As usual I’m totally late on the subject of this blog entry, namely the Nottingham Trent University study ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace’ . Richard Bartle provided a fairly damning appraisal of both the newspaper reports of the study and the scientificness of the research on his blog. The problem with reports like this is not so much the failings of the study itself, but the distortion of the findings created by the media response, that inevitably errs on the side of sensationalism. Sure the sample used in the study wasn’t huge and many of its findings repeat those of previous studies, but all in all the conclusion is fairly positive. Richard Bartle points to this article from The Guardian (I’m rapidly losing respect for you, you know) which opens with the quote ‘millions of internet users are using computer games to perform virtual sex changes, according to new research’ which sums up the mainstream media’s attitude. Before I start waffling about my own thoughts on this I want to say that ‘gender swapping‘ is a bloody awful term. The dictionary definition of swapping is ‘to make an exchange’ i.e. one party gives up possession of one item in exchange for another. People who play MMOs do not swap gender. If I choose to play a female Orc, I do not cease to be a human male, my gender doesn’t change. Sure, it sounds like pedantry, but I think it’s important that academics (and the media) acknowledge that identity in online contexts is supplemental – I add something to my identity, but I don’t take anything away. In other words I remain a human, male at core but additionally in World of Warcraft I am a female Orc and a male Tauren.
Why gender has become such an issue in MMO studies is interesting in itself, particularly when players also have the opportunity to play as non-humans of varying degrees and take-up occupations that range from stabbing people in the back to summoning demonic entities. The Guardian can happily announce to the world that MMO players ‘perform sex changes’, but they don’t seem as keen to announce that players can make ‘race changes’ or ‘occupation changes’. Okay, so gender is anchored in real world physiology and culture and therefore seems more relevant to a mainstream media audience, but if as the NTU study suggests that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft normalised the female avatar than why is it still such a big deal in MMOs? The answer is of course lies with the fact that players interact with one another and are relatively anonymous and it isn’t always clear that a female character is being played by a male player or vice versa. What’s interesting about the findings in the study, is that many of the players who play genders opposite to that of their own, have clearly played genders the same as their own. The women who claim they get less hassle as male characters have clearly experienced hassle as female characters and the male players who play female characters know they’ll get fewer gifts as male characters than female becuase they’ve played male characters. Players make decisions about their characters based on their experiences in the game world, they are not necessarily tied to identity issues they may be having in real life.
This is true not just for gender, but aspects such as race and particularly class as well as things like talent and skill builds. A player of an MMO might start the game playing a healer, only to decide later that they prefer tanking, something they could only learn by playing both classes. That most MMO players have numerous alts is not even touched upon in this study even though it’s a major part of the MMO experience and is surely as relevant to identity as gender. Choice of character is tied to what players want out of the game, the fact that they have choice and the option to play whatever combinations there are available is something exclusive to MMOs. In real-life we might spend our childhood years dreaming of being a fireman, only to find we’re better suited at being an accountant once we reach adulthood, we might possibly go through two or three career changes but our range of experiences is pretty finite. In MMOs this is less problematic, players can experience many lifetimes, from birth (level 1) to retirement, multiple times. Retired characters can also be brought back from retirement and suffer none of the issues of ill health that plague their real life counterparts. What would have made for a more interesting study would have been to look at players’ histories of character development: the number and kind of alts they have, their first character, how often they play their characters, what made them try a new character out and stick with it or abandon it and so on. If academics are going to look at gender in MMOs they need to look at the bigger picture, then they might find that it’s not just female characters that get hassle, so do certain classes and talent builds (e.g. hunters), while some classes are more priveleged, e.g. tanks and healers as well as the pressure players may get from guilds and friends to play certain classes. Pressures aren’t related exclusively to gender but a lot more complex and unlikley issues.
(Edited for shit spelling and poor grammar)