“Of course you’re a cute girl.”
A few days into the relaunch of Philippine Ragnarok Online, I had arranged to meet a friend in Payon City. I was sitting by a building, away from the morass of chat rooms and vending windows, when an acolyte with a familiar name shuffled past me. “You passed me,” I whispered to her. She backtracked a few steps, stood next to me and said, “Of course you’re a cute girl.”
Her response stood out among the reactions I’ve gotten for playing female characters. It was neither of the extremes I was used to. It wasn’t violent disgust born of misplaced lust, nor nonplussed shrugging of shoulders. Instead, it suggested a certain inevitability. I was a person of such traits and habits that it would be absurd of me to play a character of any other sort.
If you’d asked me about this a few years ago, I might have dithered about with my response. As the years have passed, however, my uncertainty has dwindled along with the time I’ve spent on male characters. Back in the days of Guild Wars, for instance, my character select screen had only one male character, but he had the most hours logged among them. Conversely, when Guild Wars 2 rolled around, I didn’t bother leveling my male mesmer past 30. Over time, I’ve come to the foregone conclusion that my friends had likely drawn long before: It’s Ari; of course he’s playing a female character.
Gamers who play characters of the opposite sex are hardly rare. They’re common enough that some researchers have begun to take note.
Studies figure them somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of the player base, more common among men than women. Most of them still play characters of the same sex more often than those of the opposite. And yet there is not, far as I know, any widely accepted term for such players. Some people resort to the colloquial “gender-swapping” or “gender-bending” while the more fastidious might call them “fe/male-presenting.”
The most evocative term, in my opinion, is supplied by Philippine pop culture. In 2006, as Ragnarok Online swept across the Philippines, the band Kamikazee released “Chiksilog.” This song tells the story of a male persona pines for the player behind a swordswoman he befriends in-game —who turns out to be a cross-dressing man. The song inducted into mainstream pop culture canon the phenomenon of the male player with a female avatar — or at least, it did so for a specific subtype of such players: the predatory, catfishing deviant.
There’s the song for the curious. Here are the lyrics.
Nilinlang, Niloko: Chiksilog
The image of the sword-swinging, gender-bending Maldita may be pervasive, but if anyone’s being deceived, it’s those who buy into her myth. Studies on men who play as women have found that in-game socializing hardly factors into the equation for most gender-bending male gamers. Even then, they are generally more concerned with getting invited into parties than in getting into people’s pants. Furthermore, such players admit quite readily that there are also significant social costs to playing as a female character: specifically, being treated as a woman by a player base filled with machismo. This can manifest in being overlooked in decision-making, having their capacity for certain roles — anything apart from support — called into question, and, of course, being hit on constantly.
Unwanted flirtations are an unavoidable aspect of playing a female character online. For all that chiksilogs get accused of hunting for attention, gender dynamics and player demographics just about guarantee that they make far less propositions than they receive. Once, I laughed as some rando plied his pick-up lines on a girl for ten minutes to no avail. And then I realized that girl was me. “I think he’s talking to me,” I whispered to one of my guildmates. He was quick to disillusion the poor sap who, to his credit, simply laughed it off. Eventually, I grew accustomed to such experiences. And then, over time, I grew wary. Once, I crossed paths with a stranger who asked me, apropos of nothing, if I was French. To this day, I’m not sure if he was a lonely soul looking for countrymen, or a horny one just looking for cunt.
…And the fall out.
Players who hit on female characters aren’t typically the easily-dissuaded sort. For online androgynes, this presents a curious choice: do you employ the standard battery of refusals until your proverbial Gaston exhausts his interest? Or do you make like Beast and reveal you were a man all along? Sadly, the laugh-it-off types are a lot less common than the hurl-invectives-in-all-chat type. So while revealing the truth often cuts an unpleasant process short, it does so by violently transforming one problem into another. Being unmasked as a Guy In Real Life typically comes with unpleasant consequences. It’s not likely to get you booted from a guild, but it will almost certainly earn you a few bare-faced slights and a lot of sideways glances or whatever their equivalent is in a guild’s BBS.
In a twist of fate, albeit one that fits right in with machismo’s myopia, the most common motive men have in gender-bending is heterosexual attraction — to their own avatars. If they’re going to be staring at a character’s butt for hundreds of hours, goes their reasoning, it may as well be a shapely, female one. As such, they tend to design their characters with conventionally feminine qualities. This gives me an answer to the friend of mine who asked, “Why is your character cuter than mine?” It also probably explains why so many guys end up falling for other guys’ avatars.
Most male gamers who play female characters do so because they like staring at virtual TNA. As tempting as it would be to simply write this off as more straight guy thirst, there is a caveat here: the explanation is almost too predictable, too safe. It’s the easiest way to get someone to stop probing into your motivations for gender-bending. This may well be what drives people to use it as a survey answer.
The problem that scholars have identified is that these players may simply be “performing masculinity,” or conforming to conventional male standards in the very act of answering “Why do you play female characters?” If you play female characters because you’re desperate for a bit of skin, you might be pathetic, but at least you’re not queer. Given the ways “faggot” has been thrown at me as an insult — at times venomous, at times painfully offhand — it’s clear which status would be worse.
How far can this get-out-of-jail card take you? Quite far, if the now defunct Scarlet Blade is any indication. Before the release of its first expansion, Scarlet Blade had only female characters. All of them sci-fi gravure idols who made Jane Fonda’s Barbarella look puritan by comparison.
But the game didn’t just rely on its visuals; it covered its bases in its narrative, too. All of the game’s characters were androids guided by faceless, nameless officers, who communicated with them remotely from distant command centers. Technically, no one in Scarlet Blade played a female character; they played presumably male characters who ogled and issued commands to hyper-sexualized female avatars. Beginner-level RP stuff, really.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find any male players complaining about all the guys with female characters in that game. Also, no one tried to hit on each other.
This may go some way to explaining a corollary question, which is “Why don’t women gender-bend in games as often as men do?”
Scarlet Blade may be unique in how shamelessly it tried to grab players by the balls, but it is entirely banal in the general use of sex appeal. The design of female characters in AAA and mainstream titles is largely directed by men and thus strives to attract, right down to the basest sense, a male audience. The same cannot be said of male video game characters, who are also designed by men, for men, albeit not for lusting after.
Instead, male video game characters are largely designed to be empty shells. They have to be vacuous enough for male players of all types to inhabit comfortably. You’ve doubtless seen their likeness on box and poster art time and time again: white skin, short dark hair, stony set of face. As Gamerant’s Hannah Shaw-Williams puts it:
The Brown-Haired White Guy … has been the face of many a best-selling game. … Even fantastical RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age II offer the default option of role-playing the life of a Brown-Haired White Guy in another time and place, and you don’t need to watch the trailers for Skyrim to guess what the default Dovahkiin looks like (hint: he’s not a Khajiit).
This uniformity in design has something of an inverted effect. The Brown-Haired White Guy’s blandness is supposed to efface him as a character. Instead, his ubiquity establishes him as an archetype. This is all well and good for gamers who can find some foothold within that archetype. It is not well and good for players like me.