of the University of New South Wales’ Ecology and Evolution Research Centre and Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff of Miami University Middletown’s Department of Integrative Studies researched whether “female-initiated disruption of a male hierarchy incites hostile behaviour from poor performing males who stand to lose the most status.”
Kuznekoff and Kasumovic looked at behaviour in Halo 3 multiplayer matches, creating three different Xbox Live accounts and measuring player reactions. All matches were recorded for later analysis. The ‘control’ account merely played the game, without using the real-time voice comms to interact with other players. The remaining accounts were assigned male and female attributes, with researchers broadcasting pre-recorded phrases in a gender-specific voice.
“These pre-recorded phrases were identical in the male and female condition, harmless in nature, and designed to be inoffensive,” the study says. “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’.”
Given Halo 3 matches players based on skill, there should be some parity among teammates’ abilities. This forms “an objective indicator, determined by an undisclosed algorithm by the developer”, and allowed Kuznekoff and Kasumovic to remove some variables and focus on player reactions.
Their findings? In the male manipulation, the researchers write that “while playing with male teammates, men generally follow rules associated with navigating hierarchies. Skill did not moderate focal player positivity towards a male-voiced teammate, but higher skilled individuals were less negative.” On the female side, particularly when the female-voiced account was outperforming male players, they found that that “overall, the female-voiced manipulation experienced a greater frequency of negative comments” and “focal-player skill further moderated player behaviour with the lowest-skilled males behaving less positively towards a female voice.”
“Taken together, these results suggest that it is lower-skilled poorer-performing males that are significantly more hostile towards females, and higher-skilled focal players are more supportive.”
While the research shines a dim light on player behaviour (the notion that some people are awful to each other in online games isn’t new), what’s potentially more important is what it says about us in evolutionarily terms. It also relates to wider psychology and behavioural trends, showing that the presence of better-performing females can prove intimidating to less confident men.
“Our results provide the clearest picture of inter-sexual competition to date, highlighting the importance of considering an evolutionary perspective when exploring the factors that affect male hostility towards women,” the researchers say, and that “we thus argue that our results best support an evolutionary explanation of female-directed aggression. Low-status males that have the most to lose due to a hierarchical reconfiguration are responding to the threat female competitors pose.”
WIRED.co.uk has contacted the authors of the study for further comment. This story will be updated accordingly.