Character Gender

In my experience, and I think the research agrees, male players are more likely to play female characters than vice versa. There is fun speculation about why that is.

The usual in-game reason is a perceived ease in getting assistance, attention, or gifts. A favorite sociological explanation is that our culture treats maleness as the norm, so women already know how all that works but men have this whole alien, Other realm to explore. My wife sticks with female characters because they have more pretty options, while many male options are intentionally and aggressively ugly. Many (heterosexual male) hardcore gamers have decided that, if they are going to be staring at someone’s backside for 40+ hours a week, it might as well be a shapely female backside. And then there’s this guy I know who is a mostly male-oriented bisexual and is married to a woman; his Second Life avatar is female so he can have virtual sex with men and relieve real life pressure.

Personally, I tend to have a balanced stable of characters. I want at least one from each race and class, and I divide gender pretty evenly. In my few pen and paper games, I frequently have female characters because I am balancing there as well. I have yet to be in a campaign dominated by female players, and men seem more hesitant to cross that line when your character is more closely associated with yourself. I wonder if that is the case on role-playing servers. Is it that your character is more you, rather than a pawn moving around the board, so people hop genders less; or perhaps the character is more clearly a role, so gender-switching is no more relevant than pretending to be an elf.

Based on my class preferences in MMOs, I frequently end up with a female main character, because I seem to have fallen victim to the role assignment that many of us picked up. I think of it as proximately from the Final Fantasy games, although the trope is of long standing, and I recall a guildmate who followed it religiously. Big beefy meat shields are male (grunt), as is anyone who specializes in bashing people in the face. (Taking the tiniest female possible as a tank is usually an ironic echo of this.) Healers, mystics, and support characters are female. Ranged damage could go either way, although Warhammer’s promotional video follows a common division: the fire mage (destructive) is male, the ice mage (controlling) is female, the archer (graceful) is female, the gunner (aggressive) is male. Warhammer also throws things off by having an asexually reproducing but male-aspected Greenskin race, and female-only witch elves, but I would predict cultural relics in sex assignment across the classes: Swordmasters are more likely than other tanks to be female, because they are graceful dancers rather than meat shields, and the same applies to all the androgynous elf classes; War Priests and Disciples of Khaine, as front-line melee healers, are more likely to be male, while Runepriests are more likely to be female than Zealots. But that’s just my speculation, so if anyone has real data, please contribute.

I am not saying that this is a good thing. If there is one thing we should be past in cyberspace, it is gender roles. I am just describing it as a pattern I perceive, and one I expect given that most of us were raised in Western cultures, particularly the gamer and fantasy sub-culture. Toad is the strong one who digs quickly, while Princess is the ethereal one who floats. Riverwind is the tough barbarian, while Goldmoon is the quiet healer. (And on that Dragonlance note, do you recall the Twins cover art where they apparently did not tell the artist that Raistlin was male? Because if we are balancing the the beefy male meat shield, the physically weak mage obviously must be female? Or maybe they just thought Raistlin was effeminate enough to have high cheekbones, full lips, and a lot of eyeshadow.)

Back to me, because I am a blogger so it is all about me me me. In most games, I have a healer named Zubon who looks as much like me as the game allows and is therefore male. The tank is still usually male, a forced decision in some cases (Warhammer’s Black Orc, LotRO’s dwarves). That is two-thirds of the trinity, so I guess my DPS will be female. The DPS class is usually the best soloer and levels very quickly, so my highest level character is female. And yes, my main in City of Heroes is a female Blaster, and a female Hunter in The Lord of the Rings Online™. Maybe I would have had a male Blaster if I had not asked my wife for a name.

I have also been told (as in directly, explicitly, to me, by a younger lass) that men playing female characters are creepy. I have never heard that about women playing male characters; there, the usual assumption is that they want to get away from flirting or whatever attention being female drew. I do not have any comment on the matter other than the dissonance caused by hearing a deep, gravelly voice after having gotten used to thinking of a character as female. I find no problems in the other direction: if I meet the voice before the character, I mentally assign it as “character” rather than suggesting anything about the person behind it.

