Well, I’ve been playing for a while now, and the addiction is setting in – has set in. I’ve played numerous 8-hour stretches, and sometimes more. Been staying up until the wee hours playing many a night – it’s getting pretty intense.
Among other things, the social dynamics are heating up. J. has entered into another intense interaction, this time with someone I myself was just starting to build a friendship with. It was awkward and strange to have him – D. – suddenly kind of drop off the interaction with me in favor of apparently long chat sessions with J. My interaction with him wasn’t intense, but it was frequent, and the change was abrupt and a bid saddening. It had the unfortunate side-effect of making things feel a bit strange with J., and made me feel keenly the ties I was building in this space. In the end, things settled down and I feel fine now, but the whole incredibly rapid development of these relationships has been quite illuminating.
First of all, these are certainly real friendships. They are vital, and I miss them when I don’t log on. J.’s absence made me sad, and had reverberations with P., her close friend, as well.
Second of all, the pace of social things in this space is lightening quick. Of course, we are spending enormous numbers of hours together, and so that speeds things up. The lack of visual cues, though, makes many things feel more powerful when said in text or even voice. A long conversation with N. about this made me realize that those urges to intensify the verbal in part stem from the lack of visual in person. With less exposure – no betraying facial expressions or body language – conversations get incredibly risky as well as risqué. With little warning rather evocative comments about sex, intimacies, and the like are common, although remain enclosed in certain spaces. Late at night, in less public chat, and in small vent groups such things are most common. Private messages are, of course, the most intense. Perhaps people are seeking more connection via text because they lack the ones that come from interaction of the body. I think also that one interprets the cues you do get differently. You respond more based on your background and personal culture rather than one that is actively developed between the two speakers. You are also, of course, free to develop a rather individual set of understandings coming from you, rather than coming from the intersection between the two of you. The temptation to reveal more is also, I think, a desire to create that connection absent the other ways we connect. Without the, for example, facial cues of dissuasion or encouragement, you can also just keep going.
Finally, a few words about gender. I had this massive revelation the other day when playing with P., who had abandoned his level 70 Tauren (cow-creature) shaman for a low level blood elf paladin, both male. In order to help out the leveling process, he brought out a level 70 undead warrior, female in aspect. For P., there seemed to be absolutely no difference in playing the different genders, and I realized that other players are similar. Creating and using a female character may hold some initial thrill for men, but it quickly becomes a tool for power and fancy gear, like any other character. They really don’t associate gender identity with these virtual bodies. Indeed, unlike in The Sims, it is perfectly acceptable for these (rather homophobic) young men to kiss, cuddle, and dance with characters of any gender played by people of any gender. In TSO this was a radical point of interaction; in WoW, the gender valence is meaningless for the most part. At least, among these characters played by men.
So this understanding led me to another one about myself and my character. I had been wandering the WoW world under the dim assumption that upon seeing a female avatar, my (bodily) female gender would be presumed, as it is in TSO. I would feel a certain kind of dynamic when interacting with strangers that was grounded in my female-ness. But in talking with P., I realized that no such assumption is made. In fact, just the opposite. I was called “man” the other day. I am not wandering this world as a woman, but rather as a genderless creature with a default gender of male. I say “genderless” because I do believe that in part my gender becomes less relevant, but in fact that is probably overstating things a bit. The character is genderless, but I am not. I am assumed to be male, with the related associations. The fact that I am female has a strong impact, and the fact that I am a flirtatious and lively female actively engaging my gender in chat and in vent has an impact on the social dynamic of the guild, especially in my relationship and in relation to J. – formerly the most “feminine” female in the guild. The other woman, Cherry, is rather “one of the boys” in her chat and vent conversations. J. and I are decidedly not.
So this space, with its highly gendered avatars – fur bikinis and all – and gendered behaviours (e.g., naked dance parties) has somehow stepped out of gender assumptions into a distinct realm. It does not seem to bother the men playing female characters to instruct their avatars to grind and wiggle scantily clad, to flirt with male avatars, or to develop relationships based on those avatars. In fact, they seem to retain the masculinity behind the female avatar quite seamlessly, with little conflict. Such conflict would be expected otherwise, it seems, because there are many homophobic comments and gender-defense mechanisms in other contexts. For example, overly emotional moments, overly pretty gear, or weak moves/strategies are commonly called “gay”, as used in the old days. I have not hear the term used this way so frequently in a very long time, in fact.
This suggests to me that first, people do not place themselves so deeply into their avatars as they seemed to do in TSO. They do not relate themselves to what is represented on the screen all that much, in large part because they have multiple avatars. I, myself, do feel quite a connection with Lan, but these veteran players have little such connection. For them, it’s rather about the power and gear and skill of their race and especially class (hunter, shaman, warrior, etc.).
Second, this suggests that gender itself is re-defined as far more internal – associated with personality, priorities, and guts, as it were – rather than linked to the external. Cherry seems to have few gender associations placed upon her, even these, perhaps in part because she speaks and plays “like a guy”. J. and I engender a kind of chivalry in many of the men as we play the needy female, but this dynamic is very much grounded in our conversation.
The representations of gender – a topic of so much work in this area – thus gets complicated by this disconnect. Representation is not gender – gender is not in the body. Gender is completely constructed and manifest in interaction, not at all intrinsically associated with any type of virtual body. It is, of course, associated with offline bodies, especially for J. and me, but we have no representation there – no pictures to help folks identify what kind of female we are. Are we 300 pounds and ugly as sin? They don’t know and honestly don’t seem to care. They are fine interacting with us as voices and text streams as the sexy coquettes we present.
Thus my own assumptions about the impact of my gender fall away when interacting with strangers, if not within the guild members I speak to via vent, and I have suddenly lost a pillar of my identity. It is the strangest feeling in the world, akin to but more intense than when I dyed my hair blonde. I had a moment of panic, in fact, when I realized that “on WoW, no one knows you’re a woman”. Oh no! all those helpful roles and gender-based tools are now highly subject to misunderstanding, especially the protective ones. I am no less likely to get killed by a high-level Alliance (the opposing faction) character than any male. My gender-based protection has disappeared as representation disconnected with gender.
I plan to do a series of interviews with P., both M.’s, Cherry, and others to tease this out. I am confident they will tell me playing a female is little different than playing a male, despite what Mr. S-G has said on the topic. Perhaps there are class differences about these assumptions, as he found when playing a female healer, but I suspect among veteran players, the effect is small. Comparatively, so few women play WoW much that assuming avatars are run by men is a safe bet, and seems to be the common one.