In gaming, one subject is considered almost universally to the be most controversial for MMO and RPG.. creating and playing avatars of the opposite sex. In the early days of massive multiplayers, it was usually a given that the “female” character you just ran into was being played by a male. Today, with the larger proliferation of female gamers, that’s not an assumption we can make, but often, it’s still the case.
Ask any man who’s played online games, especially MMORPGs, whether they’ve ever played a female. If they’re honest, most will probably say they have. Many did so only for a short time, others do so routinely. The reasons for it and justifications given are many (but common, and we’ll get into those). Some find this phenomenon creepy, others find it funny (I fall in this category), while others think it’s deeper than that.
There is a lot of psychological research into gender role play. A fair amount of that research has looked into how children learn “gender roles” and how those roles, when reversed, can affect people.
Outside of gaming, gender “swapping” is a relatively common sexual fetish and is also a popular part of comedy (“Oh.. I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK..”), of story and plot (the “manly” warrior is really a girl), etc. Socially, we often use these tricks as a way to explore our own cultural norms and push boundaries. Sexually, this swapping of roles can be for many reasons; ranging from exploring desires between partners, to dealing with deeper questions of self, or acting out deep-seeded psychological issues.
Most of the time, role-reversal is actually healthy. This doesn’t seem to change the fact that most find it a little weird.
There are a lot of reasons gamers might choose to play the opposite sex. Sometimes, that’s all that’s offered (think Tomb Raider) for the game itself or specific races/classes in the game. In those cases, we can generally assume the player chose to play the opposite sex because he or she wanted to play the game.
In games like Lord of the Rings Online, World of Warcraft, Aion, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and so forth, though, gender makes no difference in characterization in-game, so reasons for choosing male or female are entirely social.
Being an avid forum troller, I found discussions of this subject in forums dealing with gamers in general and some games specifically. From those, here are the five most common reasons given for swapping genders in RPG and a few thoughts on them.
In my personal online game play, I’ve only rarely chosen female characters and then usually because of class/race or item restrictions. I have created one female toon that I played for quite a while in LOTRO, mostly because a friend also created the same race/class and we played as a team for a long while. Those were female elf hunters, which are decidedly nicer to look at (see Reason 1 below). That singular experience showed me that many of the reasons below are not just excuses.
“Honestly, I sometimes just do not want to stare at a dudes butt for hours on end,” says Chris in comments on a blog post at We Fly Spitfires.
This is by far the most common reason for men creating female MMO characters. While personally, I like to look at women’s derrieres, I like real life ones and get little out of online toons. This doesn’t make enjoying it mean anything less for others, though. I have male friends who routinely play female toons and often ogle them and others in-game. I even have a couple of female friends who do the same (both with other females and with male toons).
It’s a matter of game play taste, really. Staring at an avatar’s butt for ten hours of game play seems a little off the deep end for me, but if looking at a Dark Elf butt instead of a Tauren butt makes you happier, then play on.
“When it comes to video games I find female characters just more interesting to look at. And since I have to look at the character most of teh time – such as in Star Wars Galaxies, I’d rather look at something that interests me,” adds DungeonMasterJim in the 606studios forums.
This is actually very common and I totally agree with it. In MMOs, avatars can often have a marked difference in look based purely on gender. Elves, for the most part, tend to look effeminate, male Orcs just look more realistic, etc. In some cases, male and female makes no difference on-screen. Dwarves commonly look the same either way, for example.
“.. in some games male characters are just plain ugly (like in Guild Wars) so most of the people are playing female ones because they don’t look like stumps.” Says Alex in comments at We Fly Spitfires.
“I find sometimes when I played a female avatar male avatars would treat you differently. You also get more people helping you and you get more free stuff,” says Wolfshead in comments at We Fly Spitfires.
I can attest to this personally. My fem Elf in LOTRO was approached all the time by other players (invariably male toons) who would join in a fight I was engaged in for no reason other than to apparently try to impress me.
More than once, strangers (again, usually male toons) would approach me and open random trade windows to just give me stuff. “Hey, I saw you’re a hunter. I don’t need this.” Like I, were I female, was supposed to swoon and say “Oh, wow, you’re so hunky! Thanks! Let’s find someplace more private…” I once got mean remarks and a world chat blast from someone when I said “Thanks for the stuff, man. Too bad I only like girls.”
And so it goes. Of course, there’s always just this:
“Only in mario games. I dominate as peach” – ximxchillingx on Fire Fall the Game forums.
“Most of the female gamers I know play guy characters and don’t reveal their sex at all, because to do so solicits a host of come-ons and sexual propositions or “advice”– because everyone knows girls can’t play games like guys can, or something. All of my female friends have been driven into creating male characters to escape that and just play the game.“ Intuits Joshua M in comments on We Fly Spitfires.
This often goes along with the “free stuff” in #3 and is something I also experienced often when playing that elf. I personally know half a dozen female gamers and only one of them plays male toons exclusively. She cites the above reason for her male LOTRO presence. The others five all mainly play girls in various popular MMOs (WoW, EverQuest II, LOTRO, Eve and others).
This seems like a legitimate excuse, though some games don’t seem to have nearly as much of this going on as others do. LOTRO is, for whatever reason, often very sexist culturally. Especially on high population servers, whereas most other games don’t tend to be unless you’re on servers known for their.. shall we say.. role play.
“My only real gripe with playing female characters in MMOs is that, more often than not, you end up wearing a plate mail bikini. Putting aside the aspect of sex appeal, it never made sense to me to wear less armor,” points out Phantom in the Gaia Online forums.
This is another good point. For the most part, video games are made to appeal to a male audience. Some of this is demographics of actual players (the majority of gamers are male), but some is also from a sort of tradition (as it were) of having your game appeal to pimple-faced nerds whose only action – ever – will be through that game screen. Hence the oversized Chun-Li in Street Fighter and the thousands of other copies seen in other games.
“I guess its for a couple of reasons, one because I get tired of male protagonists all the time..” says Tyr in the 606studios forums.
Another very good point. While the gaming industry is starting to play catch up with our current politically correct worldview in the West, in the East, gender is still a big deal and games often reflect the cultural perception. Similar to games in North America avoiding the “gay marriage” thing so that they don’t end up in a publicity war with various evangelicals (on both sides of the debate), games in Asia often avoid gender confrontation for the same reason.
That said, it does get old when the only good or bad NPC boss that’s female seems to be the “token” thrown in as a PC bone. It’s like all television commercials having to have at least one “person of color” in them. We all know what they’re doing, though we rarely call them out on it.
For me, playing female characters in MMOs and RPGs just doesn’t give me much extra excitement and usually has more baggage than it’s worth (no pun intended, ha). I know many players who do gender-jump in-game, though, and don’t care that they do. Unless sex is really a big deal in the game, swapping genders isn’t really an issue. I could care less whether the person I’m grouping with is a boy or a girl. So long as they don’t act like a noob, I’ll team up and play.
Most gamers I know, after an informal poll, agree with this. Do you?