I prefer my gameplay without sexual harassment, but on any given evening that may not be in the cards when I hop online to play Call of Duty. I've learned to take these rare vocal assaults with a heavy sigh and the understanding that trolls are much like bullies: They harass others as a way to cope with their own insecurities. But I've always wondered why women always seemed to be singled out. Were their sexists remarks really of the same mentality as a bully; researchers say, in a way, yes.

Michael M. Kasumovic and Jeffrey H. Kuznekoff, researchers at the University of New South Wales and Miami University, respectively, have published a new study that delves into the reasoning behind the sexist behavior that has become expected in certain corners of the online world, as well as in gaming.

They write that even though “there is much research dedicated to understanding sexist behavior, we have almost no insight into what triggers this behavior and the individuals that initiate it.” What's more interesting is that “social constructionist theory argues that sexism is a response towards women entering a male-dominated arena; this perspective doesn’t explain why only a subset of males behave in this way.”

In an effort to understand, the researchers observed 163 sessions of play in the online video game Halo 3. The researchers tracked comments thrown at one another, taking note of skill and smack-talk between a majority of the male players. They observed that no matter the skill level, the men tended to be cordial with one another. Even the best players, not threatened by their peers, paid compliments to male and female players throughout the matches.

The researchers found that the men most likely to insult their fellow female players tended to be, well, losers or players of less skill. Even though games do not belong to men — they are played almost equally by men and women — there is a clear divide in the types of games men like to play versus the ones women like to play. In first-person shooters, like Halo and Call of Duty, women are among the minority and a better female player, the researchers say, disrupts that hierarchy of a male-dominated community.

They write that it's all part of an old Neanderthal coping mechanism to prevent the shake-up of an existing hierarchy:

“As men often rely on aggression to maintain their dominant social status, the increase in hostility towards a woman by lower-status males may be an attempt to disregard a female’s performance and suppress her disturbance on the hierarchy to retain their social rank.”

The researchers indicate in their paper “that a way to counter it may be through teaching young males that losing to the opposite sex is not socially debilitating.” So, parents, don't tell your boys that they “throw like girls.” It sends a bad message.

If you want to hear a first-hand account of online trolling, you should listen to the episode of This American Life where Lindy West of Jezebel confronted one of her own internet trolls and received an apology.

Read more at Plos One.

Photo Credit: Kevork Djansezian / Getty Staff