I would be interested to see if this falls any differently with less gendered characters. Does a race of breastless lizards or rock monsters have more or less gender switching, since it seems to matter less? Or races/classes/games where gender is non-obvious? Also, it is a brave new day with increasing female MMO player numbers, so everything could be rent asunder.

: Zubon

38 thoughts on “Character Gender”

  1. Holy overanalysis, batman. I play a female character because she’s nicer to look at. If I’m going to be spending all my time staring at an avatar’s ass, I’d prefer it to be female.

    1. I find attitudes like this to be more interesting than much of the ‘other gamers treat female toons better than male’ analysis. It’s interesting because partly because it’s commonly put forward to rebut deeper sociological analysis – “dont’ analyse me, I’m just in it for the pron!”

      But I’m assuming that those offering this explanation aren’t actually attracted to their female toon – it’s not, after all, a real person, nor do they really look like real people. Given that, does this attitude reflect a perceptual attitude to gender? Is it that such players feel more comfortable looking at a pixelated arse which represents the female form than one which represents the male?

      Soceital associations about same-gender attraction remain, for many people – particularly young males – profoundly negative. At the same time, many people would prefer the possibility that others think that they are the opposite gender than they are to look at a bunch of pixels which represent the ass of their own gender. (There’s also a whole interesting issue of ‘the gaze’ which I won’t even start to consider.) I find that interesting.

      1. LOL. I think you are missing the boat on what some men might find attractive. DOA: Volleyball didn’t sell well because the gameplay was awesome.

        I own that game, btw. And I’m one of the people who has three or four naked Blood Elf female toons that I use as bank alts.

        It’s not a sexual attraction, but I definitely find the female form in some of these games alluring enough to go — hrmph, that’s better than looking at an Orc’s ass.

        It’s more on a level of “red is more visually appealing than yellow” type of thing. Don’t over-analyze why people find sexy toons visually appealing. Sometimes the simplest answer (they are nice to look at) is the right answer. It hardly makes me, or anyone else, afraid of being gay.

        1. I still find it bizarre that players are looking at their avatars that much. Play the game already; your attention should be at the stuff threatening your character.

          Besides, it’s not like it’s hard to find butts to stare at online, if that’s really your thing.

  2. I’ve heard that some people find it creepy, or wrong, or significant in some way, when people play characters of the other gender. Only on forums, though. I’ve never heard anyone express that opinion in game (and I’ve played with many a player of both genders, playing many a character of both genders).

    I’m like you, though, Zubon: I like my stable of characters to be mixed. Mixed in race, mixed in class, and mixed in gender. My five WoW level 80s are three male (dwarf priest, gnome mage, draenei DK) and two female (human rogue and draenei shaman).

    1. Back when I played Ragnarok Online (which gender locks an account to one or the other, and allows for in-game hetero-ONLY (their emphasis, not mine) marriages), cries of “Eww, you’re a guy?” were fairly common when I or a couple of friends would be on a female account, to the point that we had established a “No girls on the Web” themed-guild.
      The scenario has come up once or twice in CoX (over the course of a couple of years playing) but it was more of an “oh, I didn’t realize” reaction to alt switching.

  3. I think if someone finds it creepy that a 40-year old happily married father-of-two plays a female Gnome Warrior (for no reason other than the hilarity of having a female Gnome dual-wielding two massive Axes/Swords/Hammers, etc) then the problem lies with the observer with the “creepy” thoughts, not with the 40-year old guy just having fun playing a game.

    You know what’s creepy? When my female Gnome gets hit on by male character/players after they tell me I look like I’m 12 years old. Now that’s creepy.

  4. > The usual in-game reason is a perceived ease in
    > getting assistance, attention, or gifts.

