What pretending to be a girl on World of Warcraft has taught me about myself.

So a little history here, some years ago I started a new character with some friends on World of Wacraft. We all rolled Night Elf Druids on the US Frostmane server. We also all had some innate knowledge that female characters usually ended up having people send them gifts just because of the way the WoW population works out. Anyway needless to say, if you ask me today I’d probably respond that I rolled a female toon for one of the two reasons:

  • Male Night Elves are ugly anyway and who wants to stare at that for extended periods of time.
  • I lost a bet.

These are of course lies, but it’s how I’ve always responded to the question; because, honestly I’ve never had a good answer outside of “Seemed like a good idea a the time”. Needless to say, this was during the late days of the Burning Crusade, and that druid went from just a character that I rolled up with some friends being my Main (The character I primarily play if I’m playing WoW). Over the years I’ve done server transfers, moved from Alliance to Horde back to alliance again, seen every type of server (PvE, PvP, RP), and met a few friends along the way.

It’s been a long history of getting used to the WoW culture and the people within it, going from a keyboard turning Hunter who used to roll need on shields to someone who prides themselves on doing decent with the Feral Kitty rotation.

About a year ago, after Cataclysm, I had grown tired of the “WoW Hustle and Bustle” and decided that I would move over to an RP real to see what all the fuss was about. I am a big fan of D&D outside of World of Warcraft, so one of the things that I always missed from WoW was letting the “Character be a Character” so to speak, to really take on a life outside of simply an avatar which I attached purple clothes to.

I was fearful of moving to a role playing server, on the basis of a myriad of factors including the recent horror stories of the US Moon Guard server’s “PornShire”, but after seeing a reddit post about Emerald Dream, I thought I might at least give it a shot. I was initially unimpressed with everything at hand, but it would seem that the RP Community is one of those things that you sort of have to break your way into rather then it just inviting you in.

So anyway, I’ve been on the server for I guess a few months now, settling in and enjoying the scene. And in truth, I have actually enjoyed the Role Playing aspects of the game a great deal more then I thought I would. In a lot of ways it allows one to escape the “Grind for the next reputation or purple” and just sit down and enjoy the lore and nature of the Warfcraft World.

Playing a Night Elf Female though has… taught me something. It’s interesting, because when I transferred back to the Alliance, I could have very well changed Alnarra’s name and Gender easily, even made her a Worgen Male or something similar, but I didn’t. At the time, I think it’s because I thought it would be dishonest to the character. It’s not that I think on some level that a series of entries in a database, or gathering of pixels on a screen has feelings of opinions on the matter, but just like my cat is who she is and I would never change that, in the same way I feel like the character has it’s own sort of mythos internally that can’t be replaced.

It means a lot more then just a simple collection of achievements  It’s the memories of running Naxxramas and Ulduar with is Naughtier then you, making fun of Faz’s burst DPS on Anub, or even sitting on the cliff side of a virtual mountain having a campfire with a friend of mine in Oregon after his girlfriend returned home to the east coast. All of those elements compose to me the character and what it means to me. It became more an avatar of my personality then I think somedays I like to admit.

Now I sit on Emerald Dream being a girl, which is interesting in it’s own rights. The thing is that I was raised by the internet so to speak. So a natural side effect of that has been a natural  skepticism of almost everything, including a person’s purported gender in a video game. As such, my mind had automatically assumed that all women were men, and that’s where this RP’s server fist oddity caught me off guard.

The sheer number of women playing male characters was staggering to me. I knew that some women played male toons for various reasons, but to see it again and again began to unnerve the very foundations of the assumptions I make about people online.

You see, Gender’s always been a weird subject online. In some ways it is the ultimate escapism for people, a chance to shake off not only their physical shackles (Being overweight, leading a dull life, etc), but the very basic foundations of who and what they are. One of those basic foundations is the concept of gender. I suppose perhaps these issues have become more apparent to me in the recent timeline because the transgender movement has become a very prominent issue within the online social justice circles.

