Women and World of Warcraft
Recent studies have challenged the traditional perception that computer games appeal just, or mainly, to men. In a UK survey from earlier this year, 49% of women said they played internet games, compared to 50% of men. And women actually spent more of their time online playing games than men did.
It's probably best not to speculate what else the men were busy doing during their online time (ha ha) – but it is perhaps notable that the majority of female gamers said they'd rather be playing a computer game than having sex or shopping. That's right: women would rather play internet games than get intimate with their partner or browse the lane furniture sale. Well, most men would probably agree with them on at least part of that sentence.
The UK survey found some differences between the type of games men and women are more likely to go for. Predictably, men are more likely to spend time playing games involving guns, while women are more likely to opt for games with a brain challenging or social aspect. So far, so many gender stereotypes confirmed.
So where does this leave World of Warcraft? Somewhere in the middle it seems – many would say it combines the best of both 'male' and 'female' traits and preferences: action, teamwork, fantasy, relationship-building, it's all there.
This idea of WoW as a cross-gender game is, to an extent at least, backed up by available statistics. A 2009 Nielsen survey of US gamers found that WoW was the most played 'core' game for women aged 25-54, with 428,621 logging on in December 2008, compared to 675,713 men in the same age group. In a more recent, still ongoing internet poll of WoW players, just over a third of respondents (mainly from the USA) were female.
A survey of WoW players from 2005 concluded there was no difference in the number of hours spent on the game by male and female gamers. And it's clear from a quick glance at a couple of forums that women are by no means any less passionate or serious about the game than men.
One thing about women gamers that does seem to fit the gender stereotype is the growth of online communities of female WoW players. These are used to share good and bad news, ask for or give advice, get fashion advice for characters (how to add gems, where to find a certain pair of boots) and simply touch base. The tone tends to be gossipy and affectionate, with splashes of information about life beyond WoW thrown in.
US Guild Got Girls is one example of a group of female WoW players working as a support network for each other, both within and beyond WoW. Members say they've celebrated each other's birthdays and weddings, even provided support for a member whose son was deployed to Iraq.
So do men and women, broadly speaking, play differently? Is it generally, or ever, possible to tell the real gender of the gamer from the way a character behaves in an MMORPG (massively multi-player online role-playing game)?
A 2007 study looking at gender differences in players of EverQuest found that female players tended to be more drawn towards the social aspects of the game, while men thrived more on the 'power and prestige' elements. Women players were more likely to group together with characters they'd grouped with before, while men were more likely to have a specific goal in mind when they logged on. Female players were more likely to take on leading roles in guilds, to participate in guild activities, and to enjoy being a guild member.
More than one way to play
Overall, the study concludes: 'Perhaps for female players, the focus of the game is in building relationships, and killing mobs is something you can do while chatting, whereas for the male players, the focus of the game is in killing mobs, and chatting is something you have to do to coordinate battle plans.'
One thing that does seem to have boosted the number of female gamers is the increase in choice, in terms of both gameplay and avatar creation. Gone are the days when a girl's only chance to play in her own gender involved watching Lara Croft's impossible proportions jiggle around onscreen. As one female blogger puts it, 'we should, like in the real world, have the choice whether or not to let it all hang out, so to speak, or look like any other soldier in the army.'
And of course, choice is the great thing about WoW: how you play is up to you.