Praxis

Performing self, performing character: Exploring gender performativity in online role-playing games

Heather Osborne

University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—Online narrative (fiction-based) role-playing games and massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide a ludic structure in which role players enact the gender and sexuality of their avatars. To investigate how role players perceive and perform their avatars' gender and sexuality in online games, I invited role players from MMORPGs and narrative RPGs to participate in an online survey. This study examines how the online game environment mediates players' self-expression and their acceptance of minority identities. Qualitative analysis of the data collected suggests that players who demonstrate empathy with and examination of their avatars' genders and sexualities, and who experience a sense of belonging within the game structure, are able to form positive interpersonal relationships that allow them to accept others' expressed identities.

[0.2] Keywords—Avatar; Identity; Massively multiplayer online role-playing game; MMORPG; Narrative role-playing game; Sexuality; Survey

Osborne, Heather. 2012. "Performing Self, Performing Character: Exploring Gender Performativity in Online Role-Playing Games." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 11. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2012.0411.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Online role-playing gamers perform characters in fantastic, invented, or realist settings, combine narrative with game play, and negotiate their experiences among different social frameworks. Some game types, such as narrative role-playing games, rely on the players' mutual suspension of disbelief to define the extent of the shared world. Others, such as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, provide elaborate world building through computer software. Yet in both cases, players' engagement and participation define the reality of the game space.

[1.2] Online identities are informed by off-line performances, and therefore online game spaces provide stages for performed selves. Within the game structure, players can choose to either reinscribe or rewrite cultural narratives around gender expression. Tynes (2010, 225) asserts that role-playing offers participants the opportunity to "experiment by adopting personas different from themselves, ones that they perhaps have coveted or even feared in life." Players may perform characters with a different gender identities or sexual orientations than they themselves identify with off-line, and they may subvert gender norms by exploring alternatives to binary gender.

[1.3] Gender and sexuality influence the creation of both the players' online self-presentations and their in-game characters. As Corneliussen (2008) notes, "Gender is always present in World of Warcraft and it always makes a difference…The visual gender representations clearly build on an idea of gender as difference" (75). Further, the players' game-frame characters and online-frame selves are not constrained by the players' physical bodies. Cross-gendered play underlines the performativity inherent in "natural" gender roles. Such parodies, in Butlerian terms, "[deprive] hegemonic culture and its critics of the claim to naturalized or essentialist gender identities" (Butler 2004a, 112). Constructed gender in RPGs provides evidence of the constructed nature of all gender.

[1.4] To investigate how online role players perform gender and sexuality in the online and game frames, I conducted a qualitative survey of narrative RPG and MMORPG players. My analysis focused on three questions: first, what is the role of the game frame for players? Second, how are sexuality and gender performed in the game frame? And finally, what is the effect of the online and game frames on the player's off-line, primary framework? My study uses Erving Goffman's frame analysis (1974) and Judith Butler's notion of gender performativity (1990) to explore the significance and expression of both players' and characters' gender and sexuality in online role-playing games.

2. Game types

[2.1] An extensive variety of RPGs has been developed since the 1970s (Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler 2006). Some are conducted face to face, some require a single participant, and others require computer-mediated communication ranging from simple text interfaces to elaborate systems. My study investigates online games involving two or more players who interact in a game space via characters that they embody through role-playing, with a focus on how players perform their own and their characters' gender and sexuality. The games I chose offered persistent pseudonymity, invited the use of character templates, involved storytelling, and included gender and sexuality.

[2.2] Story, game, and role-play intersect within the online frame in MMORPGs and in narrative RPGs. MMORPGs include World of Warcraft (Blizzard, 2004–present) and EverQuest (Sony, 1999–present), which are "specifically designed to offer hundreds of hours of highly interactive gameplay and for the development of characters' identities" (Williams, Hendricks, and Winkler 2006, 6). In an ethnography of EverQuest, Chee, Vieta, and Smith (2006) found that to create a visual representation, players faced a "laborious but often pleasurable task of going through numerous windows to choose the looks and attributes of a character" (155). Avatar archetypes that allow variations and player input but ultimately conform to an existing structure are an instantiation of Butler's assertion that "gender may be 'chosen' only from within the parameters of culturally available terms which always preexist the subject" (Salih 2004b, 22). In MMORPGs, these parameters are set within the game programming.

[2.3] Players often band together in guilds or raiding parties to combine their characters' strengths. Communication occurs via instant messaging or voice-over chat, which may take place at several levels of privacy (Chappell et al. 2006). Though players can engage with the game individually, guilds often progress as a group through the game's many quests. Costikyan (2010) observes that MMORPGs do not offer a single, progressive storyline; however, players' individual and guild-level storytelling takes the programmed world as a starting point, not a fixed path. Players construct their characters' narratives on the scaffold of the preprogrammed worlds. Thus, MMORPG players partake of interactive role-playing, online game play, and narrative advancement.

[2.4] Narrative RPGs are text based, and their players must improvise written responses in the course of play. Players "describe what their fantasy personas say and do in the various situations encountered and how they respond to the myriad of ongoing consequences that result from those actions" (Waskul 2006, 24). The narrative RPG players I study utilize social networking sites that allow comment-based responses. Narrative RPGs may partake of the transgressive elements of fan fiction "in the way they depict action—as centrally located around issues of emotion and trust and sex…to access a greater dimension of feeling" (Bacon-Smith 2000, 113). Sensuality among characters can appear as a storytelling element. Experienced players gain skill in telling stories and in exploring otherwise neglected facets of the characters they portray.

