In real life, I identify as a chromosomal XY male, my gender identity is masculine, and my pronouns are he/his/him.
In my virtual MMORPG life, I identify as a X▲O◼ Woman, my gender identity is feminine, and my pronouns are she/hers/her.
My reasons for #GenderSwapping differ significantly between online MMORPG & single-player games. Across several pieces, I discuss the benefits of playing as a woman in Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) with either an equal sex ratio or high sex ratio (i.e., more males). In a separate set of pieces, coauthored by some of my undergraduate research assistants, we will discuss why some gamers (particularly males) play as a woman in single-player games (SPG), in which the utilitarian rewards & social reinforcements of playing as a woman in the online environment aren’t present.
[Brief teaser on SPG: The difference in emotional depth & voiceacting quality when playing as a woman in single player games is so substantial that if the Academy Awards ever combined the Best Actor & Best Actress categories, few men would ever win that award again. Other male gamers have acknowledged women’s superior voiceacting as well: “Kassandra’s commanding presence oozes cool, and she has a more subtle charm — from the cutscenes and comparisons I’ve seen… by comparison, Alexios is a bit flat, and it’s absolutely less interesting to play as a burly white bloke in a videogame” (Harry Shepherd, PC Gamer).
We’ll go into more detail on SPG in a future piece, and provide some historical context to vocal performance differences going as far back as Emma Nutt, the first woman to work with Alexander Bell as a telephone switchboard operator in 1878.]
Below is the current outline of MMORPG chapters on Gender-Swapping.
Outline of Contents
In this chapter on MMORPGs, I will discuss the benefits of playing as a woman avatar & will touch on a few components related to doing gender authentically. Chapter 2 (Performativity) will expand on the dramaturgical & performative aspects of gender within the virtual world.
1. Benefits of Playing as a Woman (current article)
2. Gender Performativity
3. Sexuality Performativity
4. Cis-temic Sexism & PVE vs. Non-Consensual PVP
5. Black Like Me — Woman Like Me: The Damsel in Distress & Ethnographic Research
Terms to Know
WPW = woman playing as a woman
WPM = woman playing as a man
MPW = man playing as a woman (that’s me)
MPM = man playing as a man (I’ve never done that online)
Guild = a group of players who support and help each other over time.
Prevalence of Gender Swapping
Just as there are more male-to-female transsexuals than female-to-male transsexuals (Bao & Swaab, 2011), more men gamers genderswap to play as women avatars than women gamers genderswap to play as men avatars (Ducheneaut et al., 2006; Isaksson, 2012). In real life, everyone starts out as a developing female in gestation; in videogames, everyone starts out as a digital male in the character creation interface when starting a new game.
Chapter 1: Benefits of Playing as a Woman
Compared to the pervasive misogyny of the real world, which has planted its social structural roots in cis-temic patriarchal devaluation of women ever since the first societal acknowledgement of patrilineal norms, life as a woman in MMORPG is the equivalent of playing the game on easy mode thanks to the preferential treatment we receive as female avatars from male avatars.
Empirical research over the past two decades has revealed some of the utilitarian gains associated with playing as a woman. Consider the following:
- Female avatars receive greater assistance (Boler, 2007).
- Male players court attention from female avatars by offering us virtual gifts & favors (MacCallum-Stewart 2008)
- In terms of sought-help being given or denied, “males are less likely to solicit help than females and, when help is sought, females are more likely to be helped than males” (Lehdonvirta et al., 2012, p. 32)
- MPM are most likely to message MPW (me) & WPW (Lou et al., 2019).
- Men will “try to give you things to hit on you” (Zhang et al., 2018)
- MPW are more likely to ask for help than MPM (Lehdonvirta et al., 2012); MPM already know my girlfriends & I aren’t responding to their chat box requests for help.
- We receive unsolicited interactions from males which enables us to utilize their assistance (assuming they aren’t too creepy) with an ongoing quest or challenge (Hussain & Griffith, 2008; Huh & Williams, 2010).
- MacCullum-Stewart (2008): women avatars are treated more nicely, allowed to make more mistakes, & we’re much more likely than men to gain help from other players.
- We are propositioned more than male avatars (Yee, 2008; Eklund, 2011). People ask us things like “where we are from” (Isaksson, 2012). I’ve also had a few men request that I send them nude pictures on snapchat (primarily in Grand Theft Auto 5 Online, though a couple in The Elder Scrolls Online; never on FFXIV).
- Female avatars have higher chances to befriend others (Lou et al., 2013).
