I realize these posts are of interest to a relatively narrow slice of our readership, but the subject sure as hell is interesting to me, and I’ve been stuck running around all day and this is the most interesting thing I’ve found, so there you go.
I’ve found a fascinating group blog linked to an ongoing longitudinal research project by a group of social psychologists studying the social dynamics of online MMOs using World of Warcraft, which directly addresses a lot of the questions and curiosities I’ve had about the demographics of the game and why people play the way they do, particularly the choices they make in character and activity. With twelve million players in that game alone and growing, social patterns become more and more interesting to me.
To make the post somewhat more comprehensible to non-gamers, a brief lexicon. Some of these are local terms to WoW, but most of them represent concepts common to most MMORPGs even if the local terminology varies.
DPS = damage dealer/damage dealing. The term itself stands for “damage per second”, the metric by which players in that role are measured, but has come to stand in for the role itself, at least in WoW.
Tank = Damage soaker. Players filling this role have to get and keep the attention of the monsters and absorb, avoid, or mitigate the force of attack. Usually a heavily armored melee class, though some games have some other tank models based more around total avoidance.
Healer = Exactly what it says on the tin. These players make health bars full or stop them from going down in the first place.
Melee = DPS that does their job at close range, the alternative being ranged DPS.
Guild = alliance of player characters sharing a common chat channel, resource bank, and calendar. Various forms of these are found in nearly all such games, be they guilds, linkshells, corps, or other. Often also have a Ventrilo or Mumble server/channel for voice communication.
Main = the character an individual player considers their first priority and plays the most. Nowadays in most games leveling is fun and easy enough more players have more than one character than don’t.
Alt = any character “alternative” to a player’s main. Varies from other characters played for the sheer fun of it to banking or crafting mules.
Mob = hostile non-player character or monster. The mob is what you’re aiming to kill. Term dates back to DikuMUD, where it was short for “mobile”.
Dungeon = instanced (each instance a group enters is temporarily its own world rather than part of the shared overworld) encounters involving small groups of players clearing mobs and taking down bosses. The most basic unit of group play.
Raid = group of players ranging from 10, 25, 40 people gathered together to defeat game content tuned to be impossible without everyone knowing their job and a high degree of coordination. Other than PvP and just generally having someone to talk to, the main reason guilds are formed.
PvP = Player versus Player. Activities organized around fighting other players, whether in complicated ruled games or straight one on one gladiatorial matches. As distinguished from PvE, Player versus Environment, which raids and dungeons are.
The upshot of the current PlayOn study is that, rather than taking data strictly mined from the characters actually in the game- which is pretty easy to do if you have some search engine skill, and in the original study was accomplished with census bots- it connects individual players with a large amount of real-world data on age, gender, country, and personality survey with their characters and tracks them that way. There are several different types of findings presented, though there’s on the whole more posts about gender differences than age or region differences… though there are evidently some fairly significant gender differences between regions. Since, like I said above, I have limited time tonight, this will be more a scattershot selection and commentary on some of the more interesting findings than a serious analysis.
Average age: Thirty years old. Not surprising, and probably fits in with my theory about the generation that were children when home video game consoles became widely available is also the generation playing the most games now. What’s a little more interesting is that the Hong Kong and Taiwan cohort is dragging that average age down some- they’re significantly younger on average than the Americans. They also log a lot more hours.
Gender demographics: Roughly a quarter of WoW players are women, though I’ve seen higher figures. Seems to be trending upward more over time, though male players are the very solid majority and their gamer culture tends to reflect that. I’ve also seen, at least in my experience, that female players tend to form alliances and centers of density on servers- some guilds are either all-female, majority female, or at the least have a much higher proportion than represented in the game demographics over all, whereas being “the girl” in other guilds is inherently cause for drama. Lot of self-selecting assortment going on here, I suspect.
Gender bending: Of players using characters opposite their actual gender, they are almost all men, and they are mostly the older men, which is interesting to me. The big majority of male players has the most to do with that “almost all men” thing, but by proportion they’re still three to four times more likely to roll a female character than women are to roll a male character. The biggest going theory is the “nice butt” one- to paraphrase, men are the more likely to decide that if they’re going to be chasing around an animated backside for awhile, it might as well be hers rather than his. I suppose the “older” thing is probably due to older men being more secure in their masculinity than younger ones and therefore less likely to feel they necessarily need to be represented by a bristling slab of beef.
The in-game stereotype is that all female characters are men. (And, in fact, that all players are, though that’s mostly running gag by now.) Apparently by the numbers, if you meet a female avatar, she’s 55% likely to be played by a man.
I’m more interested in why so many fewer women choose to play male characters. Do women identify more with their characters than men do? Do they just have an aversion to not being a “pretty” character? They find the male models just flat uglier to look at in general?
Player role: The in-game stereotype is this: men tank, women heal. There are fewer stereotypes for what the DPS do, but when the game zeitgeist as a whole admits that women play, it generally assumes that the actual chick is the priest back there in the robes healing the group.
What it turns out the data actually breaks down to is this: men tank (three to four times more often than women do), men and women heal, men play melee DPS, and women play ranged DPS. There’s a significant regional difference, though- if you’re in Hong Kong or Taiwan, the stereotype IS true and by proportion rather than raw numbers, more women heal than men. If you’re in America, healing is an equal-opportunity role and men and women choose to do it just as often. American men like to melee more than Hong Kong and Taiwanese men, and American women like to tank more than Hong Kong and Taiwanese women (though it’s a tiny proportion of both groups of women overall). More American women like to melee than the Pacific women, to the point where American female melee outnumber American female healers, but Hong Kong and Taiwanese women have a huge majority of healers over melee. In both regions, female players overall would really prefer to be standing in back slinging pain over anything else. The stereotype shouldn’t be “the priest, that’s the chick”, but “the hunter, that’s the chick”, apparently.
I suspect a combination of gender role and the kinds of fantasy role models men, women, boys, and girls are given has the most to do with this. I’m not intimately familiar with Hong Kong and Taiwanese gender dynamics, but my overall impression is that gender roles are a fair bit more rigid there than they are in the US; women heal more there because it’s by far the closest offered role to what a woman is supposed to fill out in fantasy that doesn’t threaten any traditional notions of gender role. It’s also possible I’ve just gotten southeast Asian gamer culture horrendously wrong and it’s actually because healing is a prestigious role that offers the most obvious path for achievement for female gamers- the Hong Kong and Taiwanese gamers are also much more achievement-oriented than the Americans.
As a general rule in an RPG or traditional high fantasy story or movie, if you have a woman in the party- and you usually do- she’s one of two things; either the nurturing cleric, or the roguish and faintly wicked sorceress, with an occasional option for ranger. (There is an obligatory scene where she takes off her hood and you realize it’s not a skinny guy.) The character in the heavy plate charging in not caring if they get hit and relishing in being in the middle of the things is nearly always male, and if it’s a female character taking a role vengeful or psycho enough to be in-your-face, it’s usually as a more roguelike character than a warriorlike one.
I can’t say I’m surprised that most women overall, given a choice between the standard two “womens'” roles in fantasy fiction, go for the damage dealer over the cleric. It was usually a choice between a nauseating passive-aggressive martyr and her much more fun counterpart…
PvP: The only finding released so far is for arena battles, which are matches between teams of 2, 3, or 5 players. Last team with a member still standing wins. It’s the most intensely competitive environment for PvP. By age, younger players are far more likely to have tried arenas, but age made no difference in whether or not players chose to stick with it. Lots more men play arenas regularly than women, but American women are more likely to be regular arena players than Hong Kong or Taiwanese women. BUT… by win ratio, American men win significantly more often than American women- while Hong Kong and Taiwanese women win no more or less often than their male counterparts. So the women I just painted as potentially being gender-conforming delicate butterflies above, are gonna kill ya. That might be the effect of the greater achievement drive in the Hong Kong and Taiwanese players I mentioned earlier- a greater ethos of “if you’re going to play, play to win.”
I will be very interested to see what further findings come out of this project, and one or two of you readers may even be too.