Traveling the Multiverse

Aka Ironyca Stood in the Fire – gaming blog

To Wear or to Not Wear Robes – Gender-bending pt. 5

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 Advantage
Part 9: For the Love of Names
Part 10: Summing it Up

The Aesthetics

In the previous part of the Gender-bending series: Avoiding Clones, I posted the highest motivator for gender-benders, which is the wish for variety – to have characters that don’t look and feel identical. In this post, I’ll look into the other big motivator: The Aesthetics.

Many players were particularly detailed about what they liked and disliked about the characters, ranging from a dislike of how a character’s hands look to how muscular the male characters are, to a particular dislike for hunched and oversized shoulders. Comments about the aesthetics were very common, and often the first thing players noted in the comment field, which makes me suspect that perhaps there’s a hierarchy where aesthetics and variety are primary while other factors could be less important, but yet not inferior.

The category of aesthetics are made up from six questions, that I hoped would cover what players would look for in their character’s presence.

As the figure shows, the majority of players agreed to the aesthetic motivations for gender-bending. There is a difference between female and male player’s preferences, where females range below the male players again. Generally players find the aesthetics a defining factor when gender-bending, especially in terms of modeling and animations.

Sometimes, the choice of the players seemed to be founded in a lack of a better option, as one player puts it:

Male blood elves just look horrible, no other choice really”

Some players didn’t create a character with the specific gender in mind at first, but came to that solution after being dissatisfied with the initial character’s appearance. Here gender-bending is the lesser of two evils, and more a product of design that doesn’t excite the player, than a focused decision. Evidently gender-bending in WoW can be both a tool of gain but indeed also a tool of avoidance.

Gender Discourses

A deeper investigation into exactly what it is that doesn’t work with the specific characters, can give more background information about how and why these choices are made. One player goes into detail saying:

I think female suit casters, and melee heavy classes better suit male characters

Ducheneaut, Yee, Nickell and Moore found in their study “Building an MMO With Mass Appeal” (2006) that priests were the class with the most equal character-gender distribution, 40.4% male characters vs. 59.6% female. This fits quite well with the notion of male players choosing to create a female character when wanting to play a priest. 14% of the male players in my survey also chose a female priest, which was one of the most popular classes for male gender-benders.

Hilde G. Corneliussen writes in “World of Warcraft as a Playground for Feminism”(2008) how the different activities in WoW can be associated with masculinity or femininity, as f. ex. cooking and healing, which can be seen as areas traditionally reserved for women, while blacksmithing and mining is associated with masculine values. What is interesting here, she says, is that WoW doesn’t just invite female players to act like men through these activities, but also invites male players to engage in feminine activities such as f. ex. wearing robes and healing, an activity priests have a wide variety of skills in.

In relation to gender-bending, this invitation to engage in, by our cultural perception, feminine or masculine activities, can be dodged by gender-bending, as one player says:

who would want to look at a guy with a robe?”

Instead, players can choose to create a character of the opposite gender, which they find fitting in terms of looks/activities for the class, and avoid stepping into a different discourse of the gender stereotypes, risking himself and/or his character to be perceived as homosexual:

So I chose a female because of the Male ones looks gay”.

It is important to note, that my survey shows females engaging in this form of gender-bending as well. One female player is very particular about clothing, preferring her female characters wearing robes, she says:

If any of the Cataclysm tier armor is tunic + leggings rather than a robe I’ll probably change her to male blood elf or undead until I can wear robes again.  Yes it bothers me that much!”.

I’m like this player, with one exception. Shaman gear is sometimes kilt, sometimes pants. I want the pants! I even want pants for my priest, but that is impossible at high levels, so I’ll have to  do with the robes.

I think the fact some players gender-bend in order to conform to the gender stereotypes of our western ideals, shows how we interpret and reproduce our cultural understandings even if the virtual world is fictional, but also when it comes with a back story that could lead us to reinterpret these perceptions of gender. Especially in WoW when Blizzard seems to ignore some cultural discourses about gender, f. ex. in terms of having a complete gender binary, and at the same time almost exclusively offering robes for casters, despite their gender. I believe this serves as an example of how some players find their own gender discourses in conflict with the one offered by the game.

