Axes and Breasts: Gender Depiction in MMORPGs

One of my first experiences connecting to the Internet in a social capacity was to play EverQuest. EverQuest, or EQ for short, was a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) that revolutionized the genre when it was released in 1999. The friend of my parents who frequently babysat me and my brother when my parents were out of town was an early player of the game. She took her gaming seriously and subscribed to multiple accounts and had multiple computer on which she ran the game. Often these secondary accounts were left to run automatically as trading mules, but when we stayed over, she let us make our own characters and play on them.

Wallpaper available from the EverQuest website. The original box art was a cutout of this, focusing on the woman on the left in the blue and yellow.

Wallpaper available from the EverQuest website. The original box art was a cutout of this, focusing on the woman on the left in the blue and yellow.

EQ, from before the game is even installed, presents a questionable ethics. The box art features a scantily clad, white-skinned, blond, human female. Notable also is her apparent class—examples are the sword-wielding warrior, the magic staff wizard, and the nimble, knife using rogue—a magic user. Magic users across the genre stand far from combat, casting spells out of the mayhem of the mêlée. Magic users, as a general rule, are also limited to cloth armor. This lends itself to being especially poorly clothed, although in my day I’ve seen some pretty revealing plate armor on female character models.

The point of this is that game design in this case of EQ, presents a pretty poor model for leadership in a genre-defining game. While the box art frequntly promises far more epic gameplay than can readily be found, the fashion choices are pretty constant. Male-models get big steel pauldrons while female-models get loincloths and sports bras. (The model distinction is critical, as will be made clear later on. There is nothing stopping a male from playing a character that looks female, and vice versa.) While EQ is still around, it’s far from the most popular thing on the market.

In 2004 World of Warcraft was launched. Similar to EQ it’s a fantasy MMORPG, but it took off in a way even EQ never did. The above video is the promotional cinematic used in marketing the game. I’ve broken down the characters that appear in it:

  1. Dwarf male hunter, who gets a gun and a giant bear pet
  2. Night Elf female druid, who gets to turn into a feline to run through pretty nature and when she fights, in on the defensive against a physical onslaught
  3. Undead male warlock, he gets some pretty sweet 40 foot tall infernal stone buddies
  4. Tauren male druid, who, as an aside to the main point, have some questionable Native American appropriation going on, gets to fight with a giant tree trunk club
  5. Orc male warrior, who gets to look ripped and go on the offensive in combat

Not the best step forward. 1:4 female-to-male representation, and the only female gets to wear some clothing that wouldn’t get her through a Cambridge winter while she’s fending off an attack from a clearly juicing male. As a finale note on looks, the first expansion introduced a new race, the Draenei, who get to have a bicep gender difference that looks like this.

An in-game screenshot available on the Draenei information page on the World of Warcraft website

Actually inside the game, there’s another serious representation gap. As is noted in Bergstrom et al. there is a case of unequal representation regarding in-game professions (31:2011). While they use a statistical tool I as a humanities concentrator don’t really understand, they assert that the gender breakdown in trainers (non-player characters who are accessed to further advance skill). There is a statistical significance in the only two professions where female trainers outnumber males: first aid and herbalism (32:2011). When compared to male-trainer dominated professions such as blacksmithing, engineering, and the notable mining (where males outnumber females 24-to-2, p-value 0.0016), flower picking and putting on band-aids become pretty obviously stereotypical female pastimes. Soft, passive, support roles.

But the game makers aren’t the only ones at fault in portraying female bodies in traditional, weak, squishy, female roles. because when it comes to it, the only thing that makes this particular string of code male as opposed to female is graphic choice. Gaming, and particularly non-player characters, take the sex-gender distinction back to before that had been articulated. There is no gender. There is only “biological” (or digital, as the case may be) sex.

Players know this. While most people I remember playing with played characters whose models matched their offline sex/gender (nobody I ever played with outed themselves as transgender), not all player characters did. In another paper, Bergstrom et al. note that while gender choice of avatar does not divide along stereotypical healer-warrior roles among novice players, it likely becomes a learned norm through the game design that is reflected in the upper skill level of players. For example, while “female priest avatars account for 85.2% of the priests […] only 51.9% of priests were played by women” (102:2012). The priest is a primarily healing class, and a particularly squishy one too.

What can be done about this? Remodel some of the NPCs. There is no reason, plot-based or otherwise, why many of these currently male-bodies NPCs can’t be female-bodied. Mining trainers can and should, more frequently be female. There is literally nothing stopping this change from taking place other than a lack of caring about equitable representation. And while they’re at it, female models can get some similar robes to the males. Instead of adding a low neckline and some slits in the skirt, the same item which currently includes these features on the male model and not on the female, can remove these objectifying features. Femininity is not inherently bad, and it doesn’t have to be erased, but it can be presented in a non-objectifying and non-exploitationary manner. If Bergstrom et al. (2012) are correct in asserting gender-norm avatars are actually a learned practice, the game makers can get together and do their small part in fighting stereotypes.

Bergstrom, K., McArthur, V., Jenson, J., & Peyton, T. (2011). “All in a Day’s Work: A study of World of Warcraft NPCs comparing gender to professions”. In Proceedings of the 2011 ACM SIGGRAPH Symposium on Video Games (Sandbox ’11). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 31-35.

Bergstrom, K., Jenson, J., & de Castell, S. “What’s ‘Choice’ Got to Do With It? Avatar Selection Differences Between Novice and Expert players of World of Warcraft and Rift”. In Proceedings of the International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (FDG ’12). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 97-104.

Blizzard Entertainment. World of Warcraft Cinematic Trailer. Jan. 22, 2010.

Blizzard Entertainment. Untitled screenshot of Draenei. Dec. 16, 2010.

Sony Online Entertainment. Untitled wallpaper [cropped]. n.d.

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