Media Game theory – Aaron Delwiche on digital culture

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls

Bit by bit, the mainstream is waking up to the existence of digital worlds that bring together players from all walks of life. Just last month, Fox Trot poked fun at massively multiplayer games on the pages of the Sunday comics.

Even celebrities are not immune to the lure of the virtual life. In a move that brought joy to the hearts of geeks everywhere, comic genius Dave Chappelle recently confessed his love for World of Warcraft. He is not alone. More than 6 million subscribers pay $20 a month for the privilege of entering the fantasy-themed world.

Who’s the man? Researchers estimate that in games like World of Warcraft, one out of every two female characters is played by a male.

But something funny is happening in these on-line spaces. If you were to wander through the capital cities of Orgrimmar or Stormwind, you would notice an equal number of male and female characters. However, reliable estimates suggest that women make up only 16 percent of the game’s player base. As games researcher Nick Yee explains, men play half of all female characters.

In theory, gender bending should go both ways. Women can easily create male characters. Yet, Yee’s research has found that men are eight times more likely to play characters of the opposite gender. This means “1 out of every 2 female characters is played by a guy, `but` only 1 out of every 100 male characters is played by a woman.”

Why are so many men experimenting with gender in virtual worlds? And why aren’t women doing the same thing?

Some male gamers say that they play female characters because they are more likely to receive donations of money and equipment during early stages of the game. A few claim that the speed and size of female characters provide strategic advantages during combat.

Others rationalize the behavior as a form of voyeurism. One gamer says that her male friends say they play female Night Elves because they enjoy looking at their highly sexualized bodies. “They might as well have a nice-looking avatar who can pole dance,” she explains.

These explanations almost make sense, but they fail to acknowledge the intense identification between players and their on-line selves. Game characters are not just objects deployed for strategic advantage or for visual pleasure. We actively become our characters.

Research shows that typical gamers spend 23 hours a week in the game world. Assuming eight hours of sleep each night, this means that one-fifth of their waking life is experienced in their on-line bodies.

Clearly, something else is happening here.

From the earliest stages of childhood, society reprimands young men for displaying gender-inappropriate play behaviors. Girls make crafts and pretend to be princesses. Boys shoot rockets and play with thinly disguised “toy soldiers.”

Today, as the result of years of struggle, girls can express a range of behaviors. Barbie can be a doctor, a lawyer, or an architect, and she can ride a Harley Davidson. For boys, the possibilities have not changed since the 1950s. They can be superheroes, soldiers, robots, or race-car drivers, but never mermen or nurses.

When boys attempt to cross the line, they quickly get the message that they have done something wrong. Research shows that parents worry much more about “sissy” behavior in boys than about “tomboy” behavior in girls.

We often think of oppression as something that stems from the barrel of a gun, but it is even more insidious when reinforced by subtle messages from peers and loved ones. From the schoolyard to the workplace, the typical American man hears the same message throughout his lifetime: “Boys don’t cry.” “Stop acting like a girl.” “Be hard, not soft.” “Show no fear.”

So it is mind-blowing that men choose to play women in on-line games at all. Virtual worlds are one of the few social spaces in which men can display female-coded behaviors without fear of social persecution. Perhaps so many males are playing female characters in Azeroth because this is the only place that they can get away with it.

I am not suggesting that World of Warcraft — or any other multiplayer world — is an enlightened utopia. Homophobic and racist slurs fly fast and furious in the general chat channels, and the level of maturity is a few notches below that of a junior-high cafeteria.

It is also important to acknowledge that men who experiment with female characters often rely on clichéd stereotypes. At first, they might play a hyper-sexualized character who jokes about having a bad sense of direction and becoming grumpy during “that time of the month.”

However, over the course of a single year, the average gender-bending male player spends approximately 30 work weeks in a female body. It is possible — though not guaranteed — that he will encounter new insights about gender along the way. For example, he might realize that it’s not flattering to be constantly flirted with when wandering through a public area.

Ultimately, these digital arenas remind us that gender is a social construction. For all of their problems, on-line games allow men to explore these issues with unparalleled freedom. As Richard Bartle, the programmer who created the first virtual world, writes: “For me, the question isn’t ‘why would people play the opposite to their real-life gender’ but ‘why wouldn’t they?’”

By Aaron Delwiche


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