This post is cross-posted at Shakesville.
From a CyberPsychology & Behavior issue earlier this year: “Gender Swapping and Socializing in Cyberspace: An Exploratory Study” [fulltext PDF available free].
The goal of this small online survey was to examine issues around gender swapping in MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). MMORPGs include such games as Everquest, World of Warcraft, and Lord Of The Rings Online. The researchers primarily recruited from forums at www.Allakhazam.com, ending up with 119 self-selecting participants. This is unlikely to be anywhere near enough to draw any statistical conclusions. Here, I’m taking a look at what I see as a disconnect between the data the authors present in the body of the paper, and their conclusion as presented in the abstract.
In the “Gender swapping” section of the results:
Significantly more females than males had gender swapped their character. This can be explained by the reasons provided by Participant 39 (Extract 22), who gender swapped in order to prevent unsolicited male approaches on her female characters. Participant 117 (see Extract 26) appeared to gender swap out of interest and found that she was treated differently by male gamers when she was playing a male character. However, for Participant 49 (Extract 23), playing a female character meant that male gamers treated him far better. This provides support for the findings of Griffiths et al. that suggests the female persona has a number of positive social attributes in a male-oriented environment.
Three of the replies to the gender-swapping question did centre around playfulness, exploration, and performativity.
Then there are these:
Extract 22: I just felt like it, really. Mostly my characters are female, but I think I made my male character because I was tired of creepy guys hitting on my female characters. It’s utterly ridiculous, very annoying, and not the reason why I play the game. (P39, female, age 32)
Extract 25: If you play a chick and know what the usual nerd wants to read, you will get free items … which in turn I pass them to my other male characters . . . very simple. NerdBoobLoot. (P65, male, age 20)
Extract 23: Because if you make your character a woman, men tend to treat you FAR better. (P49, male, age 23)
What made it into the abstract? This:
“Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are one of the most interesting innovations in the area of online computer gaming. Given the relative lack of research in the area, the main aims of the study were to examine (a) the impact of online gaming (e.g., typical playing behavior) in the lives of online gamers, (b) the effect of online socializing in the lives of gamers, and (c) why people engage in gender swapping. [...] It was also found that 57% of gamers had engaged in gender swapping, and it is suggested that the online female persona has a number of positive social attributes in a male-oriented environment.“
The study results showed that participants had varied experiences of gender in MMPORGs, and a variety of motivations when it came to gender-swapping. Both sexes tried gender swapping out of interest, as a window into an “unknown universe”. Some women gender-swap to escape harassment – not a surprising result in the least, and one replicated in all kinds of online research. Yet the authors glossed over this, preferring instead to highlight the male experience of virtual “femaleness”; and only a very specific type of “femaleness” at that.
There can be a lot of reading between the lines involved in such a superficial study, but I think P65′s contribution is telling. Women aren’t “treated better” in online games, as P49 asserts; the acceptance is conditional, and it’s conditional on performing a certain kind of sexual availability. The man performing femaleness says you only need to “know what the usual nerd wants to read”, and you get loot. He labels this “NerdBoobLoot”, which suggests to me that there’s more than textual interaction going on. Payment for virtual sexual displays is being interpreted by men as “women being treated better than men”. Does that not boggle your mind as much as it does mine?
This brief, almost voyeuristic gender-swapping by virtual tourists seems to be hooking in to badly erroneous ideas of what it is like to be female online. What it is like to be constantly reminded of your status as a member of the sex class, to be evaluated, to be constantly subjected to covert and overt threats of sexual violence. I wonder how long the “better treatment” assessment would last if subjected to it all. the. time, in every aspect of life?
I’m going to make an educated guess that the men who were awarded the prime place in this study subscribe to a set of dangerous ideas about sexual harassment in face-to-face life also. “Women must enjoy it really”, “It’s a compliment”, and “Wouldn’t you be worried if you didn’t get cat-called?” spring to mind.
So why are men being given the final say in what it’s like to be female online? What is it about their faked, momentary experience that it gets to eclipse women’s actual, ongoing experience? Why is the male experience of virtual womanhood being privileged over the female experience of actual womanhood?
What happens to women online who don’t make themselves sexually available, who don’t conform to the patriarchal script? And to some who do, come to that; these experiences aren’t constrained to only certain situations, and they aren’t caused by women’s behaviour. Women get shouted at – “Tits or GTFO!”, they get mercilessly harassed, they get stalked, they receive rape and death threats. Harassment and simulated sexual assault has saturated electronic gaming from before Dibbell’s MUD times, right through to Second Life and Worldof Warcraft.
This dynamic is certainly not exclusive to the gaming world, either. Large numbers of women who have had significant amounts of online experience in IRC, chat rooms, Usenet, web forums, blogging, or anywhere else can tell you stories of sexist “jokes”, objectification, harassment, and threats; and a general, often extreme, hostility to women who raise objections.
One almost universal response to complaints about online harassment, threats, and simulated assaults? A simplistic, victim-blaming “I don’t see the problem – just switch it off and get over it”. Reactions to face-to-face harassment complaints and online complaints bear striking similarities. Are they different transgressions? Of course. Should women be forced to make a choice between withdrawing themselves from the online world or tolerating sexual harassment? That’s just another way of saying “Tits or GTFO”, and I strenuously disagree.
 Zaheer Hussain, Mark D. Griffiths. “Gender Swapping and Socializing in Cyberspace: An Exploratory Study”. CyberPsychology & Behavior. February 1, 2008, 11(1): 47-53. Available here.