Can you tell a person's gender by an online avatar?

A scene from the online video game "World of Warcraft."
Blizzard Entertainment

When men choose female video game avatars, they act more emotional than usual, according to a new study.

The study looked at how gamers act while playing a custom-designed quest in World of Warcraft, a game set in a fantasy world where it's common for male players to disguise themselves as a sexy elves and women to play as ogres. Try as they may, the men who choose female avatars do not hide their identities well, the results showed.

Their biggest mistake was acting too timid. The males disguised as females moved backwards more often, and stayed farther away from groups. The males playing as female avatars also overcompensated for the gender differences by using more emotional phrases and more smile emoticons than males who used male avatars.

The study was designed to determine how online behavior mimics or differs from offline behavior, and whether players follow traditional social norms. The study recruited 375 players, and the researchers concentrated on their online movements, what they clicked on, and who they chatted with.

"We looked at things like language use and online movement to see if, among those who played a character of the opposite gender, a player's real-life gender would be revealed," study author Mia Consalvo said in a press release. She is a professor at Concordia University's Department of Communication Studies.

"Avatars can convey a player's sense of humor, displeasure, intrigue and interest through cues like gestures, movement and language, which can reveal real-life identity," she added.

The study participants were not directed as to which avatar to choose. Even still, 23 percent of the men in the study chose female avatars and seven percent of the women in the study chose male avatars.

Besides acting timid around groups, men playing as female avatars also had their characters jump an average of 116 times more often than females playing as females. The researchers say one potential explanation for this difference could be that men who choose female avatars are seeking attention, and see jumping as a way to get it.

They noted that the study also gives insight into the way some men think of female behavior.

"Men may not necessarily try to mask their offline gender when they use a female avatar," said Consalvo. "But our study shows they do reinforce idealized notions of feminine appearance and communication."