Gender, Popular Press

What you can (and can’t) learn about sexism from online gaming

There’s a new scientific study out about male motivations for sexist behavior. It’s been making the rounds on Facebook. What the authors find is that lower-skilled male players are more hostile towards female-voiced players, especially if those men are doing poorly at the game. In contrast, the same players are deferential to higher-status male players. This, the authors claim, supports their evolutionary theory of gender relations.

The premise behind the study’s methodology is that we can draw implications for workplace behavior more generally from observing how women and men interact in the world of online video games. The authors offer two reason for this supposition. First, the relatively small number of women players mimics many workplaces, and second, the world of video games removes questions of physical dominance because gaming environments reward response time and mental acuity, like many post-industrial workplaces.

What’s puzzling to me about the findings of this study is that they tell us very little about what people are actually talking about and reporting these days. This scientific study arrived in my Facebook feed amid the daily deluge of “revelations” unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the online campaign #metoo. The big headlines are stories of powerful men using their position to harass and/or assault women and men in more vulnerable positions, often with the collusion or at least non-interference of colleagues. As Rebecca Traister points out in a recent article reflecting on this charged political moment, “Really powerful white men are losing jobs — that never happens.” In these stories it’s not the lower staus men who are the worst perpetrators, it is their bosses.

There are a couple possibilities at work here for how to reconcile the study results with the narrative emerging from female experience, but all of them point to the problem of drawing a direct line of inference from the online world to the workplace. First, we could look at the question of motivations. It could be that all male harassers feel small, even if they aren’t. While this may be true, it remains hard to reconcile this motive with the exalted public position of a Harvey Weinstein. Moreover, it contradicts the findings of the study. We should have seen more dominant male aggression in the study. Second, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that men who troll online aren’t necessarily the same ones who harass women in public. This doesn’t make their online behavior excusable, but it does suggest that there is something else going on to which the study does not speak.

While the study presents as a nicely packaged piece looking at a rather understudied question, its grand designs for drawing broader inferences about sexism in the workplace risk directing us to look in the wrong direction for what’s actually going on in the bigger scheme of things.


Kasumovic MM, Kuznekoff JH (2015) “Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behaviour.” PLOS ONE 10(9): e0138399.

Rebecca Traister (2017) “Your Reckoning. And Mine. As stories about abuse, assault, and complicity come flooding out, how do we think about the culprits in our lives? Including, sometimes, ourselves” The Cut., accessed, Nov 13, 2017.

Lindy West, “545: If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS” This American Life., accessed, Nov 13, 2017.


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