[2.5] Narrative RPGs must be distinguished from MUDs, or multiuser dungeons (or dimensions). An extensive body of research on MUDs discusses character creation and player immersion (Isabella 2007; Mortensen 2002). Both MUDs and narrative RPGs are text based, with players reading and writing the actions of the characters they embody. However, MUDs' worlds are restricted to computer-programmed environments. Mortensen (2002) notes that "to be able to make sense of playing in a MUD, it is necessary to master the commands in the game"; these commands result in character actions or speech. Characters created in MUDs are often an original amalgamation of traits invented by the players.

[2.6] Narrative RPGs do not require specific software, commands, or computer-generated environments. They consist of players writing description or dialogue. The worlds are limited only by players' understandings of the shared fictional world. In many narrative RPGs, players embody fictional characters chosen from popular media such as movies, television, and books. Narrative RPG players make choices for their characters on the basis of how the characters have been presented in their original canons. For these players, according to Stein (2006, 247), "both the source text and culturally shared codes of genre provide structures and limitations." The players' performances shape how each character develops and which aspects of each character are emphasized.

[2.7] Narrative RPGs may be large, multiplayer games, or they may be limited to two or three players. Campfuckudie (2005–present), a multiplayer game originally based on LiveJournal and later migrated to Dreamwidth, is typical of the multiplayer game (note 1). Players perform characters from many different media canons who meet and interact in the game's setting, a summer camp inspired by the B-movie genre. Players initiate narratives by describing their characters' actions in LiveJournal or Dreamwidth posts. Other players respond in threaded comments with their own characters' dialogue and actions, which advance the events of a given scenario. Over time, characters form relationships as they explore the mysteries and dangers of the camp together. An example of a smaller, two-person game on LiveJournal is Cuddy's House (200710), in which the characters Lisa Cuddy and Greg House from House M.D. establish a romantic relationship. This game branches from the television series while maintaining the world and characters established in canon. The players write action, dialogue, and internal monologue, resulting in a narrative that resembles fan fiction with two POV characters. Unlike fan fiction, however, the game is not intended to reach a conclusion. Each comment thread continues until a given scenario is played out and then leads chronologically to the next. In both examples, players stay in character while participating in the game's main community, reserving out-of-character (OOC) discussion for affiliated OOC communities or private chats. Players base their characters' personalities, including their gender and sexuality, on the media canon they seek to emulate through role-playing.

[2.8] Identity construction in role-playing games is a contentious area of research. Ethnography, often combined with survey research, has been used to assess players' levels of involvement and identification with characters and other players (Mortensen 2009; Taylor 2006; Chee, Vieta, and Smith 2006; Isabella 2007; Rybas and Gajjala 2007). Taylor (2006, 19, 54–55) remarks that the social reality within the game frame is interwoven with our off-line social reality. Klastrup (2009) asserts that game environments possess a quality of "worldness," that is, properties that define unique game worlds socially and technically. Players gain a sense of emotional reality tied to role-playing games as "worldness" creates a sense of inclusion and reverberates as strong and affective memories. Despite the social aspect of role-playing games, characters' identities are not equally important to all players. Players' strategies differ according to game type, group affiliation, and purpose of play. Taylor (2006, 71–73) compares power gamers and role-play gamers. Power gamers are dedicated to leveling up and increasing the ludic efficiency of their characters, whereas role-play gamers are dedicated to the narrative scope of the virtual world. Identity construction has different significance for the two kinds of players.

[2.9] Gender and sexuality influence the creation of both the players' online self-presentations and their in-game characters. This does not mean that cross-gender or cross-sexuality play is intended to be transgressive. Many players cite ludic reasons to choose a cross-gender avatar, as when straight men report choosing to play female characters because they have greater agility than male characters, or because female characters are more attractive to watch during play (Kennedy 2002). Nor is sexuality within the game frame a simple matter. As an example, Sundén (2009) proposes that players' queer sexuality in an LGBT-friendly guild both is and is not transgressive within the game space. While the players' queerness implicitly subverts the implied (straight, male) player, within an LGBT-friendly guild queer players regain a sense of identity and belonging that minimizes the transgression of their queer play. However, since players' game-frame characters and online-frame selves are not constrained by the players' physical bodies, the genders and sexualities that they embody are representations that have been constructed for the game and online frames.

[2.10] This is an issue of ongoing debate in game studies research. For example, Nephew (2006) suggests that breaking cultural norms through cross-gender play can discomfit players, leading to anxiety that results in exaggerated, parodic portrayals (134). By contrast, MacCallum-Stewart (2009) argues that as the proportion of female players in gaming communities increases, women are seen as a desirable demographic by game developers and are less often targeted with "pink" games. Cross-gender playing has become a normal and normalized choice. Gaming preferences outweigh the importance of cross-gender play; rather than being aberrant or subversive, cross-gender play occurs for ludic reasons (MacCallum-Stewart 2008, 37), rendering it "safe, heterosexual, and emancipating."

