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Gender Representation by Players

While video games have been a male-dominated media, the number of female gamers is on the rise, but what does this mean about the ideas and personal representations of gender? Games themselves are gendered: shooting games are considered more masculine than MMO’s or puzzle games (Eden, Bowman, & Maloney, 2009), games with cute avatars or bright graphics are intended for children or females, and even characters within games are gendered, female and cuddly characters intended for females, with muscular men intended for males. Considering that video games are still viewed as more masculine, unknown players in traditionally masculine genres are automatically assumed to be men, and skill in games lends masculinity to the skilled player, even if the gender of that player is unknown (Eden et al., 2009).

Women face a challenge when playing video games in that they may feel the need to display femininity even while taking part in this generally masculine practice. Multiple studies have been performed regarding this behavior, on both the young and adult. Valerie Walkerdine (2006) studied interactions between young girls while they played a variety of games; she notes that girls favor cute or feminine characters, and what is noticeable about this is the characters’ “absence of or their ambiguous masculinity” (p. 523). Walkerdine (2006) posits that the rendering of a male avatar as cuddly “certainly cuts down the possibility of the girl as object of violence but at a very high price in that the male is rendered as unthreatening and childlike” (p. 524). A similar observation is made in some girls’ preference for femme fatale characters; this “double positioning as cute and powerful….is a useful way for a girl to resolve contradictions of femininity and masculinity” (Walkerdine, 2006, p. 524).

Further observations are found in interactions during gameplay itself: Walkerdine (2006) observed a conversation between two girls, Rosie and Bella. While Bella is playing and Rosie is waiting for her turn, their conversation involves the both of them wanting to play, but asserting that they want the other girl to play with statements such as “I’ll let you have another go” and “No, it’s all right. I want you to” (Walkerdine, 2006, p. 525). Their covert power-play demonstrates the feminine ideas of cooperation, passivity, and friendliness: “they are required to disavow the desire for control, authority, and self-interest whilst simultaneously acting to achieve these things” (Walkerdine, 2006, p. 526). In other interactions with Bella, as well as other girls, Rosie often takes a passive role and portrays herself as “dumb” or incompetent, as well as scared, when playing games, “thus locating herself in her habitual “feminine” position of incompetence” (Walkerdine, 2006, p. 526). When the girls (Rosie, Bella, Jo, Gaby) in Walkerdine’s (2006) study were playing in a 4-player setting, each girl had their own position in the small social hierarchy, and the group as a whole appeared “cohesive, democratic and friendly” (p. 532); instead, power plays weren’t performed within the group, instead Bella competed with Jo via avatar “…within the game. This allows for some power play that is legitimised by the activity of the game, but not obvious or confrontational within the social group” (Walkerdine, 2006, p. 531).

This challenge of being both feminine and masculine also extends to adult women. Helen Thornham’s (2008) study provides an example through the comments of Lorna:

Obviously it’s a football game and . . . for the boys . . . if I started playing the game, Joe would basically describe what to do, so he’d be like, “you’ve got to press that to do that de de, de de, de de.” …I actually scored one of the best scores that he’s ever seen anyone score in ISS (p. 131).

Lorna excludes herself from the game genre (football game for boys) and places herself as “subject to Joe’s instruction….In fact, her success is not only the result of Joe’s instruction, but her comments deny any competitiveness of gameplay or knowledge about the game” (Thornham, 2008, p. 131). Her comments “[enable] her to proclaim competency as a carefully constructed novice gamer who excels because of Joe’s instruction, while completely erasing any element of competitiveness or challenge to Joe’s ‘authority’” (Thornham, 2008, p. 131). Another woman, Rach, sums up one of the main differences during gameplay between masculinity and femininity: “When I sit next to Rob here and he’s gaming, I’m asking him questions. But when he’s sat next to me and I’m gaming, he’s telling me what to do” (Thornham, 2008, p. 138).

Embodying femininity while performing masculinity extends not only to social interactions face-to-face, but personal representation and online gaming. One example, Ivy from Royse et al.’s (2007) study, enjoyed shooting strangers with a rocket launcher, but still “adamantly asserted her femininity, which she marked by such feminine signs as long fingernails, which she referred to at several points in the interview…. [and that she] refuses to cut” (p. 564). My personal gender representation is markedly feminine with characteristics such as long hair and nails, and I certainly express masculinity in games. Advancement in WoW, like many games, is based on killing other people, humanoids, or creatures; I don’t believe I portray any qualms with this advancement through violence with myself (my avatar) as the instrument), however, I often express regret and sadness when innocent creatures (squirrels, sheep, etc) are caught in my wide-range attacks.

I believe that my personal experience would find that I embody the opposite of the traditional feminine passivity when gaming; my position as an officer in my guild warrants that I be more assertive and aggressive in order to handle my oftentimes rowdy subordinates. I also portray myself as more masculine in guild as a way to build and maintain relationships. This same behavior can be seen in another woman in guild, while at the same time, a third woman is quieter than either of us, but will assert herself when she feels strongly about an issue. To us, this masculinity is merely an adaptation and not seen as degrading; the men in guild can even be seen as helping or teaching us to be more masculine to overcome what is jokingly seen as a handicap. (Admittedly, I wonder if our joking about women as the lesser sex is preserving a sexist view, yet my position as an officer and the other women’s frequent topping of the damage meters clearly demonstrates our equality and competence as players.) One example of this masculine-teaching occurred when discussing the specifics of a particular boss: I interrupted a male player to correct his statement; when I found out that he was referring to a completely different aspect of the boss, I immediately withdrew and apologized. Addressing my traditional feminine response, another male said, “No, no, this is where you tell him: ‘No, you’re wrong.’” A second example demonstrating overcoming the “female handicap” happened with another woman: all of us had just died to a boss, and it was jokingly blamed on a male player. When he objected, she stated “You said I could have three free wipes [where everyone dies], cause I’m a girl, and I’m melee.” Responding to that, our guild leader said, “I like how she doesn’t acknowledge the insult; she just takes the advantage and runs with it.”

My guild, and specifically myself as a female officer, is possibly facing an upset to this masculine/feminine balance with a new female player. My fear is that she is “one of those women” who flaunts that she is, indeed, a woman, what may be considered a rarity, and attempts to use that to engender herself to the rest of the primarily male guild. What is interesting, and relieving, is that I am not alone in these feelings. Bertozzi’s (2008) exploration into cross-gender competition in video games describes my current situation faced by other female gamers:

[A senior female WoW player] points out that women who have invested a great deal of time and energy in raising their ranking in Massively-Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games have done so generally through diligence, practice and careful construction of social relationships with other players. Hostility towards new female players does exist, but only if those females come into the game and attempt to circumvent the laborious process of earning status in the group through ‘serious’ gameplay. Some females come into the game and use heteronormative feminine wiles such as flirting and sexual innuendo to attempt to make progress in the game by bonding with higher ranked males. This kind of behavior is extremely irritating to experienced female players because it undercuts the idea that females can and should gain status by earning it, the same way males do (p. 483).

“Gender-bending” isn’t solely performed by (some) of the women in the guild; you can often find the men in the guild, both straight and homosexual, acting more traditionally feminine. The men in the guild are very open in verbally stating their affection for one another, especially in overtly sexual and homoerotic terms. I believe this blatant sexuality and homoeroticism is a way for men to cope with expressing affection (a feminine trait), but in a socially acceptable masculine way; one could say that they are embodying masculinity while practicing femininity.

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