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Gender in World of Warcraft

Matthew Rossi
Sometimes I flail around to try and come up with a way to start talking about a subject. So this time, I'm just going to go straight to the link - this article by Slate about why people play the characters they do in World of Warcraft, especially the genders they choose, interested me. One of the reasons is because it confirms with actual research an argument I've heard a lot as I've played the game. To quote the article:

Because players see their avatars from a third-person perspective from behind, men are confronted with whether they want to stare at a guy's butt or a girl's butt for 20 hours a week. Or as the study authors put it in more academic prose, gender-switching men "prefer the esthetics of watching a female avatar form." This means that gender-switching men somehow end up adopting a few female speech patterns even though they had no intention of pretending to be a woman.

There's more to it, though - what I really find interesting is that when men choose to play women in game, (which they do far more often than women do - 23% of men play female characters, while only 7% of women play male characters) they tend to start talking like women, or at least, like what they believe women talk like. But the paper discussed that while the men use language that fits their stereotype of what women behave like, they can't emulate how women actually move their characters in game. Men, according to the study from Information, Communication and Society that prompted the article, tend to stand further away from groups, back up more often, and jump more often, and this behavior doesn't change when they're playing woman characters.

I find the study a little limited. There's a lot more to gender and identity than it covered. But I do find it interesting that so many male WoW players play as women, for the reason that's been accepted all along, but in a way no one expected. The idea that these men, deliberately or not, emulate how they believe women communicate while playing a character that is one, whether or not they actually do communicate that way, but are betrayed by a kind of body language unique to the game world is fascinating. I'd love to see more work done on this. Why do so few women play as men? Why do those women that do play as men make that choice? What about gender identities that aren't so binary, how do the differences between cisgendered and transgendered players factor into it? In a way, World of Warcraft can serve as a distillation of the real world (remember the corrupted blood plague was used by researchers to model how virus outbreaks work in the real world) and I'd like to see more work done on it.

With thanks to my nemesis Chase for the tip

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