[2.11] However, MacCallum-Stewart (2009, 232) also states that "there is a growing postmodern relationship between avatar and player which uses playful versions of gender to subvert the sexualisation of the female avatar." Despite its normalization, gender play still occurs; players interpret and create gender as they interact within the game frame. Some players "very strongly identify with their characters as role-played identities; characters that they create and that have backstories exterior to gameplay" (MacCallum-Stewart 2008, 36). This is not true of all players; however, players who particularly enjoy role-playing are more likely to be mindful of how they represent all a character's traits, including gender and sexuality.

[2.12] In this paper, I contend that cross-gendered play underlines the performativity inherent in "natural" gender roles (Butler 1990). Within the game structure, players can choose to either reinscribe or rewrite cultural narratives around gender expression. Following Kennedy (2002), I believe that the game is a liminal space that allows transgression of social and cultural norms. As games become increasingly representational and experiential, the game avatars provide opportunities to subvert gender norms by exploring alternative identities.

[2.13] Online RPG players form communities that cannot be said to differ from off-line communities in any sense save the material. Chee, Vieta, and Smith (2006) argue that since online environments are "intimately intertwined with the greater life-world of gamers," players undertake the same methods of community building in the online and game frames as they do in their primary frames (160). In MMORPGs and narrative RPGs, players form relationships, interact via characters, and role-play for both ludic and narrative purposes. The online and game frames, "where gender is being constructed, represented, and negotiated in ways not totally different from hegemonic Western discourses of gender," are appropriate spaces in which to investigate how gender is constituted and performed (Corneliussen 2008, 65). I will show how role-playing, which often subverts gender norms, is a queering practice. Players negotiate and subvert their readings of digital media as texts and their readings of the texts as story, as virtual environments, and as RPGs.

3. Methodology

[3.1] I collected primary data by conducting an online survey of MMORPG and narrative RPG players. With approval from the Committee on Research Ethics at the University of Liverpool, the survey was made available online for a two-month period (May#8211;June 2010), using resources available from the University of Liverpool's Computing Services Department (http://survey.liv.ac.uk). Participation was invited via a blog post (http://heatherosborne.speculative-fiction.ca). Participants were required to be over 18, be fluent in written English, and have experience with MMORPGs or narrative RPGs. All responses were confidential and anonymous. Participants were informed they could withdraw from participation at any time by choosing not to submit the questionnaire. Completion and submission of the questionnaire was considered evidence of informed consent. Once submitted, participants' responses were automatically emailed to me.

[3.2] The survey instrument consisted of 25 open-ended questions in seven sections. The sections focus on demographics, including self-reported gender identification and sexuality; participants' experience with role-playing games; their reasons for playing role-playing games and the benefits they gain from doing so; the connection of role-playing games with gender, with sexuality, and with relationships; and respondents' further thoughts (see appendix). I developed the survey with support from the Committee on Research Ethics at the University of Liverpool. Questions were open ended to encourage participants to self-disclose, and participants were encouraged to relate personal anecdotes.

[3.3] Because I gathered responses in the most convenient way (especially through snowball sampling), my data do not support statistical inference and are not generalizable to the larger population (Fricker 2008, 205). While I elaborate on the numerical breakdown of the responses, it is important to note that none of these results can be considered statistically significant, nor can they be quantitatively assessed in a meaningful way. My intention in conducting a qualitative analysis is to highlight tendencies or areas of interest that can be examined in the future. Continuing research with larger sample sizes would help to uncover the extent to which online games are more, less, or equally attractive to different groups of players (for example, female/male, queer/straight, trans/cis). If, as my findings here suggest, role players seek safe spaces within games, marginalized groups may be better represented in RPG communities than elsewhere. My analysis must be seen as exploratory and preliminary, yet its relevance is evident from the ways in which it diverges from the current secondary literature, as I will show in my discussion. The data I collected can be viewed as an authentic portrayal of certain individual experiences within the role-playing subculture. Future research might consider refining my questionnaire to a more generalizable instrument.

4. Results

[4.1] 86 responses to the survey were submitted. Of them, nine were submitted with no questions answered, and 19 bore answers to the demographics questions but no further information. I considered these 28 responses nonresponse errors and disregarded them. Another 15 respondents misidentified the purpose of the study and responded despite identifying as tabletop, LARP, MUD, or console gamers. Responses that did not discuss online MMORPGs or narrative RPGs were also eliminated as due to measurement error. The remaining 43 responses were analyzed using a close reading technique.

[4.2] Of the 43 respondents who identified as MMORPG or narrative RPG players, 14 were narrative RPG players, 23 were MMORPG players, and six played both types of games. Several respondents named other game types as well. If respondents identified one of the two investigated game types, their survey responses were included in the analysis.

[4.3] The youngest respondents were 20; the oldest was 53. The age distribution was bimodal, with the highest frequency of respondents at 23 and 26 years of age. The mean age of respondents was 30.16 years. Nearly half (49%) of respondents fell in the 23–27 age bracket, with several older outliers influencing the mean. Because of ethical constraints, no gamers under 18 could be surveyed; therefore, younger gamers who might be prevalent in the population are not represented in the sample. Narrative RPG players tended to be younger, whereas MMORPG players tended to be present in all age brackets.

