Quantcast

«

»

Apr 03 2012

GenderGaming

So it’s come to this…

A new online strategy game entitled Prime World is going to be offering discounts to players who use characters consistent with their IRL gender. Or, in other words, ratcheting up the cost to provide a financial disincentive to those who would prefer to play as the “opposite” sex.

Lovely Lord All-Made-Up.

I don’t think I really need to walk you guys through all the numerous and creepy sexist, transphobic and gender-binarist implications of this (trying to BRIBE people into gender conformity? Really?!). And I also don’t really recommend reading the comments on the aforementioned article.

But those comments have got one of the most fascinatingly gaping voids of trans-erasure I’ve ever seen, with people mentioning every conceivable reason someone might explore alternative gender expression by playing as a cross-gender character except for actually wanting to explore alternative gender expression. It’s amazing.

It’s really interesting to me the degree to which our ideas about people assuming cross-gender characters in video games or role-playing, or cross-gender identities on internet message boards and chat rooms, is so thoroughly and steadfastly divorced from the obvious transgender implications. The near total refusal for people to accept how trans-ness plays into these things.

The fact is that yes, trans people do use such things as a comparatively safe, harmless and low-risk way of exploring their gender identity and gender expression (sorry!). It’s not only something that happens, but it’s something that’s actually extremely common to trans people of younger generations. There are very, very, very few trans women I know under the age of 35 who didn’t use role-playing or videogames or message boards as an early means of exploring gender in at least some way.

Regardless, assuming a female identity in an online interpersonal situation is a transgender act, if that identity is assumed as one’s own rather than simply performed as a character. That is an act of variant gender expression, and trans, whether a person defines it as such or not. There’s a huge difference between an AMAB person saying “Hi I’m a guy and this is my female character!” and an AMAB person using the opportunity to say “Hi! I’m female and this is my female character!”. Whether it’s admitted or not, that is a form of expressing one’s gender that falls outside cisnormative standards. It falls instead within the bounds of queerness.

But still we don’t talk about this. It’s impressive the degree to which this discourse has yet to really be allowed some breathing room to consider it’s full scope and implications. Instead we just see the same tired and intensely limited cliches trotted out time and time again (“if I have to stare at an ass all day it might as well be a girl’s amirite?”) and simply accept those at face value as though that really is the whole of the story.

C’mon. No one is that superficial and that motivated by sexual attraction to sprites.

Most of us trans folk are well aware of how often that excuse is an intentional lie meant to distract from the actual reasoning: that playing as that gender feels right or comforting or exciting or liberating or rewarding somehow. Actual reasoning that we’re unable, unwilling or too uncomfortable or scared, to admit.

Why are we so willing to just let such an important conversation end at the most obvious (and obviously inaccurate) answers? Why so reluctant to explore the implications? Especially when we consider that these are the patterns that begin to emerge in a virtual environment where people can indeed choose to express or identify their gender however they wish. If this is what we see when the limitations of biology and sociocultural conditions are stripped away, what does that imply about how human gender actually operates? Isn’t that something we should be discussing, rather than simply going along with our instinctual reluctance to “read too much into it”?

I remember at Skepchick there was an Ask Surly Amy question that once came in where a young AMAB person confessed to having spent seven years online claiming a female identity, originally through a game, and had found a female best friend online who knew him as female. He began to feel he was falling in love with her, and wanted to pursue those feelings, but feared what would happen when she found out he wasn’t “really” female. In discussing the question with a few of the Skepchicks, I mentioned that it could be worthwhile to encourage this person to ask questions about their gender identity and what it was that they were getting out of expressing as female that was rewarding or comfortable enough to maintain the “deception” for seven years.

I was shot down, pretty much, with the other folks believing that I was over-thinking it, that he probably simply began with an innocent lie and found himself locked into it, that I was playing “armchair psychologist”, that I was projecting, that having a cross-gender character online doesn’t mean someone is having gender issues, etc.

What I found interesting about that reaction is given the fact that the “lie” was maintained for seven years, him having some unexplored gender identity issues is by far a simpler and more reasonable explanation than what would have to have been going on for it to simply be a case of him being “trapped in the lie” for that long, and to have gone to the effort of maintaining it without any kind of emotional reward. In most circumstances, people don’t maintain strong lies with potential consequences and harms just because. They do so because the lie is meeting some need or desire. In other words, the instinct to not examine possible gender issues in these situations led those colleagues of mine involved in the discussion to bend over backwards imagining some kind of improbable situation in which the act of gender transgression could be fitted into a cisgender narrative, while regarding the much simpler explanation of there being some gender issues in play as outlandish and couldn’t possibly be the case. Such is the power of cisnormativity. Such is the degree to which it is internalized. Such is how strongly we refuse to accept transgenderism as simply something that does happen, that is a part of life, that isn’t only an extreme, near-impossible outlier that shouldn’t be considered until there is absolute, unequivocal proof.

(It reminds me a little bit of “theories” of transgenderism presented by people like Blanchard, Bailey and Lawrence, where there’s a similarly enormous effort expended into formulating extreme -and impossibly convoluted- theoretical frameworks to slot MtF transsexuality into our assumptions about male sexuality. That underlying bias that anything that would show trans women to not really be what we say we are, no matter how improbable, MUST be true, because us simply being women is assumed to be, or treated as, impossible)

Needless to say, the angle I suggested wasn’t explored in Amy’s response, but I did bring it up in the comments. He responded saying that yes, he had been dealing with some confusion regarding his gender identity, and that the cross-gender persona had been a way of exploring that.

I imagine this is a factor in such situations far, far, far more often than people will admit, or are even comfortable considering.

