Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Race Girls

Another non-Tanking related post...hopefully that's okay...

What goes into the selection of a character, their race and gender, their class and appearance? Like anything, I feel this is intensely personal. Regardless of why you picked what you did, your selection says something about you, even if it isn't what you or others might think.

Some decisions are highly interdependent such as the fact that there are certain classes for each faction that only have one available race. Perhaps conversely, your class was selected after you picked your race and you just picked what looked fun from the available choices.

Despite the severely limited character design options of World of Warcraft, each player still has a lot of things to consider when selecting what to play. What role, what faction, what sort of gameplay does one enjoy?

One thing that crops up again and again, independent of the other decisions above which are widely viewed as legitimate design choices, is the furor over cross-gender characters. Without getting into the virtues and oft-claimed vices of such a choice, I do wonder why we do these things.

According to Warcraft Realms census page, the most popular races are also arguably the most humanocentric ones with Humans, Night Elves, Blood Elves, and Undead topping the charts as the races with double digit percentages of the character population from 10-70 across all servers.

A number of reasons could be in play here and likely are. I'm no socio-cultural anthropologist nor am I sure that's really what you'd need to be to make educated assumptions on this topic, but there are a few reasons that jump out at me, the layperson.

Remember that the bulk of this comes from completely unscientific anecdotal evidence, conjecture, and other spurious points of origin.

Perhaps the most important thing that occurs to me is a certain level of identity. I assume that the popularity of the more humanocentric races is a direct result of identity psychology. Most people identify well with these sorts of characters, making it easier to invest in them and their success.

But the level of literal identification with a race is highly subjective as elves and zombies aren't exactly like anything extant in the world we inhabit offline, at least not in the forms presented. Additionally, the male humans are ridiculously muscular even when casters and the females have some odd shapes themselves. So while one can identify more readily with one of these 4 most popular races, there is still a high degree of separation from what we know.

Concessions are made for the fantasy. Beautiful, muscular, artful characters that are both more and less than we are become the front for our interaction in the lands of Azeroth, providing a certain level of anthropomorphism that make the characters both alien and accessible, appealing and inoffensive.

But some of the same logic can be applied to the highly inhuman races (if any such actually exist in the game...which is arguable). While the level of popularity of the familiar speaks to the desire to identify, those that select the inhuman could be said to be looking for a degree of separation.

Tusked elven neanderthals, ridiculously diminutive gnomes, bovine tribes and hooved aliens all provide a degree of distance that makes it easy to view the character as separate from the player. Without assuming that the players of humans and elves are looking to play themselves (though some claim they are), those that select these other less-human races seem to be looking to up the fantasy quotient of their game, to find something truly different to immerse themselves in.

Inevitably, we come to the selection of gender. Highly controversial is the decision to pick a gender that isn't your own.

Like race, the selection of gender reflects a degree of identification, though the motivating factors are somewhat different.

I won't touch on others' decisions, but discuss my own.

My main character is a Female Night Elf Druid.

My friends were and are primarily Alliance players. As such, when I went to make my Druid, my selection was restricted to Night Elves. I'm not averse to them however, and at the time humans were my preferred Alliance race. From this, I think I wanted somethign relatively close to home, something I could identify with.

So while I had no choice in the selection of my character's race, I was prone to such a selection anyway due to my desire to have a degree of familiarity present in the character.

But when I went to pick the gender of my character, I unthinkingly selected a female. As most of my readers have surmised, I'm male. My primary character (and most of the others I play, for that matter) is female.

Why did I do that? Is it because I want to be a girl? Am I homosexual as so many detractors would claim? Am I a pervert, an extortionist, sexually repressed? Well, none of the above (okay, I might be a bit of a pervert ;P ).

I don't think it's any of the above, but I'll leave it to you to decide what you think for yourself.

First, though, I think I wanted some distance. Night Elves are, despite being elves, still largely human in appearance. Certainly they have many alien characteristics that set them apart, and in fact I'd argue that they're really no less alien than say a Troll or Orc, but they have strong appeal to people that want an attractive human-like character. Because they're still largely human-like, the most distance I could get was to make the character female.

It helped that I found the male Night Elf to border on ridiculously stupid-looking, but lets face it, the females have their own proportion issues and sometimes I think they look like really tall monkeys. Still, clicking female was remarkably easy.

But I don't identify myself with my character. I don't look at her and think, "Me." Okay, maybe a little, but by making her female I could more easily be different from my character whereas a male one might have run a tad too close to being "Me" in digital form.

Playing a female doesn't feel weird to me but neither does it feel overtly distant. She's me, but she isn't remotely me. That doesn't make any sense, but I can't articulate it any better than I am. There are parts of her that ring in strong identification and parts of her that are very alien and definitively not like me.

