More Men Playing Women in Computer Games, and Why

 Noah Brand applauds a thoughtful re-examination of gender roles in video games.

A great quote here courtesy of The Mary Sue, a thoughtful piece about men playing female characters in games, and what that says about the too-prevalent sexism in gaming culture. More importantly, it says something very important about the unexamined assumptions people make about men, women, and sexism.

I spend a staggering amount of time thinking about video games. I’m constantly chewing on the reasons for the character choices we make and how people are represented within games. I’ve spent a lot brainpower mulling over that stuff from a woman’s perspective, and I confess that for a long while, I hadn’t dedicated many neurons to wondering how our brothers-in-arms felt about those very same things.

I knew that there was a big difference between the groovy gamer guys I hang with and the snarling trolls that lurk elsewhere. I knew that some men do not speak for all men, and that male gamers are every bit as diverse as women gamers. But there was one point that I had made a rather mindless assumption on: that for most straight male gamers, the main reason for playing a female character was to have something nice to look at. I mean, if you’ve spent any time in a multiplayer game, you’ve heard the following phrase: “If I’m going to look at an ass all day, I don’t want it to be a dude’s.” Even the most egalitarian gentleman can enjoy a bit of eye candy (who doesn’t?), and surely the plethora of cheesecakey box art and booth babes meant that the industry knew it was a view that most dudes shared.

But a few occurrences over the past few months got me thinking there was a lot more depth to the “target audience” than was being talked about.

Mmmmm, thoughtful reexamination of gendered assumptions… I think that may be my new fetish.

Seriously, I for one love hearing these issues talked about in a sensible, adult fashion, don’t you?


Image courtesy of Destiny 2L

About Noah Brand

Noah Brand is a writer and editor, and quite possibly also a cartoon character from the 1930s. His life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. He is usually found in Portland, Oregon, directly underneath a very nice hat.


  1. i play video games to escape reality. im not a master chief, nor am i a nord from skyrim, but i like to pretend i am. when males play RPGs and make their character a female it confuses me. i thought the point of a role playing game was to immerse yourself into that world. the ass watching is complete BS. whens the last time you were looking at your character’s ass? you look at enemies and pathways… and skyrim is best experienced in first-person…

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      “when males play RPGs and make their character a female it confuses me.
      i thought the point of a role playing game was to immerse yourself into that world”

      I think we play videogames to experience being who we are not (a warrior, a secret agent, a magician… a winner 😉 ). Of being “someone else”.
      Thus, this includes the experience of the opposite gender.

      Yes, this can be confusing, but it’s also part of human curiosity.
      In an imaginary world, I think there’s place for everything imaginary (that doesn’t disrupt the development of gameplay).

    • jon:
      i play video games to escape reality. im not a master chief, nor am i a nord from skyrim, but i like to pretend i am. when males play RPGs and make their character a female it confuses me.
      Well there you go. They are pretending to be something they are not. On my first run through Skyrim I made a male wood elf and on my second run I made a female high elf.

      i thought the point of a role playing game was to immerse yourself into that world.
      If not being an elf or master chief, or a jedi doesn’t interfere with immersion then how does not being female interfere with it?

      I can understand if that’s not your style but its not like making a male making a female character is out of place or something.

      the ass watching is complete BS. whens the last time you were looking at your character’s ass? you look at enemies and pathways… and skyrim is best experienced in first-person…
      Well technically speaking when you walk from place to place there is plenty of time to look at the character’s ass. And for some reason skyrim in first person makes me nauseous.

      • How awesome is it to make petite female characters who can tear up huge monsters with ease. Games can defy reality in relation to muscle n strength. Although I may be a closet fashionista as I like playing dressup in the character creation screen, I usually make female mages because their robe/dress n staff look so damn trendy. It’s probably a way to be interested in fashion without having my manhood called into question since it’s not public. I do the same with the male characters as well, spend quite a bit of time on the character creation screen trying out different styles

  2. Hans Berit says:

    It´s the same reason as to why so many men in prisons let their homosexual sides out, I believe within every man resides a latent-homosexual side and in absolute privacy in the basements as many of these “men” reside playing a female character makes them identify more with the character.
    (Just take a look in WoW and you`ll see how many boys playing female characters are severely addicted)

    Not that there`s anything wrong at all with homosexuality, it`s just the answer.

