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A field experiment on reactions to a woman's friend request in an FPS game
by Wai Yen Tang on 06/13/14 01:54:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Cross-posted from my blog at VG Researcher.

Previously in communication science, Kuznekoff & Rose (2013) did a field experiment in a popular FPS where they played either as a male or female player and analyzed comments directed towards them. What they found is that the female player received three times as many negative comments as the male player.

Adrienne Holz Ivory (Virginia Tech), Jesse Fox (Ohio State University), Frank Waddell (Pennsylvania State University) and James Ivory (Virginia Tech) conducted a field experiment of their own where they examined how players of a different FPS game reacted to either a male’s or female’s friend request following a match. What did they found in this field experiment?


Sex role stereotyping by players in first-person shooter games and other online gaming environments may encourage a social environment that marginalizes and alienates female players. Consistent with the social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE), the anonymity of online games may engender endorsement of group-consistent attitudes and amplification of social stereotyping, such as the adherence to gender norms predicted by expectations states theory. A 2 × 3 × 2 virtual field experiment (= 520) in an online first-person shooter video game examined effects of a confederate players’ sex, communication style, and skill on players’ compliance with subsequent online friend requests. We found support for the hypothesis that, in general, women would gain more compliance with friend requests than men. We also found support for the hypothesis that women making positive utterances would gain more compliance with friend requests than women making negative utterances, whereas men making negative utterances would gain more compliance with friend requests than men making positive utterances. The hypothesis that player skill (i.e., game scores) would predict compliance with friend requests was not supported. Implications for male and female game players and computer-mediated communication in online gaming environments are discussed.

The adage “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” reflected an idea in the early days of the internet that anyone is free from their ties to the real world, that the virtual space is leveling ground for everyone. Anyone can explore their identities. Unfortunately, everyone brought their real life baggage into that space, and relevant to this study are gender stereotypes.

In an online environment, users interact with each other not from a linguistic blank slate, but with what they have. From these interactions, they form impressions on whatever information presented to them and evaluate such information with their knowledge, including stereotypes. There are linguistic differences between men and women in online interactions where men communicate assertively and use crude language, for example, whereas women tend to communicate empathetically. These differences would affect others’ reactions when they become aware of a user’s gender, in which one type of reaction is sending sexual messages to female users.

The amount of identifying information online is comparatively limited to the real world. We don’t see them, hear them, etc. Our anonymity makes us more stranger than strangers in real life. This works both ways, for the “speaker” and “listener”. According to the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation effects, our anonymity deindividuated us and as such we rely on outside cues, we rely on others to guide us on how to behave and think. We rely more strongly to those whom we identify with, an in-group, so a male player would behave like other male players he observes because they share an identity. With that in mind, he would act upon on more generalized and abstract information, that is stereotypes where we have an idea of a typical/idealized person belonging to a group. So, imagine what your typical male or female gamer, FPS or Starcraft player would be like. We would take on that mask and perform it online.

In terms of how a female or male user interact, the Expectation States Theory can explain how people would infer and anticipate what other users would behave. More precisely, what users anticipate how a male or female user should or should not behave and how users would treat them. Because of the deindividuated nature of online gaming, stereotypes effect is arguably more stronger and gender more salient. The videogame social environment is quite masculine, therefore male players would behave and expect very masculine social interactions and the opposite is true for female players, they should behave submissively or what they think women ought to be. Should a female player violate these expectations by asserting herself, social punishments ensue such as questioning her legitimacy and competence as a gamer . Should a male player violate their masculine expectations, well other men will denigrate their manhood and competence.

The FPS genre is also a competitive environment and a place where a show of skill should attract fame, respect and glory. IMO, it sounds like an egalitarian argument is that players earn respect and friendship through a show of competence and merit, this argument avoids downgrading women from earning respect. However, given what we learned from expectation state theory and the deindividuation effects on gender stereotypes, is the meritocratic argument of competitive gaming true? Does a competent female player earn their fellow gamers respect or shall it be another shout for a sandwich?