    When I played WoW I had a male mage and a female priestess at level 60. (The best priestess name I could think of was female; the best mage name I could think of was male.)

    I found the mage got treated somewhat better by other players (both in guild and out).

    Obviously there are complicating factors here. Most obviously, the guildleader’s girlfriend was also playing a female priestess, and I don’t think she liked competition. Also, it’s possible I’m just not a very good healer.

    But my experience is that female characters don’t actually get treated any better.

  5. I assume pretty much anyone I meet in most MMOs is male unless they tell me otherwise or I “meet them” in voice chat. There are a few that scew more towards female gamers, and I’m a little more reserved with female avatars in those games. However, I treat most players I meet as I would a guy…and hold it neither in their favor or against them if I am mistaken.

    I love voice chat because it gives you a way to establish RL gender without having to ask about it. I play a lot of female characters, because I don’t think of my toons as “me.” I think of them more like action figures, puppets, or characters in an adventure game that I animate to engage in a narrative. Games that have built in voice chat, such as LoTRO, take care of a lot of the awkward social aspects of playing toons of various genders automatically and painlessly.

  6. I play females because I often play casters, opting for males if I do not. In most MMOs I’ve played, men just don’t look that great in robes.

    In Aion, the only game in recent memory to make men in robes still look good, I actually played a male caster.

  7. Oh the age-old discussion.
    After all these years I still don’t see a pattern, my WoW max level chars are distributed 2:1 male:female – in other games it’s purely based on individual looks or chance. LotRO – male, Ragnarok: more male than female, but both.

    But I’ve hardly played a female character in Pen&Paper games, and as I don’t RP in any video game, it’s probably speaking for itself.

    Funny how no one ever mentions those games where you only have one choice (Quake,Half-Life,A boy and his blob: male vs Tomb Raider, No One Lives Forever: female) – suddenly it’s not weird at all that you’re playing the game although your gender doesn’t “match”.
    Neither did I ever hear anything like this some 10 years ago when someone used the “Harley Quinn” quake3 model – oh wait, the chance of the player not being male was so low it didn’t matter, probably.

  8. In my experiences, the only time gender comes up in games these days is either if someone is hitting on someone else (Night Elf Chick: “Sorry, I’m a dude…”) or when someone wants to be insulting.

    In LotRO, the first character I got to max level happened to be female. I joined a kinship and was a bit worried that would color some people’s perceptions. But, really, it wasn’t an issue at all. Of course, the kin leader is also a guy playing a female character. It perhaps also helped that I mostly played with my GF, and either we were awesome lesbians or a typical couple.

    Just today I saw someone trying to insult someone else for playing a female character when they were male. Most people in the chat channel just laughed at the guy trying to insult the other person.

    Even though the plural of anecdote isn’t “data”, I suspect that most people playing MMOs are savvy enough to know that the person on the other side of the monitor may not be the same gender as the character. Yeah, sometimes a person still has to learn the hard way, but they seem to take that lesson to heart faster than when I played a female character on a text MUD and had some guy pawing at me (in text emotes….)

    My thoughts and observations.

  9. I tend to select gender based on role play stereotypes. My Lotro Champion is an aggressive male dwarf. My assassin in Guild Wars is a beautiful but deadly woman.

    That comment about men who play women being creepy rings a bell. My own wife is a lot more black and white about these things than I am and she is always somewhat suspicious when she see me play a female character.

  10. Ice mage? I guess you mean the Sorceress, but they can be male or female in WAR. Same with the Bright Wizard (fire). I don’t have any hard data for you, but there is quite a bit of variety.

  11. Good analysis, Z. I think there’s a lot of different patterns here, as evidenced by the different response above from different people.

    What I’ve noticed in myself, being someone who relates to things largely visually, is that my choice pattern passes almost exclusively through the quality of the art assets.

