Playing woman – Part 2: Passing as a G.I.R.L
In gender studies, ‘passing’ refers to the act of being able to get by, unquestioned, as either a man or a woman. In massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG), passing happens on two fronts.
First, in the player’s ability to choose an avatar’s gender and to pass as that gender, regardless of whether or not they identify that way in their offline lives. For many, this shows their skill in role play, since, after all, being able to perform something convincingly is part of the game.
The second is an ability to pass the offline self as male. The belief still remains that most gamers are male (and white, and straight), a belief which renders cisgendered female players and the trans* community invisible. The male-gamer-myth is summed up neatly by this player comment in a forum thread for the game Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR): “MMORPG = Mostly Men Online Role Playing Girls… After 10+ years of gaming I just take for granted that all female characters are really men, until they are confirmed female through voice chat.” This sentiment is echoed again and again by other players throughout game environments, who use the MMORPG and GIRL (Guy In Real Life) acronyms as a joke, which serves only to embed this myth deeper and deeper into the gaming subconscious.
While conducting research on avatar creation in SWTOR, I noticed that many non-male identifying players preferred to ‘pass’ as male. Players who failed and were assumed to be female, experienced sexist behaviour ranging from casual slurs and condescending babying, to unsolicited erotic role play (ERP).
“The thing is, there’s a lot of guys that suddenly turn into complete morons whenever they think there’s a girl around”, wrote a player. “They start hitting on them, ask inane questions, make harassing comments, say something about kitchens and sandwiches… For others it’s more benign, they start acting overly friendly, forgiving of mistakes and basically coddling them.”
A female player lamented that she can’t be open about her identity, writing that “I don’t tell anybody because I rarely talk to anybody but my guild and I get loads of crap from them sometimes for being a girl.” Another added that other players become overly helpful and patronizing on account of her female avatar. “I’m a skilled player and I can’t stand it when people think I need help killing a few on-level regular mobs.”
This “helpfulness” stems from the idea that female gamers are illegitimately encroaching on a male-only space. When a gamer is revealed to be “just a girl”, the assumption is that she lacks the skills and experience to be effective and in some cases, pointing out her gender is seen as seeking attention, or wanting free gear or in-game money.
“Establishing your gender or wanting to seek out other female players does not make you an attention seeker or a whore and doesn’t mean that you are ‘saying you’re a girl to get stuff’. Anyone who thinks that is essentially saying that women are not allowed to declare themselves as female, which is ridiculous if you think about it. Saying ‘actually I’m a woman’ doesn’t mean you’re silently tagging on phrases such as ‘and I’d like some free stuff please’ or ‘and all sexual harassment, comments about by voice/body/whatever are welcome’ or ‘and I am a noob and am twirling my pigtails so that you do stuff for me’.”
However for some players, passing as female does have benefits. By exploiting others’ helpfulness or lust (albeit for a pixelated fantasy), players (of any gender) manage to gain items of in-game value or other favours to help them succeed. One player admits, “I like to create female characters and flirt with all the neckbeards so they give me all their credits [in-game money]. It works surprisingly well.” Another male player adds, “the game is so much more fun and cheaper playing girl toons. Just find the ‘right’ men and you pay for nothing.”
This behaviour is problematic because it reinforces the trope of the sexy women/girl who uses her feminine wiles for material gain. Regardless of how the player identifies offline, the gender of their avatar invariably becomes associated with this behaviour in the psyche of other gamers. This could have very real offline consequences as well – that female gender identity equates to being a ‘gold digger’.
The suggestion that being female means you use sex rather than skill to complete tasks, is entirely unhelpful to promoting the visibility and respectful treatment of non-male players. Passing as male allows female players to enjoy the MMORPG environment free of judgement and accusation, but perpetuates the belief that girls don’t exist in these gaming spaces, allowing sexism, negative attitudes and male privilege to thrive.
All player quotes from http://www.swtor.com/community/