Since I started playing video games, I always had a predilection for the female character. In Mortal Kombat, I’d quickly secure Sonya Blade as my choice fighter. In Street Fighter, I’d rush to Chun Li. Even now, as I play contemporary games like Overwatch, I favor heroes like Symmetra, Mercy, Tracer, and Moira. All of which are female.
When surveying a game’s roster of characters, I’ll verbalize that I like a character’s fighting style or lament their controls mesh best with my playing style, but that isn’t always the truth. The chief reason I choose a character is its gender. If there is only one female character available, I’ll likely choose her. I like the fact that, in a fight-to-the-death scenario, women are generally underestimated (in-game stats attributed to female characters tend to favor values like speed and agility over strength), so when I won it seemed like a worthier victory, like when David toppled Goliath–or when women challenge the patriarchy.
Fantasy plays a supporting role in the predilection as well. I’m 6’1 and 200 lbs, so playing a bubbly, fun-size, time-jumping adventurer is a complete and impossible departure for me, and when my deep voice booms over the microphone, competing gamers are often thrown. Some (usually pre-pubescent boys, which I deduce from their tone and general disregard for others) would mock me–something female gamers experience in droves. According to an article in the National Post, one of the main reasons women select male characters is to avoid this harassment. Some go as far as to communicate only through text to ensure their identity remains a secret.
Despite the inconvenient truth, a study reported by Slate found that men are still “much” more likely to gender swap in video games than women. The study deduced one in four men play as women while only seven percent of women choose a male character. “When selecting female avatars, these men strongly preferred attractive avatars with traditional hairstyleslong, flowing locks as opposed to a pink mohawk,” the study expands. “And their chat patterns shifted part-way toward how the real women spoke: These men used more emotional phrases and more exclamation points than the men who did not gender-switch.” The National Post notes that gay men are likeliest to swap as well as older, more experienced players.
To speak further on the topic, I consulted Dr. Catherine Flick, Senior Lecturer in Computing & Social Responsibility, at De Montfort University, UK, who has personally researched gender-swapping in video games. She’s found men of all sexualities choose female characters for a great number of reasons.
First, many confess they want to look at “sexy female butts” running around the open world landscape over a man’s muscular glutes. I found this to be the leading reason while creepily scouring discussion boards on the subject. Having “ownership” of the female character is another popular and disappointing citation. Flick councils some men appreciate the greater diversity in hair, clothing, and makeup options as well as more complex motivations in the game’s story arc.
The other reasons offered by Flick seemed more conducive to the LGBTQ gamer. For instance, some enjoy the idea of dressing in female garb, and doing so in a video game is an easier way to enact the fantasy without it impacting their real lives. Another, more obvious draw is that the female characters get to explore relationships with sexy male characters. Flick notes that from her research, the majority of gay and bisexual men tend to choose female characters because of the aesthetic options as well as the more feminine side of being desirable.
Perhaps most important is the opportunity gender-swapping in video games offers the trans gamer. Flick tells me that trans gamers “can sometimes find solace in games where they can dress/be who they feel they are inside.” She explains that the trans gamers she’s talked to throughout her research spoke a lot about how role-playing games allowed them to have the hair, clothing, and styling they wished they could have in real life when they could afford to transition properly.
Ultimately, the experience allowed them the space to experiment with gender and finally to accept that they were trans. “I loved these stories,” she says. “It really shows the excellent power that games have to help support people in decision making and making them feel more sure and comfortable in coming out.”
While men of all sexualities choose female characters, is there a reason gay men are more prone? It could be the clothes, being desired by hunky men, or even the more empathetic story arc. Or maybe gay men better familiarize with the female character. Because there are (nearly) no gay protagonists to choose from, men choose the female, because like the gay man, she’s often underestimated and her skill sets are trivialized.
Maybe gay men choose the female character to show the virtual world who can really work a joystick.