    For example, in WoW I’d say a good 70-80% of my characters are female because I find the male avatars simply dismal to look at. And of that remaining male 20-30%, they’re all definitely non-human. I can’t relate even one bit to those and I’d rather look at and control something more aesthetically pleasing.

    In LOTRO, however, I’d say it was more of a 50-50, or 60% female. Same spread in CoH/CoV. But when I started playing Guild Wars, it was back to high percentages of female characters, even though the male art wasn’t all that terrible (some was quite good).

    Fun note: The character I made when I tried EVE for that 14 days trial was female. There was one hairstyle-hair color-face combination I liked a lot.

  12. I wonder what the data would look like if you took only people who did not play alts. Even back in my WoW days, a game begging for alts, I only had one character at cap, and one lvl 19 twink, both male. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a female character, and certainly never a main.

    I generally associate a character as being ‘me’, hence no alts, and find the idea of ‘me’ as a female avatar odd. It also throws me off when I’m talking to someone on vent and their ingame character is female, makes it harder to connect them for some reason.

  13. Just to add another variable to your analysis.

    In fantasy games, I’ve only played male characters. I think I did roll a female once in DAoC but deleted her pretty quickly. I think I do this primarily because most all of the fantasy books I read in my formative years centered on a male protagonist, so it just feels more natural to me.

    When I played CoH/V and now playing Champions, though I do have a few female heroes. Again, I think it’s to do with my background and the fact that there are a lot more examples of women in capes & cowls comics. In none of the games do I consider the too to be me, it’s always a character, but I do find that I identify more with the male ones.

    1. Almost all of the fantasy books I read in my formative years centered on male protagonists, but that didn’t influence me towards thinking that I am not a fantasy hero and that all my characters should be male.

      1. Ah katherine, but obviously as a woman you should identify with a man because a man is the standard right? A man would never read about a female fantasy hero, even if there was some cool ones like fisher or xena.

        (warning: some sarcasm may be present in this post!)

  14. Usually the “issue” with playing cross gender is one of projection. If I am a role player, meaning that I am playing who I desire to BE in the game and I, as a male, play men because I am a man and only want to be a man, I may project that another man playing a woman actually wants to role play, to BE, a woman. The clash comes when it turns out that man just wants to laugh at the funny halfling dual wielding giant battle axes, who then projects on me that I’m taking the game far too seriously because it is “just a game”.

    I’d say most conflicts in MMOs stem from one version of this or another. There is no right way to play, but most people are more comfortable when people are playing the same way that they play.

  15. “If there is one thing we should be past in cyberspace, it is gender roles.”

    Why? Is there something wrong with gender roles in general, or are you talking about rigid adherence to the preconception of how each gender should behave? Because while I would agree that one should play your character however you like, I don’t think that societal norms are necessarily a bad thing. Humanity has these roles for a reason, after all. The male as protector and provider and the female as nurturing caretaker aren’t fads that are going out of style, but are ideals that a large portion of humanity has found to be useful and workable. It makes sense that we would continue to use these roles in our role-playing games. We don’t have to be driven by them, but I hate to see us throw aside thousands of years of history just because “we should be past all that now”.

    As to your main point, I play male toons because I’m taking on that character. My main is always me playing myself, while various alts will be me in the “bad boy”, mystic, or Native American roles. (Native American because I have Cherokee heritage.) The only times I’ve done a gender bender was with a Swordmaster in WAR, but I don’t count that against me because the men looked like women anyway.

    1. On the other hand, I’d argue that letting go of those gender roles or “loosening” them up in whatever virtual environment we choose hardly qualifies as “throwing thousands of years of history aside”.

      And also, not that throwing some things aside is necessarily a bad thing. Technically, women voting and the mere acceptance that other forms of sexuality exist and are not evil were true negations of these old, proven and safe gender/social roles, but no one would argue those were “bad things” ™.

    2. So you don’t think that when someone is given no choice or has only seen one way of doing things that maybe they don’t find that “ideal” as “useful and workable” as it might seem?

