If you’re a woman who plays or even just talks about video games online, odds are you’re encountered the misogynist flying monkeys of the Internet: Troops of bizarrely embittered young men, often using the name “Gamergate,” who aim inchoate rage at all sorts of women they encounter, but particularly feminists and women they suspect might be--gasp--sexually active. Ordinary women find that being known as female while playing online video games means having shocking number of sexually harassing comments thrown your way.
Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that a study that showed that men who are bad at video games are more likely to harass women online, went viral. Psychology researchers from the University of New South Wales and Miami University did a study where they compared men’s performance playing Halo 3 online to the amount of misogynist harassment they were dishing out. The result? A direct and strong correlation between how badly men were doing in the game and how nasty they were to women. Men, no matter how good they were, were cordial to each other. But the men who were good at the game were generally nice to women and men who sucked were the ones dishing out sexualized abuse to the women they encountered.
“In other words, sexist dudes are literally losers,” wrote Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post.
Unfortunately, this paper has a major flaw, though not in its research. (Does anyone doubt that the man-children lashing out at women online are losers?) The researchers are a bunch of “evolutionary psychology” enthusiasts, and they try to fit their findings into a just-so story that makes everything about some hypothetical mating strategies of our distant ancestors.
"As higher-skilled players have less to fear from hierarchical reorganization, we argue that these males behave more positively in an attempt to support and garner a female player’s attention,” the original paper reads. “Our results provide the clearest picture of inter-sexual competition to date, highlighting the importance of considering an evolutionary perspective when exploring the factors that affect male hostility towards women.”
In other words, they tried to fit this data into the unevidenced but popular evo psych notion that everything we do is “hardwired” and about men struggling for sexual attention. “There are assumptions galore in there: that the human ancestral condition was a male-dominated hierarchy in which low-status males could obtain access to sex by oppressing women,” biologist PZ Myers scoffed. “Why should we think that, rather than that the behavior is a consequence of contemporary culture?” Indeed. If it was all about sex, after all, it would make more sense for the lower-skilled men to flatter women, since they aren’t getting any by impressing them. But sense and a desire to prove “the innate differences between males and females” driving the researchers’ work parted ways decades ago, if they were ever on familiar terms.
Still, the data set these researchers put together is sound, even if the conclusions they draw are not. There’s a better, more likely explanation for their results: some people who are feeling bad about themselves try to regain a sense of mastery by picking on someone they think is down the social pecking order from them.
In other words, these guys are bullies. They pick on women not because of some elaborate hardwired mating game, but because men are socialized to think women are weaker and somehow inferior to men. They pick on women because they think women are a soft target. In addition, men are socialized to think that failure is emasculating. They pick on women for the same reason kids at school like to bully the nerdy kid or the fat kid or the gay kid: To feel bigger and better than someone else, to get that rush of power over someone else, to kill a perceived weakness inside of them, to trick other people into thinking they're big and tough.
It’s all so simple, but it tells us a lot about the way of the world and why misogyny continues to be such a major problem. Take, for instance, the recent situation with Reddit dropping CEO Ellen Pao. Regardless of what internal debates were going on at the company, it is undeniable that thousands of angry man-children organized to demand her ouster. As usual with trolls, these men painted themselves as noble warriors fighting for truth and justice, but as Pao herself said after her resignation, they were a bunch of trolls.
Tech writers Katherine Cross and Sam Biddle have both done postmortems of what happened, and have drawn the same conclusion: Regardless of what mantle Pao’s haters were flying under, the real reason for the harassment campaign, ironically, was their anger at her attempts to shut down harassment, especially harassment of women, that was originating from Reddit. It was, in Biddle’s memorable phrase, “the toxic praetorian guard of the men’s rights-Gamergate axis” that jealously guards their supposed “right” to harass women and people of color online, because it makes them feel powerful to do so. It is these same kinds of losers who call a woman “cunt” on Halo 3 because she beats them at the game.
It would be tempting, in light of this, to wonder if all these angry, hateful men need better self-esteem. Sadly, life is not an after-school special, and not everything is about learning to hug it out and move on. After all, plenty of people would like to feel more powerful, but they don’t go out and find perceived social inferiors to yell at. The reason these men lash out at women is that they feel entitled to do so. It’s as if they imagine that women are little more than ciphers for pouring all their rage and frustration and anger with the world out onto. Rejected by the girl you liked? Why not go onto Twitter and spread rumors about some random feminist’s sex life? Angry that you didn’t get the job you want? Why not call Anita Sarkeesian a “cunt”? Mad that the world doesn’t recognize you are a genius? Sign a petition to get Ellen Pao fired from her job.
Writer Lindy West captured this dynamic in a segment for "This American Life," when she interviewed a man who harassed her through a Twitter account. In the interview, in which he apologized for his actions, he admitted he had a lot of self-loathing about his weight and he lashed out at West because he was angry and jealous of her self-acceptance of her own weight.
People are going to feel low sometimes and are going to want a quick fix to feel powerful. What we need, as a society, is to discourage men from chasing that quick fix by picking on women in this way. Sure, maybe teach better coping mechanisms--get some therapy, learn a hobby, get some exercise--but more important, stop seeing women as ciphers that exist for them to dump on. Learn to see women as equals and people who, like men, are worthy of respect. The study showed that the loser men didn’t lash out at other men. So the key here is clearly respect. Get that, and we actually start to fix the problem.
Amanda Marcotte co-writes the blog Pandagon. She is the author of "It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments."