In a study of how people interacted with avatars in World of Warcraft, women received less help from fellow players than men when they operated an unattractive avatar - even less than when they used a male avatar, according to a paper in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

This matches beliefs about how appearance stereotypes affect men and women in the real world. Some women believe they are more likely to suffer negative consequences based on their appearance than men are. 

The researchers used six different avatars to study reactions to help requests among 2,300 players of World of Warcraft. The avatars represented male and female creatures across three different levels of attractiveness. Prior to this study, participants had evaluated the levels of attractiveness as high, medium and low. During an online session, a researcher would approach a player with a request for directions in the game. To test the magnitude of the favor, the researcher either asked the player to provide directions to a site in the game -- a small favor -- or asked the player to actually guide the researcher to the site -- a large favor.

The researchers used other cues to signal the sex of the operator, such as 'Can you help a guy out?'or 'Can you help a girl out?'

The result was predictable. 

Three levels of attractiveness in avatars from World of Warcraft. Credit: ©World of Warcraft/Blizzard Entertainment

"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. However, if you are a woman and operate an unattractive avatar, you will receive significantly less help," said T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications at Penn State. "Overall, many of the same gender and sexual stereotypes seem to permeate the online worlds. The study supports the idea that our responses to stereotypes and norms follow us from real life into virtual environments." 

That makes sense, or they wouldn't actually be stereotypes. They also found that players were less likely to help a woman who controlled a male avatar than a man who controlled a female avatar. This seems strange, since the rule of thumb for virtual worlds is that 95 percent of women are actually men.

"Although woman are typically less penalized for engaging in cross-sex behavior than men in offline settings, we found an opposite pattern in the online setting, such that men were allowed to control either a male or female avatar without penalty, whereas women were penalized for controlling an opposite-sex avatar," Waddell said. "In other words, when the stereotype would typically benefit women, the pattern was flipped in the virtual world, allowing men to engage in 'gender bending' with their avatar, whereas women were not encouraged to. So it truly is a lose-lose for women in online settings, according to our study."

What does that mean? Fewer avatar options are better than more. In business, being gender neutral is best, to avoid stereotype baggage.