Playing for real in a virtual world

Gender still influences how preteen boys and girls play when they assume new identities online

In a virtual setting where fifth-graders become wizards and athletes, and even change sexes, preteens stay true to their real-world selves. Classic sex differences in play preferences, characterized by rough-and-tumble games among boys and intimate conversations among girls, still exist after youngsters adopt a range of personas for virtual encounters, investigators find.

VIRTUAL WORLD VIRTUAL RELATIONSHIPS. This screen shot is from a multi-user domain similar to one used in a new study of preteen play styles. Two avatars interact above icons that allow kids to control scene changes and facial expressions. Below, players type messages to each other. S. Calvert

Boys who create girl avatars — or computerized altar egos — and girls who create boy avatars still behave consistently with their biological sex, say psychologist Sandra Calvert of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and her colleagues.

In their new study, published online February 20 in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, about 13 percent of fifth-graders chose opposite-sex avatars, a practice the researchers call gender-bending. Pairs of kids — all of whom knew each other — experimented more with avatar identities than pairs of unfamiliar children did in a similar, 2003 study led by Calvert. Same-sex pairs showed this pattern most strongly.

As fifth-graders learned to construct avatars and use these characters to interact with others in a multi-user domain, or MUD, experimentation with avatar costumes, sexes and names increased sharply. But as in real-world play, MUD play centered on self-exploration rather than self-alteration, Calvert asserts.

Boys and girls who knew each other often had difficulty playing together as avatars, she adds. Many boys wanted to play action-oriented games, while girls pressed for written conversations. That pattern reflects preteens’ preferences for playing in same-sex groups.

“MUDs can provide a virtual play space for preadolescent children to discover who they are, as well as a 21st century place to interact with friends,” she says.

Boys and girls in all cultures tend to differ in their play styles, remarks psychologist David Bjorklund of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “What’s impressive is that these behavioral styles extend to the virtual world,” he says.

Infrequent gender-bending observed in the new study supports the idea that young people typically view online worlds, from MUDS to blogs, as places to deal with real-life concerns, comments psychologist Kaveri Subrahmanyam of California State University, Los Angeles.

“People don’t go online to leave their bodies behind and find new selves, but instead seem to be taking their offline selves, including their biological selves, with them,” she says.

Calvert’s team studied 126 fifth-graders, most ages 10 and 11, randomly selected from five schools and a boys and girls club in the Washington, D.C., area. Participants included 61 boys and 65 girls. Pairs of children who knew each other entered a room where they used laptop computers to play in a MUD.

Each child first chose a name, a sex and a costume — wizard, firefighter, soccer player, regular kid in a T-shirt and jeans or punk kid in a leather jacket — for his or her avatar. Pairs then interacted using avatars for two 10-minute sessions, separated by a brief rest period.

Children used a computer mouse to move their avatars, alter avatars’ facial expressions and body postures and switch among six background scenes. Kids typed messages to each other that appeared in speech bubbles above avatars’ heads.

In her 2003 study of 84 preteens who didn’t know one another, Calvert found that only two boys created girl avatars and no girls chose boy avatars. In the new study, 21 girls and 11 boys engaged in gender-bending.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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