Stereotype threat can make female game players worse at gaming

Female video game players perform worse and feel worse about themselves when they are reminded of negative gender stereotypes, according to a study published in Computers in Human Behavior.

Recent controversies have highlighted the pervasiveness of hostility and negative attitudes towards female gamers, who tend to be perceived as less competent players than male gamers, and as not fitting into the world of video gaming. A great deal of research in other domains, including education and work, has established the importance of a psychological phenomenon known as stereotype threat. When people who belong to a stereotyped group are put in a position in which they feel they are acting as a representative of that group, they tend to feel anxiety about the risk of confirming those negative stereotypes in others’ eyes. That anxiety can lead to worse performance which can ironically reinforce the same negative group stereotype.

A team of researchers led by Lotte Vermeulen, of iMinds-MICT-Ghent University, conducted an experiment to study how female players are affected by stereotype threat in the context of online gaming. One hundred women were recruited online, and were randomly assigned to three groups. The women first played a practice round of a puzzle-platform game. After the first round, they viewed a list of high scorers for the game. One-third of the women saw a list that was dominated by male names and represented by male avatars. The second group of one-third saw a similar list dominated by female players. The list viewed by the final group contained gender-neutral names with no avatars. After viewing the list of current leaders, the women were instructed to play the game again with the goal of beating the high score.

Women in the first group, who thought that the high scorers were almost all men, showed signs of experiencing stereotype threat. They reported less confidence in their abilities, greater anxiety before playing, and had significantly worse scores than those in the other groups.

Importantly, these effects were strongest among the most experienced players. Stereotype threat caused greater anxiety about playing, and affected game scores the most, for women who were frequent online gamers. The impact was even greater still for those who strongly identified themselves with the label “gamer.”

The authors of the study suggest that the phenomenon of stereotype threat may help to understand why women are less likely than men to describe themselves as gamers, even when they spend equal amounts of time playing games. Distancing themselves from the gamer identity may be a defense mechanism lessening the psychological impact of negative stereotypes against female gamers. The experiment also helps to show how these negative expectations can become self-fulfilling prophesies.