Posted by: Jess Riley | September 4, 2008

Gender Roles

This has clearly been a very cynical week for us, and Sean clearly needs a cookie (the thugs only beat on him a little, I don’t know what he’s whining about). So, first of all, I’d like to say: Sean, go eat a cookie. Secondly, I’d like to say: Sorry about all this cynicism about romance – and don’t worry, we’re just bitter.

Thirdly, I’d like to say: Hi to those of you who clicked over here from Resto4Life! I hope you enjoy your reading.

Now, onto something that I touched on in my most recent post. According to the Warcraft lore, the night elves had very strictly defined gender roles; only males could be druids, only females were warriors, and so on. There is some disagreement about whether the subsequent retcon in World of Warcraft was a gameplay retcon only, or a lore retcon, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll remain undecided.

This got me thinking, however; in World of Warcraft, there seems to be very little in the way of distinct gender roles. Sure, a lot of female armour looks more suited to pole-dancing than fighting, but in terms of the actual culture and not of the animation, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference in what men do and what women do.

But hold on – what is the World of Warcraft culture? Orcs and humans have an absolute wealth of difference in how their cultures operate – even the humans and the dwarves, who you would expect to be somewhat similar, have vastly different cultures in some ways. To refer to the ‘World of Warcraft culture’ is to refer to something that, essentially, doesn’t exist. There’s a different culture for each of the playable races – sometimes more than one (consider the difference between different kinds of dwarves, or between the humans of Stormwind and the humans of Westfall, even).

Few of them, however, seem to have any kind of defined ‘appropriate female behaviour’ and ‘appropriate male behaviour’, certainly not as distinct from one another. There are both male and female guards defending the Scarlet Monastery, male and female orcs typically fight side by side, and Lady Sylvanas seems to care more about whether you’re sentient than what you have in your pants (or what you had in your pants, before it rotted away).

Now, this may seem surprising to a few roleplayers – the setting seems to be broadly medieval fantasy, and we associate medieval times with very strict gender roles. So how should we play the gender roles of our characters, who seem to have no problem engaging in whatever they will in the actual game. In terms of female characters: Did their mothers want them to marry and have children while the men did the fighting? Were they forced into action after all the local men were killed in battle? In terms of male characters – when they took up tailoring, did the boys at home think they were a bit wussy? Alternatively, were their families matriarchal or patriarchal? Who was the breadwinner when they were young – and why?

Now, this is going to seem like a massive cop-out, but the actual answer here is that I don’t know. World of Warcraft is a game aimed at modern audiences and so there’s a lot of equal opportunity in game that is essentially because modern audiences would be unhappy with seeing blatant sexism, inequality and strictly defined and unbreakable gender roles. Is it that Azeroth is very forward-thinking across the board in terms of gender roles and equality of the sexes, or is this again just a game-play mechanism that doesn’t reflect the true lore in the name of ease for the players?

Even if there were strict gender roles that just don’t come across in the game-play mechanics, what are they? What’s the ‘correct’ way to talk about the early family life of, say, a human from a small town, and how does that differ from a big city?

Perhaps in future weeks, I’ll talk more about this and come up with a better answer, but for now, I just want to establish that the question is open.

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