This article explores young people's practices in the virtual spaces of online gaming communities.
Based on a five-year ethnographic study of virtual worlds, it considers how young people construct and maintain identities within virtual social systems. In particular, the article discusses digital gender practices and considers the potential that these games offer for their young users to engage in alternate gender identities. We argue that these digital spaces offer spaces for the gender transformation games and can enhance agency and, potentially, resistance. It has long been recognised that online arenas, particularly the animated spaces occupied by massively multi-player online role-playing games MMORPGs or massive multi-player online, offer considerable scope for social research.
In this paper we raise some of the debates centring on young people's manipulation of, and experimentation with, identity and gender identity. While we acknowledge in particular the work of both Holloway and Valentine and Livingstone in describing young people's use of online technology, neither study substantively addresses online games or the opportunities that such arenas provide for identity formation.
Online computer games are an important aspect of young people's leisure. These spaces offer considerable potential for young people to explore, construct and re-construct their own identities as they negotiate a range of sometimes exotic and challenging virtual environments Boellstorff, ; Crowe, ; Dodge, ; Filiciak, ; Kennedy, ; Taylor, ; Turkle, Calvert is not surprised, arguing that — freed from the fixivity of the material — virtual spaces provide users with greater control over aspects of identity such as age, ethnicity and gender.
MacCallum-Stewart argues that MMORPGs provide an ideal environment for gender experimentation because characterisations within the games are gender transformation games. As Asgari and Kaufman observe, such fluidity enables some males to try out and explore feminine aspects of their personalities. That is, freedom from fixivity is relative — while there may be a greater degree of social freedom to explore, this exploration must be seen in the context of the game and the game's narrative structures.
An avatar is the computer's graphical representation of the user or the user's character, and MacCallum-Stewart has concluded that the choice of an avatar's gender is not necessarily central to the mode of play and becomes something of an aesthetic decision; the female characters were more attractive to look at and hence to adopt. In this paper we argue that, for young people, avatar gender extends beyond these game-structure and aesthetic choices: the avatar is an expression of gender-identity exploration, for both young men and young women.
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Online sites allow young people to construct and rehearse a range of identities Gender transformation games, Within this, we take the view that identity is not unitary but is both multiple and situated Mischler, ; Wetherell, Donath's paper outlines the ambiguity of identity in disembodied virtual communities: In the physical world there is an inherent unity to the self, for the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity.
The norm is: one body, one identity … The virtual world is different. We offer illustrative quotes and field-note entries from the ethnographic data collected within one game to support these arguments. It is clear that the playing of multi-player games can both reproduce and challenge everyday rules of social interaction while also generating interesting and creative innovations in verbal dialogue and non-verbal expressions. The use of these terms acknowledges the embeddedness of digital technologies, text and practices such as mobile phones, social networking sites and online gaming in the lives of young people in contemporary culture and acts to reinforce this placement.
Wherever possible, we have retained the form and syntax of the written quotes and these will need to be read with some appreciation of current text forms.
When playing a multi-player game like Runescapea complex social world is entered, a subculture bringing together all of the problems and possibilities, and sometimes more, of the relationships operating in the non-virtual world. Understanding these innovations requires examining player in-game behaviour, specifically the types of textual e. A range of data has been gathered from within the game-world by one of us N.
Data were collected from related sources forums and newsgroup postings and from interviews with gamers. Some interviews were conducted in the material world in the form of small focus groups, or during observations of young people actually playing the game.
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But as Taylor acknowledges, users of MMORPG operate between worlds; any ethnography of such spaces needs to consider both digital and material settings. It is a fundamental assertion in this study that since Runescape represents a fusion of both virtual and material experience and that, since both sources are acknowledged to carry equal validity, it is appropriate to cite data from each without distinction.
These represent game-playing sessions i. These have varied in length but represent hours in the field. Although it uses a familiar western fantasy narrative and is based on the same character-development game play found in most MMORPGs, Runescape differs from other worlds in ificant ways.
Perhaps most important, it has a young user base. We estimate that users are concentrated between the ages of 11 and This figure is supported by an online poll conducted by one of the largest fan-sites, which reported that two-thirds of their respondents were aged between 13 and We consider this a conservative estimate. Members express a real sense of ownership over the game, and its young users see the world itself as an important site for agency: [it] belongs to us kids, I h8 that adults are on here … I sometimes will play on the Gender transformation games with my dad but there's no way that I gonna let him on here, its just all kindsa wrong.
