Men tend to engage in direct competitive acts, while women tend to compete indirectly. Social Role Theory (SRT) proposes that sex differences arise from social roles hence can be eliminated in anonymous environments. The current study investigated competitive behavior in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), where players can freely choose their avatar sex, which might not match their own sex; this provides the opportunity to behave differently from real-life sex-typical expectations. The same might be true for avatar roles with stereotypical masculine or feminine traits. The researchers expected, on average, more frequent duelling in men than women but similar frequencies of dueling in men and women who share the same avatar sex or avatar role.
The researchers first determined which of the 15 identified in-game behaviors are considered competitive. Then, experienced MMORPG players were recruited from MTurk and Reddit to report their frequencies of engaging in those behaviors and their avatar sex and role. The results indicated that men indeed participated in more duels than women across all players, but overall, no effect of avatar sex or role was found. Regardless of avatar sex, men were more likely to do solo runs and work to acquire rare items, while women were more likely seek awards and spend money on microtransactions. This echoes the previously observed patterns of sex differences in competitive tactics.
Representing oneself by an opposite-sex avatar did not lead to preferences for, or conformity to, typical behaviors of the opposite sex. The researchers suggest that current findings contradict but do not pose fundamental threat to SRT. The lack of androgynous avatars in all popular MMORPGs reveals the pervasiveness of gender-binary constructs; thus, MMORPGs are not an ideal environment to test SRT. Moreover, players who choose to gender-swap might be different from those who do not; therefore, future studies can assign avatars to recruited players. Entry by Shiqi Zhang