Massively Overthinking: Female characters and gender-locked classes in MMOs
One of the reasons I gravitated to and stick by the MMORPG genre in spite of its many ups and downs (oh, so many downs) over the last two decades is the fact that I can play more or less exactly the character I want to play, which is usually female characters. Other genres, even RPGs, have been relatively slow to catch up to what we’ve had here in MMO land right from the start. The idea of a serious MMORPG launching without female toons of some sort is almost unheard of.
I bring this up because of Quantic Foundry’s latest blog post, which delves its Gamer Motivation Profile for data on how gamers feel about being able to play female protagonists. Unsurprisingly, three-quarters of female gamers and a third of male gamers, irrespective of age, consider that option very or extremely important!
For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I asked our mixed-gender staff three questions: what they think about Quantic’s findings, whether they stick to the gender they personally identify as when rolling toons in MMOs, and whether the lack of gender options — or in MMOs’ case, things like gender-locked classes — drive them as nuts as they drive me.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): My favorite part of the piece:
“The motivation findings suggest that the availability of a female protagonist would have the largest impact on games that already target Fantasy and Story. This would include story-driven Open World games, many Action-Adventure games, and MMOs. Given that MMOs almost always provide gender choice, this opportunity is already tapped there. But since story-driven Action-Adventure games (which don’t always provide a female protagonist option) attract gamers with higher Fantasy and Story scores, the availability of a female protagonist would likely have a large impact in these games in terms of audience appeal, especially among female gamers.”
This seems like so much “DUH!” but certain companies and franchises are slow to take it up (looking at you, Nintendo and Zelda). That being said, when given the choice between male and female characters where customization is a huge part of the game’s experience (as in MMOs), I choose male 99.999% of the time. The only time I can think of where I made my avatar female was in Pokemon Crystal just because it was the first time a female was available. That doesn’t mean I can’t play as female characters. I was a Smash Bros Sheik main for ages, League of Legend’s Vayne was the character that originally hooked me, and I love TellTale’s The Walking Dead heroine Clementine to bits. However, MMOs (and other games with highly customizable characters trying to create a more personalized feeling virtual world) can do things more linear story-driven games can’t: create a social environment.
I often reference Dr. Nicholas David Bowman when talking about presence in games, as in my older piece on morality and griefing, where we discussed was salience. You need to be able to feel certain aspects for them to matter. I’m a cis-male and prefer a male identity, but there were times in my life where people questioned my masculinity (I still don’t understand why purple is a “girl color”). While it might be fun to explore what it’s like to be treated as a woman, I don’t want another male to confuse my jokes or concern for him as attraction, so I avoid female characters. That doesn’t mean bisexual or gay men don’t pop up and get confused (sorry to break some hearts, guys!), but I feel like virtual worlds help me reconstruct my ugly, chubby, bearded self so I can maybe even be more myself without real-life fears of rejecting another male who may take rejection poorly and resort to stalking or worse (not fun, even in cyber space).
This is why I strongly dislike gender-locked classes/characters in MMOs. Again, in fighting games, racing games, and single RPGs, it’s not a problem. Those are specific stories and need specific characters. However, MMOs are virtual societies. We can roleplay and try out new ideas, new personalities, or new problem-solving techniques, but for some of us, gender identity is very important, even for those of us who aren’t transgender or queer. Taking that option from us in open-ended gameplay that’s highly multiplayer and asks us to invest in our fellow player just feels wrong. It can be a nice social experiment, especially in genres where hyper-masculinity and racism may run rampant (looking at you Valve and Rust), but gender restrictions are often a feature that immediately makes an MMO go into my “do not play” pile.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I care a lot about this, and not just because I prefer to play female toons. I do play male toons here and there — sometimes when I have no choice, as with Torchlight’s Alchemist or Marvel Heroes’ Star-Lord, and sometimes because I have lots of choices, as in Star Wars Galaxies, where having so many accounts meant I could play around with different kinds of characters as my lot mules, even dudes. (And dude Ithorians. I kinda have a thing about Ithorians.) But generally, I’m comfy being a girl my way, and I want to play a girl too.
So when games effectively demonstrate that they don’t care about me or people like me enough to provide that option, I lose interest. I’ll put up with it in spurts for some types of games, like ARPGs, but for MMORPGs, nah. Losing that basic choice is a huge turnoff inside our genre. I find it pretty unforgivable in alphas and demos too and would frankly recommend that no dev release any version of an MMO beyond the walls of the studio without both genders in place. It’s not a good look, as they say.