Avrilsbf, age I can do woteva I wana do n be woteva I wana be — and no1 can stop me. CombatGirl, age This sense of ownership is important in terms of this research. Technology has become increasingly important in marking out new leisure spaces for youth culture. We therefore argue that Runescape is a ificant arena within the younger UK-based online game-playing community and, thus, an important area for research.
This figure is ificantly lower than studies of other online games.
Guernsey observed in a PC Data online study that Meredith et al. Whatever the true demographics, our observations reveal that male avatars out female avatars to a ificant degree. In this sense, the female body is something of a scarce resource in the Runescape world. This affords it status.
Kinder argues that, within such narratives, women are often placed as objects of a male quest, waiting to be rescued by male winners. This seems to capture the Runescape situation perfectly. Gender representation in any media texts has always been somewhat problematic, but in online games the construction of the virtual body is central to understanding how we make sense of the online world. MMORPGs are highly social spaces where the interaction between players drives both the narrative and game dynamic.
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MMORPGs present a complex dynamic in that the avatars are social objects constituted in a culture prior to any form gender transformation games social interaction. In this sense, bodies — whether material or virtual — are not neutral objects but sit at the central pivot of how identity is formed, shaped and understood. MMORPGs have extended this traditional view, one assumes in order to meet the expectations of what deers consider to be their core demographic: young men under So, female avatar representations are linked to the conventions of the Fantasy genre, and female characters are usually portrayed in scant and tight-fitting outfits.
The range of clothing and armour is cut to keep the most flesh on display and further exaggerates this: tops are little more than bras whilst skirts are short and flow when the character walks. Female clothing is set by default so, for example, it is not possible to wear male armour or robes without it defaulting back to the female version.
In this way, the Runescape narrative offers little to challenge the dominant view of the Fantasy world, even though these representations of the female form in Runescape generate a of conflicting messages that are problematic for a range of users, particularly young women. Similarly, female warriors fight in little more than an armoured bra and mini skirt that, despite its lack of substance, affords the same protection as the full plate armour of the male player. Sexy … but wrong psypsyjenni, age I really hate going out slaying with my Bf.
He gets to go out suited up and I have to fight naked … lol … ok well nearly naked! Even Xena had full leather armour, it just doesn't look right.
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DelilahLioneye, age Who wouldn't want to look like a Runescape avatar? She has great boobs, no belly, looks hot in everything she wears — I mean clothes actually fit her and how many girls can say that if you're not Kate Moss.
And she is totally kick-ass, she kicks some serious butt. I soo wish I could beat up boys like that lol. MelanieConvict, age Like other virtual worlds, structural choices in Runescape afford users a degree of symbolic experimentation. This argument resonates with how the process operates in virtual worlds. Users have considerable freedom in how their avatars, their virtual selves, are represented on screen in the game. There are, of course, aesthetic choices in hair colour, face type, beards, and so forth, but, more importantly, there are also structural choices: body size, age, race and gender.
This allows a tight focus on the representations of the virtual body. In their studies, male participants reported that the decision to gender-bend was driven by a belief that female avatars receive more attention and support from other players, thus making the game easier to play.
It helps, of course, that gamers are already socialised into making such choices. In many off-line games — for example, CAPCOM's Resident Evil series, or Team Ninja's Dead or Alive — the adoption of a female character opens up modes and styles of play that would be unavailable had the male protagonist been chosen. These quotes raise interesting questions as to the role of gender within a world such as Runescape. On the one hand, there is no difference in the way that male and female characters can play the game.
Skills and characteristics advance equally regardless of a gender transformation games chosen gender, weapon or armour classes, and their associated bonuses are exactly the same for both male and female. Yet within the narrative diagesis, Runescape articulates a virtual patriarchal discourse: non-player characters reflect traditional gender roles. Males tend to occupy the positions of power and influence e.
Women perform secondary roles such as consorts to influential characters. While it is true that the formal narrative makes no gender distinctions, the emergent game culture affords female avatars distinct advantages in certain situations. Field Diary entry, June 13 th :.
Thursday afternoons are always quiet on Runescape. Because there is no one to trade lobster with I catch up with Sassy and Max in the bank at Draynor Village.
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Sassy has just raised her levels and is now able to wear Adamant Armour. She looks good in the green, although it clashes with her spiky lime-green hair. She runs around the bank waving her bare midrift at the somewhat baffled onlookers. Some clearly approve of the effect and she receives numerous compliments. I try to speak to her.