Saturday, April 21, 2007

Projection and Attraction Theories

An opening note: nothing in this post has anything to do with quantum mechanics. No virial equations of state here.

A point of interest in roleplaying is the presence of the female avatar. Quick operating definitions: "roleplaying game" is any sort of game where you, as a player, construct a character then play the game as that character. This can range from Web MUDs and their successors like Kingdom of Loathing, to console RPGs like Final Fantasy, to MMOs like World of Warcraft (my second-favorite game ever, next to Halo), to tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons, to creepy live-action roleplaying, or LARPing. "Player" is the real-life person who is playing the game, and "character" is the in-game character that the player creates. "Avatar" is your character, or more precisely in the context of electronic RPGs, the visual conception of that character. It stands to common sense, reasoning, and conventional wisdom that most roleplayers are male... but there are many, many female characters out there.

Statistics back this up. According to Andrew--and realistically, if you're going to listen to anyone on the topic of WoW, it should be Andrew--about 90% of WoW players are male, but the male:female character ratio approaches gender parity. Assuming that almost all female players play a female character (and I'll explain in a bit why this is a good assumption to make) then fully 44% of male players are playing as a female character. Of course, nothing prevents a male player from playing as more than one character, so maybe one male player has two characters, one male and one female. Or maybe some males play exclusively female characters, and some, exclusively male.

Regardless of the distribution of number of players versus number of characters, the fact remains that probably a third of males--and quite possibly more--are playing at least one female character. The natural question is why? Andrew says the prevailing opinion in research on the subject (yes, apparently such a thing exists) is that it serves as an outlet for gender role reversal, something that everyone is socialized from a very early age to avoid like a high-maintenance girlfriend. That is, otherwise masculine males take this opportunity to act in a way that would otherwise get them suspicious looks at best and completely ostracized at worst. I disagree with that explanation for three reasons.

First, I've noticed that willingness to play an opposite-gender character decreases with increased personalization of a character. In a tabletop setting, which is much more intimately social than a computer setting, male willingness to play a female character is comparatively low. This is because in addition to looking like a female, players in this setting are supposed and expected actually to act like a female. In games like Kingdom of Loathing, on the other hand, males play female characters completely without reservation. This even changes among different incarnations of the same character. A reasonable explanation for this is that KoL is only tangentially an RPG. You get to watch the numbers go up, there's some sort of tun-based battle system, and a large focus of the game is on quests and equipment. But there's really very little role-playing involved.

Second, attention. In any MMO, there are a lot of emo little fifteen year olds as players, not-quite-men who don't have any female friends, much less girlfriends, and are convinced their lives are beyond redemption because of it. Therefore, they will take any available opportunity to interact with girls. Even supposed, electronic ones. Female characters, as their players of either gender will tell you, get a whole lot of attention. And most males who play female characters will admit that this is the worst part of playing as a female. Regardless of anyone's individual position on MMOs, it's pretty easy to agree on a position of being hit on by an emo fifteen year old: avoid it at all costs.

Finally, that prevailing opinion assumes that every male has some sort of secret inner desire to act like a female. Freud and Jung would doubtless agree. I do not.

My counter-explanation for this? The female avatar in RPGs fulfills the same role that the Mary Sue does fiction. That is, the female character is some sort of wish or unfulfilled fantasy that can really only come true in an unrealistic setting. During character creation, great care is often given to making the character look as "hot" as possible--never mind the fact that she's made from pixels. One the developer side, items that the character can acquire--armor is often particularly egregious--are designed to enhance this "hotness." The most ridiculous part is the "dance" that MMO characters inevitably perform. While male characters' dances are often designed to look as silly as possible, females are actually constructed to include a large element of sensuality. Remember those fifteen year old emo kids, who really want nothing more than to spend time with girls? The Mary Sue MMO character is a projection of that desire: if they can't spend time with real girls, it might as well be with electronic ones, and if those girls are going to be fake anyway, they might as well be as unrealistically perfect as possible.

So why does this only happen with males playing female characters? Surely there's some fifteen year old girls who are equally as emo as those boys? Undoubtedly. Why, then, wouldn't a female project that desire into a male character? The answer lies in the same attention reason that I don't buy the gender reversal explanation for males playing female characters. Females are going to get a whole lot of attention in an MMO... especially if they're actual girls. Therefore, there's no reason for a female to pretend to be a male. Furthermore, if that doubtlessly Freudian/Jungian idea of an inner desire for gender role reversal were true, we'd see about a third to half of female players with male avatars. That just doesn't happen.

Currently listening: "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist," Avenue Q