Consequently, it doesn’t surprise me that other folks, particularly the sort who like RPGs, MMOs, fantasy, and storytelling, also feel this way. This is a genre about making choices. Of course we want more choices. I don’t understand those of you who don’t want more choices for everybody, even if you’re not going to use them yourself.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): One of the biggest things that bothered the heck out of me back in Warhammer Online was how many of the game’s classes were gender-locked, either by racial options or just for no good reason. The Chosen of Chaos would spread the word of dark madness across the world… but only if you were a dude. I was under the impression that Tzeentch was a deity of Chaos rather than a dark form squatting in the corner of a treehouse with a sign saying “No Girls Allowed.”
There’s not much to discuss on this matter, really: If your MMO doesn’t allow you to create male and female characters both, take it back to the development team because it’s not finished yet. If you’ve created a game with gender-locked classes, same damn deal. I’m looking at you, Black Desert. Yes, I know that almost all of your classes have a gender-swapped equivalent, but you know what would be a much better option? Not having them be limited by gender in the first place.
It doesn’t even matter if the gender that these things are locked to is the gender I would want to play. People should be free to play these games with the characters they want, and if you force people to play one gender or another you are literally turning the clock back to the days before the original Dungeons & Dragons RPG. The more gender-locked the game is, the less interested I am, full stop. And if your game outright locks female characters behind a stretch goal, then your Kickstarter is bad and you should feel bad. (Forgot about that one, did you?)
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): These results aren’t surprising at all. Players like choice and customization, and once they grow accustomed to it, they resent these options being removed or missing.
For me, there’s a distinction between games where the protagonist is a set individual — Pac-Man, Lara Croft, Nathan Drake — who is used to tell a specific story revolving around that character. Usually these are outside of MMOs and RPGs, and I simply accept that a game designer has an interactive story to tell and has a certain cast in mind. It’s gravy if the team allows for both a male and female option of a player character, but I’m not screaming or protesting if not.
But when you move into RPGs, and especially persistent online RPGs, your avatar starts to matter a lot more. You’re not merely playing through a limited interactive tale of someone else’s design; you’re engaging in virtual worlds in which you are, at least in part, able to take greater agency over the narrative. You want a character who is yours the way you envision, especially if you’re going to be spending hundreds if not thousands of hours with. You want as many character options as possible so that you can mold an avatar who is distinctly your own. Maybe it’s someone who mirrors what you look like or an idealized version of yourself, or perhaps it’s the embodiment of an inner vision that interests you.
We all have reasons to play the characters and genders that we do. I generally prefer female characters for a variety of reasons: I think they make for more interesting action heroes, male models are usually off-putting in their design, and at this point it’s become a habit. Other than, say, Diablo or Marvel Heroes, I haven’t experienced an online RPG where I don’t have a say in my gender. And even Marvel Heroes is offering alternative gender “outfits” for those who like the character but want to play the other side.
I don’t think I’m taking a radical or controversial position by saying that fixed-gender or locked-character MMOs are dated and confining. They mostly seem to come from the east, although the action-RPG (even the online variety) hews to this format. From a developer’s standpoint, it’s easier to design armor and animations if you create a fixed character, but from the players’ perspectives, we’re all jumping into clones that have no individual identity but belong to some weird collective. It’s certainly not popular with our readers, who on a good day will sigh and grudgingly put up with such limitations and on a bad day will cause a stink over it. Doubtful if design teams notice, especially overseas, but one would think that it’s about time that teams put in the extra effort to provide both factors. It’s especially ridiculous when you hear indie dev teams complain about how female models cost more to animate and maybe it’s just better and easier to stick with male models instead. Stop being lazy and put in the work to do things right.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Is being able to play a female character important? Um, yes. Very yes! If you want me deeply invested in the game, then I must play a character that I care about. To do that, I eed a character that I can create a background, personality, and story for. Even if I don’t really roleplay as much in a game, that is what binds me deeply to an MMORPG. To do that, you have to allow me to play a female character, because I play female characters. Also, it helps greatly if you allow me to make her how I please in look, skills, etc. A surefire way to make me less inclined to play is to gender-lock classes or little customization. My classes and skills are a part of the personality and backstory, and if what I want to play is only available as a male avatar, then I won’t play it. And then I am no longer enthused about the game.
The only game that really got a pass on this from me was Marvel Heroes because you are playing designated heroes from that comic universe. (Even then, I think it was more than a year before I even tried a male hero!) The same goes for SMITE: Because the gods of lore are who they are, I can accept that. However, I also don’t play either game extensively; they are both short-spurt popcorn games for me that I pop in and then back out of. They also aren’t MMOs.