Two women stand in front of a wall in a conference room.

Researchers find online gamers exposed to negative comments about LGBTQ+ persons

Signorella and Gillin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2019, published their research examining how sexual orientation and gender identify affect interactions in multiplayer online video games in Sage Journals’ Psychological Reports. They also penned a blog post about the study on Sage Perspectives on June 1 for Pride Month.
Penn State Brandywine professor and alumna pen paper detailing prevalence of sexual and gender identity comments

The vitriol of online gaming gained mainstream attention in 2014 with Gamergate, the organized harassment targeted toward women, people of color and other unrepresented groups. Since then, there have been several scientific studies on the sexism and misogyny of online gaming, but relatively fewer on sexuality- and gender-based discrimination, according to Penn State Brandywine Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Margaret “Peggy” Signorella and alumna Laura Gillin.

Signorella and Gillin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2019, published their research examining how sexual orientation and gender identify affect interactions in multiplayer online video games in Sage Journals’ Psychological Reports. They also penned a blog post about the study on Sage Perspectives on June 1 for Pride Month.

They began the research while Gillin was a Brandywine student completing a thesis for the campus’ Cooper Honors program, with the aim of assessing the prevalence of both positive and negative comments about sexual orientation and gender identity during online gaming and testing the hypothesis that LGBTQ+ people witness or experience more prejudice than heterosexual and cisgender persons.

“One of our hypotheses was that sexual and gender minorities would notice more negative comments about gender and sexuality simply because they might have a more personal stake in it, but we found that pretty much everyone could name an instance in which they either saw or said something themselves that was discriminatory,” Gillin said, noting that, unsurprisingly most participants did not report their own biased behaviors. “Not nearly as many people were able to recount an incident where someone said something positive about gender or sexuality.”

The researchers recruited almost 500 participants through the Penn State Commonwealth Campuses Research Participation System and social media to fill out an online survey. Of those, 185 people completed the survey and were included in the analysis. This sample was split roughly in half based on sexual orientation, with more than half identifying as men, 34% as women and 13.5% as nonbinary persons. Participants were asked about their experiences playing online games, including reporting various comments about sexual or gender identities and whether they would categorize them positive or negative and as jokes, offhand comments or serious discussion.

Gillin said her interest in researching sexuality began in middle school and this particular study gave her an opportunity to collect data to investigate what she suspected was true: LGBTQ+ gamers are more targeted with negative comments than heterosexual or cisgender players.

“It's important to be able to back up what you're saying, what you're claiming when you say, ‘Online video games can be a hostile space towards marginalized people,’” she said. “You want to prove it. You want to be able to say, ‘This is happening. This has negative repercussions for real people.’”

Signorella said biases in gaming have long impacted members of traditionally marginalized groups, and the scientific literature reports this in detail when it comes to misogyny.

“These biases also play out online in other contexts, but the specific problems in gaming have wide-ranging consequences,” she said. “Not only are the gaming options potentially more limited for individuals who are not typically viewed as game enthusiasts, such as in themes or characters, but also the benefits of fun, stress relief, cognitive skill building, etcetera may be constrained by the hostile environments encountered.”

According to Signorella, there is still little empirical research focusing on biases related to sexuality and gender identity. In 2015, Adrienne Shaw — assistant professor of media studies and production at Temple University who authored “Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture” — wrote about her frustration is trying to find published research on what everyone seemed to be concluding was a major problem without the data.

The data in this study revealed that while most negative comments concerning sexuality or gender are directed at LGBTQ+ gamers, heterosexual and cisgender players also hear them. However, Gillin noted, their analysis did not include race, so there may be unexplored impacts concerning intersecting identities.

“We hope to contribute to some raised awareness about the hostile gaming environment that many members of minoritized groups encounter,” Signorella said. “Cisgender heterosexual individuals hearing the slurs, insults and ‘jokes’ aimed at those with different identities could also be impacted, including learning that such behavior is normative or worse, acquiring models for engaging in harassment of LGBTQ+ players.”

The work represents not only a contribution to the field, according to Signorella, but also a personal achievement for Gillin, who said she never expected the findings to be published.

“I was incredibly grateful for the support from Dr. Signorella, my brother and my classmates,” Gillin said, noting she’s particularly thankful that Signorella continued their partnership after Gillin’s graduation. “I'm glad to have the experience. I'm glad to have a professional connection in Dr. Signorella. I'm glad to have the conference, presentations and the publication itself and the five years of dedication to it to have on my resume. It was certainly stressful at times, but it was overall incredibly beneficial.”

Both Signorella and Gillin emphasized the importance and benefits of undergraduate research.

“I am an ardent proponent of providing undergraduate students with actual research experience,” Signorella said. “Some, such as Laura, are already interested in pursuing research experience. Others may view the process more as a necessity for graduation. Some who start with a more practical approach end up with a great interest in pursuing research. Those who do not decide to continue in research have still learned about how to use and interpret empirical findings and there is value there as well.”

Gillin added that the networking and professional development opportunities are invaluable.

“There are the professional opportunities it presents to you going forward,” Gillin said. “It helps you with your networking, it helps you make connections that'll be beneficial to you later on. It's something enjoyable, mostly, to do with your time, and it gives you an idea of how things work so you're not jumping in the deep end.”

Since her graduation from Penn State, Gillin has earned a master’s degree in human sexuality at Widener University and has continued to assist Signorella with research. She said she hopes to pursue a career in research and education.