Gender in virtual worlds is an interesting concept. In virtual digitized worlds, particularly the ones to create customized characters, there are often a multitude of options ranging from human to talking panda bear (such as in World of Warcraft). With so many games offering a range of options to customize in-game avatars, one would think that virtual worlds would create spaces free from identity-based social problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.
Alas, this is not the case, for a number of reasons. First, about 90% of game developers are both male and heterosexual. This constrictive hold on content production greatly limits the diversity of viewpoints represented in interactive experiences, regardless of cosmetic customization of in-game avatars.
This does, however, intrude upon the customization of in-game avatars. For the most part, player characters that are male are overly masculine and non-sexualized. They represent a power fantasy. Meanwhile, female player characters are usually overly sexualized, and tend to represent a form of sexual fantasy. If part of the purpose of these immersive games is to allow players to indulge in personal fantasies, then there is often no legitimate way to play out the fantasy of being a woman and physically powerful. However, just as similarly, it is very difficult for a player to indulge in the fantasy of being a male but sexually attractive – outside of being six feet of muscles and scars, anyway. Nevertheless, male characters vary far more. Male characters are allowed to be unattractive or average and can also be attractive (if non-sexualized, they can still be handsome). Female characters must universally be sexually appealing, thus proving that the idea of male gaze is enforced within these worlds.
A common within the video game industry joke is the “Chainmail Bikini”. A male warrior character from a medieval fantasy world wears plate armor that covers everything but his face. A female warrior character from the same world will wear chainmail that covers her nipples and genitals and nothing else. Both will have the same capabilities in terms of gameplay, but the fantasy is obviously split into one of physical power and one of sexual arousal. In some games, the same armor can be traded between male and female characters. On male it becomes plate armor, on women – right back to the chainmail bikini, like some kind of sexist, metal, virtual Schrödinger’s cat.
In regards to females, there is also the stereotype that girls do not play videogames. Male video game hobbyists outrank female players by a margin of about 2 or 3 males for every single female. However, game scholarship is not very well defined in this area. Most research in this area has a weak definition of a video game hobbyist. For example, a woman who plays Facebook browser based games for 10 minutes a day is usually listed as being as much of a “gamer” as a girl who puts 2 hours a day into a more complex and difficult game. This is overall a flaw with research in the industry that needs to be fixed.
Nevertheless, the evidence still points to girls playing less than boys. The question often asked: “Is this because girls don’t like the medium, or because games aren’t developed with girls in mind?” Personally, I think a bigger question is “Why aren’t more women developing games?” It would seem to reason, logically, that women would know what women want. However, the entire female gender has largely been excluded from the modern world of video game production, and female producers and directors in particular are rare if not for all intents and purposes non-existent.
In this case, it is sad but true that technology shapes society as much as society shaped technology. In studies of virtual worlds, it has been found that people tend to direct their avatars to unconsciously follow social norms. People play games and prevent their characters at staring at others, have their characters obey personal space, and so on. So it follows that, just like many studies in real life, players tend to unconsciously regard white, attractive, male player avatars as being preferred. Male characters keep their distance from each other and make less eye contact so as not to seem “gay” and androgynous, transgender, or transsexual characters are considered less desirable than both male and female characters.
Since the player base for these games is so geared towards white heterosexual males, since that demographic is the one producing them, which has two major effects. First is the bigotry and homophobia towards gay male players. It is a topic that is somewhat outside of the scope of this post but it is not uncommon to receive death threats just for identifying as gay in certain online games. Secondly, female characters are valued for their sex appeal. Through both of these avenues, male heterosexual players seek to prove and enforce their heterosexuality by rejecting homosexuals and embracing the idea of woman as sex object.
One of the things I was most disappointed with my cursory look through articles about gender in games is that I couldn’t find a lot of scholarly stuff about cross-play – playing a gender or sex other than the one the player has in real life. I’d be interested to know the social dynamics behind that.