Though in a strange way, this set of excuses, reluctance to consider the trans implications, and defensiveness when the subject is broached, is a big part of what allows things like cross-gender gaming, or presenting as a different gender on chatrooms or message boards, to function as the safe space for exploration that they are. Much like sci-fi/fantasy/anime cross-play, it provides a social framework in which acts of gender exploration or alternative presentation aren’t as heavily loaded as they are in most situations. Because it’s possible (and probably more often the case) that someone using a cross-gender character in a video game or RPG, or dressing as a cross-gender character while cosplaying, is done for reasons unrelated to one’s own gender identity that one is able to explore the gender identity without “outing” oneself as doing so. The exploration can occur in a context where no one needs to know that what you’re doing is exploring. Where your excuses like “if I have to stare at a characters ass all day…” will simply be accepted at face value.

And it’s true that in the majority of cases, the reasons people play as different genders than their assigned one really aren’t connected to gender identity. Yes, people do play different genders just for the sake of variety, or aesthetics, or a better storyline, or enjoying being more “outside themselves”, or an infinite number of other reasons. I’m not disputing that, and I don’t think anyone reasonably could. The alternative reasons that can disguise issues of gender identity are reasonable possibilities, and that makes that disguise all the more effective. As does our eagerness to play along, to not allow gender identity in to the list of reasons a person might be playing such a character.

But in maintaining this stringent refusal to really consider the fact that gender exploration amongst people questioning or trying to sort out their gender identity is an important aspect of cross-gender gaming, and is one of the more prominent and consistent motivations for doing so (someone AMAB can feel comfortable expressing as female in such contexts without having any desire to transition in real life… it can be pretty much like a really mild form of cross-dressing, just feeling some emotional satisfaction from temporarily inhabiting a differently gendered persona, which is a totally okay thing for people to want to explore), we’re not ultimately doing anyone any favours. We’re shutting down what can potentially be an extremely important conversation about things like, for example, how the relative lack of such “safety” for exploration (or possibility of exploration) in most meatspace contexts is mediating how gender operates, distorting our understanding of it, and perhaps making gender variance or desire to explore alternative gender expressions appear far more rare than they really are.

Furthermore, the reluctance to discuss it, or admit this is a thing that happens, a thing that is a part of our culture, and a part of human gender, ends up presenting a distorted view of gender and how people deal with it, express it, explore it, to those who are questioning. While we give them the relative benefit of invisibility and anonymity, we also give them the profound loneliness, isolation and crushing shame that goes along with erasure. To kids who are playing as cross-gender characters as a way of exploring and coping with their transgender feelings, the interminable insistence that NO THIS IS TOTALLY NOT EVER ABOUT ACTUAL GENDER ISSUES AND TALKING ABOUT THAT IS OVERTHINKING IT ends up presenting to them a world in which they’re alone, in which others haven’t experienced what they’re experiencing, in which they feel ashamed and flawed, like they’re feeling the “wrong” things and doing this for the “wrong” reasons.

Aside from the importance of the dialogue itself, we need to open up this conversation just for the sake of letting people who are exploring this way know that this is common, this is something that a whole frigging lot of us did, that it’s normal, that it’s a natural part of the process of coming to terms with your gender identity. It gives you the capacity to “try on” various genders and get at least some small inkling of what feels wrong and what feels right. It gives us a space to consider hypotheticals, to imagine ourselves as different. Of course it is used as a tool in the process of understanding and accepting one’s gender. That we insist on sweeping that under the rug like a dirty little secret does immense harm to our ability to progress towards a more realistic and beneficial understanding of how gender operates.

By erasing the fact that various things, like games, the internet, cosplay, etc. are used as points in a process of defining gender, we contribute to erasing the fact that gender is defined through process. We keep that quiet and instead perpetuate the fatalistic model of gender. That it isn’t something we work through (and towards?), but something that is simply an assigned, immutable FACT of us determined by our sex. You’re a man because you have a penis because you’re a man because you have a penis.

That model is false. AND inadequate. AND useless. AND dangerous. AND kills people.

So can we knock it off with the whole “what do you mean people sometimes assume cross-gender personas as a way of working towards understanding themselves, or that sometimes there’s more going on than just aesthetics and characterization? That’s crazy talk!” thing? It’s embarrassing. It shouldn’t be that easy to fool ourselves.

 

81 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    michaeld

    Its certainly not all of but is part of why I play female characters when given the option.

  2. 2
    daviddurant

    Wow, long – and shouty. You’re completely right of course but you could probably have made your point just as validly in half the word-count :-).

    One of my best friends if MTF trans and has always played male characters in computer and pencil-and-paper RPGs as long as I’ve known them (10 years before they transitioned). For them it may well have been part of their feeling-out other possibilities.

    I often play female characters in RPGs but I do it for the same reason that I almost always play characters with strong religious beliefs – that is to put oneself in the shoes of the ‘other’ to try and get a feeling for how other people live. Better to understand and fit in with the world around us.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about this particular RPG – there’s a vast market out there and anything challenging WoW is usually in for a world of pain. If they’re doing anything stupid like this it’s just one more reason for people to go elsewhere with their spare cash.

    1. 2.1
      Nepenthe

      Wow, long – and shouty. You’re completely right of course but you could probably have made your point just as validly in half the word-count :-) .

      Oh, shhh. Just luxuriate in her lovely words. It’s like rolling in a field of daisies, if daisies didn’t smell awful when crushed.

      (Not the topic; the writing itself.)

  3. 3
    Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

    I’ve, since the time I was about 14, always been doing one of two things in gaming or online – coming up with female personas I would play as, or playing as female characters. I always rationalized it in ways like “oh, I just like the female character models better” or “I don’t want to turn people off who want to play with a female character, but think a guy playing them is wrong.”

    It went so far as to my creating these personas and their histories, they became characters, and I did the whole “purging” at times when I felt it’d gone too far, “killing” the characters because it was getting weird for me.

