About half of the women you see in World of Warcraft are actually played by men. Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project came up with this number last July, and anecdotally, it seems about right. But, take a step back into the real world and ask yourself: Why is it so common? How would you explain to your grandparents why so many guys – given a free and clear choice of either gender – choose to pretend they’re girls?
Some say certain classes and races, and the avatars Blizzard designed, work better as women than as men. Others give the “nice butt” defense, arguing if you’re going to stare at a rear end all the way up to level 60, it might as well be a woman’s. But I don’t buy that; I have to believe any serious gamer would rather roleplay their characters than ogle them. Your avatar is your interface to the game, the vessel other players speak with, tend to and fight alongside, and I can’t imagine making one just to leer at it.
I’m also speaking from experience. See, I enjoy playing a girl.
I tell people I have two characters in World of Warcraft, a (macho) undead Warlock and a (pretty, but no-nonsense) female human Paladin. I like to say I just happen to play the Paladin more often, or I made her a woman because of the Joan of Arc thing. But the truth is, I play the female character far, far more often. The Warlock’s pretty much a beard. And while I’m putting my cards on the table, I’ll tell you, more often than not, I play female characters in the privacy of single-player RPGs, as well.
I’m not saying I’m especially gifted at thinking or acting like a woman. Here’s how I impersonate a girl in Warcraft: I chat more legibly, but capitalize less often. I don’t say things like, “Oh duude, I was pwned – that suxored.” And one time, I spent a whole night of my gaming time looking around for the right shirt to match my hair. But that’s about it.
Of course, most roleplaying games avoid any distinctions between the sexes. In combat, skills, spellcraft and every other piece of gameplay, women and men have the same experiences and the same brains and muscles. We’ve come a long way from Ultima II, where male characters got a +5 Strength bonus while women got +10 Charisma, but we’ve also lost any sense that gender would impact your life. In the real world, women are shaped by experiences I can’t imagine: Even if I felt like throwing on a dress and trying to pass as the other sex, I wouldn’t have one clue about how to do it. For all our assurances that men and women have the same talents and potential, treating them exactly the same feels like ducking an issue, rather than leveling a playing field. So, you’d think an MMOG would find some way to tap into this, to set the sexes apart even as much as dwarves and gnomes. But, the differences are largely cosmetic.
As I psychoanalyze myself, I’d have to say my first reason for switching gender isn’t to become a woman, but to not be myself. When I roleplay as a guy, I start with the way I see myself and project that into a 60-foot-tall caricature – and it never comes out the way I want. I keep asking myself: Am I the noble hero? A backstabbing thief? An insecure wisecracker? Do I want to be an alpha male, and if not, does that make me a wimp? Some people roleplay to learn about themselves, but personally, I want to take a break from myself – and playing a girl puts me in far more neutral territory.
Also, with so many guys – especially teenage guys – clogging MMOGs, it’s refreshing to switch gender. Many people who play as girls report other players, both male and female, become more approachable and friendlier around women – even when you don’t factor in the flirting. That suits me; I’m more comfortable in the middle of a group, helping the stragglers or making suggestions to the leader. In real life, I’ve worked as a project manager; PMs communicate and moderate, and even when they set the course, they do it by consensus. Traditionally, that management style is associated with women.
But there’s one other factor. We often talk about guys who imitate girls as if they have a fetish, or they’re giving up status to explore this new identity. But the truth is, girls are cooler. In fact, much like nerdy suburbanites who wish they were urban gangstas, some of us think girls are way cooler – and for reasons I can’t put my finger on, it’s awesome to watch them kick ass.
The archetypical male heroes, from the big blonde swordsmen to the plucked-from-obscurity, chosen-by-fate losers, have gotten old. But the age of Buffy and Veronica Mars has just started, and they make much more exciting heroes. Geek guys don’t look up to the high school quarterbacks that smacked us in the locker room; we’re more impressed by the complicated but confident geek girls, who actually talked to us in the library and always seemed more sure of themselves than the rest of school, no matter who teased them. And now they can slay giants. Who wouldn’t want to be one of them?
As a man pretending to be one of these giant killers, what do I owe other players? Although I don’t try to hide my identity, I also don’t bring it up. And at first, I actually thought it would be a non-issue: Partly thanks to Whitney Butts’ essay, “OMG Girlz Don’t Exist on teh Intarweb!!!!1” I didn’t even think anyone would expect that game girls are real girls. But it’s not always that simple.
Early on in the game, I landed in a group with a couple of other players, and I struck up a conversation with one of the players – a handsome, burly night elf. We had fun killing gnolls, and we added each other to our “Friends” lists. Thing was, the next few times I logged in, I noticed this guy would say hello almost immediately – wherever he was, and whatever he was doing. Then, I got a message through the game’s mail system, saying hello and asking why I haven’t been around lately. He also included a chunk of change as a “gift,” and he signed it with his character’s name, but also his real-life name – trying to lower the veil a little on his own character, as it were, and ask for a peek behind mine.
I had to give him the brush-off, but what would be the best way to do it? Come clean and tell him I’m a dude? Or would that embarrass or bother him? And anyway, why should I have to break character? Do other people admit that in real life they’re shy, or short, or don’t really have an English accent? I don’t tell people where I live, what I drive or what I do to pay the rent, so why would I tell everyone I’m a guy? I didn’t put in this much time as a chick to ditch my skirt for every chucklehead with a schoolboy crush.
So I settled for a compromise: I shot him a letter, returning the money he had given me, and making small talk about how little time I’ve had to play – because I have a kid eating up my time in the real world. And I left it at that. Maybe he thinks I’m a MILF, but hey, if he wants to dream about somebody’s mom, that’s his fantasy. And who am I to criticize?
Chris Dahlen is a freelance writer for Pitchforkmedia.com, the Boston Phoenix, Signal to Noise, Paste, and The Wire (New Hampshire). His website is Save The Robot.