World of Warcraft

These days it's hard to be a woman in both the real world and the digital world. And ladies, if you think hiding behind a cooler, more capable male avatar will save you, think again!

Yes, a depressing new study published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media found that women are discriminated against based on the look of their avatars in World of Warcraft, a super popular multiplayer online game in which 84 percent of users are male.

Specifically, other players were less willing to help out a female user when her avatar was considered unattractive—or if she was using a male avatar.

The study

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Virginia Tech began by creating avatars for themselves based on the attractiveness level of three different World of Warcraft "races." They used the Blood Elf (considered the hottest), the Night Elf (middle-of-the road hotness) and the Orc (not hot). An avatar was created for each race and gender, resulting in six possibilities.

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Next, researchers used these avatars to approach other players in the game—who were unaware of the experiment—and ask for help. While asking, they would subtly reveal whether they were a male user ("could you help a guy out") or a female user ("could you help a girl out")—or not reveal their gender ("could you help me out").

Lastly, the researchers asked for a small favor (directions) or a big favor (being escorted to another town). They then repeated this process 2,300 times.

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Of the 2,300 interactions, 1,221 players responded to the initial request and struck up a conversation.

(Side note: If you've never played WoW, bear in mind that thousands of players can be in the same game world at the same time, all interacting with each other.)

The results 

Researchers found that the more attractive the avatar, regardless of gender, the more likely another player was to help him or her out. And yet, general attractiveness didn't make a huge difference. For example, about 78 percent of participants helped a hot avatar,  71 percent helped a medium-hot avatar, and 66.5 percent helped a not-hot avatar.

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So hot avatars got a little more help. That is, until … wait for it … other players learned the gender of the user!

Yes, when the gender of the user was discovered to be female, suddenly both the gender and attractiveness of the avatar mattered in determining how helpful others were.

"It doesn't matter if you have an ugly avatar or not, if you're a man, you'll still receive about the same amount of help," said T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate at Penn State and co-author of the study, in a press release.

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"However, if you are a woman and operate an unattractive avatar, you will receive significantly less help."

Same goes for female users trying to hide behind male avatars—they received way less help than male users operating female avatars.

"When user sex was female, female avatars elicited much more compliance [help] than male avatars; and when user sex was male, avatar sex had little influence on compliance."

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In other words, if the user was a girl, but her avatar was a boy, she was less likely to receive help. But if a boy was operating a girl avatar, no one cared. Here's what that difference looks like on a chart:

The researchers felt this finding was significant for several reasons. For one, they point out that women are judged more harshly on their looks in the real world, and that notion is now carrying over into the digital world.

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Second, as more and more companies move their work online, they should be aware of the challenges women may face—specifically, how others may perceive them (or discriminate against them) in an online domain, based on their avatar.

"Female associates may have fewer options for how they can appear in online settings if they wish to receive the same assistance as their male colleagues," write the authors in the study.

Seriously, is there any world where women are treated equally?

Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.