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?)

Watch us sit down and program!

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.

Your turn!

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George

For me, gender is not that important. I only care to be able to play as a dwarf.

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Malcolm Swoboda

I’m male, I play male characters, and I like to have these characters romance male NPCs when possible (SWTOR, interpretation of SWL, etc).

However, when that’s over with, my second or third character is always going to be female. So either way, I’ll really hate gender-locking unless there’s a very special and meaningful reason to gender-lock. I’m open to it in those cases, but the reasoning has to be far more than ‘insert lazy lore blurb’.

The most I’ve accepted is how Path of Exile does it, and that’s not very much. I don’t see much reason to not have, say, the Duelist have a female version with a tweaked story, or Witch have a male version, and so on.

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Grim🎃 Darhk

I am big stronk man, I play big stronk man. Unless I feel like role playing someone completely different than me, then I play a twink. But I’m a dude, I play dudes, and I’ve probably missed out on a lot of great games, because I don’t enjoy playing story driven games, with female protags. I will play female moba character however.

Bannex
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Bannex

I’d like to ask one question:

Would you guys rather have a game developer attempt to accommodate every or most potential desires of an infinitely diverse clientele or would you rather the developer establish a vision for a game that they would like to realize and execute accordingly regardless of who or what was represented within??

I see these soapbox articles crying for inclusiveness for all forms of media but the simple fact is that games, movies and songs are art. They are an expression of the creative team behind them. That team owes you nothing, don’t like it? Don’t buy it.

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Witches

Female models are harder because they “need” to have that hip swinging female strut and bouncy boobs, otherwise the effort would be the same.

It would be easier to make male avatars smaller and skinnier but somehow there’s always time to make them bodybuilders with very detailed muscles.

Many MMO limitations are just the devs cutting corners, most players are fine with that so i don’t expect it to change, games are a business when they’re asking for money, but once you’ve paid it’s just a game, there aren’t any standards on either side of the equation so the few weirdos that want more are bound to keep on being disappointed, i just wish i wasn’t one of those weirdos.

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vertisce

Gender locked classes are truly annoying. Currently I play Black Desert Online but I have to say…if I am going to be forced to play a female in a game, BDO is the game for it!

Bannex
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Bannex

I typically don’t play games that have gender locked classes besides for honor. Truth be told for honor at least does the gender locking justice without being sexist but that’s beside the point.

I don’t care for gender locking at all. One of the reasons I didn’t get further in horizon zero dawn is because I hated the main character. I don’t play black desert or any other korean mmo because of the reverse gender locking that is ignored above.

Honestly though, if a dev wants to make a game with female only characters I don’t see why they can’t. I just won’t play it.

I like feeling represented in the game world and when they gender lock either way I think it’s stupid but it’s absolutely their decision.

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Ashfyn Ninegold

The first time I played a female character in an MMO, I was sexually harassed by the leader of the guild I joined. He assumed (correctly) that I was a woman. That was WoW. I went to LOTRO and created a male main character and had the opposite problem. Everyone assumed I was a man, including my kin leader, who was frankly shocked when I finally got a headset and said “hello.”

My perception was that men assumed female avatars were female players and female players were still uncommon and not much respected. Then. Now, of course, we’re half the gaming population and I know no one who cares one way or the other.

Andrew’s reasons for playing a male character make a lot of sense to me and this is the first time I’ve read this point of view so clearly stated.

For me, it’s a matter of aesthetics and to some extend role-playing. If I can’t get a female character to look reasonably realistic (sorry no incredibly bouncing boobs) I won’t play one. I’ve actually deleted female chars that looked like someone else’s idea of a wet dream. Sometimes overt sexuality is what I’m looking for, but still, no incredibly bouncing boobs. I often gender flop and play female characters as heavies and lithe male characters as squishies.

Looking at my 7 GW2 characters, four are female and three are male. In LOTRO, my two mains are a female Hobbit minstrel and a male human champion. And the rest of my 18 characters in LOTRO are pretty evenly divided.

So, the answer for me is that I don’t have a preference. My gender decisions are whimsical and decided at the character creation screen. I grew up in a time when the entire world was gender locked. Regardless of the weather, I always wore a skirt to school. No girl ever wore pants to school and certainly not jeans. I didn’t own a pair of jeans until I was in my 20s and then they were made for guys. Being able to switch sides or not is a wonderful freedom. The world today is far more preferable and delightfully diverse then it was 65 years ago. The games we play should reflect that.

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Croquantes

I do the same thing with my characters! The males wear robes: they’re the priests and mages, while the women wear armor and wield big swords.

The only time I change it up is if there’s a race that’s naturally more lithe, like the blood elves of WoW. I felt comfortable making a blood elf male a warrior. There’s just something I like about subverting expectations of what gender or race is capable of.

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mistressbrazen

Choice is absolutely necessary for me. I have played a male character twice. The character did fine, but I never identified with either one, meaning it was really easy to stop playing that character. Even in Adventure games, where the character is fixed because of the story, I find it extremely difficult to care about the protagonist, hence the reason I almost never finish the adventure games I buy. I generally find when the game is developed for a male character, and then females are added in at the end,you’ll get weirdness in the game for no good reason. Old TSW players may remember what used to happen with a female avatar wearing a dress would sit or fall on the ground…… why? Because the male designers building an avatar that was male never bothered to think about how a woman sits…. Yeah if you aren’t going to think about women in development then your developers don’t need to be rewarded with my money. Let the company make money off the other 50% of the population.

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noel Soltic

Gender locks do not tend to bother me at all. Mostly my gender choice comes down to what models look the coolest and what their clothing and armors might look like when worn.

Few games really have true gender choice anyway since they lack options like transgender or even races that are both gender at once. I have played a few that did but it never stopped me from playing certain classes or turned me off from the game.

Games mostly seem to be a power fantasy for most us and I think that has a big impact on choices available. I grew up in a society that treats one gender as second class and weaker than the other and I’m sure that has a huge impact on why I choose what games/classes I play. Even if I choose to play either gender I’m pretty sure I am still affected by this and I expect most other players, no matter the gender, are too.