Finally, there's the part that might scuttle my claims of feminist sympathies: I care about her more than I care about my male characters.

My male characters are almost wholly disposable. I don't give two rats' toes what happens to them. It's a game and nothing permanent really happens to any of them beyond deletion, but I don't know how else to describe it.

The female characters, Currant in particular, are like little digital friends (no, not THAT kind, fellow pervert!). Does that make me a freak? Maybe. Okay. Regardless, I want to take care of them, make them better, and do things that people say girls can't do with them.

See, whenever I make a face-hitter, I think it'd be cool for it to be female because in our world, that sort of thing is uncommon and in many cases frowned upon. I like strong women. I like capable independent women and this satisfies that predilection. I like it when women do things people say they can't or shouldn't do. Female warriors are a thing with me, I suppose.

I married a proverbial tomboy, in point of fact.

On the other hand, I can't bring myself to make a super-testosterone-laden male into a caster, so they end up female, too. It snaps my disbelief suspenders for some irrational reason to think of men built like the humans and elves and orcs of Warcraft being magical bookworms. They're more like magical beefcakes with faces that have been smashed in by a panful of fried steroids. I don't mind other people playing them but I can't bring myself to do it.

That said, I'm really enjoying a Troll Rogue and Undead Priest right now, both male. Is it the separation of race, the distance in identity that makes it possible? I'm not positive, but I find the thought intriguing. Perhaps making them male makes them just accessible enough to play an alien race, much as making an elf or human character female provides just the right amount of separation for me.

I recognize the cultural impact on my view of gender and how it's influencing what I play and I'm not making any excuses. I like strong women. I'm a bit nervous throwing my personal process out here like this, but I'm curious about this, about how each of us decide what to play from those who just click random everything and go, to those that agonize over every detail; from those who want something completely apart from themselves to those who are looking for a virtual version of themselves to turn into a fantasy hero...and everything in between.

So even if you play a human of the same gender as yourself, or an idealized elf of your gender, think about why you really made that decision and what it says about you, to you. Don't concern yourself with what other people think, consider how your sense of identity factors into the characters you play. You might surprise yourself.


Troggles said...

For me it came specifically down to appearance when it comes to gender. Male humans, dranei, and night elves all look a bit off to me, as do female gnomes and dwarves. When I start making a character, after class I decide on a name. The name normally reflects the class a bit if I did not steal the name from some other lore. I then choose which race depending on availability to play said class, as well as whether or not I think of a female or male name.

Pike said...

You know it's interesting for me-- I'm a female yes, but I've always been one of those super-tomboy, I-only-have-guy-friends, gimme-video-games-and-super-short-hair types of chicks. So perhaps it's interesting that my characters are all almost exclusively female and that not more of them are male, because that "feminine" side of me is not one that is seen often.

I think it's because when it comes down to it, I really do see my characters as being avatars of myself. I'm not just controlling my female night elf hunter. When I play WoW, I am my female night elf hunter. Or my female tauren hunter. Or my female human mage. Et al. (Actually oddly enough, now that I think about it, I feel more distanced from my non-hunter characters; my hunters are mostly the ones that are "me".)

So when it came down to the gender selection I picked female because, despite my many guy-ish tendencies, in the end I'm a chick and thus my virtual avatars were going to be chicks. I really had no second thoughts about it. (The characters mostly invariably wound up being tomboys of course.)

These days I've become more open to the idea of messing around with male characters, as well as characters with a variety of different personalities-- the whole role-playing thing grows on me more and more every day.

But I agree it's a very interesting topic and I would be interested to hear more about why certain people chose certain characters. I know guys who wouldn't be caught dead playing female characters, and I also know guys who only play female characters. It's all very interesting.

A Dwarf Priest said...

I play a female dwarf as my main and am female and short in real life. so that very well could be a sense of related identity that draws me to that character. However, I have I a mess of other alts, too.

Have you ever seen the Daedelus Project? It has all kinds of statistics about people who play MMORPGs.

For example: Troll and undead are played by younger players on average, and dwarves and orcs by older (source).

Also, there are five guys who play WoW to every one girl who plays. About every 1 in 100 male characters you see will be piloted by a female in real life. Conversely, about 1 in every 2 female characters is piloted by a guy (source).

Chris said...

I am male and tend to play female characters (blood elves and one human death knight)mainly for the appearance. If I'm gonna stare at the back of a toon for 80 levels and then raids and dungeons after that, I want something more pleasant to look at and there's nothing more pleasing to the eye than the female form. My druid however is a male tauren as I felt, for me anyway, that the tauren females are quite ugly to look at and I was going to be spending 99% of my time shape-shifted anyway.