Movements can reveal the gender of the human behind the avatar

07 May

Simon Bignell tweeted a link to an interesting study summary this morning. Researchers used a custom quest in World of Warcraft to examine the gameplay of 375 people.  They found some differences in avatar choice, movement, and use of emoticons when a man played a female avatar, compared with others whose offline and online sex were matched.  The movement differences were interesting: the men in female avatars moved backwards more often, kept more distance from others in a group, and jumped more than their female-playing-female counterparts.  The researchers hypothesized three reasons for the additional jumping:

  • Gender switchers might be trying to signal their offline gender by jumping more than they would otherwise.
  • Because men sometimes use female avatars to get attention or kinder treatment from other players, jumping may be a move to attract attention.
  • Jumping may be a way to use the avatar for entertainment rather than for the more “serious” work of fighting in-game enemies. Frequent jumps may show that the gamer intends the avatar to play a less serious role in the game.

I’m not a WoW player so I can’t speculate about another possible reason, but does WoW have breast physics?


Jumping is fun!

I wish I could read the full study, but I can’t access it without a long drive to my university library. This appears to be the paper — The strategic female: gender-switching and player behavior in online games* — if you have access and want to take a look.  I’d like to know what they found about the women who played male avatars, who were 7% of their subject population but are barely mentioned in this summary.

I think those of us who have gamed or spent a lot of time in virtual worlds have developed some sense for identifying the offline gender of a player, whether it matters to us or not. In the MMORPG where I spent the most time, some classes were gender-restricted: for example, if you wanted the best tank class, you had to play a male avatar.  As a result, cross-gendered play was common and expected, but there were always some surprises when we moved to voice chat for a coordinated event.


* I really hate the title of the paper.  I’m not someone who goes looking for sexism and this could just be carelessness, but by using “the strategic female” to refer to female characters played by men, it excludes the possibility that playing a female character is also a strategic choice by women.  It seems to exclude (RL gendered) women from the adjective “strategic” altogether. The title could be less offensive by simply changing the article: “a strategic female” instead of “the strategic female” allows the specific situation to be cited without excluding others.


Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


Tags: , , ,

3 responses to “Movements can reveal the gender of the human behind the avatar

  1. wowstorylines

    May 7, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I don’t know why these articles always make me laugh a little bit. While there seem to be some logic behind the fact that men playing females as attention getting devices because of the jumping;etc. It does strike me odd that there is no mention of the age of the player behind the avatars. I play both genders – I can’t say that I play my female characters any differently than I would my males – who knows? Anyway, I play the characters to enjoy playing the game and if I happen to socialize with others in-game, they will know who or what I am. 😀

    • Kay

      May 7, 2014 at 10:46 am

      I wish I had more info about the study than just that summary, but yes, I’d like to know more about the ages of the study participants and other details. I’m with you: I play the role and avatar that seems the most fun or useful at the time. My male MMORPG characters were played the same as my female avatars, but I was always open about my offline gender and not trying to pass as male.

      • wowstorylines

        May 7, 2014 at 10:55 am

        I’m an avid role player in WoW, no matter the gender that I am playing. I play my male characters pretty straight forward as well a the females – the person behind the keyboard knows what gender they are and unless someone gets real inquisitive – it remains that way.


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