Lore comes into play as well

On the contrary, my survey also shows how players purposefully choose to gender-bend exactly because of the back-story of WoW, the lore. This reasoning is another way of interpreting the questionThe gender I chose suited the class better in my opinion”.  I believe these players are mainly motivated by wishes to roleplay a lore authentic character:

My “Main” of a different gender is a Night Elven Warrior.
In lore, the women are the warriors of the Kaldorei.
My girlfriend at he time made a Male Druid, which we levelled together”

The screenshot below shows the roleplay guild Silverwing Sentinels on Argent Dawn (EU), and as you can see, their army consists of female night elven fighters only.

Too much butch or too much boob?

“The male ones are far too “macho” one player said. Yes, were moving into much debatable territory. If you want to play male in WoW, you will have to put up with a good portion of muscle mass, unless you want to be small and gnomish

Chastity at the blog Rightous Orbs wrote the post What About the MENZ, where he takes a closer look at screenshots of the male blood elves. They look so slim just standing up, but when he puts the 3d model into other positions, male blood elves look pretty brawny to me too.

Some of you might already know that the original male blood elves were given some pixel steriods before being implemented into the game. If not, here’s your update. It includes a quote from Blizzard regarding the model of the male blood elf.

Despite this attempt, the male blood elves are still not considered masculine (enough), although I’m sure their /joke-line adds to it:.”Don’t you wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”

Chastity attributed this fact of body image as the reason he prefers female characters in WoW. As a contrast to players engaging in traditional discourses about gender, some players avoid it purposefully based on their dislike for hypermasculine characters, as Chastity exemplifies.

Turning the tables, I also had a female player very bluntly stating:

Because, quite frankly, most of the females in WoW look like porn stars. I prefer steroid men to porn star women.

This player refers to WoW only, but her statement can be extended to the typical way men and women have been portrayed in games – men as very muscular and women as sex objects, with Lara Croft as the most well known example of this criticism.

It’s a discussion dating years back, including explanations for the lack of women gamers, which some voices claim can be seen as a product of the lack of active female heroes in games. In this light, we can understand this player’s choice as an avoidance of taking upon herself the role of the hypersexualized female protagonist, in the option of a female character in WoW. Sadly this female player didn’t say whether she objected to the body shape of the female characters, or the clothing, or both for that matter.


Relevant to this, is the popular slang within the WoW-community named “bikini-plate”. Bikini-plate denotes this particular clothing, often plate, which appears differently on female and male characters.

These two characters are wearing the exact same clothing set named “Glorious”.

As is clear from the picture, the clothing the female is wearing is much more revealing, especially around the rear and stomach/back, whereas on the male character, these areas have been covered.

This set of clothing almost doesn’t even look like the same set between the two characters. This principle varies across clothing in WoW, where some gear looks identical between the two genders, to more revealing on the female. The set displayed on the picture is not the only example of this, as you can see on Roleplaygear.

The bikini-plate can be seen as a way of sexualizing the female characters for the viewing pleasure of the male players, but at the same time it’s a character model some female players attempt to escape from.

While some female players may be deterred from playing the female characters due to finding them looking like “porn stars”, there’s another group of female players who prefer conceivably not a porn star, but at least a highly attractive female character:

I grew up with games, but I can only remember one game where I could play a female hero: Lara Croft. She became my favourite of all time.”

Cool or Sexy?

The figure at the top showed that under the Aesthetics category, the stimulation question was the least popular. While a lot of male players find their female characters aesthetically pleasing, not all of them adheres to the description of them also being stimulating, 46%.  Also the female players did not dismiss this option either, although still turning up at a lower percentage, 31%. Several players found a sexual connotation in the word stimulating  and some directly opposed this notion of what another player would coin “eye candy”.

Male players more often described their character in terms of sexual attractiveness:

If I’m going to stare at someone’s behind for several hours it may as well be pretty.

This particular formulation is very typical as an explanation for gender-bending, although one female joined the group:

I like to play male characters. They look hot and hide me from a herd of horny teenagers.”

Another way of looking at the objectification could be as a strategy to affirm one’s own sexuality and by proxy negating claims of deviance when playing the opposite gender. Even though Esther MacCallum-Stewart in Real Boys Carry Girly Epics: Normalising Gender Bending in Online Games (2008) writes that: Players are absolutely unrepentant about the fact that they find the female avatars more attractive., my male respondents were not entirely describing their female avatars in terms of attraction. Even though sexualized words were sometimes used, it was not to an “unrepentant” degree.

One player puts it this way:

I thought night elf females are way cooler compared to night elf males. Just prefer their…. style?”

Notice his choice of the word “cool”, which does not have a sexualized connotation. Another great example is the post “Male player, female toon: my personal take on a worn-out topic” by Russ at Sunmurma:

“While I think my toon looks badass, I don’t think she looks particularly sexy, or girly for that matter. If anything, she looks handsome, beautiful, self-confident and powerful”

This is by the way also how I feel about my female characters.

