Gender-Bending Online Gamers Bending Rules In 'Warcraft'

Study finds that half the game's 'female' players are actually guys.

Only half the "female" gamers playing "World of Warcraft" online are actually women. Most women who play those kinds of games do so with a romantic partner. And the average age of a "Warcraft" druid is 28.8 years old.

These are just some of the findings made by 26-year-old graduate student Nick Yee, who has spent the last five years exploring the lifestyles of those who play massively multi-player games online (MMOs).

Words like "census" and "demographics" aren't likely to quicken the pulse of the average gamer, but they ignite a fire under Yee. "It's mostly just been fun," he said. "It clearly did start off at college and in undergrad for course credit, but it quickly became a personal project."

Five years ago, Yee began polling "EverQuest" players, setting him on a course to become the best-known demographer in the MMO community. For the last two years he has published The Daedalus Project (NickYee.com/daedalus/), a bi-monthly online magazine that touts his most intriguing numbers and also features lively debates about the dangers of men teaming up with women to play games online.

Much of Yee's research defies common gamer stereotypes. "The media portrays gamers as loners who play by themselves or, at best, with people they don't know," Yee said. The Daedalus study said otherwise. More than half the women in one survey of several thousand gamers indicated they game with a romantic partner. More than a third of the males and females said they game with family members. "It's not a solitary task," Yee said.

A random page of The Daedalus Project will probably blow right over the head of the average layperson. A note about gender preferences among "World of Warcraft" gamers reads: "Night-Elves and Gnomes significantly more likely to be played by a female player. Orcs and the Undead are more likely to be played by a male player."

Other subjects, though -- like the preponderance of guys playing as girls in "World of Warcraft," a game that has surpassed 3 million users worldwide -- deliver in ways that can intrigue non-gamers.

The latest issue of The Daedalus Project contains an extended discussion about gender-bending. Yee reported that 23 percent of male players play as women, 3 percent of women play as men and, by extension, that means that half the female characters in the game are played by guys.

These findings reopened a prior debate. Two years ago, touting research that showed that nearly half the female characters in "EverQuest" were being played by guys, Yee floated theories about how virtual life provided a more forgiving environment for people to dabble with gender identity.

Yee's latest article brought more theories to light. "Female characters get treated better in the online world," he said. "It's easier for female characters to get freebies and goodies." He said there have been theories that gender-bending also gives men a 21st century way of dominating a female body, Yee said. "But a simpler one is that female butts are better to look it."

Gender has been one of the more sensitive issues in The Daedalus Project. Earlier this year, Yee interviewed a "World of Warcraft" gamer known as Talon who oversees a group of high-level players. Talon said one of the secrets to his group's success was that it excluded young single women. "Male students are the best," he told Yee, saying that young women playing the game often served as distractions. Needless to say, that issue's comments section included some lively feedback.

Yee is also interested in how virtual relationships interact with those in real life.

A 20-year-old woman reported that playing "EverQuest" with her boyfriend revealed a new side to his personality. "I, for example, love to help others and be part of a team," she wrote. Her boyfriend "very much enjoyed player-killing and was usually rude or mean to others in the game. It was a different side of him I had never seen."

A 22-year-old male "City of Heroes" player complained of boyfriend troubles, because his significant other wanted to team up too often when playing online. "Sometimes I like to play alone," he wrote to Yee.

And then there was a 29-year-old woman who started playing "EverQuest" to get closer to her boyfriend, only to see her efforts backfire. "He was intensely jealous that I excelled more than he in a game that he had been playing much longer," she wrote. "Ultimately the game that I had started playing to spend time with him became a huge downfall in our relationship."

Next up, Yee hopes to explore the reasons why people stop playing MMOs. He's also keeping busy as an intern this summer at PlayOn, a census group that recently surveyed "World of Warcraft" players to determine how much time people spend in the game. They found that the most dedicated of them -- the 10 percent of users who have reached the maximum "Level 60" -- would have had to spend 480 hours, or 20 sleepless days, to reach their current standing. Those 480 hours, Yee pointed out, were the equivalent of the amount of time someone would spend at a full-time job for three months.

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