- “Women Like Women More Than Men Like Men”
- Consistent with research by Dr. Laurie Rubman et al. (2004), women gamers like talking to female avatars more than men gamers like talking to male avatars.
- Women avatars are less likely to be targeted and attacked by other players (Hussain & Griffith, 2008; Huh & Williams, 2010).
- Female avatars gain more profit from in-game item sales (Lou et al., 2013; Lou et al., 2019).
- Men are more prosocial towards female avatars (Griffiths, Davies, & Chappell, 2004; Wang & Wang, 2008). For example:
— “battle equipment and loot are often randomly gifted to female avatars with no social expectation for return services” (Elizabeth McMenomy, 2011, p. 54)
— It is easier to make new friends & join guilds as a woman avatar** (especially if you’re a healer, white mage, or equivalent medical services role).***
…life as a woman in MMORPG is the equivalent of playing the game on easy mode thanks to the preferential treatment we receive as female avatars from male avatars.
Excerpts From Participants
Consider the following quotes from participants in several studies.
- Isaksson (2012): “Christina had also encountered this difference while playing together with her husband: “I’ve been in the same group, and they are kind of, they have higher demands on Magnus, while they are kinder to me, for some reason […] but I notice that they have a much harder vocabulary towards him, then they have had towards me when I was there.”
- Linderoth & Ohrn (2014) — Ruth, a female participant with a female avatar, discusses male avatar behavior: “They are trying to flirt with smileys and offer gold. Sometimes they give you a little extra when you trade with them. They are in general rather flirty”
- Sarah, a female participant with a female avatar: “I think that girls enter the role that guys expect them to be, with sex jokes. Guys look at me. They put themselves in that role. Actually, I’ve done it sometimes. Do not know why, it just turned out that way”
- Erik, a male subject with a male avatar, who is apparently jealous of us as women avatars: “If ten people in the Guild need help, and one is a girl, guess who gets help first? It’s always the girl, no doubt about it. Power leveling, money, and why not buy the girl a mount while you’re at it. Many get special treatment because they are girls. It’s ridiculous”
- “It is much more likely that you will receive help if you are a woman than if you are a man. …Frida says that because of this — her ability to ‘use’ men — she has a lot more respect for female gamers. You can make men help you, but when you ask a woman you expect a ‘no’” (Eklund, 2011, p. 332).
“Cissi expresses a similar opinion; she likes to take advantage of her sex. …the game becomes easier and much more fun if you use the fact that you are a woman” (Eklund, 2011, p. 332).
As nice (and sometimes annoying/sexist) as these benefits may be, there are several intersectional avatar identity factors that must be assumed about you as a gamer via your avatar for the successful requisition of these benefits. In particular, male gamers must assume that you are:
- White, a minority with a light skin tone, or Multiracial
- young adult to mid-30s (breast size & name are cues of maturity & gender, insofar as gender is utilized as a virtual derivative of maturity)
- straight, bisexual, or at least not lesbian.*
Realistic Sex-Linked Name (Not Gender Neutral; Avoid Immaturity)
→ Correct Answers = Amber. Brooke. Caitlin. Danielle. Eleanor. Isabella. Jennifer. Lillian. Mary. Olivia. Rosa. Sally.
These first names & others like them are necessary as part of performing gender. If you’re attempting to perform sexuality as bisexual, many names can be adjusted to assist: Cait. Bella. Jenn. Lilly. Liv.
- Please note that these names do NOT mean that bisexual women tend to go by a name that’s in-between; however, other gamers may have that belief. Thus, this name change would be catering to the lay gamers beliefs about bisexual women rather than the reality. Moreover, female players were more likely to report being bisexual (14.15%) than males (Williams et al., 2009).
[See this article at Autostraddle for a list of the top bisexual female & lesbian names.]
→ Sub-Optimal Answers = Alex. Bailey. Blake. Cameron. Chris. Dion. Elliot. Hayden. Jordan. Madison. Morgan. Parker. Quinn. Riley. Skye. Taylor.
The gender neutral nature of these first names may cause male avatars to hesitate/ display uncertainty towards you.
→ Wrong Answers = Adam. Descending Meteora (see image). Donald. Edward/Jacob. Fox Lite (see image). Fred. Jasper. Patrick. Piper. Pookii Pants (see image). Robert. Timothy.
Male avatars will be less likely to assist avatars with those names, especially if it’s a female avatar with an off-gender name.
Breast Size (B is best for performativity)
C Cup → Breasts should NEVER be larger than a C. That’s a red flag for immature 14 year old male. A C cup will certainly help you obtain resources from male avatars, but will hinder your interaction potential with other female avatars. In addition, some male avatars will make a show of rejecting a C cup female to impress another avatar.