  16. All my characters I have ever played have been male across 5 different MMO’s. I think the reason being is in my mind the character is SUPPOSED to be me, so while they may not be the most attractive option I stick with male characters.

    I also tend to not play any sort of elf unless I have to (as in the case of my Blood Elf Paladin in WoW) mostly because I don’t think my personality matches well with elves of any sort. Your typical fantasy elf is graceful, smooth, and likes more esoteric things. I picture myself much more like a typical fantasy Dwarf /shrug

    I don’t even begin to roleplay in MMO’s but certain things just don’t happen. Before I rerolled horde my first main was a dwarven hunter in WoW. And I never let him learn bows.All the way through MC, BWL and then TBC when it came out he just never used a Bow. I recently did a faction/server transfer for him so I could play him again after 3 years made him an Orc and the first thing I did was get him the bow skill. So long as he was a dwarf he was never going to use a Bow. It just didn’t fit with what I thought he should be. Dwarves use big loud guns just like the Dwarf Hunter in the intro :P It’s the only thing I have ever been like that about. Used to drive some guild members nuts because I would pass over upgrades because they were bows.

  17. I mostly have played male characters in the past but I seem to be trending towards female characters lately, specifically small race female tanks. I like the idea of a small female ass-kicker.

    My son almost always plays female characters because he says they look better. My wife plays more female characters but has some male characters, usually chosen due to the name she liked.

    1. I was a fan of the small female ass-kicker idea as well. In DAoC I had a female Kobold Warrior that I’d run around in a small shield, so most people thought I was a Shaman. Also my name was Glaciergiant so that maybe people would get confused when they saw the kill spam. For me, those reasons seem completely separate from this discussion as they appear more tactical or comical.

  18. Dunno – I’ve got about a 50/50 split on my gender choices. I think a lot actually goes way back to Diablo where you didn’t have a gender choice. If you wanted to play a Sorcerer or a Bow User, you were female. Period. If you wanted to be a Necro or a Pally, you were male. End of story.

  19. For me none of the cliches you cite apply. I make a character based on what I think an interesting character for a the story I’ll be playing would be. I don’t reckon I’m in the majority or anything, but it’s odd that in this age-old discussion, no one ever speaks for my position, which is of course boringly non-deviant.

    Oh, and LotRO Dwarves are NOT all male, stop spreading that misinformation. http://www.thebrasse.com/ ;-}

  20. What I don’t understand is when people get upset that I choose pronouns based on the character. I’ve got no other information to go on until you tell me, and assuming male just makes those of us that prefer female pronouns (women irl, roleplayers, etc.) all the more invisible. I’m tired of playing on my female characters with female names and having to tell every single person that I interact with that yes, I really do prefer to be referred to as female. It’s not like I keep calling you “her” after you correct me, geez. Is it really that much of an insult to you that I think you are like me?

    Also: I can’t play female characters that put me off. Good-looking: fine. Badass: fine. Tauren: male plz.

  21. I’m female myself, and I play female characters because I’m a roleplaying geek. It’s weird enough trying to be an elven archer in Azeroth without trying to be a guy too.

    I’ve never noticed any particular problems in the way I’m treated, aside from the one guy who followed me around Stormwind for a few minutes once trying to pay me to have cybersex with him.

  22. [..]I’m paraphrasing here, but Zubon more or less postulates that perhaps we choose big ugly males for our Tanks and cute little frail-looking women as our caster types because gender roles tell us women are weak and men are strong[.] If you are Role Playing, I think Zubon is right to some degree about gender roles. The character you choose to play embodies what role you want from that character. [..]

