Men Aren’t Better Than Women in MMOs, New Study Finds

Researchers found that the skill gap for women in MMOs is a fantasy.
May 21, 2016, 8:30pm
Image: Daybreak Game Company

Leaning in to combat strategy and dungeon raids might be the solution to decades of sexism in online role-playing games.

A new study released last week tackled the myth that men are better at playing multiplayer online role-playing games (MMOs) by tracking how quickly thousands of players leveled up.

The results showed that there's no gender-based skill disparity in MMOs, a toxic stereotype that can impact women's gaming experience.

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The recent study, put out by the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, gathered data from around 10,000 EverQuest II players and 2,000 Chevaliers' Romance III (a Chinese online video game) players. To determine their gender, researchers looked at how players chose to self-identify when signing up for the game, as opposed to the gender of the avatar they chose to play in-game.

EverQuest II developer Sony Online Entertainment (now Daybreak Game Company) and Chevaliers' Romance III developer KingSoft provided the researchers access to gamers' play time and character levels, and measured player performance by how quickly they leveled up. For Everquest II, player data was collected between January and September 2006; for Chevaliers' Romance III, data was collected via survey in late 2011 and in-game between May 2010 and June 2012.

It turns out that gamers who spend more time gaming, regardless of their gender identity, perform better.

On average, male gamers reach higher levels than women, the study notes, but what could account for this is a difference in what motivates men and women to play: Multiple previous studies found that male players are more achievement-motivated and female players are more socially motivated, which suggests that women would lag behind men in character advancement. However, the study found that women leveled up just as quickly as men did, which the researchers said only makes their finding more robust.

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The study claims to be the first that has empirically examined the gender performance gap in an established video game.

Despite comparable skill, past research has shown that women in MMOs are often relegated to the outskirts of battle, following instructions from male guild leaders who are, generally, fighting in the fray. Even the appearance of women in MMOs counts against them in combat: Large breasts, twig-thin waists, and skimpy armor can assert a female gamer's supporting role before she even picks up a sword. As a result, women often play male avatars to defend against potential harassment, which a startling 63 percent of female gamers report confronting.

Women are still perceived as minorities in games, despite the fact that they constitute 48 percent of gamers (40 percent for MMOs). A vocal 60 percent of Americans view gaming as a male activity—one of the many factors deterring women from identifying as "gamers."

MMOs may seem like a niche battlefield to play out greater trends in sexism, but recent research has argued that online video games can provoke an interest in STEM and computer-related fields, where the women are notoriously under-represented. The imagined ability difference between men and women also serves to dissuade women from taking on leadership roles in online games—an opportunity that could potentially motivate her to lead in real life.

Although gender information was self-reported by players, the researchers note that gamers' incentive to misrepresent themselves when creating accounts (and not avatars) is low. The researchers were also careful to note that their findings were limited to MMOs, and that results could be different in other game genres. Despite this, the message is clear: More than dragons and night elves, a gender gap in MMO skill is the real fantasy.