Anxious to Play: Social and Emotional Forces that Restrict Women's Video Game Skill Development


Competitive gaming, or esports, is a high-skill endeavor embedded in a highly gendered social context. Using multiple methodological approaches, this dissertation argues that gender-gaming inequality is a result of changeable stereotypes that impact women throughout their lives. Specifically, gender-gaming stereotypes limit women’s initial access to gaming, discourage their continued interest due to identity conflict compounded by gender-based harassment, and harm performance through anxiety and stereotype threat. First, we conducted a field study with competitors at national Super Smash Bros tournaments to establish typical skill outcomes and confirm that anxiety harms esports performance. In these tournaments, the few non-men competitors consistently underperform compared to men despite equal engagement, competitiveness, and average number of years playing. Next, we manipulate the gender ratio of in-lab competitive tournaments to induce gender-gaming stereotype threat in novice women. We find performance decrements specifically when they compete against men. Then, we survey people within and outside of gaming and find individual differences in gaming access, interest, and experience in women. These differences suggest that women have fewer opportunities to access gaming, women are forced to choose between a feminine gender identity and a gamer identity, and women who do end up as gamers in adulthood experience active stereotyping and erasure despite similar motivations and beliefs about gaming.

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