One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Women, video games, and stereotype threat

How does being a woman affect my perceived ability to, as they say, pwn it up in video games?  Secretly, I feel a huge pressure to do well, and feel that I constantly fail to achieve not only mine, but everyone else's expectations for me as a member of a multiplayer team.  No one is more surprised than I am when I capture a point, destroy an enemy, or execute a plan.  I tell myself that it must be an accidental and temporary victory.  What is it that renders me unable to believe my own accomplishments in game, and how do I deal with these feelings?

In a recent meeting of women scientists and engineers on our college campus, we discussed stereotype threat and how it can affect women.  Stereotype threat is defined on Wikipedia as "the experience of anxiety or concern in a situation where a person has the potential to confirm a negative stereotype about their social group."  How susceptible one is to stereotype threat depends on a few things:
  1. How much one identifies with a particular group;
  2. The negative stereotypes society places on that group;
  3. Knowing about (2), and not knowing how to counteract stereotype threat (e.g., by just knowing thine enemy).
Some examples of being touched by stereotype threat can include women that believe that women are supposed to underperform on math tests compared to men; African-Americans that believe they ought to under-perform on graduate entry exams; and, well, women that believe they don't belong among their male peers in video games.  When left unchecked, stereotype threat can develop into self-handicap and other types of self-fulfilling prophecies: You believe you will do poorly (maybe because you believe everyone else believes you should do poorly), and so you do.  You study less, you practice less, because -- what's the point? -- you will still underperform because it is destiny.   And if you do not do poorly -- if you did well, if you exceeded your expectations?  The thinking goes that it was clearly a mistake.  You are an impostor in your field.

It is not destiny.

I will just out and say it: I am a gamer.  Whew.  Just writing that makes me feel all sorts of awkward.  Because in my head there is a doubting monologue:  Am I a gamer?  But I'm not good.  I'm not that good.  I'm actually pretty bad.  In fact, I'm worst on the team.  We lose because of me.  I spend most of my time dead or making bad choices, or both.  It's probably pretty dull to have me on the team.  My playing frustrates my teammates.  People play with me out of pity.  It goes on and on and manifests itself in other ways: for example, if a teammate types something mean in chat (such as "wtf, noob" -- code for "you idiot"), I start looking around furiously for what I have done wrong.
This is the game at which I allegedly suck.

And here is the weird thing.  Nine times out of ten, I have done nothing wrong, and the comment is not intended for me.  A quarter or even half the time, I am among the top three players on my team.  People still play with me.

Why is this surprising to me?  I come from a long line of anti-gamers.  With the exception of my grandfather, who played chess, a socially-acceptable game, none of my family looked kindly on games and the people that play them.  Moreover, there is the rest of society:  Women should not be gamers.  And if they are gamers, they should be really good, like they always are in the webcomics about gamers.  They should be pro-level.  They should be so good that nobody dares to challenge them.  I am not making this up -- do a quick search for "woman gamer."  I am not like any of these women.

In the women in sciences group meeting, it occurred to me that I expect the worst so that I can be pleasantly surprised in the end.  I do this in classes, on exams, in grants; to some extent, in my conference publication submissions... and in video games.  I expect to be worst on the team, and when, at the end of the game, I discover that I was not worst (or better) -- well, it is cause for celebration!  Right?

But it is more complicated than pure joy at the surprise: The feeling sours quickly.  I feel that it is a fluke.  Somehow, the statistics engine generating the score had a malfunction.  It missed a few of those times that I fired the missile in the wrong direction.  Or teleported on top of an enemy and died instantly.  Or forgot to use my very powerful weapon ability.  Video games are a strange place to find impostor syndrome, but there it is.

Of course, none of those thing happened.  There was no fluke in measurement.  I really did perform as well as the statistics say I did: nine kills, four deaths, ten assists.  Number two on the team.  Really.  Why is it so hard to acknowledge my own success?  Because there is no way I am as good as my male peers, and I am nowhere near as good as I feel I ought to be, as a woman-gamer.

What is interesting is that the level of anxiety that surrounds me playing multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games greatly exceeds anything else I have done: public speaking, presenting research, taking a math final... even wooing hot-shot investors.  Although -- no surprise -- playing games is more fun, it is also the thing about which I have such serious performance anxiety and self-criticism.

Getting over it, baby steps

Really? This is what I look like?
I have attended several "impostor panels," panels and talks about impostor syndrome -- including at Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing and locally at my university through the women in science, engineering, and technology group.  Here are some of the steps in dealing with stereotype threat and impostor syndrome.

  1. Recognize it.  Just knowing that stereotype threat and impostor syndrome is there, looming, empowers you to reframe your experiences, both during the experience and after the fact.  Recognize that your feelings, although genuine, are affected by societal pressures, and that these are things you can change.
  2. Talk about it.  Lots of other people have these feelings.  How many other women feel like I feel about video games?  I have no idea.  But I know that lots of other women feel this way about being in computing, hard science, and math fields because I have talked to them about it.  I have heard their stories and shared mine.  And part of moving on is to get validation. 
  3. Help others.  One of the ways found to counteract stereotype threat was to just say at the start of class that the threatened group is expected to (or is known to) perform as well as the other group.  "Men and women score the same on this test."  If you are a professor, teaching assistant, teacher, or just a friend, you can do this.  One (male) player told me, "You play just as well as my other friends."  And that was priceless.
  4. Take criticism, and take praise.  Criticism is meant to make you perform better.  You could have solved that problem differently, better, or faster?  Think about it, and move on.  If someone offers praise -- you really blew everyone out of the water with that proof (or damage-dealing stun), take it at face value.  This part is difficult, but you can start by saying "Thank you" rather than the self-insulting "Oh, it was nothing" while feeling that you did not deserve that victory.  There is even a WikiHow on how to stop putting yourself down.

One final note for women: In online multiplayer video games, it helps to remember that more than half the time, everyone else thinks you are a 14-year-old boy anyway.  Me?  I like to act the part.

About you

Have you studied stereotype threat in women in video games? If so, I would love to hear about it.  I have found only one proposed study on stereotype threat for women in gaming, and the rest seems to be anecdotal.  How has your experience been?

1 comment:

  1. I've definitely felt stereotype threat in relation to gaming, although in my case it's tied up with plain ol' social anxiety, and the fact that I came late to gaming (when I was at university).

    Lego Star Wars was my gateway drug - a fun, low pressure intro to gaming, where I could learn some of the skills and concepts that long-term gamers have forgotten they ever had to learn. And now I'm planning to reorganise my work-week so that I have the day off when the new Zelda comes out! (I've never got a game at release time before - it's very exciting :P)

    I still avoid competitive games and online games, but I think that's mostly to do with my general preferences in recreation, although there's a touch of stereotype threat in there too. I did find it hard to join my friends' private Minecraft server - but it's mostly social anxiety, with just a pinch of stereotype threat. Minecraft is a pretty friendly game that way, at least the way we play it - creative construction, and in parallel, rather than co-op style.

    Maybe because my natural preferences are for more solitary games, I feel the stereotype less - if I suck at it, no-one sees.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...