[4.4] Gender was self-reported, which allowed respondents to offer personal details. 24 respondents identified as female and 14 identified as male. The remaining five respondents identified as genderqueer or transgendered, with two indicating a preferred gender identity: R009 identified as "genderqueer, slanted female," and R037 identified as "transgender FTM" (note 2). Two others identified simply as genderqueer and one as transgender. Consolidating cisgendered females, transgender females, and genderqueer females as "female-identified," and cisgendered males, transgender males, and genderqueer males as "male-identified," 58% of respondents identified as female, 35% identified as male, and 7% chose not to specify a binary gender identity. While the MMORPG players among the respondents were equally likely to be male or female, narrative RPG players tended to be female.

[4.5] Sexuality was self-reported to allow nuanced self-identifications. Respondents self-identified in five categories: asexual (n = 5), heterosexual (n = 17), bisexual (n = 9), homosexual (n = 7), and pansexual (n = 5). When asexual individuals indicated a romantic preference, asexuality was still coded as the primary characteristic of the individual's sexuality. For instance, R037 identified as "asexual, biromantic," and this was coded as asexual. Several respondents indicated that while they considered themselves bisexual, they had not had relationships with both genders (or perhaps either). R015 stated, "I'm pretty green when it comes to relationships. In theory I like both men and women. but in practice…I've yet to have intercourse with anyone." Finally, some individuals identified as polyamorous; however, in all instances, polyamory was referenced in addition to an identification as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, and it was considered as a secondary identification. Because of the small sample size, no inferences can be drawn about the relationship between respondents' self-identified sexuality and preferred game type.

5. Discussion

[5.1] I identified three general themes in the survey data. Survey respondents demonstrated empathy for identities other than their own; negotiated safe spaces within the online and game frames; and achieved a sense of belonging through role-play. RPG players use the game and online frames to situate their performativity, as individuals and as members of a community.

[5.2] Role-playing is linked to empathy, since the "ability to put oneself in another's shoes, to understand how they think and to anticipate how they will act, [fits] a definition of gaming itself, with fantasy roles replacing real roles" (Mello 2006, 189). Role players model their characters' emotions and reactions as well as those of other players and characters. Nephew (2006) finds that "role-playing skill is an important part of social cognition, communication, and interaction, and reflects an underlying empathy" in the role player (121). Interacting with another character rewards a player's investment and encourages reciprocity. Empathetic role players respect other identities, discover new parts of themselves, and respect alternative decision-making processes.

[5.3] Empathy is not universal, nor is it consistently employed. Players might empathize with their own characters (taking care to ensure their realism and internal life), with other characters (by engaging with them in the fantasy frame), or with other players (through mutualism and group support). However, empathy might extend only to one's character or only to one's group, with outgroup characters or players being subject to degradation or disdain. For instance, empathy for others would be counterproductive in EverQuest on player-versus-player servers, but it is an important tool on player-versus-environment servers, where players' cooperation increases their chance of success. Insofar as RPGs encourage players to interact in order to succeed, they represent social spaces in which empathy can be used as a powerful tool to increase engagement.

[5.4] Players performing characters with gender identities different than their own may empathize with those alternative identities. Players present themselves online as male, female, other, or unspecified, and the characters they embody have the same or a greater range of choices. Players performing alternative identities may not intend to engage in transgressive acts; however, such play with boundaries and identities is itself transgressive. Players may play cross-gender characters for several reasons, including "reasons of interest, to experiment playing a different gendered character for fun, and to prevent unsolicited male approaches" (Hussain and Griffiths 2009, 747). Respondents generally described their cross-gender character choices in terms of empathy. For instance, when creating a character, "I usually start with a class [of character, e.g., thief or warrior], and then ask, 'why this class? what motivated them to become a -whatever?-'" (R009). One respondent describes the benefit of role-playing as "learning to think like someone else" (R014). Players stress that they make decisions in character. R020 said, "Once I have the backstory/personality basis of a character decided, it is just a matter of thinking how a character would respond in a given situation." Players demonstrating empathy treat other characters as real in the game frame, insofar as their actions might affect others; many players enjoy games as escapism while still demonstrating empathy.

[5.5] Empathy extends to understanding the social roles of different genders. Players performing genders other than their own enhance their characterization with knowledge of social role expectations. "When I play a male character, I try to keep in mind how guys I know [in real life] act and think," R022 states. "I keep in mind how sexual stereotypes would affect those characters, but since I'm not a gender essentialist, I don't put too much thought into making them male." The player includes her awareness of sanctioned gender performances in the character's backstory. R031 uses a similar technique when playing a character with a different sexual orientation than the character has in canon:

[5.6] Many of the character's core personality qualities remain the same, but his or her outlook or worldview, actions, other ideas, etc. are portrayed in a way I believe would "fit" this version of the character. I create these backstories/worldviews/etc. by talking with people that share the character's orientation, or my RPG partner, or by examining possibilities alone.

[5.7] Players consider the impact of socialization as well as backstory on a character, and, using empathy, they perform the character with reference to sanctioned masculinities and femininities.

