My Other Self is a Butt-kicking Supermodel

Posted by Lisa Galarneau on September 23, 2013 in Editorial -- Share:

I swear, I need this bumper sticker.

It seems like just about every time I get together with female gamer friends, the topic of conversation inevitably (and much to my chagrin) turns to the cuteness of avatars and our frustration with the limited options we are usually given to control their attractiveness. I had a long, involved ranting session with another World of Warcraft gamer about how frustrating it was to play the Horde, mainly because the avatar customization options are limited to a few (arguably) unattractive races. We talked about how we both had female undead mages, whom we spent quite a bit of time trying to make as cute as possible, yet were still frustratingly unattractive. And how it disturbs us a bit that we care all that much, closet-inhabiting fashionistas though we might be.

But I’m gonna confess. I do care. An unattractive avatar is so disruptive to my gameplay that I will stop playing if I can’t do something about it..  I gravitate specifically towards games with beautiful avatars, like Guild Wars 2 and the Secret World.  I like to adorn them, and I welcome opportunities to show off their power and beauty.  One of my favorite things in the original Guild Wars was hanging out in the square and showing off my cute monk’s dance moves.

This discussion of avatar attractiveness has been floating around for some time, but generally with a bit more righteous indignation from people who think some avatars are a bit too attractive, and in all the wrong ways.  We all know by now that male gamers are stereotyped as liking sexy (hypersexual, even, or at least that’s what’s served up) avatars, and that disturbs a lot of people. So it’s not surprising that when I talk to male players about gender bending, they often say that it’s because if they’re going to be looking at a toon’s bottom for hours on end, they want it to be a nice attractive female one (many female toons run in a much more attractive fashion than the males).

The thing is, I and just about every other woman I know can point out a female toon created by a guy from about a mile away. Female players seldom go for the fish-net stockinged, long haired, please-do-me-after-I’m-done-kicking-ass look. The less clothes on the toon, the more likely it is to be a guy behind it. And if the toon has a name like ‘NoPants’ and has no pants, well yeah, no question there. And certainly no woman is going to make a toon called ‘The Naked Female’, though we might chuckle at the ingenuity and ensuing chaos. But even I was disturbed a bit when he turned her inside out.

Still, the idea of men picking female toons based on aesthetic or even playful considerations runs contrary to what is usually emphasized about gender bending, that ‘gamers, both male and female, say female avatars confirm what they already knew: Being a pretty girl has its perks. Female avatars are often the center of attention and showered with gifts such as swords or armor by other characters’. Brenda Braithwaite apparently thinks that it has little to do with exploration of sexual identity, and perhaps not, but I’d also have to disagree that it is always done for economic purposes.  In fact, given the presence of ribald and often inappropriate sexism reported by many players presenting female, it would make sense to play male characters.  And, as a researcher, I myself am curious to know what that’s like.

But I have this problem.  I can’t make myself play male characters, especially if they are ugly. Other people apparently enjoy ugly characters, but I vehemently do not.  I have actually tried playing other people’s characters from time to time and find it unsettling on several levels. But I find it especially difficult playing male characters, particularly when the player has focused on creating something scary, ugly, or just badly dressed. I honestly can’t understand how someone could spend hours and hours looking at an ugly toon, let alone identifying with it on any level. Even when relatively attractive, male characters are generally very disconcerting for me to play.

I guess this isn’t really surprising – according to Nick Yee’s survey data, it is relatively uncommon for women to play male characters.   Sheri Graner Ray has said this has to do with male/female power dynamics, i.e. women feel uncomfortable playing ‘higher in the social hierarchy’ than they are (men don’t apparently feel uncomfortable playing ‘lower’).  I’m a bit dubious about that (at least as it relates to my own play), but sure enough, I have only ever personally encountered a handful of instances of a woman playing a male character: in one case, it involved a technicolored male superhero who looked like a psychedelic genie in shades of blue, pink and purple. I knew something wasn’t quite right, and sure enough, it was a girl behind him, who had just made him to see what it would be like.

So why do I exclusively play female characters?  And why do they have to be attractive?  It’s really a question that perplexes me.  But there is something about wanting to identify with an idealized (to me) extension of myself that is all too compelling.  I hate to be shallow, but if I spend my physical life being a mundane 40-something mother who spends less time at the gym than she’d like, isn’t it okay that I should want to play charcters that are superlatively and uniquely attractive? If given the options, I am happy to spend time exquisitely crafting them and I enjoy their beauty, partly as an extension of who I would want to be, but also just an external aesthetic appreciation.  It does seem clear that women are more likely to think of their avatars as idealized versions of ourselves, perhaps because women inhabit their avatars more deeply.

In Play Between Worlds, T.L. Taylor argues that the issue of avatar attractiveness is not about aesthetics, but about choice :

‘While there is a fair amount of diversity among female players about which avatars are preferable, there seems to be a consistent message that they want a choice in how they look online. This is not about women not wanting to look attractive or even sexy. Women hold complicated relationships to even stereotypically gendered characters.’

I would replace the word ‘even’ in the last sentence to ‘especially’ – women tend to balk at avatars that have been created according to someone’s else idea of what’s attractive. But I have never interviewed nor met a woman who doesn’t want her virtual representation to be attractive, at least to her.

So why haven’t we yet arrived at a point where extensive customization is a given? After playing City of Heroes for some time, with its infinitely flexible character customization system, I was actually shocked, really shocked, when I played WoW for the first time and found my creativity so curtailed.   I hated walking around in the same apprentice robe as everyone else, only to be given the same incremental upgrades to armor as other characters in my class and at my level. I winced when I ran into another gnome with pink hair in a similar style, just when I’d gotten excited about how cute mine was.  In this case, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery;  it only serves to show how unoriginal I am.  And as I am not unoriginal, why should my characters be?  And why shouldn’t they be beautiful, if that’s what it takes to keep me playing?

This is certainly not the first time this type of discussion has appeared online, but I’d like to put out a specific call to hear from the female gamers regarding this issue, or from those who think they might have a bit of that perspective….  or perhaps I am wrong in assuming that this is a bigger issue to women?

Final Confession: I left several Guild Wars guilds immediately after joining because they had badly designed guild tabards that didn’t match my outfits.  That officially makes me shallow, doesn’t it? My kid is currently making character after character in Guild Wars 2, and hardly playing the game at all. Typical!

Do you identify deeply with your characters?  Tell as about it!  We’ll write a future article based on your favorite characters so show them off, please!

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Dr. Lisa Galarneau is a socio-cultural anthropologist, futurist and games researcher. She's been playing video games since 1981 (Pong!) and loves adventure-style games, RPGs, online games, simulations and anything novel. Her love for games has been passed onto her gamer kid, and she spends a lot of time observing and pondering the future of games.

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