Gender roles and video games: Or, why do guys play as girls all the time online?

Edit: My friend Jill wrote a passionate, well-thought out and well-written counterpoint to my blog post.

Leigh Alexander is probably one of the more controversial video game journalists because she refuses to shelf her gender while writing about video games. It’s what I find most interesting and admirable about her, since she speaks very frankly about her experiences as a female immersed in the male-dominated, sometimes misogynistic gamer culture. Some people hate it, but I find it refreshing when a video game journalist speaks his or her mind, whether it’s about gender or specs.

Persona 3, now with 100% more female playable character!

Persona 3, now with 100% more female playable character!

Recently, she wrote an article titled “What I Discovered From Gaming Like A Girl”. The Persona series is a video game franchise that revolves around Jungian psychology; game mechanics emphasize building relationships and learning to shuffle from one persona to the next depending on the social situation. It’s all very mind bending and deep (and coincidently one of the few video games out there that have strong female protagonists). Usually, the tabula rasa main character is a male, but recently Persona 3 was remade for the Playstation Portable with the option of playing the game as a girl. Leigh Alexander details how her game play subtly changed because she was playing a girl. She struggled between making decisions that would increase her power levels in the game over decisions that would reflect more “lady-like” behavior. Gender, it turns out, matters when you play video games.

Lara Croft, circa 1997

Lara Croft, circa 1997

Females in games have always been controversial and rocky. I remember when Tomb Raider first came out and my friends gawked at the screen, rotating the camera, enjoying her polygonal, large breasted body. At the same time, there’s the common archetype of G.I.R.L., or “guy in real life”; behind most female avatars in a game like World of Warcraft (or any other mmo) is a male at the computer. I stand guilty as charged, since the character I’m playing right now is a female gnome. My choice to play female characters in World of Warcraft revolves around the fact that male characters to me feel grotesque. Female characters’ proportions (from bust to hip) are exaggerated as well, but the male characters seem too hyper-masculine – and perhaps, even though I’m a male, I’m intimidated by their monstrous physique. There’s various reasons why when you question other people – my friend James plays a catgirl in Final Fantasy XI and his justification is that if he’s going to have to stare at a character’s backside all day it might as well be attractive. My friend Troy also agrees. But I know that for my friends and I, we don’t really play females in WoW to swivel the cameras and drool – we invest a large amount of time into playing a character with a real, developed personality.

Gender roles, emphasized in pixels

Gender roles, emphasized in pixels

But why as a girl? Why do males play as females all the time? Is it purely sex? Do we fantasize about them as we push our buttons and wait for cooldowns to expire? As someone who plays a female, that hasn’t been my experience. But I couldn’t really explain it. I just prefer to play as a female, and it puzzled me for a long time. What is it about playing a female that seemed so attractive? After reading Leigh Alexander’s article, I think I might have a reason why.

I had the opportunity once to run several Dungeons and Dragons campaigns for a group of young adolescents. The results defied my expectations. In Dungeons and Dragons (and most paper and pen role playing games), you create a character that you represent. It’s similar to World of Warcraft, except D&D provides much more power and flexibility in defining who your character is. One of the kids, the youngest of the group, had just entered puberty. It’s a frightening and confusing time as your body and world view shifts radically without much input from you. The first character he played was hyper-masculine — a bloody, violent half-dragon who shot first and asked questions later. He was dumb as rocks and reckless, and he played this character with a gleeful, wild abandon. The second character, however, surprised me. He played a shapeshifter who often took the appearance of a female. She was shifty; she was crafty; she was subtle. She wasn’t out in the front lines like his half-dragon; she played carefully, and whenever it was advantageous, he would flaunt her sex appeal in order to get what he wanted.

Dungeons and Dragons - where one day you're playing as this guy...

Dungeons and Dragons - where one day you're playing as this guy...

Here, I believe, lies the appeal (and the helpfulness) of role playing games, whether done with dice or on the computer. Gender is an incredibly confusing subject; nerds, geeks, and gamers especially struggle with this. Most who fall into this subcategory of society are not what we would consider traditional masculine – they are generally not very assertive, they struggle to fit in with mainstream society, they are often marginalized, they are often not physically dominating, and they do not usually succeed in romantic relationships. Some people may cry foul and say I’m stereotyping, others may say I’m describing problems that everyone experiences. I would argue, however, that the minute you decide you like video games as a hobby, you move into this subset that doesn’t belong in mainstream society, and that this subtle marginalization exacerbates social problems. We don’t fit the social criteria and expectations for masculinity, but we can’t simply just change our gender. We’re stuck in some sort of gender limbo, and I would suspect that it’s more than just male gamers who float in this desolate landscape.

