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July 22, 2015

Study: Men who harass women online really are losers

Researchers tracked 163 plays of Halo 3 and found that the worst performing men were most likely to target women for verbal abuse

The vitriol of the 2014 Gamergate controversy brought to light discrepancies in how the accomplishments of women are received across online gaming communities, but it may have exposed much more than a particular animus some men have toward women relative to gaming culture, according to a new study.

It turns out that men who harass women in online settings are, most of the time, literal losers, The Washington Post Reports.

Michael Kasumovic and Jeffrey Kuznekoff, two researchers from the University of New South Wales and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, recently sought to identify trends that could help explain a Pew report finding that 40 percent of Internet users have personally experienced harassment, with women "particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and stalking."

The pair observed how men treated women through the popular, multiplayer first-person shooter game Halo 3, tracking comments and other interactions both between and among genders. Their results, published last week in the journal PLOS One, found that men who were less skilled at Halo were most likely to lob misogynistic comments toward women gamers.

And it was also true that the better a male player was, the more likely he would be to pay compliments to female gamers.

Important points to note about the game itself are that players are anonymous, their encounters are often brief and singular and the sex-ratio of those who play is heavily biased toward men.

Kasumovic argues that a gradual shift in this ratio has disrupted the game's social hierarchy and that it serves as an instructive proxy for other environments, both online and offline, that often play host to sexist insults and threats.

“As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status,” Kasumovic writes, “the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female’s performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank.”

The authors noted similar imbalanced ratios in other online environments where the culture war of Gamergate raged most fiercely — Twitter, Reddit, 4chan and 8chan — and suggested that the same insecurity could account for the lack of civil discourse. It's not just the rigors of a first-person shooter game that bring out the worst behavior, they believe, but a pattern of human behavior. 

While the study does not attempt to offer any solutions, it does lay the groundwork for continued investigation. In the meantime, if it's any consolation, women can brush off most of the online harassment they face as the craven spazzing of a frustrated dweeb.