07/21/2015 10:04 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 05:59 EDT

Study finds men who harass women online are losers … at video games

It's no secret that the internet has a harassment problem — more specifically, trolls who disproportionately target females with crude comments, stalking and threats of brutal violence (if not straight-up death).

There is an overwhelming amountof evidence online that proves how scary a place the web can be for women; especially those between the ages of 18 and 29, who "experience particularly severe forms of online harassment" according to the Pew Research Centre.

The question of why this behaviour exists, however, has been harder to nail down.

A study published in the journal PLOS One this month explores the intentions of men who are consistently hostile toward female strangers on the internet by analyzing how people act while playing video games.

For the record, its findings had nothing to do with ethics in games journalism.

Michael Kasumovic, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, and Jeff Kuznekoff, an assistant professor of communication at Miami University, observed how men treated women during 163 plays of the first-person shooter Halo 3.

"Women receive up to 10 times more negative comments than men in online chatrooms and three times the negativity when playing online games," reads a blog post published by the study's authors after their paper was released. 

"Some have argued this is because women are entering male-dominated spaces that are full of misogynists … But in a study that we just published, we show that the cause could be something much simpler: the negative and sexist comments expressed by some men are really just a form of bullying, motivated by the fact that they are perceived as being lower in the pecking order."

Essentially, researchers observed that men who were performing poorly in the game (failing to kill others, dying themselves) made "significantly more negative statements" toward a simulated, female-voiced player than toward any male players.

The more poorly male players performed, the more negative comments they made about the female player through their microphones into the game.

The paper itself is more technical in its explanation of what, exactly, happened when men felt their dominance was threatened by the presence of a woman within the world of Halo 3.

"Low-status and low-performing males have the most to lose as a consequence of the hierarchical reconfiguration due to the entry of a competitive woman," the study reads. "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."

Interestingly though, players who performed well within the game were actually more positive toward female-voiced players.

The paper concludes with some discussion points about gender inequality and sexist behaviour.

"By demonstrating that female-directed hostility primarily originates from low-status, poorer-performing males, our results suggest that a way to counter it may be through teaching young males that losing to the opposite sex is not socially debilitating," the study's authors wrote.

"The idea that videogames may be reinforcing such gender segregation as the norm for many teenagers is troubling given the fact that a significant proportion of them are gamers. Such ideas have the potential to spill over in real-life interactions and promote socially unacceptable behaviours such as sexism."