[5.8] Respondents generally downplayed the effect of portraying gender on themselves or on their characters. For instance, R049 disavowed the importance of gendered portrayals by stating, "I have multiple characters, both male and female, and I play the characters the same no matter what the gender." Yet as Butler argues, if "one's body is a situation, a field of cultural possibilities both received and reinterpreted, then both gender and sex seem to be thoroughly cultural affairs" (Butler 2004b, 29). When players gender their characters, they are acting within the cultural discourse of gender. This is clear for R030, who said of her game with a female role-playing partner, "We're both heterosexual, but I am female and play male." In effect, two heterosexual female-identified players are absorbed in a game that emphasizes the heterosexual relationship between a male and a female character. Boundaries in the complicated relationship among characters and players are difficult to define. Does the game narrative typify a heterosexual relationship, although both players identify as female? Can the erotically charged writing of two women be termed homosocial or even homosexual, or does it represent in-character actions by a heterosexual couple? Simplification to a single possibility mistakes the nature of the relationship:

[5.9] There is a complicated connection between offline and online personalities that allows many to believe that, at times, the offline and online become one and allows, at times, for them to be disconnected. The reverse mistake would be an all too simple connection between identity and avatar, where it is assumed the identity will finally come out and consume the avatar. (Montfort 2010, 144)

[5.10] Neither possibility demonstrates the true complexity in a role-playing relationship. The intertwined relationships accentuate the performativity in, and empathy among, all the frames, whether or not the players insist on a sharp distinction between themselves and their characters.

[5.11] Playing in character requires players to examine their characters' motivations and social pressures, which can be extended to the player's own sense of self. The affiliation between players and characters is always in the process of embodiment. Butler (2004a) argues that the body is "a mode of becoming that, in becoming otherwise, exceeds the norm, reworks the norm, and makes us see how realities to which we thought we were confined are not written in stone" (29). Players examine the process of becoming their characters; some players gain insight from self-examination as well. R034 describes her experience:

[5.12] If you find the right partner to play off of, you can learn a lot about yourself, how you relate to the world, what your fears and irrational worries are, and how to deal with them. […] You can learn a lot about your partner, and can maybe challenge them into exploring their own hopes and fears through the role-play narrative.

[5.13] As players enact characters' choices, they may begin to see how they, too, are affected by repetitive, performed choices. As Nephew (2006) contends, "by allowing play in regard to identity, role-playing games encourage players to reflexively exhibit a knowledge of self" (121). Respondents demonstrate this self-reflexivity, as when R054 stated, "I usually have some idealized me in mind, some version of myself that has become an expert in a field I either won't or can't choose." Players explore their own potential, as well as their personality traits, by empathizing with an idealized version of themselves. Thus, empathy becomes the basis for self-actualization as they envision idealized actions and responses.

[5.14] Players distinguish among their own problem-solving techniques and those employed by their characters. R024 expresses this distinction by saying, "It's kind of nice to consider actions and problems from a different point of view, trying to stay in character, pretending to do things you can't or wouldn't ever do in real life." Many respondents distinguished between their characters' actions and their own responses to a situation. Empathy mediates the dislocation when the character makes decisions very different from the player's:

[5.15] I try her shoes on for size and try to understand what she's feeling and thinking. I become her. Many times while reading a tag [a comment continuing the narrative] and writing one in response, I have felt what she does, getting angry, or smiling, and so forth. Sometimes she's me deeply uncomfortable because what she's doing/thinking goes against the grain of what *I'd* do, if I were in her situation. She takes me out of my comfort zone! (R013)

[5.16] Many survey respondents prized the ability to play in character, and they linked empathizing with a character with empathizing more deeply with themselves or with other players. Players can become highly invested in the changes they observe in themselves and others as a result of heightened empathy during game play.

[5.17] The fantastic settings of many RPGs provide a measure of safety to role players. Safety is crucial to learning outcomes. The game frame offers a venue for exploration and innovation, but further, "by playing out cultural taboos players are imbued with a sense of power and control over their lives that they may feel is lacking in reality" (Nephew 2006, 127). These taboos may be associated with the violence and aggression in MMORPGs or with the sexual taboos that are explored in many narrative RPGs. In the safe space of a virtual environment, protected by pseudonymity and characterization, players can express themselves authentically through the mediating strategy of fiction.

[5.18] When players feel safe, they are more likely to challenge and explore cultural taboos. Role-playing, together with the distance provided by the game frame, "allows me to express parts of myself in a safe setting that I would not otherwise get to explore" (R069). In the game frame, players can express fantasies that are associated with their kinks. Kink is a broad and fluid range of practices and desires that may or may not include BDSM, fetishes, or sexualized scenarios, often defined in opposition to "vanilla" sex (Sundén 2009). For some respondents, this freedom to explore is due to the vicarious nature of role-playing: "Since I identify as asexual and I have no interest in having sex, role playing becomes a way to experience sexuality vicariously" (R037). Players may take risks in their self-presentation because they feel that their involvement is safely hidden behind their characters' performativity.

[5.19] The game frame masks players' actions from the consequences of those actions in their primary framework. Nephew (2006) writes, "In a role-playing game, the player's unconscious desires are allowed to become manifest in the role taken, since the persona of the character allows the player a disguise behind which to hide" (122). The player wears the character like a mask, which provides the sense of safety necessary to express what Goffman (1974) calls the player's truer self. He writes, "In so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves…this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be" (52). Some respondents referenced the mask metaphor:

[5.20] I have difficulty writing female characters, as I feel they would reveal more of myself, without the extra masking layer of a different sex/gender to distract people from the fact that, in all of my characters, I am essentially playing versions of myself, with different character traits or downplayed, depending on the character. To play a woman in sexual relationships with other women would be taking away most of my masks. (R033)

[5.21] Playing a male character allows R033 to conceal the exploration of her sexuality. She identifies as "selectively sexual, currently in a sexual relationship with a woman," and yet the fictional pursuit of homosexual relationships feels too revealing without the mask of the male character. She elaborates: "I roleplay in order to explore personas and actions that I am not allowed to comfortably explore in 'real life,' or that would place myself or others in danger were I to explore them." For R033, role-playing offers the distance and comfort that allows her to express her sexuality authentically.