...and the next day you're playing this. And nobody cares.

...and the next day you're playing this. And nobody cares.

Role playing as females allows a gamer to expand his persona. in literature, women are complex — they can be the virginal maiden or the powerful femme fatale. They can create and heal, but they also can destroy. Females in fantasy genres generally fall into the magical and religious roles, but they can also play as assassins and helpless royalty, as powerful paladins or demure druids. They can do anything. But the male persona in fantasy is generally hyper-masculine, the Campbell hero archetype inflated by a hundred-fold and infused with the dreams and desires of the alpha male in a fraternity. They are generally warriors; they are generally muscular and powerful; they are usually rash and have a destiny to fulfill. There isn’t much depth to the standard fantasy male, however, and this can be stifling.

The young child in my D&D group struggling to understand what it means to be a man and his relationship with women began to act out both parts. He experienced the heady power of sexuality as a woman, but also carefully and safely explored the incredible destructive power the male stereotype in society. He acted these roles out, exaggerating the stereotypes, taking things new and possibly (probably) frightening and making them into the familiar. He ended up enjoying his shapeshifting character because it provided him the most flexibility – at any time he could shapeshift into the more masculine role when fighting broke out, but when it required the work of what he felt was a woman, he could also fill in that role. In short, he was beginning to understand that different social situations required different personas and he used role playing games to explore them. The video game industry is replete with instances of video games where you can play that hyper-competitive, hyper-violent male protagonist who blows crap up and shoots people without an inkling of remorse. But if you look for a good video game with a strong female protagonist, especially a tabula rasa-type that you can then project yourself onto, you might be able to come up with enough for each finger on one hand. If you’re lucky. So the gamer who’s already played his fill of these games naturally gravitate to the option of playing a woman, a character more complex than one who is either the paragon of paladin virtue or a cold-hearted, robotic killer.

While hilarious, the recent Old Spice commercials only reinforce the stereotypes of males in our society

While hilarious, the recent Old Spice commercials only reinforce the stereotypes of males in our society

And maybe, just maybe, I play a small, diminutive female gnome because despite the fact that she’s a warrior, she’s also an engineer and a master cook – and if I played one of those hulking males I would be afraid people would immediately begin to discount my intellect (something I value greatly) or my engineering or cooking or first aid skills, or would wonder why a hulking draenei is talking about things like motivations and backstory. A male that looks like the males in World of Warcraft just need to hit things and stop doing things like thinking. In the fantasy genre, females are allowed to be complex, but males are still considered very simple. However, I know this isn’t true when it comes to reality – I’m an incredibly complex person, and I know both James and Troy are, too (though they might be loathe to admit it). Could it be that we all play as a females because it allows us to carefully craft complex personas on the MMO medium, giving us the most flexibility to not only experience those power fantasies of killing massive dragons or slaying a mob of goblins with ease, but also the opportunity to express emotions, to level up in things besides “killing” and “more killing,” even to feel physically attractive, and still be socially accepted?

Leigh Alexander herself mentioned the difference in her game play – when she played as the male character she didn’t think twice to be ruthless and harsh, to challenge others for power and sacrifice peoples’ happiness and well-being for the greater good. But as a female, she found herself hesitating because that’s just not what women do. Maybe male gamers play as females because it allows us to be compassionate and empathic while still trying to achieve goals such as gaining more power or ability; it allows us to tap into a side of ourselves that mainstream society tells us we can’t – it allows us to break free of gender roles and explore the facets of ourselves that simply don’t coincide with the persona and expectations of the traditional, emotionally distant and hyper-competitive American male.


Filed under life stories, wordsmithing

24 responses to “Gender roles and video games: Or, why do guys play as girls all the time online?

  1. justjillsblog

    So my response was waaaay too long for a comment. So you can read it on my blog:

  2. Ted

    Man, it’s freaking amazing is what it is. It should be required reading.

  3. Good article!

    This was one of the first hits on a Google search of the topic, btw, gratz!

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  6. cyanotic

    Hey Ted, I wrote on this topic for Girls Like Giants. The first part is largely a critique of your post (sorry!). But I am sincerely indebted to you for getting this conversation started. Good luck with fatherhood and priesthood and your bookwriting.

    Sincerely, Brian

    My post here, if you are interested in checking it out:

    • Ted

      Do not worry about critiquing me! Since then, I have changed quite a few of my beliefs concerning this subject and modified others. I have been considering strongly on revisiting this subject as of late. The recent popularity of this piece has only spurred me towards doing so.

      Thanks for contributing to the conversation! It’s greatly needed!

