With the efforts of sites like Fat, Ugly, or Slutty that exist to illustrate the atmosphere of hostility that often surrounds in-game gender dynamics, it's becoming something of a given that women generally are subjected to more harassment and negativity than their male counterparts when participating online. However, even with the abundance of blog posts, screen shots, and audio backing up the assertions of the female gaming community, they are still seen by some as merely anecdotal anomalies rather than a social norm.
A new observational study however, conducted by researchers at Ohio University this past fall, now sheds light on the dynamic, providing some cold hard numbers as to the frequency with which it manifests. Using Halo 3 and choosing its most popular playlist as a sample group, they established three gamer tags, each assigned to either a pre-recorded male or female voice, or no voice at all, and recorded the reactions of their opponents after playing back innocous phrases designed to engage, but not anger, them (ex: "Hi everybody" or "I like this map").
Taking into account negative and positive comments as well as neutral queries, this simple experiment (the full methodology of which you can read here) revealed that of the three gamertags, the one established as female received "roughly three times as many" directly negative comments than the male or control (no voice) gamertag did.
While the conclusions are unsurprising to anyone who plays games online, nonetheless the study provides verifiable evidence that women are in fact on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of verbal abuse, and the many entries at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty are not isolated incidents so much as they are a grim illustration of status quo.
So where does this problem begin and how does it end? It's symptomatic not of a unique phenomenon that only occurs within our community, but as the study notes, a well balanced web of social factors that include not only how we view women but how we interact with each other under the cloak of anonymity. As another study notes, the outcome of these online interactions is an impact equal to "real" face-to-face encounters; despite our protestations of "It's just the Internet!", they can leave just as deep an emotional effect.
Does implementing greater privacy methods and making it easier to report harassive behavior solve the problem, or does it merely sweep it to a different corner of the room? Preventing but not addressing the issue solves little but it's hardly the responsibility of entertainers and hardware makers to educate their consumers on how to not be an asshole. At the same time, as a society we generally reinforce positive behavior by making it clear what we will or won't tolerate, and refusing to provide a haven for hate also sends a message on its own.
Image courtesy Fat, Ugly, or Slutty.com