Note: this is a reproduction of an article that originally appeared on the GameCommandos site in 1999 but which has since disappeared.
It appears with the permission of its author, Bronwyn Sax (writing as Natalia).
Feb 15, 1999
I am a female in real life but that doesn't mean I always play a female character on various online roleplaying games (ORPGs). In fact, it's generally quite the opposite! I've found that the minor nuisances of being a female are annoying enough to outweigh any advantages of playing a female character on most ORPGS.
I'm not going to talk about the social issues and psychological assessments about a female player playing a male character or vice versa since that has certainly been done before. Instead, I'm just going to describe the experiences I and other female friends have seen over the years of playing online roleplaying games and how that has affected how we choose to play. This is just an essay: there are no morals, no solutions, and no changes suggested.
The very first ORPG I ever played took me forever to figure out how to play properly because I could never do anything for myself. I had made the mistake of being female on the game AND asking a few newbie type questions. Instead of fighting the mobs myself someone led me around to "help" me level; I never bought anything since it was always given to me and I was rich; and I had no lack of companionship or willing helpers.
It's amazing just how many male characters have extra swords of power collecting dust, hard-to-obtain armor lying around, endless potions, and riches beyond counting. The variety of gifts you can get by just being a female character is astounding! Although these items can be useful at times, it can also become frustrating to never get anything for yourself or have the delight of finally solving that quest or killing the mob with the great armor.
Needless to say, I was quickly bored with the situation. So I created a new character: same race, same class, same stats, and a different gender (male of course). All was quiet. It was as if I was playing the game alone: nobody gave me anything and nobody tried to "help" me level. What a relief!
Not all games are this way, of course, but it seems to happen often enough to female characters on various games.
I've never once been hit on when I was a playing a male character, but on many games while playing a female I have been asked for a "real life description" or a photo or a private email or a phone number or a chance to meet in person. Often I am given a phone number or a website in order that I may contact the young man or even the young woman. Sometimes the young man stops asking when I tell him I'm not interested although they often persist. This has the result of me avoiding the game so I can avoid them. Almost universally the women have responded politely and could remain gaming buddies without having to have a real life friendship or relationship.
Obviously people make real life friendships via an initial Internet contact. We certainly hear about the strange ones often enough on the television or radio ("Couple Marries Online and Have Never Met in Person!" or "Woman Killed By Internet Lover at Her Request!"). Real life friends also choose a game together and play together. My brother and I have often played the same ORPG over the years since it's nice to have someone else around to help your character; my husband and I have spent endless hours playing ORPGs together and having fun while doing so.
The problem happens when the unknown person starts to push the limit, try your patience, or just make the game frustrating to play. Recently, I logged onto one very tiny, very new ORPG. My idea was that I would be reviewing the game: it was a new code base for me that sounded reasonable and interesting. I thought it might be fun. The other three characters online when I logged on were the administrators. All of them insisted on either showing off by moving my character around the game world to see things (ack!), giving me bizarre gifts like see-through armor, or even asking me to "mud marry" them.
I had made the mistake of logging on with a female gender, although I wasn't using a cutesy name and hadn't made any contact with them. I was in the middle of the mud school when the process started. After only 20 minutes I had to log off; it was too much to try to explain more than once that I had absolutely no interest in being mud married to the 16 year old admin, didn't want the equipment another admin was giving me, their private emails, or any other advantage that was being offered.
In old paper-and-pencil games it was not uncommon for the players to be of either gender. I've certainly been in gaming groups where all the women were playing male characters due to the nature of the world environment. The men would also play characters of either gender, depending on the campaign world and what was needed to fill the group out.
Nobody was hiding anything: we all knew who we were in real-life and the game was about roleplaying after all! Sometimes it's much more fun being the son of the tribal chief out to retrieve the sacred knowledge of the world than to be a lowly female tribe member who gets squashed the first gaming session. At any rate, all the players know it's just a game.
This isn't as clear in ORPGS. You have no idea if the person you are chatting with is playing a role or even just being themselves; and you certainly have no idea about the gender. Obviously people are able to "hook up" via online games and find Ms. Right or at least Ms. Right Now. However, it is awkward when a young man has fallen for a girl on a game and they spend months talking and chatting. Then when they actually meet in person the "girl" is really another man. Sound a bit unreal? It's not, unfortunately.
One game administrator I know was a motherly figure for all the players. She was older, friendly, often gave advice, and was generally well liked. She was an admin for quite some time and even after she left the game, nobody knew that she was really a man. The persona that had been presented was so real and believable that nobody thought she might really be a "he". The role was so well-played that nobody thought to question it, and really, nobody cared!
I've noticed many men playing a female character on the hack-n-slash ORPGs but typically to get some sort of game advantage. They're usually the tall, mysterious, red-haired woman with green eyes or the bouncy ditzy blonde girl who doesn't know a thing about the game. On a roleplaying game where they promote roleplaying above all else, this really isn't strange or unpleasant! On a hack-n-slash type game you know they are often looking for those freebies (money, equipment, help leveling) that you can get as a female character. I guess that a large portion of the female characters are actually being played by a male; and probably a fair number of the male characters are being played by females trying to avoid the whole mess!
On a few games I have found it is easy enough to get lost in the crowd as a female character. The majority of games that I have played, however, seemed to react to a female character a lot differently than a male one.
I play a male character 90% of the time now; when I first started playing ORPGs is was probably closer to 5% of the time. What happened? Over the years I got fed up with the nuisances of being female. It may be that all the players but one are perfectly normal players, don't think a thing about a female character and in fact could care less; it's that one player that can make the game experience unpleasant and annoying.
Richard A. Bartle
11th July, 2003.