Insights into Sexism: Male Status and Performance Moderates Female-Directed Hostile and Amicable Behavior

In an online video game, lower-skilled male players are more hostile towards female players due to a female threat in a male-dominated social hierarchy.


Previous research on performance, gender, and competition suggests that individual performance and social standing may affect how men perform sexist behaviors. According to social constructionist theory, men behave in a sexist manner towards women in order to remove them from male-dominated spaces, regardless of social status. In contrast, evolutionary theory suggests that sexist behavior is in response to a threat to a male’s position in a social hierarchy, which could reduce access to potential mates.

The disruption of a male hierarchy by a woman could incite hostile behavior from poorly performing men who stand to lose more status. One way researchers can investigate this interaction is through video games and online interactions. These environments can create an ideal atmosphere in which to study sexism due to performance and skills, as they create competitive environments in which individuals can easily connect with one another. Additionally, online video games are frequently perceived as male-dominated and sometimes employ hypermasculine and hypersexualized imagery that feed into gendered stereotypes.

In this paper, the authors used the online first-person shooter video game Halo 3 to study how performance and skill affected the tone of statements towards a female- or male-voiced teammate.


Lower-skilled male players were more hostile towards a female-voiced experimental teammate, especially when the female-voiced player was performing poorly. This same effect was not seen towards male-voiced experimental teammates.

  • 147 teammates spoke to the experimental player across  102 games (82 to female-voiced teammate, 85 to male-voiced teammate), and all speakers were male.
  • A player’s skill level was correlated with the number of positive comments made to a female-voiced experimental teammate – i.e. a highly skilled player was more likely to behave positively towards a female teammate. However, players made the same number of positive comments towards a male-voiced experimental teammate, regardless of the player’s skill level.
  • Overall, female-voiced experimental characters experienced more negative comments than male-voiced characters (2.66 vs. 1.90 negative comments on average per game).
    • As the female-voiced experimental character’s skills increased, their teammates made less negative statements to them. However, there was no difference based for male-voiced experimental characters’ skill level.
    • When a player’s skill was low, they made more negative statements toward a female-voiced experimental character, and when their skill was high, they made fewer negative statements. However, there was no difference in the statements they made to male-voiced experimental characters.
  • In games with the female-voiced experimental character, only 13% of teammates uttered hostile sexist statements. These sexist statements appear to be unrelated to absolute or relative levels of skill in the game.

The authors argue that these results support an evolutionary explanation of female-directed aggression, where low-status males are more easily threatened by a female competitor whereas high-status males are not threatened, instead behaving in a supportive and potentially a mate attraction role.


Xbox Live, which allows for real-time online play of multiplayer games, was used because its terms of agreement state that conversations can be recorded, and because all players are considered anonymous due to the use of pseudonyms. For this experiment, three Xbox LIVE accounts were created and assigned to control, male, or female players. (Control players not analyzed here.) The game was Halo 3, a first-person shooter game in which four players are matched to a team by skill level (calculated by internal algorithm based on player history) and play against another four-player team. For male and female experimental players, identical prerecorded phrases were played during the Halo 3 online games with other players. Only games in which other players spoke at the experimental player were included in this analysis. Responses directed at the experimental player from either teammates or opponents were coded based on tone as positive, negative, or neutral. (Opponent data not analyzed here.) Additionally, player performance data (including skill level, player deaths, and kills) were collected as a standard metric of social dominance within the game. Overall, a total of 163 games of Halo 3 were played, 82 with a female-voiced experimental player and 81 with a male-voiced player.

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