Virtual settings allow preteens to try on a variety of personas–they can be athletes or bookworms, preppy or punk, female or male. A recent study by psychologist Sandra Calvert suggests that, despite this opportunity to create a new identity from scratch, the behavior of a child’s avatar tends to stay true to the child’s real-world self.
Calvert and her team studied pairs of fifth graders, having them create avatars and play with one another in a multi-user domain (MUD). About 11 percent of boys and 32 percent of girls experimented with gender-bending, or choosing an avatar of the opposite sex. These opposite-sex avatars, however, still showed play preferences and behavior consistent with the users’ biological sex. Boys largely preferred action-oriented play, while girls opted for typed conversations.
The fact that these behavior styles continued to hold in the virtual realm suggests that MUD play functions like real-world play in providing a space for self-exploration and discovery. And, as in real-world play, social norms such as gender roles can color this self-exploration. Psychologist Kaveri Subrahmanyam concludes, “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.”