On a tangent, Allison Eden (VU Amsterdam) started this trend at looking the role of game skill in a 2010 study. It does make intuitive sense that in a social milieu where competition is salient, you’d look for relevant things in there like gaming skill or kill/death ratio that some players in certain games seemed to make huge deal out of it. These attractive and intuitive metrics is what is thought to have gained famous players their fame, recognition, and friendship. But, this is common sense thinking and this could blind us from something more obvious. I had a conversation with Jesse Fox months ago, but I forgot the insights from it, something about streaming gamers, and about other factors, such as sociability, friendliness, that makes streamers more popular than others. Asking interpersonal communication scholars about relationship formation or asking players how and who they would friend request. Edit: one factor was the study could not control for the other players’ skill, it is possible that players tend to friend requests others of similar skill.


It’s a field experiment. They went online to play matches with other players on the Playstation Network through the Playstation 3 in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. They played deathmatches using automatch where they can play with up to 8 other random players. The matches last 10 minutes or until one player reaches 30 kills which ends the match.

There are 3 experimental factors:

Gender: They created two Playstation Network accounts with gendered user names. The female user was named “Ashley” followed by several numbers. The male user was named “John” followed by several numbers. They use the same character in every matches (e.g. Russian Spetsnaz rifleman, U.S. Special Forces sniper, African Militia light machine gunner).

Utterance type: They had recorded voice chat utterances for each gender, this is to standardize voice chat in all of the matches. What they seek is how other players react to the voice and the type of utterances. To this effect, they have three types of utterances: positive, negative and no utterances. The positive utterances are phrases like “nice shot”. The negative utterances are phrases like “you suck”. There are no mixing utterance types or any sort of dynamics, like reacting to positive or negative utterances from other players. Try planning that. They uttered at 90 seconds interval during matches.

Player skill: Good or bad. The experimenter is an experienced FPS player, so in the good condition, he just played normally. In the bad condition, he played with weapons that are difficult to use. This method worked as the average kill/death ratio in the good condition is 1.2 (SD=.51) and .42 (SD = .19) in the bad condition.

Dependent variable: The friend request. The authors were pretty strict and detailed about the friend request. First, they initiate the request immediately after the end of the match, and to all players that were in that match. Second, they count responses as either accept, deny or no-response. The no-response is counted if the player did not respond within the time of a match (i.e. 10 minutes) after the request. The no-response would not be used in the analysis because there are many unknowns to make any meaningful inferences, it is possible they were busy, they logged off, ignored the request, don’t speak English, etc. Even if they responded after 10 minutes, it makes you wonder why they took that long, again this is an uncertainty. Furthermore, the authors imposed this time limit in order for the experimental variables to be as salient as possible because a delayed reply may mean a lot of things that may not be relevant to the variables of interest.

With these experimental conditions set, they recorded 238 online games with a total of 1371 unique participants, 520 of whom responded within the time limit. No information were asked from the participants, so no way of knowing their gender or age. But we can make some statistical assumptions that most CoD players are young men.


The analysis is based from the 520 participants who responded. The following graph depicts the likelihood of participants accepting the friend request. The statistical significance is true between gender, women do get more acceptances than men. The statistical significance between utterance type is true, men who utter negatively tend to get more acceptances than those who uttered positively or were quiet whereas women who were quiet tend to get more acceptances than those who uttered positively or negatively.

Ivory 2014

There were no statistical significance about player skill having any bearing on friend requests.


The take home message is that female players who sent out friend requests have a greater chance of being accepted than male players do. Furthermore, the chances of acceptance differs based on how the player spoke in the game, and congruence with gender stereotypes. Male players who spoke negatively or trash talk in the game and female players who were silent or meek have the greatest chances in getting their friend request accepted. In a way, men and women are treated differently in gaming. On a tangent, I wonder if this is similar to statistics on online dating’s messaging and reply rates.

Why are there differences in acceptance rates between gender and utterance types? As predicted by Expectation States Theory with the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation effects, male and female players who do not violate gender stereotypes are more accepted by other players. Since there is so little identifying information, you could say that people would imagine what others look like, starting with stereotypes. The negative utterances from the male player would suggest that other players saw it as normative behaviours for a stereotypical male player. I recall an argument that trash talking is a character defining trait, pumps up the excitement and that this is how gamers should behave. Somewhat blind to the point that this is how men should behave.

