Virtual Switching, or Playing Games?

Virtual Switching, or Playing Games?

by Georgia Kral

Longtime gamer Michael Duff sits at his computer regularly to play “World of Warcraft,” the most popular online role-playing game with 11.5 million monthly subscribers. In a Medieval-looking fantasy world of dwarves, gnomes, humans and other assorted characters, players select an online persona to engage in quests for the land with other players who are online at the same time.

© Sca Shilova

In this world, Duff decided to make his character a woman. “I appreciate the idea of a strong, capable female character doing action hero stuff. It’s fun and ironic when the tiny female character is shown tossing around thugs twice her size. And yeah, it’s kind of sexy, too,” Duff said in an email.

How many online gamers pose as a character of the opposite sex isn’t known, but studies suggest that many virtual players freely blur gender lines. At issue is not only gender- identity experimentation, but the gendered exercise of power, engrained visual stereotypes and a male-female divide inside the gaming world.

There are few repercussions for taking on a new role in the gaming environment, said Fran Stewart, a feminist gamer and game-developer. “You’re allowed to experiment with what it’s like to be someone else,” says Stewart.

Raising Cyberspace Confidence

In the virtual communities of “Second Life,” participants also create an avatar, that is, a personal character who they inhabit. Participants build their avatars from scratch, choosing sex, build, weight and look. Avatars attend conferences, participate in groups and engage in real-time conversations with other avatars. Since users are anonymous, people — gender-switching or otherwise — don’t have to explain who they are in “real” life. The power of users to exercise control over who they want to be is at their fingertips.

A female gamer
is not permitted
aggressive and
powerful action

Sharon Collingwood, a professor of women’s studies at Ohio State University and a “Second Life” proponent, says that some people discover a “newfound confidence” when building avatars or choosing characters. “It helps you express who you’d like to be,” she says. “You’re not restricted by your identity and you don’t have to follow the rules society has assigned you.”

Scholars who have studied the online gender-switching phenomenon have uncovered several potential reasons why women pose as men and men as women. Dr. John Suler, a psychologist and professor at Rider University, wrote in The Psychology of Cyberspace, first published in 1996 and continuously updated, that humans, whether male or female, have an underlying desire to unleash opposite-sex attributes.

“Due to cultural stereotypes, it may be difficult for some men to explore within themselves what society labels as ‘feminine’ characteristics,” Suler writes. “These males may rely on the anonymity of cyberspace to express their ‘feminine’ side which they feel they must otherwise hide.”

Looking Hot Matters

For Stewart, a transgendered person, gender rules and expectations were worked through in role-playing games, and gaming even gave her the confidence to change reality. Born a male and now a female, Stewart saw in gaming a way to understand her gender identity more clearly. When she was still living as a man, she found that posing as a female character in online gaming had a therapeutic effect.

In massively multiplayer online games or MMOGs, such as “World of Warcraft,” players choose from an already existing set of characters. Users can further alter the appearance of their characters, depending on what the game allows. The player then manipulates the character.

You can
be your
own eye

Dr. Kathryn Wright, a psychologist in Raleigh, N.C. and a consultant for, conducted a survey in 2006 of 64 male game players. More than half said they played a female character. While many claimed that the female character gave them a game-playing advantage, Wright said in a news article that some men selected female characters for visual stimulation. “They’d rather look at a character that looks like Lara Croft than a character that looks like Rambo,” she said.

Female gamer, blogger and journalist Leigh Alexander confirms this perspective. “Online games feature your character in an ‘over-the-shoulder’ perspective — you look at the back,” she says. “You want something attractive to look at; you can be your own eye candy.” Alexander is quick to say that it works the same way for females posing as males; she likes to play a leading man. “I want it to look handsome,” she says.

Alexander also says that women sometimes pose as men in games for security reasons. “Girls sometimes don’t feel safe. They will not use the voice chat or a female avatar just so they can play in peace,” she says.

In a 2008 study conducted at the Palo Alto Research Center, “Maps of Digital Desires: Exploring the Topography of Gender and Play in Online Games,” author Nick Yee found that female players may choose to be male if they believe that identifying as female will result in their being “branded as incompetent.”

“(T)hey must either accept the male-subject position silently, or risk constant discrimination and harassment if they reveal that they are female,” he wrote.

For some, playing a character of the opposite sex offers a sense of power. Dr. Suler interviewed a female gamer who posed as a male to “experience power that she had not been able to experience in real life.” She told him, “Donning a male identity allowed me to freely express certain aggressive and powerful actions that I don’t seem able to project when perceived as a female.”

Reconsidering the Female Gaze

That a female gamer is not permitted aggressive and powerful action touches a deeper issue in the gaming community, and perhaps reflects the society at large. Simply, games are not made for women, and women often have a hard time “fitting in” with the games they play.

This is so, despite the seemingly limitless possibilities on the internet. For example, an online game with a subversive twist, “Stonewall Brawl,” draws upon the historic protests following the police raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City in 1969. The characters are five queer and transgender bar patrons who can unleash rainbows to knock down the police.

But more typically, games embed the male-gaze and fantasy stereotypes, especially in women characters. A video analysis, “Girl Gamers: Video Games and the Female Audience” made by Alexander and game theorist Daniel Floyd, reviews picture after picture of scantily clad animated women from various games. The duo says that the incessant pandering to teenage boys needs to change in order to retain the valuable market of women who are flocking to the gaming world. “As an industry, we need to seriously reconsider our marketing. We need to examine our habit of manipulatively using women for appeal — “booth babes” at our conventions, exploitive character design. We need to consider the effect this stuff has on our industry’s image,” the video says.

Even men who cross the gender line online can find the experience unsettling. Duff notes that characters in “World of Warcraft” get better armor as they move into higher positions. But for a female character that means becoming sexier and more scantily clad. In a blog post, Duff said he ultimately felt shameful for how the game made women look. “I put on my new magic pants and looked like I was adventuring in a piece of sexy lingerie…My character was walking around with her hips exposed, attracting whistles and catcalls….It got so bad I actually sacrificed some attack power and put on a weaker pair of pants, just so I could cover myself up.”

In an email, Duff summarized his feelings: “Gender is a vital part of our identities as real people, and it’s also part of our identities when we play fictional characters. People need the freedom,” he writes.

Georgia Kral is the editorial and outreach assistant at On The Issues Magazine. She is also a music and culture writer.