  3. I used to love playing Chun Li in street fighter….

    I’d tell my friends–meet the whipping queen….

    that’s an obscure metal song btw…

  4. Juro Gagne says:

    I generally play women in Bioware and Bethesda RPGs. (I’m thinking specifically of Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Skyrim, Fallout 3 and Fallout NV.) While this is partly so I’ll have a computer-generated woman to look at while I play, I’d say it’s more because I think female protagonists make for a more compelling story. And I have started games as men, but aside from the first Mass Effect, I haven’t actually followed any of them through.

    I’ve never really played MMORPGs, though. But I think if I did, I’d probably play males, since those characters are more meant to represent “me.”

  5. Wirbelwind says:

    I sometimes play women in RPG because it’s funny and something different. The same reason I sometimes play as a dwarf, dark elf or a giant tentacle monster with naughty tentacles.

  6. Grand Moff Tarkin says:

    The radfems in my college dorm would probably say that it’s just another example of patriarchy making men obsessed with controlling women’s bodies for men’s pleasure. Or that it’s a socially acceptable way for men to act out their deep, secret envy of women’s power.

    They’re hard to talk to sometimes….

  7. wellokaythen says:

    There are some older, old-fashioned online games in which there are no visual avatars or visual characters, games in which there are just textual messages and names and the only visual is a game board. For example, some online versions of Diplomacy, a classic board game. In that case, male players sometimes pretend to be female players because they expect that female players will be underestimated or will be treated in a more friendly way than male players. (Hope springs eternal in the hetero male nerd, you might say.) Basically, a male player might pretend to be female in order to capitalize on sexist assumptions.

    This tactic can be especially useful in Diplomacy, a game that relies on trust, negotiation, taking sides, and deception.

    I think the point made earlier about being treated differently by other players is a crucial one. This goes beyond “having T and A to look at.”

    • wellokaythen says:

      Another theory: perhaps nowadays there are many more female characters, and more interesting female character options, for men to choose from than there were just a few years ago.

  8. I was a hardcore MMORPG player for many years (I started playing EQ at age 11, and raiding the planes when PoP came out) and I have been playing a female character since starting WoW. To be honest, it depends on the race for me (I wouldn’t play a female Tauren, for example) but my main character while playing WoW was a female human Warrior, and I was the main tank for the top guild on our server and one of the top guilds in the world.

    The reasons I’ve played a female character are numerous. I like looking at a female character. I find women attractive, and having an attractive female staring back at me all the time is nice. I have also found that females tend to have more elaborate animations which are fun to watch too. I also don’t like the big, hulking males you tend to get. (I did play a male Tauren though). I think I enjoyed my time at the highest levels of progression playing WoW and being a main tank more because I was playing a female. I suspect that if I ever play another MMO, I’ll play a woman without hesitation.

    • Ew Alliance.

      • Back when I made the character, playing Horde to raid was a mistake. Paladins were just flat out better than shaman for raids, and the human racials were too good. Diplomacy was INCREDIBLE for AQ40, the +skill for swords/maces meant you weren’t getting glancing blows which increased DPS and threat… it just made sense.

        • woah vanilla! nice

          • Of course! Then again, I was also raiding Planes of Power in Everquest in junior high. It’s a good thing that people weren’t using voicecom and raids were 70+ people, because there is probably no way they’d have let a 12 year old into the chain heal rotation! They’d have also been more impressed by my soloing skills as a druid if they knew I was just a kid. =P I was a big time MMO addict for years. I think I had 300 days /played in WoW and about 250 in EQ.

            • Woah…yeah that’s a lot. I never even broke 50 days, and I thought I played a lot. lol.

              • It probably could have been considered an addiction. Those weren’t the only MMO’s I played either. I played a bunch of others sporadically (FFXI, Lineage 2, Asheron’s call 2, etc) so I probably had another 100+ days played tacked onto those numbers as well. This is in a span of about 7 years too. I basically spent every waking minute I could immersed in a game. The headphones went on, and I was out of the real world. It was a great way to escape the nightmare that was my life but not very productive, lmao.