    It took me until last year to get comfortable with the idea that I was largely doing this because presenting as a female on the Internet was a safe place that I wouldn’t get hurt for doing so. It was the only place I could be me where I didn’t have to worry about the consequences. Unfortunately now I’m at that place where I really am going to try to transition in real life, because just presenting online isn’t cutting it anymore.

    In other news: At PAX East in Boston this weekend there’s going to be a panel on Transgenders in Gaming. I’m going to go and see what it’s all about.

    1. 3.1
      SoF

      Will the PAX Easton panel be documented somewhere?

  4. 4
    Aliasalpha

    One interesting thing from the Kotaku story on the game is that the gender selection (gender of the player that is) isn’t something you specify at character or account creation, it’s a function of connecting your facebook account…

    When given the option, I personally play female characters in most contemporary games, in my case its nothing to do with gender expression, its just that the majority of games I’ve played have had good to excellent female voice actors and rather flat & generic male ones. Star Wars The Old Republic is a good example, I’ve watched a fair bit of the male sith warrior on youtube & he sounds kind of average (functional but not spectacular) but the female one is full of subtle humour & dripping malevolence, far more satisfying.

    1. 4.1
      Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

      Jennifer Hale is the voice of FemShep in Mass Effect. She is freaking amazing in that role. I’ve not heard much of ManShep, but what I’ve heard is kind of what you say – flat and dull.

      1. James K

        Yes indeed, I’m a FemShep fan all the way, to the point where I can really only think of Commander Shepard as a woman.

        1. julian

          Cannon Shepard is FemShepard.

      2. Sathya

        FYI, Hale voices both Satele Shan and the female Trooper in TOR.

        1. James K

          She also voiced Bastila in the original Knights of the Old Republic. She’s been a Bioware regular for quite some time.

  5. 5
    Alex

    One of your best articles yet! (Probably because it involves the intersection of two things that I love). I’ve been an avid gamer for years, and one of my best friends (also an avid gamer, more so than I) is MtF, which is probably why this article hit so close to home.

    It sounds that anyone who outright rejects the notion that gender in gaming can be an exploration is just shutting down the conversation with a “shut up, that’s why” argument. As I read the article, I even found myself trying to justify why someone might choose a different gender in-game for reasons other than gender exploration. I was quick to explain away the situation from my privileged perpective, when gender exploration is an equally (if not more so) plausible explanation for someone’s choice of in-game gender.

  6. 6
    Anders

    I’ve, since the time I was about 14, always been doing one of two things in gaming or online – coming up with female personas I would play as, or playing as female characters. I always rationalized it in ways like “oh, I just like the female character models better” or “I don’t want to turn people off who want to play with a female character, but think a guy playing them is wrong.”

    How would you have reacted at reading a text like Natalie’s before you realized what you were doing? Anger? Denial? Understanding?

    I don’t play online games so I’m afraid all I can add are my questions. And point out that most forum accounts are created under similar conditions. Every forum I’ve been on bans multiple accounts, though, or I might have created a female persona just to see how treatment would differ. ;)

    1. 6.1
      Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

      Denial. Definitely denial. I mean even up until a few years ago I kept flat-out denying it. My mother would sometimes tease me about it, saying “you’re playing a girl character cause you wish you were” and my response would be instant denial – usually with the “I like the art of the female models better.”

      Funny that my mother was actually right… which makes me curious whether she’d be actually more accepting of my transition than I fear (my family is almost entirely fundamentalist Christian.)

      1. sisu

        Katherine, I hope that when you’re ready to come out to your family, they embrace you with love and understanding.

      2. Emily

        I hope things go well for you when you do come out to your parents.

        Also, I’d suggest testing the waters if you’re really very nervous. Have them meet or talk about a friend who’s trans. Their reaction to that person may give you an idea about how they will react to you. ( Be warned, there is always the chance of the child being the one that suddenly humanizes trans people for them, or them having the “it’s okay as long as it’s not my kid” syndrome ). It’s not perfect, but should help as a general indicator.

    2. 6.2
      Emily

      Well, there were a few years where I knew that I was trans. I would have denied if questioned about my use of female characters, though it never came up ( I presented myself as AFAB online, so people just accepted it and never questioned. )

  7. 7
    Josh

    This article resonated pretty hard with me.

    I’m a cis male, but nonetheless I find myself playing a lot of female characters in online games. Typically my pattern is that the character who is “me” is a male with some common self-idealization elements (depending on the game), but most of my secondary/alternate characters are females–in many cases, I’ll go so far as to present that account/character as the sister or cousin of my main character/me. It’s a useful way for me to play with the concepts of gender identity and expression–even if I am comfortable in my assigned gender “IRL”, I’m nonetheless interested enough in the idea of the “female” experience that I appreciate being able to put it on in a relatively safe place.

  8. 8
    Movius

    Usually a game/program/service requiring registration and forcing the user to pick a gender (as opposed to leaving it blank) is doing so to target advertising. I’m guessing they’re doing something similar here, particularly with the facebook linking. But i’m not certain cause surely marketers could target the ‘outwardly masculine video game player who plays as a woman’ (or vice versa) demographic with products. Maybe it’s a “Guaranteed, AT LEAST ONE ACTUAL GIRL ON YOUR TEAM!” gimmick. Maybe a cry for attention from a mediocre game. All of the above?

    Whatever it is it doesn’t seem to have any distinguishing features that would make me want to play it.

  9. 9
    Anders

    I can sympathize with rather staring at a female ass, though.

    1. 9.1
      Veronica

      So can I. But that doesn’t make it the real reason for “genderbending” as I’m used to calling it.

      I nearly always instinctively made female characters in RPGs. I played WoW a lot, but also other games before that. I never really role played though. I just made characters I liked. And the fact that I could get nice things that made the character pretty played a part in me choosing the female models. I also had a few male characters I played, but they were never my main ones.

