Gender Disparity and Network Dynamics in Virtual Worlds

Cuihua (Cindy) Shen is an associate professor of communication. Her project, which seeks to understand the issues of gender and social networks in online words, was awarded an ISS Individual Research Grant in 2016. She provided this update in August 2017.

What motivated you to pursue this project?

The lack of women in tech-related careers has always fascinated me. Despite decades of educational efforts, women are still much less likely than men to pursue STEM majors, with women earning about 20% of bachelor degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and even less at graduate level. Why does this happen? I suspect social and cultural contexts may play a big part – including gender stereotypes, biases, and hostile environments, as manifested in the “brogrammer” culture. The recent internal memo from Google employee James Damore can be considered as another example. 

One unique environment through which to study gender disparity is virtual worlds (massively multiplayer online games, specifically), as I observe many similarities between virtual worlds and tech-related fields. In both settings, technical skillsets are essential, team collaboration plays an important role, and women are vastly outnumbered by men.  Besides, for many tweens and teens, games are exactly where they are first exposed to software and computing literacies. Knowing how gender dynamics play out in virtual worlds thus could enlighten us about how disparity may be created long before people make career choices, and potentially, design interventions to change that disparity early on.

How has it progressed since you received an ISS individual research grant?

Less than a year before our project started, the GamerGate controversy erupted and sent long-lasting shockwaves to game, technology as well as academic communities. It involved a harassment campaign against prominent female gamers, journalists and designers, reflected a longstanding undercurrent of misogyny and sexism in the community. In some cases, those who challenged the sexism found themselves threatened with rape or death

In an effort to directly contribute to the conversations of GamerGate, our project set out to investigate whether there is empirical grounding for a long-held stereotype that men are simply better gamers than women. Women gamers are often perceived as incompetent players who aren’t genuinely interested in the games but rather sign up to get attention. If a female gamer does play well, she’s often derided as a hacker – someone who cheats to gain an advantage – because “there is no way a girl can be that good.”

In a recently published study, we set out to examine whether men really make better gamers than women and, if so, what drove the gender performance gap. Specifically, we wanted to compare how quickly men and women leveled up in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, which are online worlds where thousands of players develop characters, make friends, join groups, complete quests and slay dragons together.

Our study is unique in that it not only examined people’s performance in games over a long period, but also did so in their natural play settings, while past research tended to have only a few players over to a lab (artificial setting) and measure how people score in a single game session.  Our study also examined gender and performance in both US and Chinese games, to see if gender differences vary by culture.

What notable or surprising findings can you share at this time?

Our research used anonymous server data from over 10,000 men and women in two MMOs, “EverQuest II” in the United States and “Chevaliers’ Romance III” in China. We knew each player’s actual gender through their account registration information.

Contrary to the stereotype, we found that player gender itself does not lead to performance differences. Instead, the perception of women as poorer players might be attributed to other factors. For example, we found that women spent less time playing overall than men and chose more assistive character classes, such as Priests, who specialize in healing their group members (so naturally they are more dependent on others). When we statistically controlled for them in the analyses, the gender performance gap disappeared; women advanced at least as fast as men did in both games.

We took into account that different players are interested in different aspects of MMOs, and a few of those differences may correlate with gender. There’s some empirical evidence that men tend to focus more on achievement in video games – leveling up rapidly, gaining in-game status and competing against others – while women are drawn to social interactions, whether it’s helping other players or forming long-term relationships.

This suggests that men should advance faster than women. However, we found the opposite: Women advanced at least as fast as men did. So taking into account different play motivations (which we were unable to do in this study’s analysis) likely only strengthens our conclusions.

What is the next step?

Virtual worlds could offer great insights on how gender might affect participation in social networks in other settings. The next question I am investigating is one that specifically concerns social and collaborative networks in games – what kind of social structures do men and women players each have in online games? And more importantly, how do these structural differences come into existence and evolve over time? For a numerical minority (women) in a somewhat hostile environment, what strategies might be effective to encourage women’s presence and participation? 

I plan to draw from four large-scale virtual world datasets in the United States, China and European countries to analyze individual, social, architectural and cultural attributes that lead to gendered differences in participants’ longitudinal network structures. Building on this analysis, we will identify potential networks-oriented strategies to promote women’s engagement and retention in virtual networks, thereby suggesting mechanisms by which virtual worlds can “rewire” networks to encourage gender equity.

Learn more about Cuihua (Cindy) Shen.