  7. Zac

    I enjoyed your article, but I still can’t understand fully why guys play as girls sometimes. I understand that the stereotypical male is hyper-masculine, and likes to blow things up, but what’s wrong with going out of the stereotype?
    Do you feel that you have to play a female because being a male automatically means that you’re big and strong?
    I’m just curious; I’ve never had the desire to play a female, and I’m the nerdiest kid I know. I often play a large assortment of male characters, from the scraggly cook to the stereotypical hero. In Skyrim, that is.

    Nice article, however. I’m just, still curious.

    • Ted

      Hey, first of all, let me say thanks for your comment. As you can see, this post was written almost two years ago, and over the course of those two years, my thoughts on this subject have changed a lot. This continues to be a really popular post, so I have been planning on writing a follow-up to this post and I think I’ll get started on that right away.

      I really think that this is a super difficult question (the question being “Why do guys play as girls in video games?”) because the answers often end up being super personal. I have been asking this question a lot to people who do, to try and find some kind of pattern, but everyone has a really personal reason for doing so (one of the more interesting reasons I heard was from a guy who felt uneasy doing violent things — as is likely to happen in video games — to women characters while playing a man, and he feels better if he plays as a woman doing violent things towards women characters). I’ll have to write all of this stuff up; thanks for reminding me!

  8. Great post. I was researching how gender was influencing game play and (video) game choice and Google gave me this link. Your post is bringing me an insight that I couldn’t get, given my own gender –so thanks !
    It also got me thinking: although I love to play D&D, I never managed to be interested in (supposedly) similar video games. I realise that it is, as you said, because of the grossly stereotyped characters (and I would add: story lines) available in video games. To me, it is similar to watching a Hollywood blockbuster, as opposed to a French film (sorry for being partial -my culture) or a cinema d’auteur.
    And as a matter of fact, the game Sims, which is devoid of any storyline, is really popular with girls, so I guess I’m not the only one of my gender to feel that way.
    Just a few thoughts…

  9. ayanosuke

    I just found this and it ways a lot to me.I am one of the types who does play as a female.Its weird for me because I am kind of a sterotypical masculine guy in terms of athletics.boxing,small degree of martial arts, distance runner.Physically I’m kinda strong.However,I’m kinda shy.I feel awkward around people I’m not use to.I like to stay to myself and try to be invisible.My 1st female character I played as was princess peach.On Super Mario Kart.I liked being her because she was in an adventerous sport where she could be in danger just like the guys.I was probably about 10 when I discovered that.Around that time I saw a film called Red Sonya.I loved the character because she was tough strong and fought with Schwarzanegger to a stand still.I also loved Rogue from X-Men because of how strong and resilient she was and had a great personality.In this stage of my life I see that I truly love women and am envious to a degree of be beautiful yet also sexually appealing and can do things that men can do yet better…My main avatar is a female character on SoulCalibur 4.ShizukaKurai. The name Kurai I chose because of the charatcer I saw on TMNT in 2001 I think.(Not the new one) I place myself as that character.I do so because I want to be that character.She represents something I can not be.Its funny.She always shows her legs and wears light armour due so she can be mobile.I dislike wearing heavy clothers and will always dress light even in the winter.I hate feeling over encumbered espcially because of how I train.As I said she represents what can’t be.She’s a dominant personality whereas I’m laid back and will only confront when I feel its absolutley nessecary.Men characters are ok but well…I love women and actually wouldn’t mind being one.I’m happy with who i am but for me women are amazing.There is another side to this however.I don’t mind losing (as long as the player didn’t lag cheat or other shenanigans)If its a good fight and I lose sexually I’d be happy as well as euphoric over a great battle.A part of me enjoys being dominated.Not in the hardcore stuff that’s often portrayed.But in terms of if a female can use her charm to make me do something silly.or just witty remarks.I’ve yet to explore the sexual side of that.I think for the most part of my life I’ve been trying to have too much control.I find it relaxing and pleasing just to let go.Maybe when I play soulcalibur that’s what I look for.In fighting games you always seek to control a match in anyway possible but I love the matches when I have little to no control and end up losing.Sorrry for my rant and ramble I’m just offering my perspective. I love this article.

