I self-identify as a straight male-bodied dude, but recently I've taken to playing as a female-bodied character in many games. It's not something the majority of people do, but it's also not uncommon. Oddly, however, men play as women far more than women play as men. Let's break down why people choose the avatars they do.
A new study reported on by Slate found that men are much more likely to gender switch in online games than women. Researchers recruited 375 World of Warcraft players and had them cooperate in small groups for about 1.5 hours. The biggest finding? 23 percent of men opt to play as women, but only 7 percent of women try taking a walk on the (generally) hairier side.
Researchers also meticulously recorded participants' every movement and chat line, and their findings were... interesting—if not entirely unexpected.
"When selecting female avatars, these men strongly preferred attractive avatars with traditional hairstyles—long, flowing locks as opposed to a pink mohawk. And their chat patterns shifted partway toward how the real women spoke: These men used more emotional phrases and more exclamation points than the men who did not gender-switch. In other words, these men created female avatars that were stereotypically beautiful and emotional."
So these men role-played to an extent, perhaps somewhat unconsciously, while inhabiting idealized bodies they'd dreamed up. Article author and Ubisoft research scientist Nick Yee noted that this sort of behavior is actually fairly typical of people given avatars drastically or even subtly different from their own bodies. If an avatar is tall, he observed, people tend to be more aggressive in their actions. So basically, people unconsciously paint personalities in broad strokes. They act out what they know, so they fall back on stereotypes without really thinking about it.
The men in the World of Warcraft study failed miserably, however, when it came to movement and other less easily monitored/altered habits.
"The researchers found that all the men in their study moved around in a very different way than the women. The men moved backward more often, stayed farther away from groups, and jumped about twice as much as the women did. When it came to moving around, the men behaved similarly whether they gender-switched or not."
In short, the tendency to role-play has limits. It's not necessarily all-encompassing—not when it's unintentional or unconscious, anyway.
When interviewed after the study, many of these men explained their character choice in a rather, er, predictable fashion. Basically, it was about what sort of butt they'd be staring at while (sometimes literally) hoofing it across Azeroth's patchwork quilt of plains. The researchers explained their results thusly: "[Men playing female-bodied characters] prefer the aesthetics of watching a female avatar form."
They theorized, then, that women are more shy about being guys because most games feature male avatars designed to empower men—not appeal to women. Female avatars in games, meanwhile, often play to stereotypical male ideals of beauty and sexual appeal.
It's incredibly interesting research, and it got me thinking about why I've started playing a female avatar more often than not, regardless of whether a game is single-player or multiplayer. Physically speaking I'm attracted to women, but that's not usually what drives me when I'm rooting through my virtual skin closet to decide what I'm gonna wear to the big bash.
I guess, though, the long and short of it is that I'm already me in real life. I like the idea of seeing worlds—far flung or close to home—through other people's eyes. Video games let me do that, even if only on a very low (and oftentimes not entirely indicative or realistic) level.
It started in single-player games, largely with Mass Effect. Everyone was clamoring that FemShep was a much more engaging, well-acted personality than BroShep, so I had to see what all the fuss was about. They were right, and I was fascinated by the way Jennifer Hale's raw, impassioned performance made it much easier for me to play a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners Renegade—something I'm often wary of doing because in real life I hate hurting people and am soft like a pack of the most heartbreakingly pitiful pet shop window puppies. I got to be someone else for a bit. Someone who was kinda mean, but mostly for good reasons (honest!).
As a result, I definitely gravitate toward role-playing when I opt to play a non-"me" character these days. It's a thing I've gotten more confident about with time, too. I've tried a bit in MMOs, though mainly ones with strong single-player components—for instance Star Wars: The Old Republic. I basically tried to be Azula from (sublimely excellent) cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender in that one—a monstrously terrible person for sure, but an interesting, surprisingly vulnerable depiction of a monstrously terrible person.
Never once did I consider movement or physical proximity, though, as was mentioned in the study. Men and women are socially conditioned to handle those things very differently, but it's never occurred to me in virtual spaces. Maybe I notice it less when I can pass through people like Casper The Friendly Jedi Ghost?
I've been pretty overtly hit on by dudes a couple times in chat windows. That was kinda weird, but it stopped pretty quickly after I said I was a guy. It felt horribly un-true to the experience of being female-bodied in this ceaselessly sexualized world of ours, but I couldn't handle the pressure (incidentally, I'm not the first). If I couldn't deal for a few minutes, though, I can't even imagine what it's like for women on a daily basis. I know women who tend to play as male characters in multiplayer games for that very reason. It's a tremendous shame that it has to come to that, but I suppose it does technically count as another reason people pick bodies unlike their own in games.
All that said, I think I also play as a woman to at least try and encourage the idea that people aren't defined by their bodies. I'm a guy playing as a girl, and I might role-play a little, but fundamentally I'm still me. A person who's a lot more than simple physical characteristics.
Because at the end of the day, people aren't the flesh suits they wear, regardless of which dimples, curves, and protrusions they might have. They're people—maddeningly complex amalgams of wants, needs, dreams, and desires. Women can be awesome, men can be awesome. Or maybe someone's caught in the middle. Maybe they use games to literally try on other gender identities, to see what works for them. That is also awesome. Anyone can be anything, and games can help.
Or you can just play as a really powerful/charming/space marine version of yourself. I still do that from time-to-time too. Enough about me, though. What kinds of avatars do you tend to play as in games? Does it change depending on whether you're playing single-player or multiplayer? Do you adopt different personalities depending on what sort of character you're playing? Is that on purpose, or does it just kinda... happen?
TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.