Wednesday, January 26, 2011

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Ophelia's Gaze: 3 Big Mistakes MMOs Make That Alienate Female Gamers


Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of virtual world and MMO fashion

Women are an expanding segment of MMO users (and the majority of online gamers, too), but many developers still aren't acknowledging the importance and needs of this market. Researchers studying MMO demographics attribute the concentration of female gamers in this genre partly to the flexibility of characters they can play in MMOs, especially compared to what's found in most single-player games. (Which are often limited to over-endowed sexpots, or cartoonish cooks and caregivers.) MMOs offer us a way to play more powerful and palatable female lead characters, the kind who aren't usually featured in their own single-player titles.

All too often, however, MMO developers sabotage this potential (and themselves) by ignoring female players -- or worse, insulting them. These mistakes are evident in numerous popular MMOs, starting with the very biggest, World of Warcraft itself. Keep reading to find out how.


Disproportionate and Hyper-Sexualized Bodies

I've already mentioned how limited DC Universe Online's female avatars are, but that MMO is hardly alone.  Even the blockbuster World of Warcraft is guilty of pinup-ifying female races (including trolls); unsurprisingly, only about 16% of WoW's players are female. By contrast, Lord of the Rings Online boasts a 25% female playerbase, while a whopping 40% of Everquest II players are women. Both of these games feature attractive female avatars, but don't stoop to the kind of excessive hyper-sexualization found in World of Warcraft and other titles.


To be fair, not every developer can afford to create an avatar customization system as dynamic and varied as the one recently launched in EVE Online; some games use preset body types, while others offer no body customization whatsoever. There's no problem with either of these methods -- unless the character models players are made to choose from are exaggerated beyond reason. (Like the avatar pictured on the right, from the new free-to-play title Forsaken World.)

Honestly, I don't think all women want their female character models to be 100% realistic. Writing so much about fashion in Second Life has taught me that many women still like their avatars to look relatively slim and attractive, and there's nothing wrong with that. While realism can be an asset to game worlds, idealization is the point of fantasy. The problem comes when a female body shape is squeezed like a tube of toothpaste to create a hyper-sexualized body for the benefit of male players only, and no healthy alternatives are offered.


Limited Character Customization

Avatar customization extends beyond body shape. I drooled over character creation videos from the Korean beta tests of Aion (pictured above) before it was brought to North America, which showed off the diverse array of hairstyles, faces, and other fine details which likely contributed to the MMO's popularity with female players.

Not every female gamer is driven by aesthetics, of course, but I consider the bustling avatar customization market in Second Life (and even The Sims) an indicator of what many female players want. The craving for customization is what enables so many free-to-play titles to thrive. It's even hard to name any popular MMOs that have truly weak character customization, because it's such an uphill battle for them to become successful otherwise. No surprise there: Avatars are mediums for personal expression, immersing us in shared worlds specifically designed to stimulate our imaginations.  While this may be more important to many female players, it's one of the reasons anyone plays an MMO, rather than a standard single-player game.


Gender-Locked Classes

A gender-locked class is a player class that is only accessible to one gender, and they're easily the most offensive of these three mistakes to come across. A game with this problem has to be incredibly good to keep me playing, because they often reinforce tired sexist stereotypes. Female avatars will often be relegated to ranged combat and support roles (archers, mages, and healers) while men are pigeonholed in melee and tanking classes.

AikaWhile this issue is becoming less common in major MMO releases, many popular free-to-play titles (especially ones imported from Asia) are still guilty, including the popular Perfect World, Aika Online (pictured left), and arguably Nexon's physics-based action game Vindictus (pictured above.)

One of the best things about MMOs, what keeps me coming back to the sub-genre, is that they allow us to indulge in the stories of myth and magic that come so naturally to us, and let players create their own living legends. But when I'm just one more uber-breasted healer with a ponytail in a sea of uber-breasted healers with ponytails, that legend feels less like it belongs to me -- and more like it belongs to a man with an incredibly limited imagination.


Mixed_reality_iris2010 Iris Ophelia (Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.


