I self-identify as a straight male-bodied dude, but recently I’ve taken to playing as a female-bodied character in many games. It’s not something the majority of people do, but it’s also not uncommon. Oddly, however, men play as women far more than women play as men. Let’s break down why people choose the avatars they do.
A new study reported on by Slate found that men are much more likely to gender switch in online games than women. Researchers recruited 375 World of Warcraft players and had them cooperate in small groups for about 1.5 hours. The biggest finding? 23 percent of men opt to play as women, but only 7 percent of women try taking a walk on the (generally) hairier side.
Researchers also meticulously recorded participants’ every movement and chat line, and their findings were… interesting—if not entirely unexpected.
“When selecting female avatars, these men strongly preferred attractive avatars with traditional hairstyles—long, flowing locks as opposed to a pink mohawk. And their chat patterns shifted partway toward how the real women spoke: These men used more emotional phrases and more exclamation points than the men who did not gender-switch. In other words, these men created female avatars that were stereotypically beautiful and emotional.”
So these men role-played to an extent, perhaps somewhat unconsciously, while inhabiting idealized bodies they’d dreamed up. Article author and Ubisoft research scientist Nick Yee noted that this sort of behavior is actually fairly typical of people given avatars drastically or even subtly different from their own bodies. If an avatar is tall, he observed, people tend to be more aggressive in their actions. So basically, people unconsciously paint personalities in broad strokes. They act out what they know, so they fall back on stereotypes without really thinking about it.
The men in the World of Warcraft study failed miserably, however, when it came to movement and other less easily monitored/altered habits.
“The researchers found that all the men in their study moved around in a very different way than the women. The men moved backward more often, stayed farther away from groups, and jumped about twice as much as the women did. When it came to moving around, the men behaved similarly whether they gender-switched or not.”