Real-Life Sexism Follows Women into Virtual Worlds

Female World of Warcraft avatars are judged by their looks more than male avatars. But women playing as men are also discriminated against.

Emiko Jozuka

Emiko Jozuka

Image: Corie Howell/Flickr

The virtual world can be a space of liberation, where people can shed their flesh-and-blood existences, and metamorphosize into different characters. But not all stereotypes fall away. Real-world gender stereotypes follow both female players and female avatars into gaming worlds.

In a paper published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Franklin Waddell, a researcher at Penn State University, set out to investigate the dynamics between offline identity and virtual appearances. He examined how varying degrees of attractiveness in avatars employed by different users made participants in game worlds more or less likely to respond to requests for help.

The study revealed that women continued to be judged by their looks in the virtual world, and were also less likely to be helped out when they tried to overcome gender constraints by operating a male avatar.

Past research has explored how avatar sex and attractiveness affects the outcome of people's interactions in a virtual setting. But Waddell explained that few studies had examined whether the purported sex of the avatar's user in real life additionally influenced these reactions from other players.

"Our study directly tested whether the effects of avatar sex and avatar attractiveness varied based on the purported sex of the user controlling the avatar," said Waddell in an email.

World of Warcraft avatars. Image: © World of Warcraft/Blizzard Entertainment

Waddell chose the popular MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) game World of Warcraft as his research platform, and used both male and female avatars of three degrees of attractiveness: "Blood Elf" was classed as highly attractive, "Night Elf" was moderately so, and "Orc" was just plain ugly.

Alternating under the guise of these six different avatar characters, the researchers requested either small favours (asking for directions to a particular site in the game) or large favours (asking another player to guide them to another site in the game) from fellow WoW participants. 2,300 users from North American servers were surveyed as part of the research.

"If you are a woman and operate an unattractive avatar, you'll receive significantly less help."

Their results revealed that attractive female avatars were more likely to be helped than unattractive female avatars when requesting large favours. Looks didn't count much for male avatars though, as responses remained constant whether players chose to be a good looking "Blood Elf" or a regular "Orc."

"It doesn't matter if you have an ugly avatar or not, if you're a man, you'll still receive about the same amount of help," said Waddell in a press statement. Fickle real world perceptions of women, however, permeate the virtual realm, with Waddell adding: "However, if you are a woman and operate an unattractive avatar, you'll receive significantly less help."

In his study, there was some difference for both sexes, but the discrepancy was significantly higher for women with just over 60 percent of women compared to 68 percent of men receiving help when operating a less attractive avatar. This figure equalised to 80 percent of men and women receiving help when they operated an attractive avatar.

The researchers also manipulated avatar identities through their conversations with other players in WoW. If very attractive female avatars revealed that they were actually men in real life, their chances of being helped diminished; but in general female users adopting male avatars received less help.

Image: T Franklin Waddell and James D Ivory/Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media

In one example, a male researcher adopted the identity of a highly attractive female avatar, but exposed his real gender by asking, "Could you help a guy out?" when addressing a fellow gamer. Once the gamer realised that a man was controlling the female avatar, he was less likely to help out, said Waddell.

In general, however, men were equally likely to be helped out regardless of what gender their avatar was. Waddell found that avatars used by female users were more expected to adopt appearances that conformed and corresponded to their offline sex, yet male players had more flexibility when it came to customizing their avatars. He also explained that while he thought cross-sex behaviour was more acceptable for women in offline settings, in the virtual world this pattern was flipped, "allowing men to engage in 'gender bending' with their avatar, whereas women were not encouraged to."

The research also has wider repercussions on non-gaming online situations. As avatars are increasingly used in various online business settings that include everything from e-commerce and online conferences to digital personal assistants, a company's choice of how an avatar looks could, according to Waddell, affect customer relations and responses.

Waddell argued that male-dominated companies could possibly avoid introducing gender stereotypes to their online workplaces by "using communication mediums that provide employees with a basic, gender-neutral appearance." He added that companies that provide employees with a wider range of options to customize their online appearances will help "reduce the transmission of offline discriminations based on sex and appearance onto the online world."