      Most of the people I played with knew me as male outside the game. I rarely pretended to be female even if I’m transgender. Sometimes I didn’t reveal that though. For a while I was in a girls-only guild, and I quite enjoyed the experience as we could chat without being interrupted by insecure obnoxious teenage boys. Yes, they’re a stereotype, and gods there’s a lot of them.

      The social aspect is what kept me interested in those games. These days I would probably just say I’m transgender instead and just be myself.

  10. 10
    Miri

    Yeah, I so did this. As long as I can remember, in any game I played, of whatever kind (particularly RPGs, and I can extend this to pen & paper RPGs, where I copped a fair amount of mockery for this), if there was a female character option available, I took it (I still do :p). Most of my gaming predated online gaming, so I never really did that, but I did create a large number of various false identities on social networking sites… Even that though, until no more than 8 months ago, I would have flatly denied as being anything to with transness, or any such such thing… Even when interacting online, with others entirely in the belief that I was a woman, was at the time one of the most right and fulfilling feelings I’d ever felt, to the point that I clearly though “I WANT THIS TO BE REAL”… *sigh* Denial is so powerful…

    1. 10.1
      Anders

      Which again makes me wonder about a friend of mine who does the same… we have asked him on occasion but he denies it.

      Ah, well, I can’t force anyone to reveal things about themselves.

      How many people have registered on forums as something other than their AAB sex?

      1. Kevin, 友好火猫 (Friendly Fire Cat)

        I have. On several forums.

      2. Miri

        Yeah, he will likely not admit it (if it is the case) until he is ready to do so (which means he’d need to admit it to himself first)… If someone had outright said to me “you keep playing girl characters and pretend to be a girl online because you want to be one, don’t you?”, I would have shouted them down with the hardest denial… I probably would have pulled out any number of transphobic slurs to drive home the point “I AM NOT ONE OF THEM!!!” (this thankfully never actually happened, I was incredibly discrete about the online stuff, and with games, people just thought I was a bit of a weird perv I guess)

      3. Yellow Thursday

        I have a largely andogynous or gender-neutral avatar on Second Life. I gave hir a name that could be either male or female, and I consider hir appearance to be more feminine, yet most people view hir as male. Go fig.

      4. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

        As the option actually corresponding to me usually isn’t there, I tend to alternate.

      5. Noelle

        I have, if only in cases where I think the gender radio button is unimportant or irrelevant, and being “out” as a woman will impugn my credibility (aka some kinds of gaming and dude-culture forum)

      6. Anders

        The GiantitP forums have special symbols for trans men and trans women to use if they wish. Many do, but some don’t.

      7. Veronica

        I know several people from my years in MMORPGs that I suspect at least have some gender identity issues. But as Natalie points out, exploring gender is probably something a lot of people would do if there was no consequence. My experience with gender-bending in games has made me convinced that a lot of people don’t really fit the cisnormative standards even if they’re not transgender in the conventional term.

        Basically, people need to loosen up a bit about it all.

      8. yiab

        I leave the gender field empty/neutral as often as possible, and the nick I’m using here (yiab) is the nick I use everywhere real names aren’t mandated. I don’t think I’ve specifically identified as the binary opposite of my birth-assigned sex in a non-fictional context though.

  11. 11
    John Horstman

    C’mon. No one is that superficial and that motivated by sexual attraction to sprites.

    Yeah, it’s not like there are sub-genres of erotic literature, illustration, and animation devoted to video game characters. And even if there are, the people creating and consuming said works are obviously creepy perverts who deserve to be dismissed and erased for their lack of normativity with respect to sexual imagination and attraction. And even if that’s not true, this statement is obviously meant as a joke and shouldn’t be taken as a serious dismissal of a sexual sub-culture. And, of course, claims like this have never been made about queer people before, nor debunked in other contexts.

    I completely agree that there are trans implications of cross-gendered gaming/internet avatars/personae, but that’s really not a justification to dismiss something as even possible when in fact the thing in question exists. One possible alternative: “While it may be the case that some gamers are motivated by sexual attraction to sprites, to claim that this is the only thing going on is silly, especially given the broad availability of pornography that caters to any possible sexuality.” The next statement about the claim often being an obfuscating lie (Can you really be sure of that with respect to other people? Could you not simply be projecting your own motivations for playing characters of genders other than that which you were assigned at birth?) still follows perfectly well.

    If this is what we see when the limitations of biology and sociocultural conditions are stripped away, what does that imply about how human gender actually operates?

    Virtual spaces don’t somehow magically not have culture. They all exist within or concurrent with extant cultural discourses and are heavily inflected by them. For example, in an MMO, gender expression is shaped by the possible range of character avatars, actions that can be taken, the construction of the virtual environment, any communications filtering, and the cultural baggage that the players themselves bring into the space. That said, this is DEFINITELY something we should be discussing. Virtual spaces offer an awesome way to deconstruct all sorts of social categories. My Skyrim character is a Black, asexual, female, human (werewolf), high-functioning sociopath (I steal and murder without remorse, and somehow I’m still the hero of the story), and it’s certainly not because I like the female armor models better than the male ones (amazingly, much of the PC armor is designed as actual armor, and not medieval fetish outfits).

    What I found interesting about that reaction is given the fact that the “lie” was maintained for seven years, him having some unexplored gender identity issues is by far a simpler and more reasonable explanation than what would have to have been going on for it to simply be a case of him being “trapped in the lie” for that long, and to have gone to the effort of maintaining it without any kind of emotional reward.

    I completely agree. The apparent vehemence with which you were shot down seems odd; I guess a lot of people (even at Skepchick?) still think about non-normative gender expressions as something ‘bad’ instead of something normal and common.

