Well the media is all in a tizzy about sexism in video games again thanks to a new study that tries to link male gamers who perform poorly in competitive multiplayer games with the level of negativity women receive online.

Or as Time put it in a piece linked in the HotAir headlines:

A new study purports to show what we all could have guessed: Men who attack women online are actual losers.

A pair of researchers examined interactions between players during 163 games of Halo 3 to determine when men were most likely to exhibit sexist, anti-social behavior toward their female peers.

According to the study, which was recently published in the journal PLOS One, men who were worse players than their peers tended to hurl more nastiness at female gamers. On the other hand, men who knew their way around the console were nicer to male and female players.

WaPo chimed in with “Men who harass women online are quite literally losers, new study finds”, and over at Business Insider it was “Female gamers have it bad: Study suggests women are targets for ‘low-status, low-performing’ male gamers”.

While I don’t think anyone would disagree that men who harass women are losers, as usual the study these outlets are hyping is from the Peter Venkman school of science, which is to say its theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, its methods are sloppy, and its conclusions are highly questionable.

The researchers did not bring in a bunch of gamer subjects to play a first-person-shooter in a controlled environment while they recorded their interactions.  Instead they hopped on Xbox Live to sample a meager 163 team deathmatch games of Halo 3 with their voice chat rigged to broadcast pre-recorded phrases like “I like this map” in a male or female voice to the players, hoping that they’d take the bait and respond.  If someone did, they took down the player’s skill level, as calculated by Halo 3′s in-game algorithm, and their kills/deaths/rank for the match.  They had a third party blindly transcribe the text of the responses and code them as positive, negative, or neutral, which they ran statistical analyses on to see if there’s a correlation between “low-skill” players and sexism.

Of the 163 games, they only managed to get people to talk back in 102 of them, and of the 189 gamers who said something, every single one of them was supposedly male.  They also filtered the samples just to teammates, which left an uneven set of 82 responding to the female voice and 65 to the male one.

Based on that abysmally weak sample, they came to the following conclusion:

We found that skill determined the frequency of positive and negative statements spoken towards both male- and female-voiced teammates. In addition, poorer performance (fewer kills and more deaths) resulted in more negative statements specifically in the female-voiced manipulation. We thus argue that our results best support an evolutionary explanation of female-directed aggression. Low-status males that have the most to lose due to a hierarchical reconfiguration are responding to the threat female competitors pose. High-status males with the least to fear were more positive, suggesting they were switching to a supportive, and potentially, mate attraction role.

In other words they think the guys who didn’t excel in a match felt their manhood threatened and decided to take it out on the female players.  While it’s a far more plausible theory than The Patriarchy™ manipulating everyone, the data here is basically useless for ascertaining its validity.

Not only is the sample tiny, it’s skewed by the total lack of actual demographic information, which they didn’t ask for and couldn’t have confirmed if they did.  By design they couldn’t tell if a given player was one of Xbox Live’s notoriously foul-mouthed preteen boys or a woman using an Al Pacino soundboard to mess with them.  And if every respondent was male as they claim, they then have zero feedback from female players so they can’t even be certain the trends they’re seeing are exclusive to males.

Further, there’s the question of how one defines the “negative” or “sexist” responses, especially when trash talking is routine in most competitive arenas.  In video games it’s practically a second language, such that two guys might scream obscenities at each other for a half hour and then part completely amicably because all they meant by it was “You’re pretty good!” and “Thanks, you too!”

Their definition of a “skilled” player, and especially how that person fits into a social hierarchy online, lacks foundation as well.  They appear to rely on Halo 3‘s internal ranking system to tell them which players are dominant rather than following a set of individuals through numerous matches to see how they stack up against their peers.  As anyone who has played a game that has one of these matchmaking algorithms knows, they are often wildly inaccurate and easily manipulated.

And finally, as Kindra Pring of TechRaptor notes:

Completely ignored by the media is the fact that women are also treated better by high skilled players—apparently by a much larger margin than male players are treated. If you look at the raw numbers, you find this supposedly epidemic problem is represented only by 11 people, and the researchers had to specifically manipulate this just to make their point by taking the number out of the context of the full experiment. Even given an incredibly small sample, in a type of game often infamous for an aggressive and insulting community, they could only find 11 people making sexist comments. Yet somehow, this is indicative of sexism.

Of course.  Everything proves sexism today, especially a lack of sexism.

If you’d like to hear more from me, you can follow me on Twitter @crankytrex or check out my other writing at buzzpo.com.