The authors discussed the significance of social networks within a masculine social space that we call videogames. A male player accepting a female player as one of their friends can signify to others that they are sexually attractive and popular (from their point of view). This is one way that reinforces behaviours and stereotyped perceptions of female gamers, as a result male gamers would pay a lot more attention to female gamers, and good deal of misunderstanding ensue, friendly acts by female players may be misconstrued as sexual. The gender differences in friend request acceptance corroborates the anecdotes that female players receive many random friend requests from male strangers once their gender is revealed or inferred as some male players may be mistaken for a woman.

I emailed one of the authors for further thoughts. The author shared their thoughts regarding the skill factor. The high versus low skill conditions was successful in terms of kill/death ratio, it may not have been noticeable enough for others. They surmised that match ranking might be a factor, for a player to consistently rank in 2nd or 3rd, as opposed to 1st, may not get a lot of attention among a group of players. They pointed out skill levels in two-player co-op studies have significant effects. But, “Of course, the likely possibility that skill wasn’t obvious enough in its manipulation to have effects only points back to how pronounced the effects of other, similarly nuanced manipulations where, such as just using a male name or saying a few phrases on the voice chat channel.” I recalled that skill might be “threatening” to other players where a player might accuse another for being a cheater or hacker. At this point, it is rather difficult to assess skill level alone in a group setting.

They offered another comment relevant to the field: “While a lot of the more dramatic speculated effects of video games, such as disputed social effects of violent content, have received a lot more attention from researchers and the public, studies like this make me more and more disappointed that we don’t pay more attention to the subtle dynamics of online interactions that may have lasting social consequences.  It really disappointed me to find that even in a game where you pretend to be a soldier running around shooting at people, there appear to be gendered expectations about how to interact with others, and that worries me more than the fact that they’re carrying pretend guns around.”

The sessions were recorded for record-keeping to ensure data quality for the study. They have not looked into the recordings as of yet. They did note that some players sent unsolicited messages to the female player.

The authors suggested some future field studies to consider. One consideration is the possibility of obtaining some demographic information. Another consideration is how would players react to players of different ethnicities, sexual orientations and age? One of my own considerations is how do players initiate friend requests, such as their motives, who they friend, and under what circumstances. Actually, why not share your thoughts in the comments section.

The following is another field experiment that was presented at the International Communication Association’s Annual Conference of 2014. The title of the poster is: “Harsh Words and Deeds: Content Analyses of Offensive User Behavior in Online First-Person Shooter Games

They fielded undergraduate students in two separate studies to play in popular FPS games, Call of Duty: Black Ops I & II (PS3 & Xbox 360) and Halo:Reach. In total, they recorded 42 hours of gameplay.

Utterance types: Study 1: they examined voice chats in Halo:Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops. Across 89 matches and among the 713 players identified, 72 of them uttered. They categorized only negative utterances. Here is a graph of their results.

ica - ivory 1

An example interpretation is that profanity accounted for 9.86% (or 109) of total utterances, among the 72 who uttered, 54% of them did so.

Study 2: They examined Black Ops II players’ profiles and utterances. Across 172 matches and among 1866 players, 150 of them uttered.

ica- ivory 2

There is a minority of players who use voice chat and they commonly do so negatively. Similarly, there is a minority of players who expressed themselves in an offensive manner in their player emblems and profile names. Although, the numbers are kept low because they may get reported by other players or banned by administrators for violations of the terms of services. It makes me wonder about the proportions in an unregulated gaming environment. These results sounded like what Jeffrey Lin of Riot Games have found, a minority of toxic players and a majority of good players. Although a single chance encounter with these toxic players and toxic interactions are relatively rare, but they are common enough over time. With these results and some upcoming data, we have increasing support and clearer ideas on approaching negative online gaming interactions. This leads to some research questions: who are these toxic players? Where do they come from, in terms of social, cultural and economic status? What are their motives, attitudes and beliefs in gaming and in general? Do they express the same way in real life? They do express themselves consistently or did they, as Lin argued, had a bad day?

Holz Ivory, A., Fox, J., Franklin Waddell, T., & Ivory, J. D. (2014). Sex role stereotyping is hard to kill: A field experiment measuring social responses to user characteristics and behavior in an online multiplayer first-person shooter game. Computers in Human Behavior, 35 , 148-156. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2014.02.026

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Robert Marney
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Interesting that the floor was still 70% acceptance to a friend request from a random person, regardless of skill or gender or voice.

Ardney Carter
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There are lots of lonely people in the world. (This observation is not intended to be condescending. It is merely a statement of fact.)

