Thursday, January 9, 2014

Girl gamers cheat just like guys do, but only because of group identification

It's a sad fact of the human condition that anonymity encourages bad behavior.

No one knows who created the first mask for sure, but anthropologists are certain the creator immediately waggled their genitals at the rest of their tribe - probably while grunting emphatically - as soon as their face was safely hidden away.

Fittingly, the desire to be a complete jerk while anonymous only intensifies once you go online - where anonymity is much easier to come by - and new research argues that our "deviant behavior" on the internet is strongly influenced by the online social groups that we belong to.

In other words, you'll be a troll if you hang out with trolls and you'll cheat if you hang out with cheaters.

Hardly surprising stuff there, but the two researchers - Vivian Hsueh-Hua Chen and Yuehua Wu - found that the cheating habits of male and females varied significantly when they were engaged in Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs).

In their article titled "Group identification as a mediator of the effect of players’ anonymity on cheating in online games" (which was just published in Behaviour & Information Technology), the pair looked at a sample of 961 Singaporean teenagers and found that:

  • Male gamers cheated more frequently than female gamers. 
  • Female gamers are more likely to cheat as a consequence of group identification than male gamers - although, ironically, they were less likely to identify with a group in the first place.

This last bit is important, however, as it's some of the first research on online gaming to show empirical evidence for the Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE) Theory - which contends that anonymity increases the importance of social/group identity, and thus leads to greater conformity within a group.

It might sound a bit strange at first, but this model actually makes a lot of sense when you consider that you effectively lose a sense of self when you choose to hide your identity and so you begin to rely on a group to identify you. 

Cheating might sound like an odd barometer of "deviant behavior" to use when assessing player behavior for online games (which are rather difficult to directly cheat in), but the pair of researchers wisely defined cheating as:

"Strategies that a player uses to gain an unfair advantage over his/her peer players or to achieve a target which is not supposed to be achieved according to the game rules or at the discretion of the game operator.", think of it as exploits, wall hacks, tricks, etc.

All told, Chen & Wu's research really doesn't break any new ground - social psychologists have known that anonymity was a bad thing for our behavior since they began studying riots, but this is some of the first research that looks at the effects of it online using gaming culture as its sample.

Also, their findings corroborate the move away from anonymity that many web sites and gaming services are currently embracing.  Google was among the first to require users to submit their real/Google+ names to write reviews of apps and games, and many, many other sites and services are following suit.

Why?  Because people are far less likely to be jerks if their name is directly attached to their actions.

The discrepancy in gender behaviors again isn't all that new - we menfolk are (evolutionarily speaking) opportunistic folk, after all - but it's interesting to see that women were more likely to cheat once they were part of a group that encouraged such behavior.

Of course, the most important takeaway from all of this isn't gendered behavior patterns or a look at anonymity online - it's awareness.

If you're aware that anonymity and your choice of online group membership will affect your behavior in negative ways, you can - hopefully - avoid the temptation to indulge in deviant behaviors or, better yet, find a less deviant group to hang out with in the first place.