I wish I could remember where I first saw this. An in-joke in online gaming is that MMORPG is an acronym which stands for: Many Men Online Role-Playing as Girls! I even saw in a game-wide chat people laughing that girls in games are “myths”. Sure it was a joke – and I know many gamers who I believe identify themselves as female, playing online and offline games. As anyone who has followed me for even a short time will know, I often play female characters, despite the fact that I am male. So I figured I may as well broach this question: Why do men play female characters in MMOs?
The Underlying Presumption
For simplicity and to avoid this turning into a feature-length dissertation, I’m just going to discuss the binary genders of male and female. I don’t play a game where character gender is anything but binary. When people ask me (as they periodically do) why I often – or from some people ‘always’ – play female characters, there is a presumption they’re not stating. They assume that male gamers should play male characters. And although they don’t say it, by default they have to also assume female gamers should play female characters.
But why should this be the case?
Cross-gender Roles Are Not Limited to Games
This is where games that fall under the RPG, Role-Playing Games, comes in. If well-known actresses and actors can convincingly play the opposite gender, why should games be any different?
My Characters Are Not Me
When it comes to my own MMOs, I am not trying to create a digital version of myself. Neither in looks (thank goodness) nor necessarily in their own personalities. I have two characters that are ‘close matches’ in terms of how I am as a person.
Cor-Jhan Arcturus (SWTOR)
The somewhat grumpy Shadow Jedi who strives for balance. He will break the rules if it means doing the right thing and fiercely defends his family.
My self-doubting Elf who finds himself flung from pillar to post by forces outside of his control.
But that is it. So whether I create and play a male character, or a female character this is not me. It’s also not me pretending to be something I am not.
Character-Building and Story-Writing
But where I am not physically writing stories, I am creating them in my head – sometimes called “head canon” by other gamers. I want to explore how they react to people and the world around them. I seek to understand their preferences and loyalties.
If I were doing this as an author I wouldn’t have the question of why I write female main characters. JK Rowling’s main character, or the one of the greatest focus was the male character of Harry Potter. Stieg Larsson (a man) wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
I am doing the same, just either on my blog or in my head.
But…I Don’t Understand Men Very Often
While I wouldn’t dare to claim I understand women, I can say with confidence that I understand them much better than I do men. Most of my friends in the past were females. Most of my current friends are also females. I do have some male friends that are dear to me, but they are few in comparison.
But I don’t understand men who have to prove their strength. Males who want power. Male-driven cultures that resist women joining their ranks. And men who mistreat women get me really angry – and most of you have never seen me angry!
People have said that I am more sensitive than most men. My wife, when we were dating, said I had more ‘female traits’. This wasn’t a criticism, but a description and she was probably correct. I understand and display emotion, I allow myself to cry over stupid emotional scenes in movies or books.
During university years (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) I shared a house with a couple of guys and a girl, as you do as students. I still remember the girl telling me “real men don’t cry”. And she believed it. I also believe she was wrong, but it does show those preconceptions still exist.
Reasons I Play Female Characters
I explained to one person recently than whenever I try a new game, my first character is always male. I’m not really sure why. Unfortunately this sometimes means making bad choices – e.g. I chose the wrong combat class to play and it made my hand pain worse. So after a long discussion, here are some top reasons I play female characters.
1. Because I Enjoy It
Playing games is about having fun, or it should be. In games like SWTOR and FFXIV that feature cutscenes and interactions with NPCs, I’m inquisitive about how they interact with people around them. I create young, old, funny, thin, tall, strong, weak-looking female characters.
I enjoy playing what I have heard referred to as “space barbie” – designing outfits for my female characters. I nearly always struggle to outfit my male characters in a way I am truly happy with. I have a very basic, boring dress code in real life and that probably leads to a restricted imagination when outfitting my male characters.
As I’m not female I don’t have that mental restriction when making clothes for my female characters. And incidentally, I like my female characters more-or-less fully dressed!
2. I Believe in Strong Females
Females are the equal-value opposite gender to males, in the binary world. I do not have enough experience of, or connection with people who do not identify as binary. However all people are equal in value to me.
Because of that I love creating strong female characters. Sometimes this strength is physical, which is why most of my Tank-class characters are female. Galactic Warden Alekah (SWTOR), Guardian Glinmaethor (LOTRO), and my Gladiator Miqo’te (FFXIV). A physically and emotionally strong women has just as right to charge headlong into battle as their equal to men.