    We’re shutting down what can potentially be an extremely important conversation about things like, for example, how the relative lack of such “safety” for exploration (or possibility of exploration) in most meatspace contexts is mediating how gender operates, distorting our understanding of it, and perhaps making gender variance or desire to explore alternative gender expressions appear far more rare than they really are.

    Spot on!

    1. 11.1
      Erin W

      Sorry, I always comment in the wrong place.

    2. 11.2
      Ace of Sevens

      Also, modern games represent characters as 3d models with detailed animation, not sprites.

    3. 11.3
      Natalie Reed

      I think you’re misunderstanding. Of course video games are, like any medium, something through which sexuality can be expressed and enjoyed. But the idea that someone is literally JUST choosing a female character JUST because they enjoy looking at an ass for hours and hours and hours is just… well… it’s hard to take seriously as the sole motivation. That doesn’t mean I’m invalidating the idea that someone can indeed find video game characters sexy, or enjoy them in an erotic sense, but rather that I don’t buy the idea that it is ever as simple and basic (and monotonous) as this presented motive claims.

      And yes, video games do have a culture, obviously. But that culture doesn’t possess the same imposed limitations on gender expression. The sentence you quoted is about the limitations being stripped away, not culture itself.

      And the Skepchick thing… I don’t think they were reading gender variance as “bad”, just that they didn’t really allow it to be an element in their assessment of a situation. It was being treated as weird and strange and improbable and nearly-impossible, to the extent that believing it’s a factor in situations where it hasn’t been “proven” to be must be “overthinking” / “projecting” / “armchair psychology”, no matter how much it fits the situation at hand.

      1. Anders

        GID is fairly rare. Does anyone know how common this is? Perhaps GID is more common than we think, it’s just that for many people being of a different gender when you’re on the computer suffices.

        That last thought is clumsily expressed. I will think of a better way, but it’ll have to do right now.

        1. Natalie Reed

          Transsexuality is rare. But gender variance, which occurs in innumerable individual ways and degrees and forms, is probably far more common than we assume.

          1. leftwingfox

            That sounds like me, actually. Mostly cis, mostly straight, but not 100% in either.

            In video games and pen-and-paper RPGs, I play a mix of both male and female characters, leaning towards the male. Sometimes it’s the character concept, sometimes it’s because the model is attractive (not necessarily sexually so), sometimes because the in-game mechanics match my style for the female characters (fighting games largely).

            None of those apply to the old social RP that I used to do on the MU*s. Thinking back though, I didn’t actually play any women characters. I had some characters who were strictly male, and some that were shape-shifters who had male and female (and occasionally “both” and “none”) forms in-game.

            I guess that matches my own gender identity IRL; happy being male, would love to be able to change at will. =/

          2. Anders

            How narrow is the zone of gender-invariance? Is it behavior that causes people to see you as an odd fellow? If I took up knitting that would probably make people wonder…

      2. Sophia

        I’ve been playing male avatars since forever because I find them attractive. It sounds like you’re totally dismissing that as a possibility, that there MUST be some alternate, deeper explanation. So…what? I’m in denial? :\

        1. Sas

          I don’t think she’s saying that people that claim to be into playing the opposite gender for aesthetic/sexual reasons are in denial and really transsexual. She’s saying that the common “HURR ME LIKE GIRL ASS” response that many guys give is too simplistic. I play sexy male characters for their sex appeal, too, but I don’t just sit there drooling and looking at my character’s ass, I’m playing the game, creating his story, empathizing with his troubles (if the game is well written), and generally enjoying him as a character.

          1. Sophia

            The decision to play the game, create a character’s story, and empathize with their struggles was made BEFORE the character’s gender was chosen. The question is why someone chooses a particular sex for the character they use to experience the game. The pros and cons of a particular choice are weighed in the gamer’s mind, and then a decision is made. For me at least, that decision is made based on the fact that, all things being equal, Sexy Man > Woman if I’m going to be looking at something and customizing an appearance.

            If I just didn’t find men sexually appealing, I would almost certainly not choose them as consistently a I do over female characters. I know this because whenever I use monstrous races my preference for male characters disappears. If that doesn’t mean I’m making my choices based on sex appeal, what on earth does? Do I really need some deep, gender-exploring related reason to prefer option 1 over option 2?

            But apparently I’m too superficial to exist. *grumblegrumble*

          2. Daniel Schealler

            To back Sophia up a bit here:

            Personally, I find it hard to find computer-simulated graphics sexually appealing – the uncanny valley is more or less as neutral as rocks as a far as my libido is concerned. But alternatives do exist.

            I remember playing a WWF game with a few mates a while back. It had a ‘make your own wrestler’ option.

            One of my male friends went ahead and created a female wrestler that was basically a porn star. He emphasized stats for the character that would favor a hold/grapple style of fighting. He then immediately went for the ‘mirror match’ mode option, where he would play as his character against a computer controlled version of the same character.

            So yes. He basically turned the game into lesbian porn. Partly because it was funny, but also partly because he liked it.

            The same individual also like to play as Voldo in Soul Caliber IV… So there you go. ^_^

  12. 12
    Sas

    Before I transitioned, I exclusively played female characters whenever I had the option in games. Now that I’ve transitioned and no longer have to play a fake male role in my real life, I finally sometimes choose to play male characters for the fun of it. (And I’ll admit, sometimes for the eye-candy; most games don’t have the type of guy I like as protagonists)

  13. 13
    Erin W

    Yes, a thousand times yes!

    The first time I did anything consciously ‘as a girl’, it was a character in the old AOL free-form chat RPGs. The best thing was, I was able to play out a lot of my fear and rage at the time by giving her some sort of backstory of being repressed and oppressed by her society and family and everyone. If I remember right, she was a natural caster in a society that despised magic. Layers upon layers.

    Eventually that graduated into female tabletop characters, then picking female game avatars, and eventually playing a trans LARP character before I actually came out. (I even got the awkward compliment at one session, ‘If I didn’t know better, I’d think you really were a woman playing a man!’ Heh.)

