I’m enjoying the Neverwinter MMO and I have posted my full impressions/launch review over at Tap-Repeatedly.
The other night when I was wandering in a zone I saw some players on the area chat discussing the ever-popular question of who was what gender in real life. Are all the female avatars here really girls? I was, but I don’t always speak up in this kind of conversation. In this case I first watched a little, just to see what other players were saying.
One player confessed to being male, but then used the old line “If I’m going to stare at an ass for 60 levels it may as well be a hot ass.” Another person then said “LOL,” as if this was a new quip that he had never heard before and was truly a cause for laughter.
Both of these young men should be fired from videogames; they should have their videogames cards revoked immediately for their lack of awareness and cleverness.
I couldn’t shut up after hearing that, so I mocked them. Sometimes even those of us that moderate other games have our moments of weakness. To be fair, “if I’m going to stare at an ass…” is not exactly a reportable offense, just an annoying joke that I’m tired of hearing. I said it was the “second-oldest one in the book,” right next to “get back in the kitchen.” Here it is, live in the wild, in 2004. I’m not sure if the line actually originates in the PVP comic, but even if it does, that makes the gag almost a decade old now! I believe it might actually be older.
|This line was new/clever during G.W. Bush’s first term.
I learned a lot at the Gotland Game Conference. In Heidi McDonald’s speech on character romance and gender tourism in RPGs she mentioned, statistically speaking, men are more likely to play as women in RPGs than women are to play as men. Her research is on single-player RPGs but this also bears out in Nick Yee’s MMO research.
Another pragmatic reason is that in games where third-person perspective is used, men prefer to stare at a female body rather than a male body. This is tied closely to the Laura Croft Syndrome – the appeal of being able to view and, more importantly, control a female body that is sexy but deadly. Feminists have argued that male gender-bending is really just a new way for men to dominate female bodies.
While there might be some aspect of this going on, it probably is a little more complicated than that. I think a person’s real reasons for choosing an avatar can vary a lot. I know I do tend to choose the female avatar not just because I identify with her better, but because she tends to be more attractive than male avatars. I don’t necessary even mean in a sexualized way, since I’ll often rough up my avatars with a few scars and the avatars I identify the most with aren’t always the “sexiest.” It’s not about “seeing a hot ass.” I just mean ladies are attractive to look at and fun to dress up.
It’s perfectly culturally acceptable for me to say this, but if a man were to say the same thing about a male avatar, it would easily be turned into a sexualized thing regardless of his intentions. Derek Burrill gave a speech at the Gotland Game Conference that discussed how game culture displays and defines masculinity. The video is an hour long, but worth watching if you have the time (as is Heidi’s video, above; I loved every talk at this conference). In his speech he dissected in particular a construction of masculinity that, in part, explicitly denied homosexuality. Declaring, swiftly, “No homo!” becomes a way for a young man to explicitly declare his true manhood to other men. In that way, I think the “stare at a female ass” construction is a way that male players try to deflect any accusations of homosexuality from having a gender-swapped avatar… while, at the same time, perhaps subtly suggesting that those who choose a male avatar may be, themselves, “the gay ones.” Along with that is the implicit assumption that homophobia is OK and that homosexuality is something to be ridiculed. Derek himself asks, is there perhaps something homo-erotic implied about staring at another man’s ass for hours of game time? Maybe! Should that matter? Many people equate homosexuality with being effeminate; thus, if you want to look at a man, you aren’t “a real man.”
|Casting a spell on the neighbors.
So what’s annoying about the “if I’m going to stare at an ass” comment? Well, I hope I’ve pointed out sufficiently that it’s pretty old and stale by now. It’s kind of homophobic. And it assumes objectification of a female avatar as her default state. That particular avatar exists to be looked-at by you rather than be something you embody. I think I’ve made my position clear in that I’m okay with objectification (of any body or gender) as long as it’s done on purpose with some kind of thought. I’m okay with very sexy characters. I’m annoyed however by female objectification as the assumed default.
My Neverwinter Noble’s Chest came with a statuette of the lovely Valindra: a woman who happens to be dead, but is using her lich magic to appear totally stacked. While this is her prerogative as a liberated ghoul and woman, I can’t help but feel like this statue itself is not an item “for me.” It really feels like a character I’m supposed to want to just stare at. It kind of assumes that I am a straight dude and would want an item a straight dude would be interested in having on his mantle. It’s cool swag, but a dragon or a giant or something that didn’t make that implied assumption would’ve been cool too.
I will say one thing: from now on, when that conversation comes up in a chat, I won’t hesitate to say “Yes, I am a woman.” Not because I want to draw attention to myself, but because I’m a competent player and women in MMOs deserve to be acknowledged and not invisible. Maybe if we keep speaking up, we won’t seem so unusual anymore.
And if you see the “I’m going to stare at an ass” line, please, feel free to call the perpetrator an asshole. Do it for me.