To see my stereotypes so easily shattered on a community like Emerald Dream has caused me to start looking at not just how I view women, but how men view women, how women view men, and even the depth of how do men think women view them and vice versa.

The natural side effect is that gender behind the keyboard while still relevant in it’s own ways  is largely dismissed in favor of the gender of the character on the screen. In such a way you learn to interact not as yourself, but as this idealized version of the character you are playing.

And so I started ending up on the “Other Side” so to speak. Now I don’t for a moment pretend that playing a girl online in any way equates at any level of magnitude to the things that happen to actual women on a daily basis, BUT it does provide some amount of insight into the sort of perceived social interactions that go on. It’s not just male characters giving you free things, it goes to an entirely different level.

People will treat you quite differently under the assumption that your female. Now part of me just assumes that they don’t suffer from the same skepticism as I do and think that people are actually the gender that their onscreen character suggest and that has to be kept in mind as a factor, that they are acting this way because at some level they believe they can win an “Actual Girlfriend” out of all of this.

Yet, this introspection remains, as the character I “play” is for all intents and purposes a widower and just the sorts of comments that people will make in that line of reasoning fascinate me. It provides unique insight into a wide variety of how “My People” (Males) act when around women. I suppose I can see it in myself, but sometimes it is better to see perspectives from outside the mirror. All the classic ideas of relationships, gender roles, all neatly packaged into short online conversations.

Every variety of person exist and you interact with such a large variety of ages and mindset that you are forced to step back for a moment and think to yourself “Oh yeah that’s how people interact”. I suppose that’s strange on it’s own right, mostly because as an MMO, it has to at some level enforce social stereotypes for the average nerd. As they say you wouldn’t be chasing a girlfriend in a video game if you could get one in the real world… or do you?

Again my evidence is purely anecdotal and I make no assertions that this is any kind of proper social study,  but WoW’s social and family aspects are often highlighted, and all to often I am seeing ACTUAL real world couples who’s characters have nothing to do with each other. That kind of thing is simply mind blowing to me, people who after getting done with WoW will go back to sitting on the couch loving each other, that while Role Playing aren’t in any way affiliated. It’s strange… a departure from the accepted cultural perception.

It makes me look at second life with a second glance and think “Oh… that’s what they were getting at…” truly shedding that shell of “Who Am I” and trading it for an idealized version of self, even if it is constrained by the limited technology available.

These small things, these bits of anecdotal evidence have forced that introspection I spoke about above, the “How do I view women?” question to the forefront. Now obviously there are factors outside of WoW that have to be influencing my thoughts on the matter, but I can’t pretend that it doesn’t play a part in shaping at some level my own thoughts on the matter. The question of when I’m writing a small story, how do I write women? Do I write them differently from men? If so, how do I do that? When I’m DM’ing a campaign do I assign the traditional gender roles, how do I have the characters respond?

After several suggested that I would make a good Mother, I can only assume that either I write women well enough that people find them believable, or there is a massive conspiracy of assholes out there working to feed me the same set of lies. It does make me step back and wonder though, what templates have I been applying to women? What has my upbringing brought me?

Suddenly you can start to see all the same relationship ploys working across both sides of the line. You see the traditional gender roles so much clearer, this notion that it is the Man who initiates things, the expected responses from Women, the notion of the “Friendzone”, all of that put into perspective from both sides. In some ways it’s been like an explosive gender equalizer where you have to step back and go “Oh… we’re both playing the same god damn ball game, they just told me I’m using a different rule book”.

The social structures, the irritation from both sides about the other, the presumed stereotypes, all of it so clear when you position yourself as a sort of neutral party. I’d like to think it’s taught me to be more socially aware of my interactions with women, and on some level more “aware” of the social queues, but I’ve never really been great in those fields to begin with anyway.

I’m not sure what kind of insight I was aiming for in this post outside of “Gee this is fascinating  look at the tree monkeys all interact in the virtual world”, but I thought it worth posting, and perhaps I can get some thoughts out of you guys.

Have you learned anything profound from interacting in a simulation like WoW? 

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