WomenGamers.com: Gender Bending in Games by Dr. Kathryn Wright
A few weeks ago, I decided to informally investigate a phenomenon I find intriguing: males who play as female characters (or who use female models, skins, or avatars) in games. This behavior can take many forms: playing Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, designing and roleplaying an elaborate female character in a fantasy role-playing game, or choosing a female model in Quake.
After some brainstorming, I devised a survey and put up a news item on our site, asking for male subjects who would be willing to answer some questions on the topic. Other gaming sites picked up my request for subjects, and to my surprise, my inbox was suddenly overflowing with responses. I quickly realized that I was receiving feedback from a preponderance of males who play as female models in first-person shooters (FPSs). In order to round out the data with males who play as female characters in other game genres, I posted to four role-playing game (RPGs) message boards (EverQuest, Ultima Online, and Asheron’s Call).
In the end, I received 33 completed surveys, and informal comments by another 31 males who wanted to add their two cents worth, either via email or through the message boards. The informal comments typically addressed why they choose to play as female characters, and in what game genres.
Clearly, this was an informal qualitative research project. I did not randomize my sample, attempt to get representative samples from all game genres, or strive for statistical significance in the data, for example. For the most part, I asked open-ended questions, as opposed to asking respondents to pick from a list of pre-decided categories. I then looked for themes in the data.
The goal of this survey was to explore why some male gamers choose to play female characters in games, and to look at some collateral behaviors and beliefs. I wanted to explore the issue in an informal manner, cull out some main themes, and spark some discussion. Certainly, with such a small sample size, I cannot claim that the results I report here are representative of the gaming population as a whole.
What I have noticed, however, is that in our discussion forum and on Slashdot.com, several hundred male gamers have responded to the article results posted in Part I—and they almost all report that they play female characters in games for at least one of the same reasons I report here. I truly haven’t read many other reasons for the behavior not reported here. That lends validity to the idea that the reasons I report on why many males play female characters are in fact common reasons, and not simply idiosyncratic to the 64 respondents here.
However, the percentages reported in my research might vary from the general population: i.e. the numbers of males who play females for reasons x, y, and z in my data might be different from the number of males who endorse those reasons in the gaming population at large. In particular, I would suspect that the percentage of males who play female characters in order to gain some advantage in the game, in order to win, is even higher than the 60% reported here.
In retrospect, I would have had separate surveys, one for each of the following game genres: RPG, fighting games, and action games. This would have streamlined the data, as many answers were genre-dependent. One good thing came out of lumping all genres together as I did, however: I saw that some male gamers are capable of very different motivations and behaviors at once when it comes to playing female characters. Several of the respondents reported that they play female models in Quake 2 in order to gain an advantage, AND they roleplay female characters in RPG’s for gender exploration reasons.
Special Thanks go to Strider for his help with the mass-mailings and general webmail maintenance during this project; and last but certainly not least, to all the male gamers who generously shared their time and experiences with me.