A Cup → Works well because it’s non-normative insofar as no one is going to expect that a male playing as a woman would opt for an A cup. Thus, an A cup significantly increases interactions with other female avatars because they’ll believe you’re a woman. The downside is that some males may be less motivated to assist you and/or won’t hang around as long.
B Cup → Overall, a B cup works best for performativity as it maximizes the male-resource extraction potential related to breast size without turning off potential female avatar teammates.
Some men choose female avatars because “if you make your character a woman, men tend to treat you FAR better” and “if you play a chick and know what the usual nerd wants to read, you will get free items”.
Race & Skin Color
Research by Jansz and Martis (2007), Williams et al (2009), & Dietrich (2013) found that most MMO gamers play with White avatars. This is the case whether the game allows an explicit race choice option or if the game simply allows a selection of skin tones. Why? Well, we spent most of summer 2020 engaged in a national conversation about race, and the work, though improving, remains incomplete. However, a few pieces of information from that dialogue may prove informative:
- The average White person in the United States lives in a neighborhood that is ~75% White (Rugh & Massey, 2013)
- Processes associated with homophily (the social science term for birds of a feather flock together) decrease the rate of interpersonal inclusion despite ongoing increases in diversity (Shelton & Richeson, 2005)
- implicit biases based on salient features (skin tone; racial phenotype) continue to implicit social perception & behavioral intentions (Nosek et al, 2007; Nosek & Smyth, 2007; Greenwald et al., 2009; Toosi et al., 2012)
In fact, Dietrich’s (2013) analysis of 65 games found that found that light skin tones/ pigmentations were the only choice in 26 of them, and only 23 out of 65 offered hair options outside the ‘straight hair’ category.****
MMORPGs don’t have difficulty settings, but playing with a Black avatar is equivalent to playing the game on Hard Mode.
In short, you’ll have a better experience playing MMORPGs if your avatar is White. If not White, then one of the minority groups that users of dating websites (e.g., OKcupid, Match) place higher in their tripartite racial hierarchy of mate preferences (i.e., Multiracial, East Asian, or Hispanic with a light skin tone).
Lastly, don’t make your female avatar taller than all the other women avatars… staying around 5'2–5'6 works best. Fortunately the default height for my race & sex is 5'4, the second shortest because Lalafells don’t count (see Figure below).
I’d like to end this first chapter by sharing my avatars from the three MMORPGs most relevant to this current piece. Other games (e.g., Black Desert Online, Fallout 76) may be discussed in future chapters.
Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)
In ESO (the MMORPG I spent the most time playing before starting FFXIV in December 2019), I realized early on in 2016 that if I asked for help with something in the chat box , help would come, and it would be male. Many males.
I’ve created 3 different avatars for ESO & each one of them is a woman with the same first name. The last woman was created in June 2018 as part of the Summerset expansion. She is naturally blonde, she is a B cup, & she is the shortest (around 5'3–5'4). She is also biracial: part White & part Hispanic, thanks to an explicitly White-assumed first name, Hispanic-assumed last name, & the inclusion of ñ for proper pronunciation. On occasion I utilized my cultural tourism as a biracial half Hispanic & half White woman to practice Spanish within guildchat.
→ Spanish language keyboard tip: If you intentionally misspell Pinyata, Word will offer a spelling correction that includes the version of the letter n I used in my avatar name (piñata).
Research on the multiracial dividend effect reveals that monoracials have a romantic preference for multiracials that is only matched by their preference for someone of the same race (Curington et al., 2015). As such, utilizing the name & skin tone customizations of one’s avatar allows for the creation of an avatar that other gamers will perceive & respond to as multiracial. I never made another avatar in ESO after this one.
Final Fantasy 14 (FFXIV )
(“What are you?” My avatar is not a WHAT.)
My creation of an apparently mixed avatar in FFXIV was far more successful following my experience on ESO. I have the darkest skin tone of most other players I team up with & cross paths with. My guild acknowledges me as a half Persian & half White woman. In fact, observing Ramadan came up in conversation earlier this year. In my real life as a Catholic, I haven’t seriously participated in Ramadan since I was much younger due to my bireligious upbringing with a Christian mom & Muslim dad.
Even so, my Bible is always to my left in my office on campus, & my Quran (which I’ve had for longer than my Bible) is always to my right at home.
Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA5)
My first online game was Grand Theft Auto 5, which I started on its birthday in 2013 but never played online until April 2015. I eventually got “tired of creepy guys hitting on my female characters.” In particular, if I rejected a male avatar’s advances he would most likely try & blow up my vehicle or run me over — the only two revenge options available to those males as I learned early on to play in passive mode (negates much of the open-world player-versus-player risk) to avoid the hostility that may emanate following any injury to their digital manhood (quotes from Zhang et al., 2018).
(Chapter 2 Teaser)
Our cybergender identity is not a noun. As posited by Judith Butler (1990) in Gender Trouble, our gender “is itself a kind of becoming or activity, an incessant and repeated action of some sort” (p. 112).
Gender Identity & Expression: Pronouns Matter
Given the effort associated with successfully performing one of the other genders online, I take it personally whenever someone in guildchat says something like “Are you guys ready for this dungeon? / Do you guys have the mechanics of this boss down?”
Of course, I don’t vocally criticize my guildmate for their microaggression. In fact, none of my guildmates have ever heard my voice because using voicechat would reveal that I’m a male.
The reality of my chromosomal sex is still consequential offline, so even though I ‘perform gender’ online as a bisexual woman avatar, I know I’d lose those benefits as soon as some dude realized I’m XY instead of XX. (In contrast, I play as lesbian in offline games because in the single-player world there is no male gamer to perform for).
When we enter these distant worlds, we apply a mental model of fictionality via our creative faculties enabling the meta-cognitive & meta-affective embrace of fantastical narrative experiences. However, the way in which people respond to sex, race/skin tone, sexuality, etc within these worlds suggests that we’re sauteing frameworks of reality over our range-restrictive allowances of fiction.
#NotMyAriel is an excellent example of this. We can accept a mermaid, even a mermaid that can sing, but not if she’s Black. Thus, our entrenched, reality-based frameworks of race restrict the range of fiction we’re willing to permit in distant worlds. To the extent that perspective taking requires applying a mental model of someone else’s shoes, people with narrower bands for cognitive abstraction may be less moved by empathetic appeals & less open to allyship if a Black mermaid Ariel said “I can’t breathe”
Appendix of Chapter 1
2. At one point during Spring Quarter 2020, I expressed to a guildmate that we’ve likely completed dungeons with Black players without knowing it.
He said no — he would know if he was talking to a Black person.
Without revealing that I’m Black, I just told him I’m 100% confident he would have no idea if he was talking to a Black person.
3. Women are playing games for longer time periods than men, even though they are underreporting this due to feeling like it’s not a socially reinforced activity for them. This is similar to research in which women underreport the number of sexual partners they’ve had due to patriarchal social desirability pressures (Mitchell et al., 2019). (It is noteworthy that such pressures have become less normative & more abnormative over time [particularly with the advent of paternity tests], though the weight of chastity expectations has historically been placed upon women.)
4. I’m on my period… is an excuse I’ve used with success on a few occasions with male teammates in Elder Scrolls Online (and sometimes randoms from in-game dungeon matchmaking) who typically responded politely regarding my non-existent complications with Aunt Flo.
5. #GirlsNight (February 2nd, 2020)
As an example of behavioral performances of gender, I made sure I was logged on & active in-game during the Superbowl on February 2nd. Unfortunately, this didn’t help me prove my womanhood to many males online as there was a sudden male exodus around kickoff. However, a few women in the guild joined me for a ‘Girls Night’ since many of the men had disappeared.
* = For example, when I initially started playing Final Fantasy 14 in December 2019, at level 1, with no potions or bows/arrows to my name, I was invited to join a guild within the first hour. Ironically, I was invited by a female avatar who I later learned was a male in real life. Even better — my first FFXIV wedding was to celebrate the marriage of that MPW gamer to his WPM virtual boyfriend/ real life girlfriend.
**= There are admittedly sexist aspects to class/skill tree expectations at times in that I was generally assumed to be a healer when I started. I’ve now cleared one of the game’s major expansions (Heavensward/ Dragonsong) & have a broad enough wardrobe that rarely has that been assumed in recent months. If anything I’ll receive suggestions to become a healer as my 2nd job/class. Some may argue that the stereotype is accurate based on research indicating that female avatars are more likely to be healers (Companion & Sambrook, 2008), but I am NEVER going to be a healer/ White Mage.
***= When I’ve identified as lesbian I found that male avatars were more likely to accept my criticism if we died; my criticism didn’t threaten their manhood because I wasn’t into males. I’ve offered critiques far less while playing as a bisexual woman. Not received as well.
****= FFXIV does have an afro option, though it’s the only natural hairstyle that has to be acquired separately using in-game funds while all the other natural hairstyles are free.