Gender roles in gaming + machinima awesomeness

I’m greatly fascinated by the effect games have on our psychology and the way we interact. One thing in particular that interests me is the way games seem to blur the lines of our usual gender roles.

We’re by now all familiar with the stereotype of men playing female avatars in role-playing games, and there is a lot of truth to it. We don’t even give much thought to it anymore; it’s considered fairly normal and insignificant, at least in the circles I run in. I’m not saying it should be a big deal, but when you think about it, it’s surprising that it isn’t. It is, essentially, a form of cross-dressing. I don’t see a huge amount of difference between running around Azeroth as a female Night Elf and walking down the street in a dress.

I see nothing wrong with that, but I think most people who play these games would disagree with me. Gamers are not known for their progressive mindsets, as a general rule. Anyone who plays WoW (or, I suspect, most any other multiplayer game) will know this. Why, then, are they so happy to be virtual transvestites?

Of course, one simple answer readily presents itself: people like looking at hot girls, and most video game avatars tend to look like they came straight from the Playboy mansion. But I still think it odd people are so willing to become a hot girl, as opposed to simply seeking them out. And I don’t think this explains nearly as many guys playing women as you’d think.

Take me, for example. I play a pretty even mix of both male and female characters. I’d be lying if I said I was completely immune to the physical perfection of my female avatars, but I maintain this is not why I play them (whether you believe me is up to you). For me, it mostly comes down to variety. I try to make each of my characters as different from each as possible by spreading them across different races, classes, and factions, and gender is just another example of this. Take also female avatars that are not attractive. My father, also a WoW player, plays an Undead female, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t make her just to leer at her decomposing attributes (“Yes, they’re real! They’re not mine, but they’re real!”). So there’s a lot more going on here than just hotness.

But the blurring of gender lines is more than skin deep. I’ve often found gaming has a way of bringing out personality traits in men that are usually classified as female. Particularly fashion. As a general rule, chattering about the latest fashions is not something a lot of men are into. I’m certainly not. I couldn’t care less about clothes. Unless you stick me in a fantasy game, in which case me and my friends in the game (often also male) chatter about our new tier 11 pieces like a bunch of fashionistas gushing over the latest Gucci handbag.

My father is another good example. I’ve never known him to display any metrosexual tendencies, but put him in a fantasy RPG, and suddenly his entire universe revolves around shopping for new clothes. There are times I think he enjoys that more than the monster slaying which is supposed to be what the games are really about.

What can we take from all this? I don’t really know. I’d be tempted to say that maybe our traditional gender roles are more artificial than we realize, though that may be a bit hypocritical of me as there are many other areas in which I very much subscribe to stereotypical gender roles–sorry, but men aren’t supposed to cry.

I realize I’ve only really covered how gaming affects men here, and I apologize, but I honestly never really thought about the effects games have on women in this area. Also, I don’t have as much firsthand experience with female gamers. I’ll give some thought to it, and I would appreciate some comments (especially from female gamers) on the subject, and perhaps I’ll do another blog on that topic down the line.

Finally, on a somewhat unrelated note, I came across an awesome machinima today that I would like to share. I came to WoW late and didn’t hit 80 until Icecrown Citadel had already been released. Plus, I’m honestly not much of a raider (too lazy to rearrange my life for a game), so the end result is I never had much experience with Ulduar, and to this day I’ve yet to make it past the Keepers. Tired of failed PUGs, I decided I’d just watch the Yogg-Saron encounter on YouTube. After wading through several mindless kill videos drowning in techno music and vision-obscuring addons, I came across Ulduar: The Movie. All the parts were pretty good, but part three was the most enjoyable, especially for me, as it covered the parts I haven’t done.*

*My gamer’s pride requires me to state that I have downed Algalon–a few days ago with a full group of 85s, with me dying halfway through. I fail.

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5 thoughts on “Gender roles in gaming + machinima awesomeness

  1. hi there,

    yes, games are another refuge from reality and its pressures/norms. Essentially it is a “closet” for all of us in which we can experiment without having to fear the consequences. Perhaps similar results emerge when one gets the chance to play the good guy or the evil guy, in real life we have to adjust to the norms and be “good” yet in games one has the chance to compensate for this and be evil.

    So far I have only played female characters in Drakensang, looking at the avatar bending over all the time to pick herbs made for a great reason/”excuse”. Once gender really mattered, like in Dragon Age (with romance opportunities) it was not imaginable for me to “be” a female.

    so what it comes down to is this, in RPGs gender usually matters very little, add the anonymity and you get a truly playful bunch.
    Walking down the street in drag in real life has mostly negative consequences, yet on stage it is ok to do so …

    kind of reminds me of a talk on psychology – the importance of plausible denial-ability … like the emperors new clothes – we go to great lengths to bend reality to our idea of the world/standards, all it takes is a somewhat plausible explanation (it is just a game) and we accept the oddest things as normal.

    • As an older female gamer, I can only speak from my own limited experience. I only play female characters – for me, its an obvious choice, they are ‘me’ but ‘not-me’ at the same time – I’m not sure I have the depth of imagination to play as a male, but its something which I should try. In my guild, ‘cross-dressing’ is far more widespread among male players, and more common, as far as I am aware, among straight as opposed to gay men. I’m not sure what, if anything, this signifies – but the unattractive male models in WoW may have a lot to do with it ! And men should cry – the consequences of suppressed emotion are far worse than a temporary embarrassment.

  2. Hi Tyler, Yes, I do read your blog, just do not comment often! I am intrigued by your “I’d be tempted to say that maybe our traditional gender roles are more artificial than we realize” comment. This is a true observation, one I have seen in my 25 years of educating a diverse population. I see people without labels, this is the best way to reach the learner, and provides optimal learning. So, along with other roles (age, culture, race, religion) I have seen this artificiality of which you speak. For one so young to have realized such a reality, speaks well of you and your depth of understanding your world, and humanity.

    And, yes, men do cry, usually just tears rather than sobs, and, in my experience, when someone they love in is deep pain and the man is comforting them in their arms. That is one of the strongest moments a man can provide, comforting and sharing that pain, and still being protective. So don’t walk away from that, should it ever come your way…..the person you hold really needs you there, even with tears on your cheeks. HUGS.

    Sharon (Tish)

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