Competition in Videogames and Gender

I read this fascinating article about testosterone and competition in games yesterday and it got me thinking about a lot of things. One of the biggest things that struck me as I read was the discussion of player behavior after a victory. The paper talks generally about how “if there is some way for winners to communicate, losers are subjected to degrading displays of status.” The author discusses how this kind of crowing about a victory makes the losers feel worse and tends to cause them to stop playing the game. That got me thinking about gender dynamics in competitive games like this where the players can communicate with each other. And realistically, there are very few competitive videogames these days where the players don’t have the ability to easily communicate either through text or voice based chat systems. I think that extrapolating from this article can help explain one of the big, and yet basically ignored, problems with bringing more women into “hardcore” gaming.

The language of smack talk itself is extremely problematic from a woman’s point of view. A lot of it is extremely gendered and sexual in nature, and women never come out on top when it comes to smack talk language (pun intended). Losers are told they are “pussies”, that they “play like a girl” and to “bend over and take it” or “suck it” (there are worse ones, but I don’t feel like filling my blog with them). Winners have any number of euphemisms for testicles, “stuck it to them/you” and are “The Man”. It’s pretty clear that being a girl is a bad thing in the culture of competitive videogames, at least metaphorically. So what happens when the player in question actually is a girl or a woman?

To begin with, it’s sometimes hard not to feel unwanted and unwelcome in a culture filled with this language. To be the woman who can push past that and play with the big boys anyway (again, pun intended), you almost have to be willing to be twice as good as anyone else and able to somehow reconcile being female with that skill. Some do this by talking as much smack as the guys, in their sexist language, thus sort of adopting the mantle of “one of the guys”. Others basically stay silent and just let the guys josh each other about being beaten by a girl. Some almost get apologetic about being female, as if they have so internalized the language that they themselves are ashamed of being women (thankfully, this seems to be more and more rare as more and more women gamers gain visibility).

Many women (although not all) play a different kind of social game in their everyday lives than most men do. Deborah Tannen has explained how for many men (although, again, not all), social interactions are about forming and negotiating a hierarchy where the most dominant reach the top and it’s not very desirable to be on the bottom. Women, on the other hand, strive for connections. It’s not that they don’t want to be or think they are better than the next person, it’s that it’s very important to at least keep up the facade of a level playing field. It’s why apologies are so vital to female relationships, they allow things to return to the status quo by (implicitly) acknowledging a wrong done or invoking empathetic feelings.

This comes into play for some women when they lose and are “subjected to degrading displays of status.” For some women, this almost violent dressing down is actually painful. Because of the impulse they have to avoid social conflict, it’s actually a very distressing experience to be so spoken to. In female relationships, women will often assume that such responses are somehow their own fault, and this reaction becomes so ingrained that it carries over into other experiences. Add to that the gendered language and such an experience can easily go from distressing to frightening.

And then you’ve probably lost that player, and rightly so. We’re taught as women to avoid frightening situations, not to fight back and to stick together. So no matter how much fun the game itself might be, if the community provides a frightening experience for the woman, every instinct she has is probably going to tell her not to stay and not to come back. And then we come to what happens when a woman sees such things happening to other people.

When a woman sees something like that happen to her friend, she’s likely to be distressed like her friend, although to a lesser extent. And she’s going to leave with the friend. They’ve learned this is a dangerous place to stay away from. When she sees it happen to someone else, there’s a good chance she’ll empathize and realize that it could easily happen to her. And then, again, you’ve lost her (and that time she didn’t even have to have the experience, just witness it).

We’re taught to avoid danger and that danger is everywhere. And for women, avoiding danger makes a lot of sense. Games may not pose a real, physical danger, but they can cause us to feel that way. And why would you want to feel that way if you don’t have to? This doesn’t mean that games shouldn’t be competitive. Competition is good and women like competition as much as men do. And it’s not to say that games that allow communication are bad. Communication adds a lot to a game’s appeal, as MMOs and Facebook games prove daily. It’s just to say that perhaps there’s more to attracting and retaining female players than just making more appealing games and marketing to them better. The attitudes of the gaming community itself also needs to change.


  1. Danc said,

    November 12, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    Appreciate the thoughtful discussion of the topic. I didn’t address the issues of competition in women directly since there was less research available, but I think you’ve provided some good insights around the alienating lad culture that poisons online core games.

    Here’s an interesting article that gives some insight: (the original paper is unfortunately behind a paywall)

    The quote for me is “”Those who are motivated to play rugby because they enjoy having teammates and bonding experienced a much greater rise in pre-competition testosterone than those who were not motivated by bonding.”

    So women get jazzed if they are competing for their friends.

  2. Scarybug said,

    November 17, 2009 at 9:39 am

    I admit I don’t play games with strangers that often, but with my experience of the original StarCraft and Team Fortress 2, the most common communication given for winning or losing is “gg”. (Good Game)

    Fiero is an important emotion to instill when designing a game. Being totally shut-out is no fun in competitive games, but losing a close match can be almost as fun as winning in the right social environment. Winning in a shut-out can be satisfying, but it usually fails at instilling fiero. That’s why competitive team games try so hard to make sure the teams get balanced after a shut-out, and why 1v1 games online try to match you against players of a similar skill level.

    I’m not saying the abuse doesn’t happen, I’ve certainly heard a lot of horror stories, but my personal experience at least shows that there’s a model out there for good-sportsmanship in competitive online gaming.

  3. Rosepixie said,

    November 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    I’m glad you’ve had good experiences, Scarybug. I, personally, have observed far more instances of the kind of negative interchanges described in the original article and in mine in console games than in online games (XBox Live, etc.). It all depends on the community and not only does every game have it’s own community, but there are pocket communities within games. But it’s still a problem.

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