Gender Bender Madness!August 13, 2008
So this morning Werit reminded me of a topic I wanted to talk about, sooner or later, on this here blog — the always-dredged up debate / discussion / psychoanalysis of people playing characters of the opposite gender in MMORPGs. You can read his thoughts as to why it’s inconceivable (I do not think that word means what you think it means) for him to play a girl, and then come right back to hear about why I, the manliest Italian under 5-foot-six-inches tall, almost exclusively play female toons.
I’m not shy about it; in fact, it’s kind of a running joke in every guild I’m in that my friends are absolutely shocked if I’m not running around as a pink-headed female gnome or a sassy Buffy-like no-nonsense killer. I once made a guy toon and I think it broke the server for a week. It really boggles me why this is such an issue with people, but game after game, the topic keeps coming up, usually with some dope on a forum blurting out, “I don’t GIT it! Why do guys play GIRLS?” and then it’s a rampant stampede to defend, attack, or explain the deep psychological trauma that folks like me must have suffered to be saddled with such an unclean affliction.
Why play a girl? The most common responses, usually not by people who actually play them, is that (a) guys want a curvaceous form to oogle as they bounce along in the game, and (b) guys are willing to role-play a female toon to get cash and items and favors from fellow weak-minded men. Now, these are almost two separate issues: playing a female character is not the same as pretending to be a girl playing a girl character. Everyone who meets me in the game knows that I am a guy, with all the requisite parts and weakness for leaving the toilet seat up. I don’t pretend otherwise, because that’s more than a bit deceitful, and there’s all manner of hurt (and confused) feelings that can arise as you play the game in that style and build friendships. As for the first response, I’m sure it’s true for some men (guys being the shallow pool as they can sometimes be), but that is pretty demeaning to many of us who have arrived at the maturity level where polygons covered in fifty pounds of armor fail to excite us.
The answer is that there is no simple explanation why some guys prefer to play girl toons (and vice-versa — there are many women out there who play male characters), but I can pinpoint a few reasons from personal experience:
1. We’ve played female characters in video games our whole lives.
Even the most ardent hater of guys-playing-girl-toons has to admit: they’ve done the same themselves. Played Ms. Pac-Man? Tomb Raider? Metroid? Final Fantasy? Half-Life 2? Perfect Dark? Resident Evil? So, there. You’ve crossed that boundary already.
While this can’t be refuted (unless players actually are so terrified of girls they’ve avoided all games featuring them), for some reason, MMORPGs are in a different category to some people than the rest of video gamedom. I suppose it’s because you have the choice of gender (whereas many older games don’t), and because you choose to associate yourself and your personality with something that doesn’t look like you. It’s really a moot point: I don’t look like any of the male characters in these games, either, nor do I look like a blue-skinned elf, or a four-armed alien, or a robot. It’s all the same in-game: no matter what you appear to be, you have the same abilities as if you chose the other gender (I find it funny that MMOs will have racial traits/skills, but never ever gender ones).
2. There’s something about girls kicking butt that’s a ton of fun.
It’s why Buffy was a great show to watch, or why we cheered Ripley on against the aliens, or why women in martial arts roles tend to be just as spectacular as the men. To some, it’s female empowerment. To others, it’s just plain cool. Either way, if it’s more enjoyable for me to watch my character as a female plow through enemy hordes than if my character was a guy, why wouldn’t I play that?
3. It puts the “RP” back in “MMORPG”.
Here’s where we again return to that careful line between pretending and outright deceit. We all, to various extents, role-play the characters we control in game — even if that RP is taking place entirely inside our heads. We assign personality traits to our characters, to where different toons have a different “feel” to them when we switch among them. It’s hard to explain, but hopefully you know what I mean. Deceit is pretending you’re a girl playing a girl to use that to manipulate others, but role-playing is giving that character life and personality within the game world. Repeat after me: YOU are NOT the character. You are playing the character, you have imbued the character with some parts of who you are and what you’re like, but unless you’re completely lost in delusional fantasy, you’re able to see the line between who you are and who that game character is.
Ergo, each character you create and play has a unique temperament, sampled from bits and parts of your personality. I am very satisfied with being a male in real life and don’t ever wish otherwise, but it’s fascinating in a way to play a female toon that I see as a pixelated twin to who I am.
4. Finally, girls just often look better.
There, I’ve said it. No, I’m not talking about ah-HEMs, or *nudge-nudge*, I’m speaking of the overall look and attention that MMO devs tend to give to their female characters. Generally, I find that female characters in MMOs are far more detailed and aesthetically pleasing than male characters. And since we’re pretty much playing an adult version of dollhouse dress-up, why not just surrender to the cause and choose the doll that wants to be equipped with various outfits instead of the guy who wonders why he can’t adventure in a hoodie and jeans?
So that’s why I play females. Shocking, I know! Terrifying! And yet, in Warhammer Online, there will be many careers that don’t offer a female gender (such as the entire Greenskin race), and I’m okay with that too.