    I literally would not be here today if I hadn’t had gaming as an outlet to explore myself. Thanks for highlighting this part of trans* life.

  14. 14
    Ace of Sevens

    At least one comment talks about trans issues.You just have to hit the “all” tab. Most people just don’t like having their options restricted as playing as someone you’re not is a big part of the draw of games.

  15. 15
    Anri

    It’s interesting – some of my RPG characters have always seemed ‘male’ to me, and others ‘female’, regardless. This is not related to combat role, in as far as I can tell: I have a number of extremely physically tough female characters on the main game I play (City of Heroes), and a number of males who are physically far more fragile.

    In terms of gender identity, I’ve always been extremely envious of the Nivenverse characters for whom changing gender (physically at least) was about as difficult and expensive as changing cars. Of course, this is a very simplistic view of truly important points such as gender identity – it’s an adolescent fantasy and like most of those, wildly unrealistic.

    In any case, I have always taken steps to downplay if not outright disguise my (and my spouse’s) RL gender for the simple reason that it’s nobody else’s business. If someone doesn’t know how to react to be because they don’t know my RL gender, they have a problem of some sort.

  16. 16
    Emily

    I roleplayed for years as female on an internet forum ( worse yet, it’s avatar based, so I got to play dressup too! *squee* ). I’ve done so since I was about 15 ( 2004 ). And I did everything I could to keep my online and offline identities separate, and was terrified of them crossing over in any way. I still Roleplay, but much less than I used to ( It’s not like transistion made it less fun, just less needed ).

    Funny thing, there were a few years where I knew I was trans and was convinced that transition wouldn’t be an option for me, so I had to stick with RPing. Clearly I got over that.

    1. 16.1
      Emily

      As a footnote: That forum that I went and still go to regularly is Gaia Online :)

    2. 16.2
      Anders

      2004? That would mean you’re… I pictured you as older. *eek*

  17. 17
    secha

    I’ve been playing as female characters since 2002, I think since that was around when Morrowind first came out. My first character was male and my second was female. Never looked back. A while ago it came to my attention that one of the reasons I’d remember such an unimportant detail (like the gender of a character I played nearly a decade ago) is that maybe it’s not so unimportant.

    At first my excuse was that the female character got a better mission. Then in other games:
    ‘the female character is a smaller target’
    ‘she’s faster, it suits my playing style’
    ‘she can cast meteor storms! why wouldn’t I be the sorceress?’

    Now I don’t have excuses, playing the female characters just feels right. I don’t mind playing as male characters if it’s story based, but I tend to be disappointed if there isn’t an option to choose your gender.

    Needless to say this isn’t just a gaming thing any more. A few of my other profiles elsewhere are female, or failing that gender neutral whilst avoiding references to any AAB gender.

  18. 18
    Miri

    This is probably a rather extreme and somewhat strangely specific example, but I think it has some relevance to this topic:
    How Fable 2 Made Me Transsexual

  19. 19
    Chirico

    I don’t know anything about online games or whatever, but I do know a bit about the fighting game community. There is definitely a bias against games that feature predominately female casts and moe characters, and a preference towards games with MANLY men with bulging muscles and scowling faces.
    Also, as mentioned above I dunno if it’s correct to dismiss people playing characters for solely aesthetic reasons. It might be that you’ve heard that kind of thing for so long that it starts to sound like dismissal of gender expression, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

    1. 19.1
      Natalie Reed

      I’m not dismissing claims that people play female characters for solely aesthetic reasons.

      1. Emily

        However, when someone perpetuates an online female identity for years, it seems absurd to think that Gender Idenity/Expression is not a possible factor.

        1. Emily

          Err. I mean maintain an online identity that is gendered opposite of your assigned gender. I was a bit to specific there.

        2. Natalie Reed

          Exactly.

        3. Chirico

          No one in this comment thread would suggest otherwise.

  20. 20
    Anders

    Has there been a “when do they have to disclose” debate over this yet?

    1. 20.1
      Emily

      My opinion. Why do you or anyone else need to know? This is the internet. I can be as anonymous as I want to be. ( or can manage with all the tracking that occurs )

      1. Anders

        Yeah I agree. I was more interested if the question had come up.

        1. Anders

          Although I suspect it might shock people when you turn up at the meatspace meet-up. :)

          1. Emily

            Nah, I pass pretty darn well, and I usually meet people offline that I only know online.

            And I am pretty open online about my transexuality, which has allowed me to help someone else come out and start transitioning.

          2. Emily

            Usually DON’T meet people offline that I know only online *fix*

      2. MichaelD

        Which suddenly reminds me of this ….

        http://www.roflcat.com/images/cats/On_The_Internet_No_One_Knows_You_re_A_Cat.jpg

  21. 21
    HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

    Most of my experience with this comes through tabletop roleplaying. When I started getting more comfortable with myself, I started trying out non-female characters. I’ve yet to play an androgyne, but that was mostly because it would have been weird for the setting.

    The last time I roleplayed, we were making our characters and saying who/what we were playing, and I mentioned mine was going to be male. This dude who was the DM’s roommate flipped the fuck out about how I obviously couldn’t do it right, and it would be too hard to believe blahblahblah. I cut him off with “We’re in the moderate future, on the inside of a hollowed out asteroid, manifesting supernatural powers, nonhuman aliens are an accepted part of reality in the game, but gender is too out there for you? STFU.” There’s a reason I maybe deliberately exposed his character to a lot of deadly radiation later.

    1. 21.1
      Sathya

      I’ve wanted to play a long-term non-standard gendered character in our tabletop game for some time, but never found the right setting to do it in – I’d want to play a member of a race that doesn’t have sexes or genders, at least not in the standard human configuration, or preferably not at all.

