I recently caught an episode of PBS’s Game/Show called, “Are You Weird if You Play as the Opposite Sex?“. In it, the host talked about the various reasons people play games as people of the opposite sex, which started to make me think more about why my main character in Guild Wars is a woman.
The first thing that Jamin talked about was exploiting the differences between characters (i.e. in fighting games) to win. But, he also extended this into the social space by exploiting the way others will perceive your avatar. In this sense, the goal is still to get ahead, it is just being done by social engineering rather than game mechanics. Neither of these really seemed to fit for me, since, in Guild Wars, there is no functional difference between the genders, and I don’t really play Guild Wars socially with people who don’t know me.
The second thing Jamin talked about though, was more interesting – he talked about how games provide a safe space for gender expression. In this way, it is more about the social experimentation of acting as a member of the opposite sex, more than the social engineering of gaining advantage by it. In thinking it over, this isn’t quite it either – I don’t feel like I’m expressing myself as a woman as a social experiment. It’s quite the opposite, in fact, it is more that I’m expressing myself in a package that makes more sense.
I think the best explanation I have is rooted in how I perceive gender in (especially fantasy) games. When I see a fantasy male avatar, it tends to remind me of a classical Greek hero, like Hercules, where his power comes from his physical prowess if not only his brute strength. In terms of my power fantasy, that doesn’t really fit, and I don’t really see myself fitting into that physique. On the other hand, female avatars do not tend to accentuate their musculature, and instead accentuate agility or cunning. For me, that feels closer to how I view myself – smaller, lithe, and agile as opposed to larger, muscular, and strong (even if I know I’m not that curvy). Maybe that’s odd, but it’s easier for me to see myself in the body of a woman as opposed to the body of body-builder.
This is different in different games, however. In EVE Online, I can’t help but think of my avatar as my ship (way back in 2006, when I created my character, there wasn’t even a detailed avatar creator), so I tend to fly frigates and cruisers, and not battleships – again, small and agile as opposed to large and strong. In games that don’t have a lot of avatar fidelity (like Hero Siege or Minecraft), I’m happy to play a male avatar because there isn’t really any difference to me.