Gender differences in spatial ability within virtual reality

  • Elaine Billen

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The main question that this study addressed was whether the gender differences found in performance within Virtual Reality (VR) are due purely to innate spatial ability differences or due to, at least in part, environmental factors. Examination of the differences, as a function of virtual or real training environments, is important to understanding what can be accomplished with virtual environments and what aspects of VR needs to be studied further in order to maximise their effectiveness.

Contemporary research into VR has suggested sex differences in performance are due to females having a poorer innate ability to mentally rotate objects and that this ability underpins the ability to navigate successfully both real and a three- dimensional computer generated world. Mental rotation tests (MRT) were used to measure spatial ability as these have been shown to produce consistent and robust sex difference. Environmental factors such as motivation, self-perception and practice were used to manipulate performance on the MRTs to ascertain whether such factors were as important as biological differences. A virtual environment (VE) was also used to test participants on their visualisation, orientation and way­finding skills along with their ability to recall information from the VE.

The main results showed that in seven of the nine MRTs and also in the VE tests, no significant sex differences were found. The conclusion was that although there are biological differences that have evolved a male advantage with regards to spatial ability, changes in society and the perception of gender roles has to some degree offered females experience with spatial tasks. Environmental factors have to be considered as the tests showed that practice can reduce and perhaps even eliminate differences in spatial performance although not necessarily at the higher end of problem solving. The Motivation and Self-perception tests clearly showed how such environmental factors either increase or indeed decrease performance depending on how they are manipulated.

With regards to VR and spatial ability, special attention has been given to the role of computer games companies. It has been recognised that games are an introduction to computer literacy and that games can improve spatial skills and interface proficiency. Girls are being discouraged from taking an active involvement in gaming because of the male orientated content of most games. Females are under-performing within VR and sex differences are one form of explanation however it is possible that lack of experience and lack of motivation to interact with computer technology are also important issues to be addressed.
Date of AwardApr 2004
Original languageEnglish

Cite this