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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Boy, You Fight Like a Girl

Online gamers seek escape in personas of the opposite sex but often encounter stereotypes.

May 17, 2001|ALEX PHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In her flowing crimson cape, thigh-high leather boots and metal-studded red leather bustier, Cardinal is a bow-and-arrow-toting femme fatale.

But not only is Cardinal not real--she's a character in the popular computer game "Ultima Online"--she's not really female. Cardinal is the alter-ego of Kenn Gold, a 33-year-old former Army sergeant with thorny green-and-black tattoos covering both of his muscular arms.

As one of the thousands of online gamers who play characters of the opposite gender, Gold created Cardinal as a tactical move: Female characters generally get treated better in the male-dominated world of virtual adventuring. Yet he was unprepared for the shock of seeing the world through a woman's eyes.

"I can't even begin to tell you how funny it is to watch guys trip all over themselves and be dumb," Gold said. "It's very amusing to see them try to be really sophisticated and cool, when they're turning out to be just the opposite."

Changing genders has long been a piece of online role-playing games--part juvenile mischievousness, part theatrical posing and part psychological release. But as the genre explodes--online games now attract hundreds of thousands of players--it's prompted a blossoming of cross-gender experimentation and created sexually amorphous virtual worlds that some revel in and others curse.

Men find they must constantly brush off unwanted advances, and their female characters are not taken as seriously. But they also find it easier to chat with other players and escape the relentless competition among male characters.

The story is the same for women who play men to avoid cheesy pick-up lines. They discover that moving among predominantly male groups involves participating in constant one-upmanship. And as their male characters move up the ranks, they fear losing the respect of other players if their true gender is discovered.

Online adventures are one of the fastest-growing segments of the computer game market, with titles such as "EverQuest," "Asheron's Call" and "Ultima Online." And it's not just kids with nothing better to do. Teachers, nurses, construction workers and accountants create alter-egos and join with others to explore virtual realms and slay imaginary beasts.

In "EverQuest," the most popular of the games with more than 360,000 subscribers, players spend an average of 20 hours a week online. Players call it "EverCrack" because it's so addictive. Much of the allure is the ability to put mundane daily life aside and pretend to be something they're not--an elf, a woodsman, a knight.

The ultimate challenge: to be another gender. Although some gamers swap genders to explore their own sexuality--a tiny fraction are cross-dressers in real life--the vast majority do it as a test of skill.

"There's a long history of this as a performance genre," said Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There is Glenda Jackson who plays Hamlet. Dustin Hoffman played Tootsie. It's a great challenge, a way to show virtuosity."

Virtual Experience Can Have Real Ramifications

Encouraging the make-believe are online avatars--the graphic representation of a player's character. Scantily clad females are impossibly thin and full-bosomed. Males are muscular and rendered in heroic proportions. As a result, the contrast between avatar and player can be striking, even when gamers are playing their own gender.

In "EverQuest," only 20% of subscribers are female, but 40% of avatars are. Even accounting for the number of women who play male characters, that amounts to roughly half the female characters in "EverQuest" being played by men such as Gold.

This might be fun and games, but as any serious player of such adventures will attest, online experiences--with their power to make people laugh, cry or become angry--can have real-life consequences.

"It certainly makes you more aware of how men treat women," said Raph Koster, 29, who has played a female character for years in an early online text-based game, "LegendMUD." "You're more aware that there are a lot of gendered interactions that we don't recognize as such. It makes you think more about what you're saying and how you're sending subtle messages without being aware of it."

For instance, "if you're a female character, just something as innocent as smiling might get read wrong." And if a male character tries to help a female character, it's assumed he wants something. Often, he does.

Mark Wight, a 28-year-old heavy-equipment operator from Ramona, Calif., said he wanted to hook his female character, Cytarack, into a hunting group so she could gain experience and advance in the game.

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