Article by @JolyThePsych, originally published on Dexerto Germany
If you take a look at the high-performance sector in esports, you will find few, if any, women.
This is the case even though it is relatively easier to get sponsoring and professional support for female teams. While there are a lot of different opinions as to why women have a special role, or whether they should or shouldn’t have, there’s a huge lack of psychological approaching to this topic.
In this case, a psychological perspective might particularly be able to shine some light onto many of the myths surrounding this topic. Maybe even arrive at a thought-provoking impulse that leads to some changes in esports.
The first of this two-part article is about prejudice and how it might affect in-game performance. The second part will be published in the next edition and will address performance in terms of cognitive measures such as perception speed, spatial thinking and reaction time. On the basis of recent studies, it will be discussed if the assumption of gender differences in esports is justified from a psychological point of view.
Just Boobs, No Skills? – Prejudice: causes and effects
Browsing through streaming platforms such as Twitch.tv not a long time ago, you could see that a lot of popular female streamers stand out mostly by one thing: boobs and a plunging neckline.
For sure there are successful female streamers that try to stand out by their skills and not their double-d-cup. But there’s no denying the fact that there’s also a lot of girls that earn their living by showing their well-shaped cleavage. Well, why not? The viewers are happy, the streamer is happy. Looks like a win-win-situation. Although Twitch.tv reacted to this kind of streaming with new terms and conditions, there are still a lot of female streamers that keep their viewers in line with their looks and gender.
But the more often and the more visual women in esports are associated with their bodily charms and not well-placed skill-shots the more a conscious and unconscious image of some sort of prototype-woman forms. This prototype is generalized on women in esports and women in general if there are more confirming than contrary examples. Although mostly unconscious, women are seen only as the bearer of sexual stimuli than persons of competence at some point.
And that’s when we face prejudice and stereotypes. But what even is that?
Brain – y u do dis?
Prejudices are negative attitudes or judgemental patterns we have against a distinct group of persons, solely based on their membership in that group (Brown 1995). Transferred to the example from before, it means that we think women perform worse in esports just because they’re women.
But why does our brain do such things?
Judgemental patterns are hardened ways of thinking that derive from our learning experience. Actually, they’re quite useful: They make it easier for our brain to process stimuli and thereby save work capacity for other tasks. The brain constructs rules or heuristics
that are then used again and again.
So in our example, the brain has learned that women rather perform “entertainment oriented streaming”. To save work and time it sorts all female streamers into this box and slowly expands this rule to female gaming as a whole. The next step after this is to think that women in general can’t perform as well as men (and that’s why they’re not making performance-oriented streaming).
Besides the fact that performance-oriented female streamers and competitive players might not feel recognized or wrongfully perceived, it has a nasty side effect: it reduces the performance of women in esports collectively.
Prejudice as an inhibitor – a self-fulfilling prophecy
In a study of Spencer et al. 1999 they researched if women were worse in maths than men. In one of the groups, the prejudice confirmed: women performed significantly worse than men. In another group they did an experimental manipulation: before the men and women of this group were tested with the same math task, they we’re told, that this test is gender neutral and that women and men have equal chances to perform well.
Lo and behold: women performed as well as men this time. The reason women performed worse in the first place was a phenomenon that’s called stereotype threat
by the authors. Women in this study have internalized
the prejudice that they’re worse in maths then men, leading them to consciously or unconsciously believing it themselves. Prejudice and stereotypes alone can reduce the performance one can achieve in a certain domain.
Yet, there’s still no studies assessing how much women are faced with prejudice and stereotype threat in esports. Interviews with professional players indicate that there is still slight prejudice against women in esports, but thanks to societal undesirability, statements like “you belong in the kitchen” don’t happen that often.
When we talk about statements like this, we mean open prejudice. But a lot of people don’t consider hidden prejudice. The assumption that women can’t perform as well as men is an example of hidden prejudice. Even subtle assumptions like “men have better spatial thinking than women” is prejudice to some extent that decreases the performance of women via stereotype threat.
The mechanism behind this is just as told before, that women themselves believe they can’t perform as well. How much of the gender differences in esports are caused biologically and how much influence social and psychic processes have, will be explored in the next article. However, the fact is that assumptions about women performing worse or men performing better contribute to making it real through mental processes. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the performance of women in esports is systematically reduced.
What’s there to do about it?
The most efficient way to decrease prejudice and prevent them from happening are contradictory experiences. The contact hypothesis (Allport 1954; Wagner et al. 2006), which is a very popular and well proven theory, predicates that prejudices can be reduced by contact and positive experience between people with prejudices and people whom they have prejudices against. Originally the theory was applied to racial prejudice, but there’s little to no reason that it’s isn’t adaptable to prejudices in esports.
Even if face-to-face contact might not be necessary, it would be helpful if performance-oriented female streamers and competitive players gained popularity. This would enable users of streaming platforms and esports fan to experience women on a high-performance level and lessen their prejudices by contradictory experiences.
Diagnosis: Vicious cycle?
But why is it, that there’s so few women in the high-performance sector of esports? One side of this problem is indeed that there’s not enough women in esports overall. The population of female gamers is too small to produce pro gamers.
But there’s another by far grave reason for it, that has a moderating impact on this phenomenon: If you look at professional esports, a lot of the female competitive players stick with their kind. Most female competitive players play in female teams on female tournaments. But there’s a reason for it and it’s called big-fish-little-pond-effect (Marsh 1987). People tend to stick to little domains (“little pond”) so they perform well in comparison to the other ones in “their pond” – by this they’re a “big fish”.
It’s far easier to have achievements in the little pond of female-league – or, speaking in this metaphor, being a big fish- than competing in the vast sea of mixed-gender gaming. This leads to more women playing esports, being sponsored and achieving a medium-level of performance on a short-term basis. In the long run it leads to stagnation. The big fish in the little pond can’t grow if it doesn’t move out to the open sea. Of course it is frustrating to see that in the new frame of reference you’re not a shark anymore but only a goldfish. But it’s only possible to grow with the challenge, which means playing against stronger teams that are only available in mixed gaming.
This way there’s a vicious cycle developing that can only be broken by women playing against men and vice versa. This way conscious and unconscious prejudice that might exist against women in esports might be reduced by women achieving high-performance levels in esports.
Image Credit: ESWC