  10. Karen

    I wouldn’t consider myself a “gamer” and problems with gender in games is a large part of why. I ALWAYS choose a character that is either androgynous or an animal or sexless character of some type. Though that isn’t how I look, I’ve discovered this is what others might call my gender identity. I like to minimize the difference between humans, not maximize them, as many games seem to do, with ridiculously proportioned men and women. I also wish the men/boys who are gamers and tend to really look much more like a human I am attracted to than their avatars, (muscleless, pale, and awkward, my peeps) would either stop buying into the wish fulfillment of having characters built like something they will never be, or speak their minds about how they would like to play as someone that more resembles themselves or at least people they interact with in real life so they can be more proud of who they really are. Why do all creatures in WoW have to have sexual dimorphism? Why can’t some be like a cat or dog, which you pretty much have to turn over to check the gender? I just don’t get it and it turns me off and turns me to things like Lego games, or anything I can play as a non-gendered creature.

  11. Abby

    Question, my brother plays as a girl on Xbox all the time. Completely outplaying other guys on COD. He made videos and went to the measures of editing his voice to sound like a girl. He says hes from Japan too and uses a picture of a japanese girl as his youtuber photo. I assume he is not gay, because I have found explicit photos in his room before, but I dont understand why he plays as a girl… Im worried…

    • Ted

      I wouldn’t be worried about if he’s gay. There are many, many other reasons why men play as a girl on the Internet, and being gay is probably actually one of the least likely reasons out there. He may pretend to be a girl on the Internet because girls tend to get more attention (and he may be doing it as a way to get attention or as a way to prank people on the Internet). Attention seeking on the Internet stems from a lot of different reasons, too, most of them not very serious. Alternatively, he may just be trying on different “personas” for fun or just to explore what it’s like to be someone else. I’m assuming he is not Japanese; the fact that he is trying on a Japanese persona as well as a female persona suggests he’s just exploring (which, incidentally, is also why many people read novels — to see what it’s like temporarily to be someone else).

      In other words, you may not quite understand it (and I understand that), but I would really, really not worry about this. In fact, making a big deal about it will most likely make a very harmless situation worse — acknowledging it if he wants you to acknowledging it but not making a big deal about it will most likely end up him eventually getting bored and moving on without much thought.

  12. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I believe that you need to write more about this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject but typically folks don’t discuss these issues. To the next! All the best!!

  13. AustinLbs

    Thanks for posting this, it makes me feel better that im not the only guy who likes playing as girls. Whenever i play a game that lets me choose the gender i always……let me say that again… I ALWAYS, choose to be a female, i dont know why i just like playing as a female and im always a little embarassed by it because whenever a family member or friend sees my character the always as why do you play as a female and i could never answer them because i didnt know my self. I know i dont play as a female just to look at her body and i never thought as any of my female characters that way…..ok this post is getting to long, long story short i always felt a little gay whnever someone asked me why but now thanks to your post i can give them a long scientific/masculine/feminine difference answer. 🙂

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  15. Loki

    I found this after doing a google search, I had just recently read about how common this really is. I play as a girl of and on in video games. I however, don’t think it is because I want to “explore’ a more feminine personality, as in games like Oblivion, Skyrim and Fallout my female characters are usually the typical psychopaths……. This article did make me wonder though, as I kind of have a “thing” for “tough girls”. So maybe in my eyes I see (or want to see) the typical roles of dominates reversed. (lolz, this comment might be too much information……)

    • Ted

      Hey, no problem! This was, surprising to me, my most popular blog article and since then I have delved into game studies as a university student so I have a lot more to say about this matter. I keep telling myself to update it and re-write it but then I have midterms and finals and…yeah. But SOMEDAY. I promise. SOMEDAY.

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  18. Dan

    “There’s various reasons why when you question other people – my friend James plays a catgirl in Final Fantasy XI and his justification is that if he’s going to have to stare at a character’s backside all day it might as well be attractive.”

    Hey, that describes me and what I tell people. As a guy i’m naturally attractive to girls and would rather see girls on the screen for hours rather than a dude. I’m sure girls would therefore rather see dudes on the screen. Let me put it this way. Given the choice to hang out with the same sex or opposite sex as a friend at a amusement park for a day, I would choose the opposite sex because it is more fun and entertaining.

  19. Hazel

    I found this article while researching information for a college report (trying to prove the thesis that a persons gender does not affect their game choice). Being female and a die hard gamer I wanted to disprove stereotypes like “women don’t play violent games or if they do they don’t play as well as men”. Your article was very interesting reading. I have played as both male and female characters. From my own experience I have watched my boy friends style of gaming change whilst gaming with me. When we first teamed up he played male characters playing in a bold violent style, smashing everything in sight and ignoring items and details. I would describe my own style as sneaky, I like being in the shadows and only revealing myself to assassinate. My boyfriends gaming style changed to be similar to mine along with him changing to a female character. It seems to be dependant on your personal gaming style and your objective. Smashing away with no attention to detail or cunning, intelligent assassin. Great article, really enjoyed it.

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