Transgendered Digital Role Playing

Tanja Carstensen’s paper “Gender Trouble in Web 2.0” attempts to capture the gender gap found in both content creation and content consumption. Two major take-aways of Carstensen’s are that women produce more blogs, but male bloggers find larger readerships. Carstensen finds hope however in blogs wikis, while site designers demand conformity to the gender binary the content itself can explore the greater spectrum of queer subjects.

Another online space that allows for queer and ‘normal’ societies to interact is the online role playing game. Massively Multi-player Role Playing Games, MMORPGs, allow players to add a little gray area to the gender binary. Players conform their characters to the binary, choosing male and female avatars, but the player is free to play outside their sex. A biologically male player can create a female character without any other player being the wiser.

This is quite different to blog writing. For maintaining a blog authenticity is of great importance. Who wants to read a cooking blog by someone who’s never been in a kitchen? Who wants to read a blog about being a woman in New York City written by a man living in Topeka, Kansas? However, game is right there in the acronym MMORPG, so authenticity does not matter. The female bard in your World of Warcraft group being a man will have no affect on the authenticity of the game, experience points will be earned, characters will earn loot, and rise in level just the same no matter what. What changes is the interpersonal dynamic. Female characters are treated very differently by the male character majority.

This ability to change gender identity on-the-fly allows for a very abnormal amount of freedom to engage in queer behavior. People who do not identify with their biology can play who they feel they are. Or players can simply take the other gender for a test drive. Take for example a friend of mine (we will call him John), a straight male who played Star Wars Galaxies. John is straight. He also tends to play female characters in all of his role playing games. In offline role playing games John does nothing else different. He simply picks female avatars because he would rather look at those for hours on end than male characters. However, once John goes online and interacts with other people he changes his style of play. In Star Wars Galaxies he starts playing to societal norms of sexuality. He plays a dancer (someone who dances to heal other players and apply other statistic modifiers done by magicians in other games). As a female dancer the character’s default outfits are flashy and show a lot of digital skin. John discovered that other gamers are very eager for him to join their group and flirt, even cat call in chat. One day John was dancing to heal his group and a passerby gave him money. John was tipped by a stranger for dancing. This, I’m not joking here, lead to John spending most of his in-game time to dancing in bars for money. John became a digital exotic dancer. Eventually other players messed him asking for cyber sex. At first he ignored them but then someone offered him a sum of in-game currency. John obliged. Now John is an online prostitute, and fairly well known on his server as the go-to gal for a fun time. I have to say again, I’m not joking here. He was given a speeder, a nice plot of land, and a house in-game. He built a virtual fortune on having cyber sex with male characters. He broke the game, or at least made a new set of rules.

So my question to all of you, have you ever played outside of your sex in an online game? Did your decision to change gender in game change the way you experienced the game? Other thoughts and concerns are also welcomed!

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