A note: the following article is a reduction of a reduction — it’s an article based on a conference paper based on a 30 page research paper. It took me 9,000 words to explain this concept to someone well-versed in the subject matter. I, um, have no idea how I’m going to do that in less than 2,000. My apologies if it is hard to read!
Sexuality, sex, and gender: all three of these subjects are infinitely complex. The reaches of each stretch way past their own borders, both in a literal sense and in a not-so-literal one. In contemporary society, we’re sort of cultured to believe a handful of things about them, but we also live in a time in which those boundaries are changing — if not being destroyed entirely. And really, that isn’t a bad thing. The ways in which they interact (and the ways in which they don’t) are expanding — and let’s not forget, the inherent binary nature I’m trying to prod them with here is essentially passé (once again — a good thing).
But that’s in our world. Our present. The real.
What about the virtual?
Earlier this year while playing World of Warcraft I had a bit of a revelation. Those same three things — sexuality, sex, and gender — existed in this virtual space. Likewise, they were frequently bound by the same social constructs. And yet… they weren’t. There were different rules. There were different limitations of what sex was, of what gender was, of what orientation was.
In this virtual space the biological is shattered and replaced by algorithms and pixels. The boundaries of gender are expanded, eviscerated, and recreated into something entirely new: a social construct (contract?) built entirely within the World of Warcraft.
The boundaries within World of Warcraft sometimes align with those in contemporary society, but for the most part they reach far beyond what is “acceptable” — or even possible — in the “real” world. What is other in the real is entirely normal in the virtual.
In terms of sexuality, in a “contemporary” space (for various reasons) we have certain expectations about sexuality, sex, and gender. We are cultured to expect that male bodies will perform male roles, and that they’ll align with their “proper” sexual role (that is, straight). Even further, we have expectations of what a male body looks like. The performance of “male” signifies both an aesthetic role and a psychological one. The same formula applies to female bodies.
When someone sits outside of this, they become the other. Even if the transgression is minimal, it is still seen as an aberration.
Even though (once again, in “contemporary society”) this is changing, bodies still tend to be defined by binary roles. You are straight or gay, you are male or female, you are feminine or masculine, you are or you aren’t.
Rigid categories — not fluid ones — are the current staples of culture. Society wants individuals that fit into its categories. To be different is to be anathema.
The virtual space, however, is not bound by the same rules. World of Warcraft does not impose such strict boundaries on its users, nor do the users impose those boundaries on themselves (that isn’t to say that they don’t exist entirely, though — they are just stretched — they are more liquid).
Of course, there’s sort of a missing step here. What is gender in World of Warcraft? What about sex?
So here’s something radical: those things don’t exist.
Well — okay — they do exist, actually, but they don’t exist in the same way as they do in the real world. Instead, they are spread out over three unique categories (spaces), each having its own identifying qualities.
These individually space all have their own markers — some for gender, some for sex, some both both. Each is its own complex entity, existing both within the influence of the others, and outside the influence of others. They can exist on their own (that is, without the presence of the other two), or they can coexist in a constant state of flux with the other spaces. Importantly, all of the spaces are also defined by the player. It is their filter that creates the image that others see.
A little confusing?
Maybe explaining the spaces will help!
First, there’s the roleplaying space. The roleplaying space is that of the player’s role: their class, their profession — not to mention the entire realm of “creative” roleplaying. The roleplaying space is, quite plainly, the role of the player.
Judith Butler would likely see the roleplaying space as the ultimate zone of gender performance.
But wait! Doesn’t that require these roles to be masculine and feminine? Wouldn’t that require a binary to be here?
Yup! And there is! Sort of.
A few years back researchers decided to study demographics and stereotypes within World of Warcraft. What they found was interesting: players clearly had defined social gender roles for players. Roles that involved healing or ranged damage were feminine, those that involved melee damage and tanking were masculine.
By picking a role (say, a tanking warrior or paladin) in World of Warcraft, you’re essentially taking on a gender performance in the most direct way.
Next up, there’s the avatar space.
The avatar space is the aesthetic, the visual. What can the player self-define that other players can see? Race, character gender, armor, and any other facets of appearance fall into the avatar space.
As these items are all visual (in one way or another), and as World of Warcraft is still an entity within “real” space, typical social rules apply. This means that avatars that look like male bodies will still invoke expectations of male roles within World of Warcraft.
This is where someone inevitably points out that there is no gradient in gender within World of Warcraft. Bodies are either male or female. They are binary. How can I have such a contentious title while ignoring such a blatant fact?