[5.22] Nevertheless, gender policing occurs among players, perhaps because of the ease with which cultural norms can be subverted online. As Jordan (1999) explains, "identity has ambiguous effects on hierarchy online. It certainly dislocates the forms of hierarchy that commonly operate off-line but it does not offer the radical possibility of eliminating hierarchies altogether" (81). Gender does not disappear from the online frame; its very ambiguity serves to increase its importance, and therefore the importance of determining the "truth" of players' identities. Gender policing becomes a tool through which heterocentrist norms are reinscribed (Butler 1999, 362).

[5.23] In RPG settings, women may present as male to avoid unwanted sexual advances, and men may present as female to gain advantages they perceive both female characters and female players accruing, such as clemency and gifts. Therefore, Internet users, especially those presenting as women, are often asked to prove their gender status. When the gender of an Internet user's persistent pseudonymous identity is found to be different than that of their off-line identity, the user may be attacked for being deceptive (Joinson 2003, 100). Gender policing marks the clash between performing alternative gender identities online and the hegemonic discourse of heterocentrism.

[5.24] Respondents provided many examples of gender policing in RPGs. R023, who identifies as genderqueer, describes hir experiences: "I've seen and heard numerous examples of players getting talked down to, derided, excluded from organizations and activities, offered in-game goods and services, and shown favouritism based on presenting as female. Most players seem to assume that other players are male until proven otherwise." Both male and female players may engage in gender policing. "Some [female players] like to hold themselves up as being better than other women, either because they like boy stuff, which is clearly superior to silly girly things. Others will attack any woman who objects to the poor treatment in a RPG. They want validation from male gamers and don't care who they have to step on in order to get it" (R022). Nor is policing solely used to reinforce gender identities; nonheteronormative sexualities are also targeted. R059 states, "Gay men […] are frequently bashed. I've been kicked off more than one team if I ask team mates to not use words like 'gay' as curses."

[5.25] Players take care to protect themselves and their identities from others to avoid gender policing. R009 said, "When I play in pick up groups I mute my microphone. I don't want strangers hearing my voice, because what happens is that no one will listen to me when I'm telling them how to handle a strategy, and I'll get whispers asking why i'm not in the [group] with my boyfriend." When the group is more firmly established and a level of trust has been achieved, players are more able to express themselves authentically. R059 shares R009's caution with pickp groups, but notes that groups with established bonds or commonalities offer a greater sense of safety: "I must be careful on pick-up groups they can be very negative toward gay men. I most commonly group with other gay men whom I have allied with there in I am most free." When players feel safe, they are more likely to branch out from normative performances:

[5.26] Early on in my role-playing experience, there was an unspoken expectation among the people I was playing with that players would play characters who were the same as their perceived gender. When I (non-op, closeted trans and perceived female) chose otherwise, it [caused] a bit of a stir. It took them a while to adjust to the fact that my heterosexual male character might flirt with a female character and that this shouldn't be awkward. (R037)

[5.27] Although the relationships that R037 chose to pursue were heterosexual, other players who perceived him as female interpreted his performance as nonnormative. Though they were not aware of R037's identity as a transgendered individual, they nevertheless employed gender policing tactics that would confine him to female identification, thus erasing his identity as an FTM person. Gender policing in RPGs may have consequences for players' off-line gender presentation as well. As Salih (2004a) points out, "people who fail to 'do' their gender correctly, or who do it in ways which accentuate its genealogy and construction, are punished by cultures and laws which have a vested interest in maintaining a stable distinction between…homosexual and heterosexual, masculine and feminine" (93). R037's demonstration of the constructedness of gender was initially met with resistance and awkwardness, but eventually broadened the possible genders performed in the context of his game. Without a sense of safety, players cannot express themselves authentically.

[5.28] The most important aspect of role-playing for survey respondents was that it met their need for belonging. Respondents spoke of meaningful relationships they had formed in RPGs, of feeling attachment to virtual communities, and of finding acceptance among and intimacy with trusted members of their games. Chappell et al. (2006) found that MMORPGs players' friendships are "emotionally resonant," and that players "get emotional support, information, stimulation, attention and energy from others" (213). Players most often continue playing RPGs for social reasons.

[5.29] Respondents named the people they played with as a crucial factor in their enjoyment. "A benefit I highly value is the sense of belonging you get—almost immediately—from engaging in play with another person" (R031). Relationships among players ranged from "casual acquaintanceship" (R014), to "platonic friendship, sometimes with a familial closeness" (R023), through romantic relationships (R022 and R013). The significance of players' relationships in the game frame varied, but all respondents mentioned the importance of having some knowledge of, and communication with, their fellow players. Joining a guild or raid, or collaborating on a narrative RPG, established a sense of belonging.

