As the use of GPS technology in cars and mobile devices becomes routine, the age-old cliché that men never stop to ask for directions could soon become forgotten.
It is, however, widely accepted by psychologists that men are more reluctant to seek help for their problems than women due to social expectations that men should be strong, stoical and self-sufficient. This means that, despite the fact that men, on average, suffer more ill health and an earlier death, women use medical and counselling professionals more. But as people increasingly come to depend on online support for practical, educational, emotional and medical issues, an LSE researcher has discovered a new way to encourage men to overcome their inhibitions.
Through studying the use of avatars in a multiplayer online game, researchers found that men who use female avatars in online games appeared more ready to ask for help during the game. Working with colleagues from the University of Tokyo, Vili Lehdonvirta, analysed the behaviour of avatars from Uncharted Waters Online (UWO), a Japanese game launched in 2005 by Tecmo Koei Games.
It had already been established in a previous study that 57 per cent of participants in a virtual environment had used an avatar of the opposite gender. The primary reason for gender-switching is the desire to play a different role from oneself. Female participants said they also used male avatars to circumvent prejudices towards women in male-dominated environments and to avoid unwanted courting behaviour. Male participants said they also used female avatars to enjoy benefits such as attention and gifts lavished by other males and to enjoy controlling and looking at a virtual female body without necessarily having any conscious intention to play a feminine role.
UWO was chosen for the study because it features gendered avatars, rich interaction, and occasions when there is clear need for help. It involves participants assuming the role of merchants, explorers and privateers in a 17th century world where sailing is the main means of transport. According to a survey of nearly 6000 participants conducted by Tecmo Koei Games in 2006, 87 per cent of the game’s participants are male and 13 per cent female. All age groups are represented, but 44 per cent are in their 20s and 47 per cent in their 30s.
Researchers analysed a large sample of typed conversations, consisting of over 270,000 lines of text to identify and code instances of helping behaviour.
The results showed that avatar gender is a significant predictor of help-seeking behaviour, independently from the physical sex of the user, confirming that men’s inhibitions are related to social expectations rather than a biological cause.
Dr Lehdonvirta, a Visiting Fellow at LSE’s Asia Research Centre and an Associate Director of LSE’s Innovation Co-Creation Lab, concludes: “As help-seeking moves online, including telemedicine for those in remote locations, professional helpers to whom identity has so far been a simple matter of legal and physical identity will increasingly have to deal with people’s online projections of themselves.
“The most obvious implication from the study is that e-helpers should take seriously any gender guises that help-seekers adopt in their online interactions.
“The results of this study suggest that the use of avatar-mediated communication should be explored further as a means to improve clinical outcomes by temporarily setting men free from the male gender role and thus allowing them to pursue help for their problems in earnest.”
Lehdonvirta’s book on virtual online economies is due to be published in summer 2013 by MIT Press.