There tend to be a couple of commonly held beliefs about why players choose to go cross-gender: Women play males in order to escape harassment, and males play females because they want something nice to look at while they run around killing snakes and boars. But obviously there's more to it than that, and there are all sorts of fascinating reasons that someone would choose to play a different gender (and it's no surprise that it's been a popular topic for game studies as a result). Most of those reasons are completely innocuous, yet any time players have revealed to me who they really are, they always seem to feel guilty even though they didn't do anything wrong. Oddly enough, though, it makes me re-examine my own interactions to see whether I treated someone differently than I would have had I known his or her real gender. It's a little disorienting to say the least, and there are some studies that claim we're hard-wired into reacting a certain way to appearance, regardless of whether it's in real life or an avatar. I'm a bit skeptical, and I think MMOs actually help us get beyond any ingrained attitudes, but it's still not that easy.
Player or avatar?
Things become much more complicated when players make connections with others and begin to form friendships based on trust. When we share a laugh, we're laughing with the player, not the character. Similarly, when we get frustrated about a challenge in game, it's not the characters who are expressing those emotions -- it's us. So it's hard not to build relationships with the people behind the avatar, and in some cases, those bonds become very strong. Those social ties are even more prevalent in a guild because we log in to see the same faces every day, and we're all interacting with one another constantly. When you're sharing memorable moments in game and working together to overcome challenges, it's hard not to form strong social ties. At the same time, we're doing it behind a mask, so things can get complicated pretty easily.
When it comes to gender in MMOs, many of the awkward moments stem from a clash between two opposing philosophies. One camp plays under the assumption that males are males, females are females, and if it's otherwise, the onus is on the player to make that clear. The other camp approaches it differently and views the freedom to choose gender as just that, believing that it's wrong for players to make assumptions about anyone based on a character's appearance. It's hard to say who's right because there's plenty to justify both philosophies, and unfortunately, it's that gap that creates misunderstandings and bad feelings in the end.
So what's the best way to handle it in guild? The short answer is that it depends on the guild, and in fact, it's something to consider when you advertise and recruit. Roleplaying guilds are mindful of this issue and tend to do a good job defining the parameters upfront. But non-roleplaying guilds don't necessarily consider it, and that can lead to those awkward moments when assumptions clash. If you have a guild culture that centers around voice chat and where players refer to each other by their real-life names, then it's a good idea to give new members the heads-up before you tag them. Likewise, your guild might emphasize the person behind the avatar but also allow for some light roleplaying. There have even been those guilds at the other end of the spectrum, selecting recruits based on real-life gender and requesting verification before inviting. In short, whatever atmosphere you choose to embrace, it's wise to cite that in your guild description so you can avoid a scenario in which someone feels betrayed or embarrassed by a misunderstanding.
There are also those players who will choose to go cross-gender for all the wrong reasons, and those members can rip apart a guild. The most common scenario is the man who plays a female character in order to manipulate the guild and gain from it. To misrepresent yourself intentionally and willfully betray your guildies' trust is one of the worst things to do in an MMO, and guild leaders should always be vigilant. I think it occurs less often these days primarily because players have learned their lessons the hard way, but the general rule of thumb is that your gut instinct is often right, and if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Among the news of SWTOR free-to-play and Guild Wars 2 launch news was the announcement from Markus "Notch" Persson that Steve, the Minecraft guy, is in fact genderless. In short, the default character avatar was meant to be neither male nor female, and the name Steve was not meant to assign gender. And yet, some of the most popular Minecraft mods are ones that allow you to change your avatar appearance, so even in a genderless world, players have an inherent desire to assign an identity to their characters, which includes gender. Litigation is not the answer, and it would be a shame to see MMOs with less freedom. The better solution is to have players acknowledge and keep an open mind to both viewpoints.
Do you have a guild problem that you just can't seem to resolve? Have a guild issue that you'd like to discuss? Every week, Karen Bryan takes on reader questions about guild management right here in The Guild Counsel column. She'll offer advice, give practical tips, and even provide a shoulder to lean on for those who are taking up the challenging task of running a guild.