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Online Sexism: It's Worse Than You Think

Everyone knows sexism is rampant online and in gamer communities. When women and girls aren't being openly threatened, trolled or shamed, they're being completely ignored.

Anecdotes of gamer sexism abound. A new study in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media just put some science behind it. Their conclusion? They found players of the online group game "World of Warcraft" were less likely to help a female user if her avatar was conventionally unattractive or if she was using a male avatar.

A team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University and Virginia Tech tested their hypothesis by creating a six different avatars, one male and one female, from three different "World of Warcraft" races. Each race is known to be a different level of "hotness," according to Fusion.net, which reported on the study. Then they logged on and started playing.

Because the game is done over the internet, players IRL can't actually see the person behind the avatar. As the researchers played the game, they said things like "Hey, help a girl out!" and "Can a guy get some help over here?"—mixing up the lines with the male and female avatars, and, of course, for each beauty level.

They recorded the reactions of the other players. They found that the more attractive the avatar, the more likely another player would help him or her out—but not by 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," Fusion reports.

That all falls apart, though, when players learn the gender of the user. If the user is female, well, that's when attractiveness really started to matter. If you're a woman user behind an unattractive female avatar, well, babe, you're on your own.

The study's findings don't just have implication for gamers. If low-stakes situations online bring out that kind of unconscious (we hope!) behavior, what's happening online where women don't have avatars? How are women on LinkedIn and in other online spaces being perceived? Are they receiving less help from colleagues? What about in online workspaces, where teamwork counts?

Image by Blizzard Entertainment

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