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All the World's a Stage: Gender and roleplaying

Anne Stickney

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW.

Ridiculousness of the above video aside, there have been countless jokes about women in WoW; the G.I.R.L. (Guy In Real Life) acronym has been present since vanilla. Regardless of what the perception of others may be, there are a lot of roleplayers out there who like to roleplay the opposite gender. And why not? It's a change of scenery. It's a different mindset entirely, and honestly, men and women both have been doing this since the early days of tabletop roleplaying.

As with any aspect of roleplay, there are pitfalls to be found -- and none quite so convoluted as the issue of gender in roleplay. Whether for you, yourself, or the roleplayers around you, the subject of real-life gender vs. character gender is a touchy one for both men and women alike. Today, we're going to take a look at the importance of gender and how it applies to roleplaying.

The importance of gender

A lot of people place a lot of importance on gender, whether it is a wish to see a role model, a "strong female character," a "caring male figure," or anything in between. I don't deny the importance of gender to others, but in the case of character development, who your character is and what he do should take precedence over what gender he happens to be. Many times, writers will attempt that strong female or that caring male yet actually come across with something completely ludicrous that doesn't even resemble what they were originally trying to accomplish.

We see this in television, movies and game development as well; writers and developers who focus on creating a strong female end up creating a mockery of what a female ought to be. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with the perceived importance of gender in character development. The more "important" gender is made out to be, the more it seems to come across as sexism. Whether it's a distinct lack of female role models in a game or a stereotype of brutal barbarians, it pops up all over the place in fiction, in movies, and in WoW.

Does this mean that gender is unimportant? Absolutely not. There is much to be said about the importance of having a positive male or female role model to identify with in real life and in fiction. However, creating that role model is something that a lot of people find difficult to do, particularly if there's a difference between your gender and the gender of the character you are writing or playing.

Part of the difficulty lies in the hands of those who make gender important. The importance of gender in society and in the entertainment industry can place so much pressure on the writer or the developer that they screw it up because they are trying so hard not to screw it up. They put in so many elements that are designed to make that character strong and likeable that it comes across as fake and contrived. So what's a writer or an aspiring roleplayer to do?

Roleplaying a realistic male or female character

One of the struggles many roleplayers have in regards to gender is how, exactly, to make that character seem "real." Sometimes a roleplayer will jump into a role that is so stereotypically "male" or "female" that the character comes across as a robotic, unrealistic version of what a man or a woman should be. It's a bit like the "uncanny valley" effect, an expression used in robotics. In the "uncanny valley," the more a robot acts and looks like a human, the less it appeals to those who interact with it.

We talked last week about the pitfalls of locking yourself into one particular goal or achievement that your character wants to accomplish; the same applies to gender with regard to character development. Just like a character who has only one task in life, getting too obsessed with character gender and how that affects how your character thinks, speaks, acts -- that can lock you up as quickly as a single goal with a defined end.

While an aspiring roleplayer can look at study after study about the differences in male and female psychology and try to draw examples of how his character should act, I don't really recommend this approach. The gender of your character shouldn't really be a huge issue when you're looking at character development. The point of roleplaying is to create a character and place yourself in the shoes of that character; the subject of gender should be secondary.

What does that mean, exactly? It means that gender shouldn't be the important portion of your roleplay, and it shouldn't be what defines your character. The more emphasis you place on gender, the less you place on actual character development. What roleplayers should focus on is creating an engaging character with a realistic background, one who is likeable and that they would enjoy playing.

It seems backwards, but it's not. The second you get wrapped up in gender is the moment you will run into some sort of stereotype, whether it's giggling girl or hulking he-man. The more you worry about gender, the more you focus on making that gender feel "real" and the less it actually comes across. So focus on what it is that makes your character tick. Give him or her an engaging background, and then work out the smaller details like gender. The less emphasis placed on gender, the more you can put on important things like why he's running around Azeroth, who his friends are, what his motivation is, and what he hopes to accomplish with his life.

The line between you and your character

The other issue roleplayers have in regards to gender is how to react to the sudden revelation that the woman they've been roleplaying with is in reality, a man behind the screen (or vice versa). While some people don't really care one way or another who the person is behind the screen, others are shocked and even sometimes offended when they find out their burly, sword-swinging warrior pal is actually a woman.

There is a distinct line between what happens in character and what happens out of character -- and there is a distinct line between who your character is and who you are. Your character may be a brilliant historian, while in real life, you couldn't care less about world history; your character could be a woman, and you could be a man. This is a line that should be clearly defined. It's when that line is crossed that people get upset.

There's no real way to tell when people cross that line between in-character and out-of-character interactions. It happens, though, particularly with character romances. Some roleplayers automatically turn those roleplayed feelings of romance into out-of-character crushes. If you notice this is happening to you, that's the moment you need to step back and examine those feelings and make sure you aren't getting too wrapped up in the roleplay and confusing fiction with real life.

The same applies to your friends. If you notice your roleplay partner seems to be getting a little too involved OOC with what's going on IC, you should halt the roleplay and have a talk with him about what's going on and whether he's getting too involved. This is the kind of situation that really needs to be handled delicately, because discussions involving feelings can sometimes lead to hurt feelings -- and that's the last thing anyone wants to happen.

When a player gets upset about a difference between the in-character and out-of-character gender of another roleplayer, it often means he's blurring that line. If you find yourself offended or the subject of another player's offense, it's worth it to sit down and discuss why that offense is there, what it means, and whether or not the roleplay can be salvaged. If it can, great; if feelings are too heated over the issue, it may be time to call a halt and move on.

There are countless jokes out there about men who play women and women who play men. Ignore these. The choice you make in character gender says nothing more about you than what you happen to feel like playing at the moment. There are just as many lamenting over the lack of realistic male or female role models. Don't let these perceptions pressure you into trying to create something you aren't comfortable with writing.

Whether in real life or in roleplay, what really matters in the long run isn't what parts you or your character happened to be born with; it's who he or she is as a person. When trying to establish realism within the Warcraft universe, the motivations, goals, background and memories your character holds are far more important than what gender he happens to be. Develop the person. Develop the story. Don't stress over the gender. Everything else should fall into line gracefully.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!

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