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Men identify with fictional characters of both genders

02 May 2018

Men identify equally strongly with fictional characters of both genders, but women do not.

That is the one of the findings of a PhD project being presented as a poster today by Nathan Hook of the University of Tampere to our annual conference in Nottingham.

Nathan Hook says:

"The gender of protagonists in popular fiction from Star Wars to Doctor Who and the audience response to such choices has been a much-discussed topic in recent years.

"Social identity theory suggests people favour their own social group in everyday life, and we wanted to see if that extended to readers identifying more strongly with fictional characters of the same gender as themselves. This brings a scientific experimental approach to the writer's challenge of how to build identification with the protagonist in the minds of readers and viewers.”

To test this with an experiment, the researchers explored identification with protagonists in a Star Wars hypertext fiction story-game.

Hypertext fiction (sometimes called 'choose-your-own-adventure' stories, such as the Fighting Fantasy book series) are text story-games where the reader-player reads a passage of text (usually written in the second person, describing 'you' the character) and selects what the protagonist does next from a number of options. This choice sends the reader to the next decision point, giving them agency over the main protagonist's actions.

Star Wars was chosen as a relatable fictional world and to avoid players sharing other traits with the protagonist.

A total of 386 participants took part in the online hypertext fiction game (73 per cent identify as male; 24 per cent as female), which was advertised via social media. Participants took part using their own devices in their own environment, as they would if they read a text or played a game in real life.

Participants were randomly allocated to one of two groups where the main character was either male or female; the story-game was exactly the same apart from minor text changes on each page to reference the character's gender. Two different stories each about a character (one Jedi, one Sith) of the opposite gender, were played by every participant as an independent repetition of the experiment.

On completion of the story-game participants were asked how strongly they identified with each character on a numerical scale. Participants were also asked about their gaming experiences and play style.

The surprising result was that men identified equally strongly with characters regardless of their gender, but women identified more strongly with a female character than a male character.

While too few for statistical analysis, the participants who identify as non-binary gender appear to form a distinct third group, identifying more strongly with male than female characters.

Nathan Hook says:

“The practical implication from this surprise finding may be that a female protagonist would increase the enjoyment of a female audience and not lessen the enjoyment of a male audience. Social media backlash against female protagonists can be seen as an outcome of some men honestly regarding the character's gender as unimportant, to them, so objecting to it being made an issue.

"Assuming these findings can be replicated across different formats, this surprise finding may be the discovery of a new gender difference in how readers identify with fictional characters.”

Click here to read more about our annual conference.

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