Dave Bleja
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And probably quite a few people who simply don't like making others feel rejected.

Either out of empathy or politeness, or simply because rejecting someone feels awkward. In real life, it can actually be pretty hard to do.

Dave Bellinger
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Fantastic study, I would love to see more research into this subject.

In particular, I'd love to see these same parameters performed with a Team-Based mode as opposed to Death Match modes; I feel like these two different game types really attract different personalities in general.

Great work.

Wai Yen Tang
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Argh! I just remembered a GDC video by Jeffrey Lin, although there are several differences between League of Legends and CoD, it does give some clues of how the social dynamics changes with team-based vs. death match modes.

Now I just wish that their findings are published in a peer-reviewed journal, so that we can cite it and move forward much quickly. I just wish that games scholars can have access to the kinds of big data game companies possess and have field experiments with greater experimental control with their help just to uncover more of the social dynamics occurring in games.

Matthew Calderaz
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Additionally, I'd expect widely differing results if the game was an MMO that had in-game incentive for the wider community of players to behave civilly to each other. (Planetside 2, Guild Wars 2, etc.)

Wai Yen Tang
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Indeed, policy differences and game structural features between genres can have different effects on the social dynamics between players and their enjoyment and engagement with the game.

Zach Grant
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This supports why Blizzard's RealID system was a terrible idea. Female gamers should have the right to keep their identities hidden to avoid the endless stream of assholes and immature gamers. Hopefully in time, females won't have to remain anonymous in order to have a positive gaming experience online.

Wai Yen Tang
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I have mixed feelings about the RealID system. On paper, it seems to bring light of the rl identity, but the consequences may be non-existent. In practice, it may not work as I still see people using their Facebook account leaving horrible comments or talking about their life stories in public sites like news site requiring Facebook for commenting.

I am unsure about females and other minorities should be keeping identities hidden as it would leave many players impressions or beliefs that there are few or no girls in gaming, which then perpetuates the white male player stereotype. Furthermore, it does pose a problem that not all players could have the freedom to express their identities freely, such as expressing their sexuality because of immature gamers.

However, I'd advise against waiting or inaction on the part of gamers or game companies for changes to happen, I don't have solutions yet as I am reading through research on workplace harassment, but waiting is like waiting for a rare and positive accident to happen.

CE Sullivan
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I haven't played any Blizzard games in a while, but I doubt RealID is such a big deal, since it seems like a good deal of MMORPG players are female anyway. At least back when I did play WoW almost ten years ago, I didn't feel the need to hide my gender (which is female, btw).

On the other hand, I've avoided playing multiplayer games that have headset support all together. It's not necessarily because I don't want people to know I'm female. I just don't generally feel like chatting with strangers while I play a game, and I don't understand the appeal of engaging in "trash talk" either.

I've also never accepted a friend request from anyone I don't know in real life, except for friend requests within social games where making "friends" is necessary to the game. Random friend requests on PSN I ignore.

Daniel Pang
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Interesting to see that gender slurs and sexual orientation slurs are on the low side.

I thought online gaming was supposed to be this hive of misogyny and sexist ill repute?


Wai Yen Tang
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In a sense it is, why do you think nobody tells bad players to stop the misogyny and sexist remarks? They may not like it, but their silence is an indicator to others that it is tolerated.

Daniel Pang
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I actually take issue with that because it is not the responsibility of the players to police the behavior of others.

You buy entertainment, and if you don't like it you stop playing. If you don't like the people online playing the game, you stop playing as well. That's the sum total of it.

Also "nobody tells bad players to stop the misogyny and sexist remarks" is a massive generalization not backed up by the massive body of work written by people on this website and others covering the games industry, as well as the moves within the industry that show people taking a stand and publicly blasting this kind of behavior.

The reasons behind this drive being solely that no company wants anyone to stop playing their game. If they buy entertainment and don't get the experience they want, it's far more likely that they stop playing, and maybe even share their bad experience with other potential players, or even extend to not buying any other products released by the company.

Hell, Riot - the top earner in the free-to-play market and a company that makes billions in profit every year - they offer you their product for FREE and yet they have an entire system set up to police toxic behavior. If anything, thanks to ongoing efforts to carve it up like some sort of corporate pie and the drive towards persistent online identity the internet is more controlled and secure than it ever has been, and it's never been easier to identify trolls and players with toxic behavior.