      • Reasons I played alliance:

        1. My friend who got me into the game (a woman btw) played alliance mostly

        2. They have the werewolves.

        Anyway, I can’t really comment on playing as a female character in games. The only time I really did that was I had a bank alt that was female. (it was the way it initially came up on the character generator, so I went with it) I did get hit on in Stormwind once running between the bank and the AH. That was kinda funny.

  9. jnakabb says:

    When I play with my wife. Sorry, I’ll start that again. When I play RPGs with my wife, she often chooses a Tank character, which she usually wants to dress as a male. I usually end up with a ranged attack (typically a Bowazon) which provides us with a balanced pair of characters, of our opposite genders.

    Oddly enough, when playing MMOs, we usually stick to our assigned genders as we can predict and respond to (including slapping down inappropriate advances from) others.

    • “Oddly enough, when playing MMOs, we usually stick to our assigned genders as we can predict and respond to (including slapping down inappropriate advances from) others.”

      Could be interesting to like totally switch it up and go into a group not telling anyone that you’re actually male and she’s actually female just to see what it’s like. A gay friend of mine and I once went into a dungeon where he pretended to be a lesbian and I pretended to be a gay man. It was really interesting (and fun freaking people out lol).

  10. Is it humanly possible for feminists to not refer to men and boys as “dudes”?

  11. My reasons are admittedly a bit simplistic. I’m a huge game nerd, so I name the characters I play in games where I can make them are usually named after characters in different games I like already. I usually conform their body as closely as I can to the character I am naming it after. For example, when I played WoW, I had an orc fighter named Hrist, after that character from Valkyrie Profile (Lenneth was taken already T_T). I tried to make her a strong looking female character with long dark hair as a result.

    In games that are heavy on the story experience and characterization that let you chose the gender of your main character (for example: Mass Effect), I usually have a separate data with both the male and female versions of the main character to see how the experience differs.

  12. Noah Brand says:

    Speaking just for myself, I often like playing female characters in games because the characterization of male characters is so often lacking, in my view. The same old macho stereotypes, the same outdated images of men. Very often I’d be playing someone who I basically think is a jerk, which is harder for me to relate to.

  13. As a gamer, I play in order to immerse myself into a particular world or adventure, and so I pick characters that represent me and look like me so I can pretend (in a subconscious kinda way) to BE the hero. And that desire is deeply intertwined with my gender experiences as a man. I couldn’t play a female character because I would feel disconnected from the story and unable to relate; it would be uncomfortable, like wearing the wrong shoes.

    That said, I’m always a little skeptical of men playing female characters. One reason is that the men who do that, in my experience, have objectified themselves (as women in the game) in order to get prizes, favors, free weapons/armor, help with quests and the like. A second reason is that men who do that, again in my experience, are usually young (12-14) and create lots of drama/attention which is designed solely to f*ck with people.

    But that’s just me.

  14. Anthony Zarat says:

    I have pretended to be a “real life” female playing a female toon, to find out how people would treat me differently, based on my perceived gender. I highly recommend doing this. The differences in treatment are much bigger than most people would think.

    The game in question supports voice (through a program called “ventrillo”). I have multiple accounts, meaning tht I can play different characters (toons) simultaneously. One of my toons is a male-toon, self-identified male-player, and uses ventrillo. Using this toon, I know with certainty the gender of all other ventrillo-using characters (I can also make a very good guess of their ages). These same players, whose gender and approximate age I know with certainty, can then be probed with the female-toon, (false) self-identified female-player. Results:

    Reaction of young male players:
    Confronted with a (false) female-toon/female-player, young men transform into slaves. They do anything I ask, however ridiculous. They will give me free resources, spend hours escorting me through dangerous areas, and if I use my male-toon to scole the false-female toon, young men instantly come to “her” aid, saying something like “dude, lighten up, will you?” Barf.

    Reaction of mature male players:
    Not quite as slavishly devoted, far less likely to get involved in conflict, and they retain a modicum of dignity. Otherwise, similar to young men.

    Reaction by mature female players (this came as a surprise):
    In the real world women instinctively circle the wagons and make common cause against men. This dynamic does not occur in game-land. Real life female players (all of whom play female toons) are openly hostile and sarcastic to my (false) self-identified female player. So far, its a head scratcher.