But strength is not just outward. Talitha’koum, my Sith Healer in SWTOR is probably one of my most gentle characters. But she has a mental fortitude that I could never have in real life. And if anyone dares threaten those closest to her she will fight for them.
In the case of LOTRO, I have two female Hobbit Wardens – Lamuna and Rubybella. But I loved creating Shield-Bearing Hobbits to go take on the giant foes in Middle-Earth. And why not?
As I’ve sort of covered this above, I’ll be brief here. I do play my female characters in order to write story sometimes. I’ll take Talitha’koum to planets I’ve ignored for ages to remind me how she connected with, or fought against, that environment. I play Glinmaethor with Caethir to put interactions together. And I will purposefully play father-and-daughter duo Faeladar and Hanawen before putting together another piece of LOTRO FanFiction.
4. Escapism or Not-Me-ism
Sure, playing games in any way is a form of escapism or distraction. For me that’s especially true fighting Fibromyalgia symptoms day-in, day-out. But playing female characters takes it another step of immersion for me. I can avoid my own male-influenced weaknesses and failings, for example. I don’t deny I have those issues (don’t we all) but it’s easier to ignore them for a few hours in a game. I am not pretending I am female, because to do that would be to live a digital lie. If people ask me in-game about my IRL gender, I will answer truthfully. (And yes I’ve been hit-on by someone who told me they were male while I was playing a female character. I gently informed him I wasn’t and not to presume gender of players by the avatars they see in-game).
But not-me-ism, can be very helpful.
5. I Connect With Them Better
Writing fiction, or playing games is a similar process for me. To want to play a character I have to connect with them. And aside from Caethir (and his brother Ayrthir) and Cor-Jhan, I don’t often connect with male characters. Somehow I do, when it comes to female ones. It’s likely a reflection of my offline self finding it easier to connect with the opposite sex.
6. Females Accidentally Become My Favourite Classes
I’m not actually sure how this happened! But sometimes the random nature of life does things – and in my case it’s about the classes I play. With the increase in Fibromyalgia pain, especially hand pain, I have had to adjust to how I play games.
The result of this is that I usually play Tank classes. Guardian (in LOTRO and SWTOR) and Gladiator in FFXIV. Cor-Jhan mentioned above is a Tank Jedi Shadow, but I find Guardian to be a more natural tank spec.
I play tanks classes for solo content because:
- Combat is usually slower
- Heavy Armour means less damage taken (I’m risk averse like that)
- There’s usually little or no channel-time for abilities, so I have to think less.
So the class can become an accidental “choice” to play female characters.
A Word to Parents
This blog post does give rise to a question for parents or guardians of children who begin to explore online gaming. I know that I play female characters and I know of female gamers who play male characters. It’s not creepy, it’s role-playing – a form of digital acting, not to mislead others but to immerse yourself in a world.
Kids have less knowledge of the world by virtue of the fact they’ve lived in it less time. So it is our responsibility of those of us of adult age to gently protect our children. They need to know that people online may not be who they say they are. We must make sure they don’t give any personal details online and that avatars they see in online games have no bearing on the person behind them. Not every gamer has innocent intentions, but from experience, the troublemakers are a tiny minority.
A Question to Female Gamers
One friend I know feels that it is rarely, or never, questioned when females (those who identify as female) play male characters. Only when men play female characters. If you’ve got input on this, please do use the comments while they’re open. Or Tweet Me with your comments. It would be good to know if this is true, or whether you have had it questioned or opposed.
TL;DR Does Men Playing Female Characters in Games Matter? Not Really.
The aim of playing any game is for enjoyment, immersion and relaxation. Or it should be. Whether a man plays a young girl in a game, or a teenage girl plays a middle-aged man in a game it does not matter. What matters is the person behind those characters. Remember avatars in games are not the person playing them. But equally, online gaming has opened to me the forging of real friendships over a period of many years. Let’s not block of the positives out of fear of the negatives. And when it comes to games, let people play them their own way. If they’re enjoying the game and they’re not trying to misuse it or manipulate others, then more power to them. I love my female characters and I will continue to play them for more than half my gaming time. Whether you play your own gender (or the closest match to it) or not, we all just want to play – so let’s do that!