The Gender-bending series is based on the result of my own little survey, attempting to map all the motivations of WoW-players playing a character of the opposite gender. Each part deals with a certain aspect of gender-bending in games. This is the summary post, pt. 10.
Part 3: The Spectacle of Play and Characters
Part 4: Avoiding Clones
Part 5: To Wear or to Not Wear Robes
Part 6: Bring the Player, not the Gender
Part 7: Uniqueness and the Trademark of the Female Dwarf
Part 8: In Game Advantages
Part 9: For the Love of Names
Part 10: Summing it Up
Gender-bending in WoW has to be understood as part of the medium of games. To the outsider (which sometimes includes players than don’t gender-bend) it might look weird and as if someone has issues with their gender identity. I bring you an example of this from someone who posted in my survey-advertizement thread, saying they did not play characters of the opposite gender because:
“No, im confident of my sexuality :P“
I wrote in part 3, that this is nearly never part of the issue, and gender-benders know this. As virtual worlds provide a space where players can inhabit separate bodies they create themselves, although under the restriction of character creation modes, they can play and experiment with the character’s appearance. To people who play a character of the opposite gender, the option of male or female is often viewed alongside other choices such as class and race. Playing WoW includes playing with avatars, which gender-bending can be viewed as a product of.
In addition, when we look at WoW as a part of a gaming history, we understand that players come with a heritage as well. Some of them have been using the game medium for years and are used to creating characters in many different genres, including ones which only allows for certain genders to be the main character, or a certain class. Gender-bending in WoW, despite the fact the reason to gender-bend to unlock new mechanics is nigh, is neither unusual nor deviant, but generally a common phenomenon amongst players.
Overall gender-bending works as a tool of either specified gain or avoidance, with the wish to achieve a form of variety, playing the biggest part. The many available modes of play in WoW, the different classes which opens for new mechanics and therefore new ways of playing the game, alleviates being able to make this range of characters look different and apart important to players. Aesthetics were central to the majority of players as well, although specific reasons were far and apart. The wish for smooth and aesthetically pleasing modeling and animations were fundamental, but also cultural understandings of gender in trying to abide by them or avoiding them, were present.
Using WoW as a place to explore gender is less common, but nonetheless favored by female players, who play male characters in order to avoid attention and perhaps to blend in to the male dominated space in WoW. Gaining benefits in the game as a motivation for gender-bending ranged overall low.
Being able to stand out and create a unique character was exhibited, but still in accordance with a high aesthetic value to the players. The name of a character is perhaps the highest form of individuality one can achieve in WoW, and thus a particular name were more befitting of the opposite gender for some players.
I believe gender-bending can tell us a lot about both the ways characters in the game are perceived and utilized by players, but also how cultures and norms of the game and its players, can both co-exist but also challenge each other.
One of the initial reasons this interested me, was the difference in occurence between the genders, female gender-benders were very rare and I wanted to know why. As my survey didn’t include people that didn’t gender-bend, I don’t have the other side of the coin. One of my sources, Ducheneaut, Wen, Yee and Wadley’s (2009) study Body and Mind: A Study of Avatar Personalization in Three Virtual Worlds, could indicate the reason behind this, so this will have to be my best guess: Female players prefer creating idealized versions of themselves more than male players (especially in Second Life) and I believe gender is linked to projecting a version of identity, whether it’s congruent or wishful, onto a character.
One of the posters said on the general forum when I posted the survey:
“[...] I don’t understand why people take the gender of a virtual character seriously…“
Another poster, and a very insightful one of the kind I’d say, responded saying this:
“Gender studies is an extremely fascinating field. Gender is a very complicated construct. It’s taken for granted by the vast majority of people, after all, because it’s the norm to accept the one you’re assigned to at birth, and most are comfortable with that. To others, it’s an endless source of confusion and frustration, because it’s a cornerstone of one’s identity and forcing something like that is very unsettling, to say the least.
Of course, as you say, it’s not quite the same for a virtual character. But the way we are adressed and treated is still defined by which gender we are perceived as. To those who struggle with these things, it’s very important and not something you can just shrug off.“ (link)
Think about it, the internet, the virtual worlds where we can choose our own bodies, can challenge how most people look at gender and identity. In WoW or any other virtual world (or chat rooms/forums etc for that matter) you can be whatever you want and some games even include the option to be neuter. The fact the physical presence and gender of people are dislocated when we meet them in virtual worlds, I think, can change how we understand identity, approach others and construct ourselves. In what circumstances in WoW does it really matter what gender you are?
As our lives are increasingly dependent and influenced by computer technology, games that inhabit this medium become a more stable part of our leisure activities. While the subscription number of WoW continues to rise alongside other similar platforms, so does the spreading of how we utilize virtual bodies – avatars/characters to the mainstream, perhaps rendering this mode of being and play completely normal in the future.