[5.30] Acceptance was most important to players performing an authentic self in the online or game frames, potentially compensating for off-line isolation. Butler (2004a) notes how crucial acceptance can be for marginalized people; speaking of transgendered individuals, she says, "I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is most urgent" (29). The possibility of connecting with like-minded others, of finding a place in which their identity is not maligned or erased, can act as a lifeline for some people. Furthermore, "for someone with a hoped-for possible self that receives some validation on-line, it is possible that this bolsters their attempts to achieve the possible self off-line too" (Joinson 2003, 124). With the possibility of acceptance, players can build bonds of trust and safe spaces for revealing an authentic self. Acceptance of a character's gender or sexuality in the game frame can lead to acceptance of the player's identity. Belonging can lay the foundation for future self-disclosures.

[5.31] Some games, however, are not open to explorations of sexuality. R017 states, "I can create characters to explore my sexuality, but usually people I play with aren't really interested in dealing with complex romantic issues. The games I play aren't focused on that kind of thing." Nevertheless, for R068, role-playing authentically is important as a way of encouraging the players in his MMORPG to accept his identity: "Once in a blue moon I'll get pushback for being 'too gay' or 'too fetishy' but I don't believe I should be a minority [in] a straight man's world. Rather I'm an equal partner in all humanity's world and folks need to accept that there's other sexualities at large besides heterosexuals." When acceptance and trust is present among players, however, much deeper explorations may be welcome. This is the case for R034, who says that "if you find the right role play partner, a person you know well and trust, you can use your character as an avatar to explore things that you may not have had the opportunity to explore in real life." Shared interests and experiences provide one level of belonging; with acceptance, belonging can deepen to a more personal level, which many respondents found rewarding.

[5.32] As belonging and acceptance increase, a feeling of intimacy may arise among players. This may be attributable to the fact that "within an interaction, one person's intimacies tend to be reciprocated in terms of level and type by the communication partner" (Joinson 2005, 27). These self-disclosures may heighten feelings of intimacy between players because their communication is mediated by the Internet, and because of this, the inhibitions of face-to-face communication are lessened (Joinson 2003, 142). Intimacy online may be further enhanced by role players' maintenance of relationships among their characters. As players switch among frames, emotions present between characters may be projected between players as well.

[5.33] Players may develop relationships outside the game frame, but many choose not to pursue this possibility. Investigating World of Warcraft, MacCallum-Stewart and Parsler (2008) discovered that the potential for increased intimacy discouraged role-playing:

[5.34] Many successfully role-played acts concern the gradual growth of relationships, culminating in weddings, break-ups, or even virtual "births."…Furthermore, the graphic descriptions that often form part of cybersex discourage players from experiencing more balanced role-play. (237)

[5.35] Whereas some gamers see in-game relationships as valid and rewarding, their connection with sexuality and intimacy disinclines other gamers from role-playing. If trust, belonging, and acceptance are not present, then intimacy risks fallout from a soured relationship. This is borne out by survey respondents:

[5.36] I keep RP friendships on a different level than normal friendships, since Real Life and In Character can often mess up, leading to unpleasant results. (R010)

[5.37] I feel that make-believe romantic feelings have too high a tendency to get mixed up with real ones and would rather avoid such situations online. (R040)

[5.38] However, for others, increased intimacy was an advantage of role-playing. Closeness was "the best thing I could've dreamed for" (R013). While playing sexuality does not require intimacy, often the two are correlated, since sexual situations are "usually very revealing—both in regards to the other character, as in regards to the other player" (R034). Intimacy results in "honest, rewarding relationships" (R033). Some players enjoy the opportunity to experience intimacy without physical sexuality. For R037, who identifies as asexual, "My body, which doesn't desire sex, can continue being its virginal self, while my brain, which likes both men and women (and other sexes, too) can engage in safe, pseudo-sexual [activities] without setting up false expectations." Intellectual, emotional, and occasionally sexual closeness fosters intimacy in online venues. Intimacy can exist at the level of friendship, family, or romance, as a possible repercussion of belonging and acceptance.

[5.39] However, intimacy is not the only outcome of belonging. Becoming a member of an MMORPG or a narrative RPG subculture means joining a community. For experienced Internet users, social and community involvement are a consequence of extended play (Joinson 2003, 117). Players maintain long-distance friendships or form new ones through online communities. Playing RPGs is "an activity that I can do to spend time with friends who I am close to but who live too far away for other sorts of activities" (R020). Players extend support to other community members and feel valued for their contributions to group efforts. At its core, role-playing has the goal of "blending the right amount of fantasy with realism to create a moving character, and working together with others who have done the same to create a moving story" (R051). Players become part of the role-playing community in order to embrace a role and interact with others who are as engaged in the game frame as they are themselves.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Role-playing games have an importance that transcends their value as entertainment. Players are motivated to form interpersonal relationships by the sense of belonging, community, and intimacy that may arise when players feel they are in a safe, trusting, and accepting space. Exploring the ramifications of these relationships, either mediated by characters or simply in the online frame, can have beneficial outcomes for players who demonstrate empathy and self-reflexivity. While many role players enjoy the escapism and entertainment offered by RPGs, others use them as tools to deepen relationships and explore self-understanding and self-expression.

[6.2] Yet respondents treat role-playing with caution because of the very power it can wield in their lives. The online frame allows players to easily, and perhaps ill-advisedly, disregard their primary frameworks. Players' engagement with the RPG and their rapid movement among the off-line, online, and fantasy frames make RPGs a powerful medium, since emotions can cross such fluid boundaries. Players take the trouble to distinguish between themselves and their characters in order to maintain control over the entanglements that role-playing encourages.