    Reaction of young female players:
    There are none in my group (called a guild).

    I am surprised that others have the same interest in virtual gender dynamics, that I do. I thought I was the only one. Nice to know that I am not.

    • harlemjd says:

      might it be because your female persona is getting men to do ridiculous things for her cause she’s a girl?

  15. I often play as female characters in open-world games, mainly to give me a different perspective (I’m male). Not something I’ve really thought through too hard though, as I’d wager most of the dialogue writers for single-player games are men? Or perhaps not.

    What would probably be more interesting would be playing as a girl in an MMO, although I can guess at some of the reactions I’d get :/

  16. Over time when playing a game with a gender choice I will almost always eventually end up with about a 50-50 split. Most its for the change in looks. Not even, “I want something nice to look at.” but just a simple “I want to see what the other stuff looks like.”

    • Agreed. Many players try an alternate gender for roughly the same reasons they try playing a dwarf or orc… it’s different, and that makes it interesting.

      In addition, though, there’s a change in how other players interact with you in an MMO environment. Those with little interest in the posturing, “leet”/macho, hardcore-gamer culture could make a female character simply so they won’t be harassed to participate in it. Of course, in some games, that leads to a whole DIFFERENT type of harassment, ranging from “girls can’t play” to “r u hot?” But that’s another story.

  17. I do it for a mix between something to look at, dressing them up since the outfits for female toons I like better (long evening gowns rock), sometimes because you get more help generally (in my experience at least), sometimes because they are smaller and take up less of the screen, and because it’s downright awesome to see a woman kick ass. When you see men men men in war games etc, it gets a bit boring and I like seeing some more diversity. I like making strong female characters, it’s boring as hell only having super bulky males as the hero…

    I like customizing characters, I take 5-20 minutes getting the right face, hair etc (red hair ftw). It’s a fun lil minigame styling them up!

  18. Valter Viglietti says:

    Personally, choosing a female character in a VG is mostly to experience something different.
    And yes, this includes the looks, but there’s more.

    I mean, I believe anybody feel the desire to experience what does it mean being in other’s shoes.
    We have lots of movies and stories where people found themselves “switched” into another gender; it’s part of human curiosity. “What it would be like if I was…?”
    Besides, there’s the pleasure of “identification”: I, as a male, would like to have a gorgeous woman beside me. Identifying myself into a such character, is a bit like having her.

  19. HeatherN says:

    I dunno…I’ve never heard a straight guy give a reason other than “they’re hot” for why they play female characters. I don’t know if that’s because that actually is the reason most male gamers play female characters, or whether its because they didn’t want to seem less-male by admitting they identified with a female character more

    With regards to her survey, again I wonder if people were completely honest in their answers, or whether they knew what the expected answer was and so they ended up choosing a different one instead. Not consciously or maliciously…just like subconsciously….and since it’s an online survey and not an in-person discussion, maybe the worry of being considered less male is not as big a thing. I dunno…

    Other then that, though, I find that article really intriguing.

    • Well, I’m straight and I played a female character for other reasons than that “they’re hot.” Of course, that definitely played into it, but the whole sort of dynamic I found pretty interesting. I think the female animations are often better, they’re generally more complex and flowery. For example, one specific attack as a female human warrior (my character in WoW) she would twirl in a circle and bash the enemy with her shield. For males, they would just bash them. There was also the thing that I was doing something incredibly tough, from both a playskill perspective and a game perspective. I was the main tank of a top guild during TBC. The main tank is the single most important role in a raid. If I failed at my job, everyone died. It was fun to have a female character standing toe to toe with a gigantic boss. Most people did not mistake me for a woman because I was fairly well known on the server, and I certainly didn’t try to act as a woman. I definitely did do some less-than-mature things though while playing, but I feel like that’s just natural.

      • “I definitely did do some less-than-mature things though while playing, but I feel like that’s just natural.”

        I think in part that’s the nature of the anonymous reality of the internet…to a certain extent anyway.

        But yeah I’m finding these replies really interesting.

        • I’m talking about things like gloating when I killed people, sitting on their faces, simulating intercourse by spamming the stand/sit command, and things like that.


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