Holy Cross Student Researches ESports’ Gender Roles, Internalized Misogyny

Augusta Ding '23 examines the question: Why aren’t there any women among top esports players?

From a young age, Augusta Ding '23, who grew up in Shanghai, China, gravitated toward video games. Now, as a rising senior at the College of the Holy Cross, the psychology major has transformed that passion into a Charles S. Weiss Summer Research Project examining how gender roles affect the professional gaming industry.

Ding realized that while 40% of gamers are women, almost none advance to the professional level. Her research will examine why. 

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What exactly is your research looking at? 

Working with Professor Alex Browman, I'm using a theory from social psychology called global congruity theory to examine why there is such a gender imbalance in the roles that men and women play in the video game world. Goal congruity theory suggests that because men have traditionally occupied leadership roles and women have traditionally fulfilled caretaking roles, many people in our societies have been socialized to believe that men are naturally better suited to roles that involve agency and self-promotion, while women are naturally suited to roles that involve supporting and collaborating with others.

Because many video games provide players with the opportunity to play in both agentic and supportive roles, our goal was to see if, like in the real world, gamers believe that men are better suited to the agentic roles in video games while women are better suited to the supportive roles.

Like in the real world, agentic gaming roles tend to be higher status, so if the gaming community perceives women to be unsuited to these roles, that could present a barrier for their entry to the top level of the video game world.

What prompted you to be interested in this topic of research?

I noticed when I watched professional esports events that there were female commentators, female judges and lots of females in the audience holding signs for their favorite players.

But we hardly ever see any professional esports players that are female. Not a single player on stage at professional matches is female. And of the 100 top-earning esports players, none of them are female. There are likely lots of reasons for this, such as hegemonic masculinity and a toxic online environment. But despite these oppressive aspects of the game community, 40% of gamers are female, so it's just hard to believe that not a single one of these millions of female games can reach the professional level. 

Where does your interest in video games come from? 

When I was in elementary school, we had a female neighbor who was gaming role mode for me. She was a math teacher, but in the evening, she was the lead player in an RPG [role-playing game]. She had two PC setups in her apartment, which was not a common thing at the time, and her daughter was my age, so we would often play video games at her place. And because I had her as a highly-skilled gaming role model, it never occurred to me that being a successful gamer was something that only men could be.

How will you conduct this research?

It's not very easy to get access to the gamer community so I'll be administering questionnaires that assess beliefs about whether certain roles in gaming are better suited to men or women, using an online crowdsourcing platform. In the future, I hope to take this research further and connect more directly with gamers on gaming forums, Reddit and Facebook pages, or even by assuming a game avatar and talking to gamer as they play.  But for a summer project with a short timeline, administering questionnaires on a crowdsourcing platform is the most manageable way to conduct this research. 

What does some of the existing research say on this topic? 

A lot of research on online environments — not just in the gaming community, but the online community in general — has examined the effects of being anonymous. We know people are more likely to express what they feel, and because of that, research shows that the gaming community can be very toxic community and unfriendly to females. There has also been research on the few higher-level esports players who are female, and they discovered what's called reverse or internalized misogyny: successful female players often want to blend into the gamer community so they begin to behave more like males. They act more misogynistically. They curse more. It's really interesting.

Why is this topic important to research?

It answers a very general question: How are gender roles and social norms perpetuated not just in everyday life, but also in newly emerging subcultures? I think it's especially relevant in a country like the United States because the mainstream is generally progressive and liberal so how are these gender roles and gender-based norms so prominent? And the gaming industry is also relatively young, so how did these norms take hold in that industry so quickly? 

How does this project influence your remaining time at Holy Cross or even your time beyond Holy Cross?

I think the Weiss program is a really valuable opportunity that Holy Cross provides us because it gives me the opportunity to do my own research. Even though it might not be very significant and I might not be able publish it, this whole process has really helped me understand more about the research process and to learn more about what I'm passionate about. 

Professor Browman is also my academic advisor, and before this summer, I was telling him that I wasn't sure if I wanted to focus more on social psychology or cognitive psychology as I go into my final year. But after going through the program and working on this project, I'm more certain that I want to spend the rest of my time at Holy Cross, and maybe even beyond grad school, focusing on social psychology.