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.
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.
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.
While 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.
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.