[6.3] Online world building becomes significant when players interpret events through the same frameworks. The game frame structures players' experiences by providing ludic and narrative incentives to continue playing, and the fantasy frame of the shared social world rewards players' performances of their characters. Performing alternative gender and sexual identities in RPGs proved satisfying for many respondents. For some, the richness of role-playing lies in exploring characters' personalities and backstories, including their gender and sexuality. For others, performing characters mediated their explorations of their own gender identities and sexualities. This intertextual, negotiated reading frames role-playing as a queering, transformative practice.

[6.4] RPGs are important to players' interpersonal relationships and their self-examination in more than just the ludic and narrative contexts, and yet they are dependent on both. The most significant aspect of RPGs that I discovered was their tendency to increase players' empathy and acceptance of alternative identities. RPGs offer players the opportunity to experience, explore, and perform genders and sexualities different from those they personally identify with. Combined with players' efforts to play in character, a player's empathy for a character's situation can encourage the player to understand and accept different identities. While not all RPGs have this effect, and not all players seek it, nevertheless its importance cannot be understated. Future research might consider how players are affected outside the online and game frames, that is, how game-specific empathy might impact real-world outcomes, an idea my survey only begins to consider. Role-playing games provide a means for connection and acceptance among players that, at their most powerful, may extend into players' off-line lives.

7. Appendix: Survey

[7.1] The survey questions are reproduced below, with their division into Web pages indicated. The front page consisted of the informed consent form, which detailed the aims of the project and the risks and potential outcomes of the survey, and which asked respondents' permission to publish their responses. The seven pages of the survey followed.

Page 1: Personal Details

1. What is your off-line age?

2. What is your off-line gender identity? (e.g., female, male, transgender, other)

3. What is your off-line sexual orientation? (e.g., asexual, homosexual, heterosexual, other)

Page 2: RPG experience

4. Which aspects of a role-playing game are the most important for you?

5. What type(s) of role-playing games are you involved in?

6. How dedicated would you say you are to role-playing in general?

7. How dedicated would you say you are to your favorite game?

Page 3: General RPG involvement

8. Why do you role-play?

9. What is the most important aspect of a role-playing game for you?

10. What is the greatest benefit you receive from role-playing?

11. How do you create and play a character?

Page 4: RPGs and Gender

12. Are the majority of the players in your favorite game female, male, other, or don't know?

13. Are the majority of the characters in your favorite game female, male, other, or don't know?

14. Do you feel that players are treated the same, or differently, based on the gender they present themselves as? Can you give examples?

15. Do you feel that characters are treated the same, or differently, based on the gender they present themselves as? Can you give examples?

16. If your character's gender is different from your own, how do you portray that within the game?

Page 5: RPGs and Sexuality

17. Do you feel free to express your sexuality through your RPG characters?

18. Do you consider the effect of your character's sexuality when interacting with other characters?

19. Is the sexuality portrayed by your character different from your own sexuality? (e.g., a different sexual orientation, a different manner of expressing sexuality, or different fantasies)

20. If not, what other aspects of your character are the focus of your game?

21. If your character's sexuality is different from your own, how do you portray that within the game?

22. Do you feel you can express aspects of your own sexuality through your character?

Page 6: RPGs and Relationships

23. Describe the relationships that have developed between your character and other characters in the game.

24. Do you speak with other players outside and/or about the game setting?

25. If so, describe the relationships that have developed between yourself and other players.

Page 7: Further Thoughts

26. Please include any further thoughts about your involvement in and experience with role-playing games.

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] An early version of this work was presented at the 32nd International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in 2011. My thanks to Andy Sawyer for his guidance and comments, and to Dr. Sioban Chapman for her assistance and advice. All data collection processes and procedures were approved by the Committee on Research Ethics at the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.

9. Notes

1. Permission to cite Campfuckudie and Cuddy's House was obtained from each game's moderators.

2. All direct quotations from survey data retain original spelling, punctuation, and grammar, except where I have indicated an elision or clarified slang expressions within square brackets, or adjusted initial capitalization to fit context.

10. Works cited

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Butler, Judith. 2004a. Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

Butler, Judith. 2004b. "Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig, Foucault (1987)." In The Judith Butler Reader, edited by Sara Salih and Judith Butler, 23–39. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Chappell, Darren, Virginia Eatough, Mark N. O. Davies, and Mark Griffiths. 2006. "EverQuest: It's Just a Computer Game, Right? An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Online Gaming Addiction." International Journal of Mental Health Addiction 4 (3): 205–16. doi:10.1007/s11469-006-9028-6.

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MacCallum-Stewart, Esther. 2008. "Real Boys Carry Girly Epics: Normalising Gender Bending in Online Games." Eludamos: Journal for Computer Game Culture 2 (1): 27–40.

MacCallum-Stewart, Esther. 2009. "'The Street-Smarts of a Cartoon Princess': New Roles for Women in Games." Digital Creativity 20: 225–37. doi:10.1080/14626260903290299.

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11. Games cited

Campfuckudie. Narrative RPG. Livejournal.com (2005–12); Dreamwidth.org (2012–present).

Cuddy's House. Narrative RPG. Livejournal.com (2007–10).

EverQuest. MMORPG. San Diego, CA: Sony Online Entertainment (1999–present).

World of Warcraft. MMORPG. Irvine, CA: Blizzard Entertainment (2004–present).



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