      I did get to do one short-term in a gammaworld game, where I played a non-gendered flying column of spaghetti sauce with linguini wings, meatball eyes, and a holy rigatoni sword – an angel of the FSM, come to reward the faithless, skeptics, and atheists for their lack of devotion. Was a blast.

      1. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr

        Haha, awesome! I have a recurring male character I play, but my favourite was a four-foot tall binge-drinking opossum wizard. Technically a dude, but people seemed to find the other descriptors more…noteworthy.

  22. 22
    Sathya

    Doing further reading, it seems that this game is trying, with good, misguided intentions, to make female players feel more “welcome”, to create in-game mechanics to ensure that they are wanted in groups/guilds. It also has effectively has a mechanical penalty for people who ostracize and drive females out of their gaming space.

    I can sympathize with their desire to create a more gender-balanced game environment, especially as female online gamers have now (according to the statistics in my game design textbook) outpaced male online gamers, but yet still seem like an invisible majority. I myself greatly prefer gaming with a mixed-gender group of people – gaming with only males for long periods of time makes me feel despondent and withdrawn – I haven’t had the opportunity to game with a nearly all female group, so I’m not sure if I’d be fine with it or want some males in the mix as well. Recently the only female in my tabletop group died, and it really sucks.

    However, while I sympathize with the designers up to a point, I definitely don’t think game mechanics are the way to go. I think making your game environment as open and inclusive as possible – making male and female NPCs that surround the environment equally impressive/heroic/visible to each other, giving the full range of options to characters of both types, etc.

    Road to hell, good intentions, etc.

    Speaking of which, I need a godless version of that phrase. Road to Vegas maybe?

    The Old Republic has failed pretty miserably in in the “full range of options” regard, IMO – while both male and female characters have the romance options with companions (and same gender romance options are supposedly forthcoming), male characters have regular options to pursue short-term romantic plotlines with minor characters here and there, while female characters have far less (or zero) of these encounters – or, as my group of friends likes to say, “dudes get to bang randoms”. It’s a ridiculously blatant double-standard, and makes me wonder if it was an unconscious “well there’s an attractive female NPC on this planet, so naturally let’s put in a romantic option for the male character” and they simply didn’t think of it when dealing with male NPCs – or if it was a conscious “well it just doesn’t seem right for female characters to have casual sexual encounters with people they will likely not see again – it might negatively affect player experience” (ignoring of course that’s exactly what the female NPC did with the male PC).

    And yes, the vast majority of games out there are designed from a completely cis perspective, do not allow for non-gendered or non-sexed characters or variants outside of the gendered binary (technically City of Heroes has the “Huge” gender option, but it’s so obviously male it’s basically a second male body type).

    And Natalie, thanks for poking at the “staring at female pixel ass” thing – I’d long ago figured out my habit of playing male and female characters went beyond my attraction to female pixels (hah, imagine that, I just gendered a pixel!) – and I’ve wondered about other males who do that (cross-gender female players as well, but fare more rare), but mostly dismissed my wondering if they were exploring their own gender as me projecting. Now I’m wondering again.

    1. 22.1
      Daniel Schealler

      I haven’t yet played any SWTOR as a male character yet, so I can’t compare.

      But there was recently an instance on Alderan where my strongly-darksided female Sith Sorcerer basically flirted with and jumped a burly male Sith NPC and then afterwards insultingly tossed him aside like a soiled napkin (remember: dark-sided). The actual dialog was, if I remember correctly: ‘Ugh. Your voice is irritating to me.’ Sounds bad in text, but the tone with which it was said was just so cold. It was brutal. I was a little bit shocked, but also pleased to be shocked.

      So the option is there at least some of the time.

      But again, I suppose that this this took place on Alderaan – my fifth world. It was the first time I had the option to flirt with a male NPC. Although as a modifier to my modifier, Kalyndra is also very quick to kill NPC’s whenever the dialog option presents itself, so perhaps we missed some dialog branches there.

      If on the other hand the male equivalents have a fling on every planet then you’re definitely on to something.

      1. Daniel Schealler

        Just coming back to this:

        I’ve rolled up a male alt and have been running through the same starting world/worlds.

        My male alt definitely gets way, way more opportunities to flirt than my female main did.

        He hasn’t actually slept with anyone yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

        Additionally: The female NPC’s with which my male alt is flirting seem to be a lot more attractive according to standard cisgendered norms than the male NPC’s with which my female alt is permitted to flirt.

        So I retract my previous objection: You’re definitely onto something here.

        Typical disclaimer applies given that there’s still a lot of content I haven’t seen yet.

    2. 22.2
      Aliasalpha

      Yeah I have to say the only instances of my characters having casual sex have both been with female characters, the smuggler having some fairly standard “well that was a fun mission you sent me on, lets have sex” type thing and the imperial agent used it as a persuasion tool when someone was going to blow her cover.

      1. Aliasalpha

        Oh tell a lie, I just remembered that my male trooper also had casual sex with a mission giver. *SPOILER* Then later in the game he let several hundred people die just to save her… what can I say, she was a cool character.

  23. 23
    Daniel Schealler

    Interesting example of the guy in the story.

    I also nearly always roll up female characters when playing these kinds of games. But that’s because I get a kick out of reversing the stereotype. I’ve probably spent over 100 hours running across the fields of Skyrim as a battle-axe toting half-orc female named Tiffany. Because it makes me smile. ^_^

    My SWTOR main is also female (Kalyndra, because Kali was taken). But even there, I find that over chat people just naturally assume I’m male. I don’t know if that’s because male is the default assumption (girls don’t exist online, duh). But even so, I don’t think that the situation you related above would have happened to me.

