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Archive for May 18th, 2007

Gender-bending in RPGs

Perhaps one of the more controversial issues in online roleplaying games, starting with text-based MUDs and perhaps becoming even more of an issue in graphical games, is the issue of people playing characters who are of a different gender from themselves. For example, you might be a guy, but play a female elf. Or you might be a woman, but play a male dwarf. In principle, not only is such gender-bending perfectly allowable, but it should probably be encouraged. The purpose of roleplaying, after all, is to take on the role of someone who isn’t yourself. What more different sort of character could one be, than a member of the opposite sex? In practice, “gender bending” can end up being problematic for certain players. I’m not suggesting that, if you wish, you shouldn’t play a character of the opposite sex; but I will suggest you might want to be somewhat careful in how you go about doing it, because of how other players can (and do) react.

Interestingly, in table-top RPGs “gender bending” is not an issue. The reason is simple enough: in table-top games you are playing with people you know, and you’re all in the same room, where you can all see each other. Therefore, there is very little room for confusion between player and character. If an overweight, bearded guy badly in need of a haircut is playing the sultry blonde Elven princess, it’s not like anyone is going to be under any illusions about what the actual player looks like, or who he is. You’ve probably known “Ralph” (the player) for five years, and so it’s just not an issue.

In an online game, however, there is some room for confusion. Now in principle, again, this shouldn’t be so, because we should all be keeping in-character and out-of-character things separate. In an online game this is just not as easy for some people as it sounds. Because you are playing with someone who is, in a real sense, a stranger — you’ve never met him or her in person — there’s no mental picture to go with the other player. It becomes very easy to simply substitute the image you have of the character with the image of the player. If someone is playing a cute, perky, attractive nineteen year old superheroine with a great body in City of Heroes, it’s all too easy to imagine the player looking just like that. It’s not much of a step then from “the character’s hot” to “the player’s hot,” and all sorts of trouble are then in the offing — particularly when the person playing that “hot girl” character is a not-so-hot guy!

I have, over the years, seen some very disturbing incidents unfold. On one MUSH, there was a guy who was good at playing female characters. One of the other male players had his male character fall for the female. Now, the guy playing the female character was just roleplaying, and assumed the other person was as well. But the guy playing the male, well… foolishly he equated the cute/sexy female character with the player of that character, and assumed the player was, you guessed it, a cute/sexy girl. He started flirting with the other player (the guy) out-of-character. Finally the other player — the guy who was playing the female character — said he was male, and it grew even uglier. The guy who had “fallen” for the “cute/sexy girl” freaked out, and had what can only be described as a nervous breakdown. He went into a panic that he might be “gay” (after all he had “fallen for a guy!”), accused the other guy (the player of the female) of being gay, of trying to “turn him gay”… well, you get the idea. He ended up in therapy — over an online text game! The guy who had played the female character was so upset by this that he stopped playing on the MUSH, and may have just given up online RPGs entirely.

Now many people hear about incidents like the one I just described and declare that everyone should have to play his or her own correct gender. But that’s really missing the point. The number one cause of confusion and trouble in cases of gender bending is not the fact that a male was playing a female (or vice versa), but instead, the fact that certain players are too immature to handle it. Note that by “maturity” I am referring neither to physical age nor to what you might think of as “mental” maturity. Rather, I refer to what I’ll call gaming maturity. A mature gamer is someone who understands that everything that happens in the game is fictional, and not to take anything from the “IC” world into the “OOC” world — including, and most especially, in-character relationships. In MUSHes, which traditionally appealed to hardcore roleplayers and not console-style video gamers (because there was no video in a MUSH), this could be a problem. In MMORPGs and other online graphical games, it has become a real nightmare, because a huge number of MMORPG players are not mature roleplayers — many have never roleplayed before and many don’t intend to roleplay “now.” They play the MMORPG like a console game, and thus they are “themselves” all the time. They assume the same is true of other players, and so, they assume all sexy blonde female dancers are played by real-life sexy blonde women, and so forth.

Because of the potential for confusion and the fact that most MMORPG players are not experienced roleplayers (or roleplayers at all) Gender bending can therefore be rather risky for the serious roleplayer in an online environment, and one must take certain precautions. I would never suggest you should not play a character of the opposite sex — I do that all the time without trouble — but you should observe certain guidelines.

  1. Do not flirt with people in OOC mode – Try to avoid flirting with people in OOC mode. You never know whether the other player is male or female, and whether he or she is able to handle the situation or not. We had a situation on one MUSH where it turned out that one of the players who got involved in very explicit sexual roleplay was a twelve year old girl in real life, raising the ugly specter of child pornography. Just… ew, don’t go there.
  2. Avoid intense romantic entanglements – Unless you really are sure it’s safe — that the other person is an adult, and knows your real sex and you know his/her real sex — just don’t have your character get involved in romantic relationships. I know, it might hamper your roleplay a little bit, but take a look at the story about the MUSH I described above and how one guy ended up in psychiatric therapy and the other felt unable to show his face again in the game. Is it worth risking this? I don’t think so.
  3. Make sure everyone knows you are roleplaying – Leave no chance for confusion. Make absolutely sure that people know when you are roleplaying and when you are not.
  4. Consider fessing up – This one is not something I do myself, but it makes life easier: just tell people from the outset your real-world gender. It can save a ton of confusion. However, I find that it also makes the less skilled roleplayers act differently toward your character. If you want to play a pretty female who the guys should flirt with, telling all the guys who play guys that you are a male in real life will often destroy any chance at that. Most guys are not good enough roleplayers to have their guy fall for a female they know is played by another guy. But again, if you observe the second rule and avoid romantic entanglements, you won’t have this problem anyway. This is a tough one — it depends on how well you think the other players can handle the knowledge. And here’s the irony — players who can handle it, probably don’t need to know; and the ones who need to know lest a problem occur, are the ones who probably can’t handle it.

It makes me want to pull my hair out sometimes. It is rather frustrating that those of us who are good, mature roleplayers, have to walk on eggshells while playing PCs of the opposite sex because of the immature people who are incapable of handling serious roleplay, but well, there’s not much that can be done about that. In a table-top game, if someone’s being immature you can smack him upside the head to make him stop, or at worst excise him from the game group. In an online game, there’s really no good way to do that, and you will unfortunately be confronting far more immature players who can’t handle serious roleplay, than mature ones who can.

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