Traveling the Multiverse

Aka Ironyca Stood in the Fire – gaming blog

The Spectacle of Play and Characters – Gender-bending pt. 3

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.


Part 1: Advertizing the survey
Part 2: Throwing myself to the lions….I mean trolls!
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 Games ≠ Gender-bending IRL

One thing I noticed that seemed to frighten the players and my respondents about my survey, was that someone would think that playing a character of the opposite gender was a sign that they wanted to gender-bend in real life as well. I suspect this was mostly a concern of the male players. As I’m sure a lot of the gender-benders are well aware of, this is rarely the case. In fact, I had not a single respondent saying this was why they did it. This is also supported by research.

So just to be clear – gender-bending in games are not a sign of transgendering nor being homosexual/lesbian/bisexual whatever. The phenomenon is very common within games and doesn’t reveal anything about the sexuality of the players participating in it.

Think of gender-bending as a choice equal to choosing your class or race, as this is how gender-benders, and I’m sure most of WoW-players in general, see it.

The Spectacle of Play and Characters

Part of play in WoW is also playing with our virtual bodies, our own representations, which is probably best exemplified by the virtual world Second Life, where full freedom is open to the users.

In WoW, total freedom of character visualization is not possible, nonetheless it gives the players a tool to both play with their virtual representations and perhaps recreate another figure, themselves, a preferential idol or something third, which is still achievable through the character creation mode.

This may engage players in a conscious adoption of objectifying the bodies in virtual worlds, in this case WoW. By design, as the character is visible on the screen, it is intended to be played with, to be looked at, it’s part of the fun of making and having characters. Esther MacCallum-Stewart,  the author of “Real Boys Carry Girly Epics: Normalising Gender Bending in Online Games” writes: In this respect, the act of transgendering is therefore crucial to the spectacle of play, as well as clearly existing ‘apart’ from the player( p. 35). (If you’re interested in gender-bending in games, I can recommend this article).

In fact, this play with characters can be seen as a different form of play than what WoW would normally go under when considering PvP – battlegrounds and arena and PvE – raiding and leveling. As a result of WoW being a roleplaying game, a play with imagination and illusion is also present, and this extends to creating and embodying characters.

To illustrate this idea, a game that really puts emphasis on this aspect, is The Sims series. The Sims is just as much about building houses and creating people, as it is about running the simulation so to speak. Second Life and others of that ilk are another great example. They are not exactly games, but engage people more like a playground does, especially when taking into account that they fully employ and facilitate this type of play. Personally I really enjoy creating characters and take great pleasure into fiddling with the details till I get it “right”, regardless of the game or “playground”. But lets get back to WoW.

How players perceive their characters could be of relevance to the play with illusion and identity, but my survey did not include questions about f. ex. character identification, however, a few of my respondents brought up the notion of empathy on their own accord in their comments, as f. ex: I care more about my female characters (I’m male) and worded slightly differently from another respondent: I feel closer to the female characters.

The idea of the character as an abstract pawn also came up as a respondent commented:

“I see the characters in more of a benevolent watching over role and don’t get into their head”

Another respondent answered this:

[…] I couldn’t care what gender it was. If it looks better and then I will enjoy playing that character more.”

What stands out is the distinct use of “it” as a neutral way of avoiding gender, although this also acts as a depersonalization of the character.

I am putting emphasis on this to illuminate the different ways players relate to their characters, from very caring and emotional attachments – to a symbolic piece in a puzzle. This is also to say that players who gender-bend are not unified under one banner of character perception, but reflect many different ways of play which also entails playing with the character’s appearance. One could say that the character is a toy, on which players can choose to project different identities, perhaps their own or perhaps none at all, as was highlighted above.

I generally think of my characters as pieces of myself, but how do you think of your character? Is he/she a  pawn to you, a visualization of yourself or perhaps a fictional persona you made up?

3 comments on “The Spectacle of Play and Characters – Gender-bending pt. 3

  1. Zinn
    January 8, 2011

    We gender bend when we play already as children right? I remember being the “daddy” (as a girl) when playing “family” with my friends. Someone had to be the daddy and there was nothing wrong with a girl taking the role. When I think of it there might have been some questions if a guy had taken the role of the mommy however. Hmmm…

    • ironyca
      January 8, 2011

      Yes but this type of play is different in games as characters and avatars exist apart from the player. It is still related though, as it is a form of roleplay.

      Now that you bring up the discomfort our culture has with boys being feminine, I would just like to emphasize that players gender-bending in games don’t necessarily want to change gender online (nor offline), as I wanted to make clear with this article and the quotes I added. The choice of gender is sidelined with f. ex. race and class.

      People tend to think of gender-bending in games as a tool of gain, but it is used just as much as a tool of avoidance (if not more). It is very common that players will gender-bend to achieve better aesthetics, because they dislike the way the character of their own gender looks, moves, sounds and so on.

  2. Pingback: Will the Real Me please stand up? « Tome of the Ancient

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