    Hmm… Now that I think about it, it’s weird. But sometimes when I play SWTOR online I do come across someone and just get this sense that the person behind the chat is female. It has nothing to do with the gender of their character exactly – it’s just something I pick up out of the ether from the way they talk. I couldn’t begin to put my finger on why that is, and there’s probably every chance that whatever heuristic I’m using is probably highly flawed and subject to all sorts of nasty biases about gender. But still, it’s interesting to think about that.

    Okay, that’s enough navel-gazing from me.

  24. 24
    BrianX

    I (AMAB) have multiple avatars, male and female, on Second Life. I haven’t done much on SL lately for unrelated reasons, but it became increasingly hard for me to use the female avatars because I couldn’t seem to be honest about having a bi-gendered identity. I didn’t want to be too weird to others…

  25. 25
    Kate

    Oddly enough, I specifically avoided the use of any female characters in games prior to accepting my trans* status. Although I wanted to do so, I knew that playing as a female would cause me to do exactly what Natalie says it would: question and explore my gender. It would be awfully hard to avoid admitting to myself who I was if I started doing something silly like actually investigating the issue. As it turns out, finally deciding to question myself directly was what helped me begin transitioning, and I’m so glad that I did. Nowadays, I always play as female, because that’s who I am. :)

  26. 26
    passerby

    A friend of mine has used the ‘If I have to stare at an ass all day’ line, and I really do believe him on it. He seems like an asexual to me, but he’s been on dates before so I suppose that’s out the window.

    It’s strange to see a different side of the story, in both a creepy and enlightening sense. Is it really that bad in the community? I know that there are some bigoted assholes out there, but is it that ingrained?

    Honestly, I wouldn’t give this MMO the time of day with a trick like that. It smells of cheap cash grabs and desperation more than anything, not to mention the ultimately creepy ‘conform 4 cash’ sentiment inherent in the idea.

    To be fair, If I like a game with that option I usually end up with a male and female character on my saves. Dark Souls, Oblivion, Skyrim…Males and females.

    Though I have to say: Jennifer Hale in Mass Effect is one of her best roles (Falls-from-Grace still takes it) and one of the best voice acting spots in modern gaming.

    1. 26.1
      Aliasalpha

      It’s strange to see a different side of the story, in both a creepy and enlightening sense. Is it really that bad in the community? I know that there are some bigoted assholes out there, but is it that ingrained?

      I’ll grant that my exposure is fairly limited being more a single player person but for the most part the bigoted arsehole type are usually viewed as an embarassment and ignored, largely because they’re teenagers trying to sound tough and failing miserably. At least with forum/comment type examples of fuckwittery I see a fair few people countering them, not that the dickheads ever read replies, they just fuck off once they’ve said their piece.

      It could also be a cultural thing, I’ve noticed a fair dropoff in bigoted bullshit since star wars the old republic opened australian servers. Of course being australians there has been an uptick in crude humour & general swearing…

      1. Aliasalpha

        Actually that makes it sound like australians were the problem and then they buggered off, I meant to say since I joined an australian server

  27. 27
    badandfierce

    Oh, gamer gender variance… I spent five years LARPing in a very liberal, LGBTQ-friendly, open-minded group. Live Action Roleplay, as the name implies, requires that you be right there in front of people as you play your character, and it was still full of gender exploration, whether for story’s sake or deeper reasons. I’m sure both were true. As a member of a mostly female GM team (and our only male was mostly the combat guy, with relatively few NPCs), I was usually the assigned wacky character actor and the designated cross-player. Yes, we have a word for that. A way to balance the cast to a reasonable gender ratio? Sure. A fun way for me to play with my genderqueer inclinations? Yeah, that too. The other game I played in had an all-male GM team for its first few years, and they had a designated crossplayer, too, for most purposes. Don’t know if he had any gender-exploring aspirations or if he was just the best actor and the short guy with longish hair. I do have a AFAB friend who, while partway through transitioning, wanted to come to game as a “frilly French whore,” to quote him. He is French, so that part’s explained, but for the rest, you’d have to ask him. My roommate played a female character for years who was dearly beloved by all, and also resulted in water balloon fights when her bosoms were stolen. Freedom with gender expression and exploration for all! Meandering freely through the realms of male and female in a game setting seems to be a great thing for a lot of people, whatever they get out of it.

    And over in the internet, there’s a niche practice that I’m not surprised would be missed in a more general post. There’s a whole world of play-by-post games where people write back and forth rather than tossing dice or letting a game engine do the work, and there’s a lot of playing with gender there, too. And, as one sadly would expect, a lot of weird transphobia and homophobia on the side, a lot of awkward to awful fetishization, and a lot of clumsy writing, but there are definitely people who try and who get a lot out of that chance. Writing on the internet allows safe anonymity and puts a little more investment into the game than just playing through an rpg video game’s storyline. The group I’m most active in right now features a lot more female players than male, about half of whom (self included) mostly play male characters. Both our male players mainly play female characters. There’s definitely a lot of writing exercises and trying out other stories in there, but there’s exploration, too. A lot of us are somewhere in the LGBTQ spectrum, and there’s no safer space to discover.

    Now to figure out what to do about these boobs while I’m supposed to be a physically-teenaged male vampire for five hours come the weekend.

  28. 28
    lrah

    Which gender I choose in video games depends entirely on the choice of armour/clothing. If playing as a woman means I have to run around half-naked while the men get awesome armour, I play as a man. In these cases, I’ve also gone the “Sweet Polly Oliver” route once or twice – choosing a male character and pretending that she’s a woman pretending to be a man, or just a very, very butch woman.
    When there’s sensible clothes and armour (and most RPGs I’ve played for any significant amount of time have been OK about this), I usually like to play as a fantasy version of myself, which always involves some degree of androgyny.

    Obviously, I think the RL-gender=IG-gender policy is complete bollocks. I can’t think of a *single* reason why this should be encouraged.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite="" class=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>