Dan Porter
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Really interesting study. By the way, I have an alternative theory regarding your interpretation of the statistic that a silent user with a female name would have more accepted requests than one who spoke. Your interpretation was that the community punished assertiveness and rewarded meekness.

However, I've noticed (at least for myself), that when one plays an online game, one sometimes imagines what type of person a user might be based on their username. This expectation, however false it might be, remains until the user dispells it by doing something that falls outside of expectations, either with their behavior, voice, or chat. For instance, I would be shocked if a user named "X420xTokeMastaX" sounded like an oxford professor, or a user named "PrincessBubblegum" sounded like a brusque NYC cab driver.

It could be possible that the utterances used in this study departed from the expectations that users had for a female, but not of the male. Thus, a silent female would appear more consistent because no disillusionment occurs. That is to say: what if the difference is NOT that the user expected a female to say nothing, but that the user expected a female to say SOMETHING ELSE?

Whether consistency between expectations and reality is a desirable quality in an online friend, I couldn't say. What impact would this have on the results? No idea. But it could make a difference.

Wai Yen Tang
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Your alternative theory can be explained by Expectancy Violations Theory (see wikipedia). If there is an available research slot, we can try an in-lab experiment. The problem is what sort of expectancy players have of male vs. female players to make a prediction.

However, how would you explain about the silent players' friend request rate in comparison with that of the silent female players' rate? No disillusionment has occurred and whatever image users have of the silent male player remains intact.

Ardney Carter
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[edit for clarity]
"However, how would you explain about the silent [male] players' friend request rate in comparison with that of the silent female players' rate? No disillusionment has occurred and whatever image users have of the silent male player remains intact."

I'll take a stab at it. I imagine the perception (and perhaps the reality) is that the majority of FPS players are male. A friend invite from a male is therefore considered mundane as in this setting males are common. An invite from a female is novel because in this setting females are rare. Humans like novelty.

[edit]Or if you prefer to look at it from the economic perspective (I don't, personally) males are in abundant supply and therefore less valuable whereas women are scarce and subsequently have more value.

[edit2] Not directly related, but the train of thought for my 1st edit sparked something. It occurs to me that there is also a general perception that women are more valuable than men.

Consider: A building partially collapsed and rescue workers are on site. A rescue worker finds 2 injured survivors, a man and a woman. The building has become unstable and the rescue worker has time to save only 1 of them before it collapses fully. Who should be chosen?

There is no doubt in my mind that when asked the above question the overwhelming majority of men would answer that the woman should be saved. However, I am unsure if the reverse would be true. I strongly suspect it would not. That would be another interesting experiment to run, perhaps.

Daniel Pang
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Ahh, the old "no feminists on the Titanic".

I agree there's something to be said for your first edit, and we're seeing the results in the politics of the glorious communist state of Modern China, thanks to the one-child law producing a hilariously skewed gender imbalance.

Your second is completely off base because from an evolutionary perspective it's backed up by centuries of, you know, human survival coded deep into our lizard brains and sexual politics. For basically the entire history of the human race from caveman onward, one presumably very happy man could impregnate a lot of females and ensure the survival of the human race. The same cannot be said for females. That's where "women and children first" comes from; they represent the future and the continued survival of the genetic line, and given thousands of years of genetic coding it's essentially hardwired into our brains.

To segway all the way back on topic, we're talking about video games, where death essentially has little to no penalty and the stakes are far lower than the survival of our race.

My problem with this study is that it designates "normative behaviors" for a "stereotypical male player", and extrapolates that the community punishes assertiveness and rewards submissiveness on behalf of the female. All of these definitions are problematic as it exposes research bias and it becomes a case of re-interpreting the data to suit the conclusion the researcher wanted. (what is 'normative behavior' in the context of the study, does it mean a norm or average of how many utterances per, or type of utterances per game, what is 'stereotypical male' in the context of this study', what is defined as 'assertiveness' and 'submissiveness' in the context of the study etc. etc. etc.)

This is good data and a fascinating study but there needs to be far more research on the topic before any conclusions can be reached.

We lack metrics.

Wai Yen Tang
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I have read your response.

Dan Porter
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Have you given any thought to doing an control group with a gender neutral name and ambiguous utterances?

Wai Yen Tang
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But that would leave ambiguous results.