So while looking at the overall distribution of the Aesthetic category, the stimulation factor for both genders of players did not range as high as a more neutral wording with regards to modeling, which peaks at 90%.

The Popular Blood Elves

The blood elves were the most popular race for gender-benders in my survey, where a fourth had chosen a blood elf as their most prominent gender-bended character. The blood elves were also the most popular for both male and female players. This meant that gender-bending became more common on Horde side overall due to this favoritism. 35% of these were also paladins, which on horde side traditionally could only be played by blood elves. I’m suspecting these facts are interconnected.

Understanding male player’s choices to play a female blood elf paladin can f. ex. be explained by the fact male blood elves are very feminized and are implied to be homosexual, as I discussed up above, despite the fact Blizzard tried to counter this to some degree, by adding body mass. A theory as to why females also prefer blood elves when gender-bending, could be that the female players do see an attraction into what could be perceived as a very metro sexual masculinity, or perhaps a movement away from a very brutal masculinity negatively mentioned earlier by a few male respondents as well.

Overall the blood elves are perhaps the most idealized race in WoW based on western ideals of beauty, and despite the fact they carry the mark of being “the other” as does the remaining Horde races, they visually do not share their savage and brutal appearances. In fact they are said to be aristocratic and snobbish, and to some degree be reminiscent of the anime-style. Their stand-out polished, idealized aesthetic and upper-class demeanor as a counterweight and plain variety to the other Horde races, could also be an explanation to why also the female horde players prefer the blood elves. I am just guessing here.

Recent findings as part of the PlayOn 2.0 project by Ducheneaut and Yee also found blood elves to be the favorite amongst gender-benders, but ranged night elves, humans and draenei much higher for male gender-benders than my data does, ergo according to the PlayOn 2.0 project, male gender-benders go for the more attractive female races more equally. The females also first and foremost prefer blood elves according to this source.

Worgen and Goblin could be Changing the Patterns

I believe the patterns of gender-bending are undergoing changes these months, as the two new playable races (goblin and worgen) were added the 7th of December 2010 with the Cataclysm expansion.

An example could be the newly added worgen race, which is reminiscent of the werewolf, a very anthropomorphic and feral looking character. The worgen race, I believe, adds a new layer of primal force to the Alliance faction, perhaps more bestial looking than any of the Horde races. Maybe some players will revert their act of gender-bending or convert, based on these two new races.

Summing it up

As fundamental the choices were regarding aesthetics, players still choose to gender-bend for very different aesthetic reasons. For both male and female players, avoiding stereotypes of their own genders was a motivating factor, while some gender-bended as an act of conforming to ideals of femininity and masculinity by avoiding having f. ex. a male character wearing a robe.

Despite WoW being a place that is not perfect in a feminist perspective, I’d say it still flirts a little with gender stereotypes. Perhaps game universes can also be playgrounds for challenging cultural perceptions of gender, as we saw by some players utilizing this option, although others avoid it.

Amongst gender-benders we also find players who pay attention to detail and will, in finding an unaesthetic feature, gender-bend. This shows that gender sometimes, if not often, comes secondary to other factors such as class options, animations, here under f. ex in what players would describe as more natural”, “graceful movement and modeling”.

Smoothness of movement is absolutely essential to me. I’m very happy about night elf females jump animations, and generally like their way of running and casting. As for f. ex. gnome females, watching them break their neck backwards everytime they jump, gives me sympathy pains. If the looks and movements do not come together as a whole, I will probably seek an alternative to that race, and although I don’t gender-bend, I fully understand players that do based on the aesthetics.

Next in part 6: Bring the Player, not the Gender, we shall look at another motivation for gender-bending – “Social Interactions”. This category includes both gender-exploration but also gender as an identifier when interacting with other players in WoW.

So long!

2 comments on “To Wear or to Not Wear Robes – Gender-bending pt. 5

  1. Vaneeesa Blaylock
    January 18, 2011

    This whole series is really great Ironyca. Thanks for doing all the research!

    Ironyca-lee, in Second Life, if you want to be a child avatar, the male shapes don’t work… so all the “boy” avatars are actually wearing “girl” shapes to be that small. (you set the cleavage to “0” but it can still look a little funny sometimes)

  2. Zinn
    January 19, 2011

    Great post again. This subject is extremely interesting and you really bring out good points!

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