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A virtual glass ceiling in 'EverQuest'?

A new economics study finds female characters are valued significantly less than their male counterparts in the online fantasy game.

You can be whoever you want to be online, but you'll still make less money if you're a woman.

That's the conclusion of a recent study by a noted economics professor, who examined price differences between male and female characters auctioned off for the popular online fantasy game "EverQuest."

Edward Castronova, associate professor of economics at California State University at Fullerton, previously calculated that the fictional world of Norrath in "EverQuest" has a lively economy that ranks 77th among the nations of the world.

For his latest study, Castronova again looked at online auctions in which players pay real-world money for characters and in-game items, a controversial activity that "EverQuest" publisher Sony Online Entertainment has tried to quash.

"EverQuest" players are free to chose the character that represents them in the online game's world, and many of the men who make up 92 percent of the game's subscriber base play as a female at least part of the time.

Castronova found that female characters, or "avatars," sold for an average of $281, well below the $346 average selling price of a male character. Even when differences in skills and level attainment (the in-game attributes that would most directly determine a character's value) were taken into account, female characters still sold for an average of $41 less, or 12 percent less, than male counterparts.

That's better than the real world--gender pay disparity in the United States is around 28 percent, according to recent studies--but still not the egalitarian environment online utopians might envision.

"On Earth, people can point to differences in the way male and female bodies are built and say that's why we have gender inequality," Castronova said. "That doesn't happen in Norrath--the bodies do exactly the same thing. Yet it turns out there's still something there."

A number of factors could contribute to the "EverQuest" gender gap, Castronova said. But in playing the game, he found plenty of anecdotal evidence that female characters are valued less highly than are male ones, even though the real person behind the character can be of either gender. Castronova said he played the game as a female character a number of times, and would inevitably find other players assuming he was less knowledgeable or skilled.

"I'm pretty experienced, but I'd still get people coming up to me and saying, 'OK, honey, stand over there and watch what I do,'" he said. "Even though everybody knows the person behind the avatar could be either sex, the male avatars tend to be treated as more skilled...We've just taken sex roles from Earth and put them into Norrath."