It’s pretty well known that the female avatars prancing around in MMOs such as World of Warcraft are not necessarily played by women. But what happens when men start putting on the “skin” of a female avatar? An interesting study by Nick Yee and researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center shows that when men start acting as women, they act more “feminine”– or at least, what they think is feminine behavior. (Nick Yee is famous for his large-scale studies of MMO players)
Yee surveyed players of World of Warcraft to find what are stereotypical behaviors associated with gender. He found that players perceived healing as being a behavior associated with females and PVP (player vs. player) as being a behavior associated with men. Then he looked at actual behavior of about 1,000 players– he asked for the names of their characters and tracked their in-game behavior from the WoW Armory for five months. The WoW Armory is a public database that contains game-play metrics of every character over time, including kills, deaths, equipment worn, etc.
Of the 1,000-some people that participated in the study (281 women and 801 men), about half the players had a character of the opposite gender. Men were playing more with the opposite gender than women. Yee writes:
On average, they had 2.79 (SD = 1.51) characters. Among men, 53.3% had a character of the opposite gender. On average for men, 33.4% of their characters were of the opposite gender. Among women, 18.5% had at least one character of the opposite gender. On average for women, 9.1% of their characters were of the opposite gender. The same trends were true for the primary character. 7.5% of women’s primary characters were male. 29.3% of men’s primary characters were female.
In addition, older men were more likely to have female avatars. Creepy?
Yee used the ratio of total healing against total damage done to look at differences in healing behavior. In terms of healing ratio, men and women were very similar. However, when looking at the gender of the avatar, female characters had a higher healing ratio than male characters. In terms of PVP, men were engaging in more PvP than women, and male characters were engaging in more PvP than female characters.
What does this mean?
The results of this study suggest that when people are playing in an MMO, they behave more like what they think the gender of their character should behave. So if a guy is playing a girl, he will act more like what he thinks a girl do, when in fact, “real” girls don’t act like that. That is why we see that men and women don’t really differ in terms of their healing behavior, but when men pretend to be a women, they heal more. In other words, stereotypes that people associate with genders manifest in how they play.
That may be why we see more sexist behavior in MMOs than we do in the real world. It’s kind of scary that a gender stereotype that is not true in the real world becomes true in the virtual world. On the positive side, we see amplified acts of chivalry where people help female avatars more. On the negative side, we see that people assume that female avatars need more help. That may also affect play dynamics. Perhaps if you are female healer as opposed to a male healer, people would expect more healing out of you. Whether or not people conform to gender stereotypes because of others’ stereotypes or their own is something to think about.