    Chicks and Dudes, or Dudes and Chicks (Serial Ganker)

  23. Very interesting analysis. I’ve thought about this sort of thing, too–a lot of the choice, for me, is just what someone said earlier, which is that the female options tend to be prettier and the male options are often 10-20% attractive and the rest look like they’ve been shooting up steroids suspended in meth and bleach. I like one of each race and class, also, and I try to spread out the gender assignments because, although I don’t role-play explicitly, I find that my characters quickly develop unique personalities in my head when I play them, so I try to break away from my other characters when I make a new one. That said, most of my toons tend to be female, and I’m really bad about the “standard” race/class combos, even when it’s not enforced, which occasionally affects the gender–my LotRO hunter is an elf, and it’s my main, so she’s a female (I’ve made male and female elves since).
    I, too, refer to people by their in-game gender except, for instance, in guild raids, where I tend to know everybody over Vent. It also depends if I’m referring to the character or the person, which can be a subtle difference, and also if I’m using the name of the character. But don’t ask me; I still use both gender pronouns in the same sentence about my husband’s main, who is a female gnome mage. And yeah, I don’t get the sexy ass-shaped pixels argument or the idea that it’s somehow weird to play a different-gendered character. That’s… that’s why it’s a role-playing game. Are you only allowed to role-play characters who are better versions of yourself? I have some characters whom I have definitely discovered to be arrogant, or cowardly, or amoral (in as far as the quests they take or how they go about them).

  24. 95% of the time I play my real life gender.

    The other 5% its a game where class + gender have locked combinations (ex torchlight) or it was to make a alt a bit different.

    However I usually hold it against an AA game that has locked combinations. I will never play a dwarf in lotro for example. I disliked the fact witchelves in warhammer did not get pants and did not let you make a male character.

    I think in general that female characters get more hassle. They are more likely to get random slezzy Erp invites, or to get followed around.

    However I think that the wrong personality type on a male toon will get some “ghay” comments in some games. Being too cheerful or a newbie will get more jokes as male than female in some circles.

    I always wondered if the reason that some men play women is their personality type “suits” a female toon more, or that they dislike the standard carrot build mcsquare jaw shaved head look, being in real life slimer or less a jock personality.

    I yawn at white mcsquare jaw burly man, its too everywhere, in every game, in every region.
    However in the end we play what we want and /ignore the rest

  25. This is definitely a “the gaze” article.

    But the one point I want to comment on is your assessment that males who play female characters are sometimes considered “creepy” while women who play male characters are not.

    That isn’t as simple as you make it out to be.

    The biggest difference there is that men sexualize their avatar when it is female. Both the article and the comments give countless explains of this. You want to stare at a woman’s ass. As if the entire game revolves around gazing at your avatar’s backside (hint: it doesn’t). You make your female bank alts run around naked, you generally don’t see too many male bank alts do this, and if they are I guarantee they are played predominately by male players. You keep saying that is isn’t sexual, yet every example given *is* sexual in nature (nakedness, nice ass, more attractive, etc).

    Women, on the other hand, tend to play male characters simply to avoid unwanted male attention. They don’t do it because they *want* to, they do it because they need to in order to minimize potential unwanted advances from their male counterparts.

    It’s male privilege, also. If a male plays a female avatar (or either avatar for that matter), he doesn’t have to worry about lewd gestures, unwanted sexual advances, or sexual harassment from other players. If a woman plays a female avatar, and the game isn’t called “LOTRO”, she must be constantly aware and defensive because she will, more often than not, have to deal with the above mention negative repercussions of simply being a woman.

    Men have a choice. They can play either avatar without any real consequences in any way. A woman can’t.

  26. I play both male and female characters in LOTRO. My very first was a female hunter (elf) simply because that was suggested to me by a friend because she most resembled my character in a pen & paper RPG we were playing. I still tend to use her for in-game roleplaying because, being female, I prefer to role play my own gender. Apart from that my main has become a male elven guardian. My ‘second main’ is a male minstrel. I chose my guardian to be male because my hunter was female. No other reason really. I chose my minstrel to be a big buff burly male to counteract all the winsome elven female healers. And it is fun playing a beefcake healer.

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