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Research Examines Gender-Switching in Online Games

By: J.D. Ross
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When online gamers in the popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) create a character to play as, they have a choice between selecting a male or a female avatar. Sometimes, players will switch genders – selecting to play as a different gender in the game.

New research by School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty member Jenny Stromer-Galley examines how game play behaviors differ by gender and by men who did and did not use a female avatar to navigate the game.

What the research uncovered is that men are more likely than women to switch genders when selecting an avatar. And, despite a different gender avatar being displayed on the screen, gamers who choose to play this way still exhibit many traits of their true genders.

The study, which was recently published in Information, Communication and Society, followed the behavior of 375 WoW participants as they played a custom-built quest.

23% of men and 7% of women recruited for the research played as opposite-gender avatars.

 
  Jenny Stromer-Galley

“What we found of our female players is that they select avatars that are more stereotypically attractive, select more traditional hairstyles, use more exclamation points, are more polite, emotionally expressive, verbally appreciative of others, and used smile emoticons,” said Stromer-Galley. “So, female players tend to express themselves as they play in ways that we might think of as stereotypically female.”

In addition to avatar customization and tracking of in-game chat, the movement patterns of avatars was also studied.

“Movement is less conscious than chat, so it can be an easier ‘tell’ for offline gender,” explained Mia Consalvo , a faculty member at Concordia University, who was a co-author of the study.

“Although we tend to think of virtual world and online games as freeing us from normative expectations, we seem to carry those expectations online, too,” noted Stromer-Galley. “Consciously or otherwise.”

In addition to Stomer-Galley and Consalvo, Rosa Mikeal Martey of Colorado State University, Jaime Banks of the University of Toronto, and Jingsi Wu of Hofstra University were study co-authors.

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