Video Games And Gender Studies
May 7, 2014

Video Games And Gender Studies

Call me late on the take, but recently I picked up the Saints Row series on Steam. The games were a lot of fun, more fun than I have had with video games in quite a while actually, and the sheer amount of detail that can go into character customization was staggering. As I have been playing a lot of Shadowrun with my friends, I chose to re-create my Shadowrun character for the game. The character is female, while I am not. Why did I choose to play a female avatar? Well, honestly, why not? When I envisioned the character, she was female. If I ever chose to write the character into a piece of fiction, it would be as a female. Admittedly, I have a fondness for female characters. Stories like The Hunger Games and Alien(s) Ripley is awesome –or characters like Murphy and Molly from The Dresden Files and Elizabeth from BioShock: Infinite have always really stood out to me as being truly wonderful. Does this say something about my “true” gender identity, or will the fact that I am male still shine through, despite my choice of a character’s gender?

According to some experts in the field of gender studies, yes.

A new study conducted by researchers at Concordia University, Colorado State University, Syracuse University, Hofstra University, and the University of Toronto notes that male gamers who chose to play as female characters will still show signs of their true gender despite – or perhaps even due to – the appearance of their avatar. In this study the researchers examined the online behavior of 375 participants who were put through a custom-made quest in World of Warcraft. Their goal was to see if gender differences in their in-game behavior would align with the real-world social norms that govern what is considered “appropriate” behavior for men and women alike. In this study, 23 percent of the male participants chose to play female characters and seven percent of the female participants chose to play as male characters. The play sessions were all recorded, with notes being made on their online movements, chat, and any time they interacted with objects in the game world. The results of the study were that male gamers who played as female characters used significantly more emotional phrases and used the smile emoticons much more often than those who played as male characters. In addition, male gamers with female avatars were much more likely to put work into their avatar to make sure that the were attractive. It was also noted that, in respect to the character’s movement, male gamers with female characters often sought to stay further away from groups than female players with female avatars, which they took as a possible identifier for the player’s real-life gender. In addition, on average, males playing as female characters jumped 116 more times than female gamers. The reasons for this likely vary, but a number of theories include that this could be an online “tell” for a player’s actual gender, because the use of a female character could be a deliberate attempt to garner more positive treatment from fellow players, or that this was simply a sign that, in playing a character of a different gender, the player was simply interested in having fun rather than taking the game all that seriously.

“Avatars can convey a player’s sense of humor, displeasure, intrigue, and interest through cues like gestures, movement, and language, which can reveal real-life identity,” noted Mia Consalvo, a professor in Concordia’s Department of Communication Studies and one of the authors of the study. “Our findings support feminist theories suggesting that although gender is a powerful social category, there is a range of ways it can be performed… Men may not necessarily try to mask their offline gender when they use a female avatar, but our study shows that they do reinforce idealized notions of feminine appearance and communication.”

One of the glories of games, video and tabletop alike, is that you can chose to play as anything you want. Male or female, human or not, good or evil. It does not matter. Your only limitations are your own imagination and the world in which your avatar – digital or not – finds themselves in. What do these choices say about us as players? Well, honestly, I think that is really hard to say. Different people are drawn to different sorts of characters. Sure, no matter what, you are who you are as an individual and in some ways that will always shine through. How much of that relates to your gender will vary person to person.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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