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Ugly female avatars are discriminated against in online games

A recent study finds that real-world stereotypes continue to exist in virtual worlds.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Online games are a great way to escape and socialize with a group of people from around the world. Your avatar can help you emulate a part of yourself you may not be able to express in real life. But T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications at Penn State has some disheartening news. In a recent study, he reveals that some gender stereotypes may follow females into the virtual world.

The basis of the study was to look at how 2,300 players reacted to help requests from six different avatars during a game session in World of Warcraft. Over the course of the study, there was an interesting trend that emerged based on an avatar’s appearance. Prior to the study, a group of participants rated the attractiveness of the characters as high, medium, and low. He revealed in a press release:

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. However, if you are a woman and operate an unattractive avatar, you will receive significantly less help.

He continued, explaining that these results mirror in-real-life studies that have shown women suffer more from appearance stereotypes than men.

Overall, many of the same gender and sexual stereotypes seem to permeate the online worlds. The study supports the idea that our responses to stereotypes and norms follow us from real life into virtual environments.

What’s more, when researchers used cues to signal the gender of the operator, he found a woman trying to assume a male form in the virtual world was less likely to find help. Whereas men controlling female avatars do not suffer the same scorn, which is an interesting bit of role reversal. Typically, in the real world, women are “less penalized for engaging in cross-sex behavior than men in offline settings.”

Outside of the game world, Waddell applies this research to how it could affect companies that use avatars to bring a more personal feel to detached virtual workspaces, suggesting: “… if business people are going to use avatars to interact with each other or with customers, they may want to use avatars that are gender neutral, for example, or they risk bringing all of those stereotypes from the real world into their online environments.”

As games continue to become a popular medium within our culture, issues of gender equality in the industry have grown. But as Jane McGonigal explains in her Big Think interview, 94 percent of girls under the age of 18 play computer and video games regularly. Women make up 40 percent of gamers.

Read more about the study on EurekAlert!


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