Simple: because aesthetics do not equal gender.
Wait, what, but you said–
To quote the same study I mentioned before:
In our sample of 1,084 participants, we had 281 women and 801 men. On average, they had 2.79 (SD = 1.51) characters. Among men, 53.3% had a character of the opposite gender. On average for men, 33.4% of their characters were of the opposite gender. Among women, 18.5% had at least one character of the opposite gender.
As every player of World of Warcraft knows, just because someone has a male avatar, that does not mean they identify as a male in “real life.” That’s precisely why this is called the avatar space: because your aesthetic appearance in the virtual is just an avatar of you. It is mean to best represent what you wish to be represented. It is not meant to be an identical copy… unless you wish it to be so.
This isn’t to say that the (binary) gender you pick within the virtual does not matter. While seasoned gamers will argue that there is no meaning at play here, it’s important to recognize that within an MMORPG you are not just picking something you like to look at: you are picking your avatar, your representation in a virtual space. You are not a disconnected entity in a cold digital world. You are part of it.
Finally, there’s the conversational space.
The conversational space is perhaps the easiest to define: any form of communication within World of Warcraft falls into the conversational space. Text and voice communication fit in here, naturally — but so do a few others.
Conversations simply require information transmitted between two players. Thus, other forms of “communication” count as well. If you see another player in World of Warcraft and they have a specific title over their head, that counts as communication. Likewise, even digital “body language” counts: “emotes,” after all, convey emotion.
So then, now that we have all the spaces… what do we do with them?
First, two quotes on queer theory, the first from Eve Kosofsky, the second from Kath Browne:
The question of gender and the question of sexuality, inextricable from one another though they are in that each can be expressed only in the terms of the other, are nonetheless not the same question, that in twentieth-century Western culture gender and sexuality represent two analytic axes that may productively be imagined as being as distinct from one another as, say, gender and class, or class and race.
Queer has been used as shorthand for an increasing list of sexual and gender diversity, but as authors beyond geographies have noted, this limits the possibilities of queer. I (and others) locate ‘queer’ in the radical requirement to question normativities and orthodoxies, in part now by rendering categories of sexualities, genders and spaces fluid.
Kosofsky’s quote shows one of the founding ideas of queer theory: the splitting of gender/sexuality. To “queer” in this sense is to split the idea that one needs the other. Do they interact? Yes! But they don’t require each other for identification.
Browne’s quote also sets the foundation for queer theory. To “queer” something isn’t just to discuss gender or sexuality, it’s to question the idea of normativities — it’s to try to make a space fluid.
To combine both of these ideas, any space that both:
- a). splits prior identifying qualities that once stood together, and
- b). is liquid
…can then be seen as a queer space.
By analyzing the above spaces, we can see World of Warcraft is doing both.
While it is possible to assign gender to each individual space (a male body is seen as male, a male voice is seen as male, and a masculine role is seen as male), the filter of a virtual world complicates things.
A practical example:
A player with a male character plays a healer (a feminine role) while communicating in a feminine voice.
The above row throws off identifiers across the spectrum in World of Warcraft: depending on the space you choose, they can be identified in many ways. Likewise, they have chosen to portray this liquidity.
Imagine what the real-life equivalent would be:
A human with an overtly masculine body wears full make-up and a dress while talking in a feminine voice.
In World of Warcraft, the player with the mixed identifiers is seen as normal, yet in the “real world” it’s safe to say that our example would be othered.
While the individual spaces within World of Warcraft might offer aspects of “identification,” when they’re all taken together, they suddenly become complex. Just as the case with queer theory’s view on gender/sexuality, the spaces of identification within World of Warcraft are both grouped and not — they can reflect on other aspects of an individual, but they also might not.
What makes World of Warcraft queer, then, is the simple fact that a normative identity does not exist — nor is identity meant to be fluid. In the realm of the identifying aspects of the game, there is no way to be “othered.” When your virtual sex/gender do not “line up” in an “acceptable” way within the World of Warcraft, you are not anathema: you are normal.
Queer is normal in World of Warcraft, and therefore World of Warcraft is a queer space.
(!) Minor note: additionally, it’s worth noting that while this is an obsession with identification in society, all of these facets cannot be used to adequately identify the player — only the player’s avatar. This can even be seen in the raw data. Remember the study about gender and role? While players believed that the stereotypes they were latching on to impacted “real” (player) gender, in reality those stereotypes were only true for character gender.