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Arcadia Codesmith

DCUO fumbled badly on body type customization, and from interviews it appears that they refuse to accept that they made the wrong choices. That level of hubris bodes ill for their long-term viability.

At the risk of playing into gender stereotypes, I'd add an item to your list; lack of housing and community/social tools. We found in UO that many of the biggest and most successful guilds formed around a nucleus of strong female leadership, and one of the draws for that leadership was the ability to create establishments and player towns.

The social game is critical for maintaining a dynamic, invested, long-term player community, and women in our culture tend to be trained to play social games better than men (just a trend -- I know some quite wonderful exceptions).

I don't know why recent MMO releases have been neglecting their community building, and I feel like shouting at the developers when they bumble around confused after the newness wears off and their subscriptions plummet: "IT'S THE COMMUNITY, DUMMIES!"


I do wonder to what extent females are attracted to 'female' roles and over-sexualized avatars. It's not an excuse for any game developer (as your statistics show), but something I'm curious about.

The one time I made a healer in an MMO, I made it a female (I'm male). Partially because I'd been wanting to create a female character and healer seemed the best fit. I've subsequently made a female warrior character but don't feel great affinity for her yet (not that I do for the healer either but that's because I find healing boring). A separate but related question is how many females use male characters to compensate for the poor female choices.

I think LOTRO does a good job with regard to its female users. The avatars are not over-sexualized, though slender. Females can play any class. There are no female dwarves, per se, but that is due to the lore of Lord of the Rings. Limited character customization is an annoyance for both genders but there are some decent options nonetheless.

Adeon Writer

As a guy, I can also confirm that gender locked classes are a universal bad idea. It's always a pain.

Scylla Rhiadra

Interesting and very worthwhile post.

I don't, I confess, know a great deal about MMORPGs. Could another inhibiting factor for women be the "gendered" nature of the kinds of activities -- and not merely the roles or classes -- available in such games? Perhaps those games that want a higher participation rate among women (and it's a question -- do they?) need to create alternate narrative curves that are more likely to appeal to women?

Kim Anubis

It is insulting to be sent into battle in a corset.


I'll just say for what its worth, I am a career advertising/fashion model in real life, though I do play MMOs on occassion.

One thing I will say is that as a woman who has a better than average body, is that I'd absolutely revolt against playing an "average" character. I don't work my behind off in the gym 4 days a week just to plop down behind an avatar with a less idealized body than my own.

That said, I do agree with the portrayed Forsaken World avatar as being possibly a little too much, but then hey its a fantasy world! I'm a 34-24-34 myself, and I sure don't have that small of a waist, and don't want one that small either. But I'd still play that avatar any day over one based on "average" measurements.

Who wants to be average?


I think this kinda of idea varies depending on the kind of female playing the game. I, as a female, have played MMO's for as long as I have had the chance to. From my perspective, I refuse to play a Male character because I personally prefer how the female characters look in a game. I think it's unfair to say that companies single out women.

As an ex-WoW, player, I can safely say that there are options to make an "non pin up" looking Troll, pulling out the example from the article. Sure you can't pick the body type of the character you want, but in many MMOs you don't really have that much room for that anyway. Games like DCUniverse, the character customisation is indeed limited - but I for one, speaking from personal experience, have never met a Female gamer that hasn't wanted a "more normal body type” than the ones presented. Sure it can seem sexist, but there's not that many gamers that are against it as far as I am aware.

I am also unaware of any Gender-specific classes in the more popular MMOs. Phantasy Star, yes, but AFAIK no MMO I have played. Unless I am forgetting one. In the games that have a more diverse body type customisation - for example Champions Online, City of Heroes and various other games of this type. The body shape is the same, just larger, more blown up and less realistic than the more “pin-up” shapes are. It’s the same with the male characters.

I think as an MMO player, comparing the customisation of a game to something like Second Life which has pretty much unlimited customisation is again a tad unfair. Perfect World, only has two gender-locked classes. The Barbarian and the Venomancer.

In Vindictus, you play a Character - premade. Hence the gender lock. It would be like complaining that Gimli in LOTR was a guy and not a woman because there should be more female dwarves.

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