Thursday, March 7, 2013

MMORPGs and Sexuality

In "Doing gender in cyberspace" by Lina Eklund, women who are players of World of Warcraft were interviewed and Eklund discusses gender and sexuality performance in game. She (2011: 339) says, “women who play World of Warcraft bring with them their offline gender identity and social contexts when they go online.” Although I do not play World of Warcraft, this got me thinking about the MMORPG that I do currently play, The Secret World, and how the topics Eklund raises are reflected in the game.

Eklund points out that not only do players bring their offline gender and social contexts with them online, but also that “the game itself limits and restrains; it is not a neutral space” (2011: 339). In the case of World of Warcraft, this is reflected in part by the character designs and the heterosexual presupposition. A good example she provided to illustrate her point was in-game flirtation and dancing.

While The Secret World does not have the mechanic of flirting, and the game itself does not leave much space for inter-player sexual interactions, sexuality is pulled into the game in other ways, such as in cutscenes and NPC dialogue. An example of this could be the “Dragon” faction initiation cutscene. This scene continues the exoticizing and eroticizing of Asian women, however I think that some elements have some potential for challenging in-game heteronormativity.

In this scene, a member of the Dragon faction, a young Asian woman, aggressively pursues the player’s avatar, bringing the avatar to climax (a moment when your mind is “open to the truth,” allegedly), which transports the player/avatar to what is effectively the game’s tutorial, where as you play as unknown characters stuck in a Tokyo subway fighting something supernaturally evil. It is worth noting that the initiation scenes for the other factions (Templars and Illuminati) are not sexual in nature. What I find interesting about this scene is that it is exactly the same, regardless of the selected sex of the avatar. While the clip is voyeuristic, I found it gratifying as a queer player that the creators did not swap in a man for players with a female avatar, thus leaving open the door for (some) queer expression, albeit under a presumably (heterosexual) male gaze.

Perhaps a more convincing example of The Secret World crafting a cyberspace that challenges heteronormative assumptions can be found in the example of “Moose.”

“That man saved my life, selflessly, and I love him for it. I’d go to the ends of the world and back for Andy…I don’t think I’ll ever win him over though.”

Moose is a NPC in one of the first areas a player begins the game, which is a town overrun by the living dead. Moose is portrayed as a tough, explosives-making, lone-wolf biker. However, as the player pursues dialogue options with Moose, it becomes clear that he is in love with another NPC in the area, Deputy Andy. This character is an example of everything media usually does wrong done right. Moose is not “the gay character.” He is not a gay caricature. He is a character that happens to be gay, which is never turned into a cheap plot device. This signals to me, and probably other queer players, that this is a cyberspace heterosexuality is not assumed, either on the part of the NPCs or the players themselves.

So while The Secret World does limit and restrain players, for example by offering only two (cis-)sexes to choose from and by effectively limiting body models to the “conventionally attractive,” I think the MMO opens up in-game sexuality in a way that perhaps World of Warcraft does not.

- A.

Eklund, Lina.
2011    Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players. Convergence. 16: 323-342.

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