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The Mudder's New Clothes
- Rebecca Handcock
Gender and the Mud
- Marcie Kligman
Embarassing Mischannels
- John Hopson
Limited Advancement
- Derek Harding
A Rape in Cyberspace
- Julian Dibbell
Languages in Muds
- David Bennett

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Gender and the Mud

by Marcie Kligman

Every society has a set of roles individuals are expected to follow based on sex, class, age, race, and other pigeonholes into which people can be fitted. Breaking these rules is generally frowned upon. On the internet, however, personal details such as age and sex can be completely concealed. This anonymity offers infinite possibilities in the realm of role-playing: a short, nurturing young woman can role-play a brawny bloodthirsty middle-aged man, and vice versa.

So how do members of an online community like a mud respond to role reversal or experimentation? Are men and women (or players playing men and women) treated differently online? Or are they subject to the same sorts of expectations and discriminations prevalent in 'real life'?

To answer these questions, I sent a survey to twenty players (eleven women and nine men) on the Discworld mud and asked these questions:
Oooo, fishnets!

Now there is a brawny man not pretending to be anything else. Image from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

  1. Have you ever experienced any discrimination on any muds based on your sex?

  2. Have you ever played a character of the opposite sex, and if so, why?

  3. Did you find you were treated differently while playing a character of the opposite sex? If so, please elaborate.

  4. Was playing a character of the opposite sex what you expected? Did you like/dislike/not care at all about the experience?

  5. Have you been hit on randomly because you have a masculine/feminine sounding name?

  6. How do you respond to people who randomly hit on you?

  7. Does it freak you out when you discover you've been wrong about someone's sex? (I.e., you thought they were (IRL) female when really they are male.)

  8. Does it freak you out when you discover someone's thought *you* were of the opposite sex?

  9. Do you have any other comments on relations between the sexes online?

I will summarize the responses to each of these questions in turn.

  1. Have you ever experienced any discrimination on any muds based on your sex?

    Few players responded to experiencing any actual discrimination (different treatment, consistent harrassment by administrators, or ingame offensive material), but the vast majority of men and women reported instances of minor harrassment (such as being hit on). The only instances of ingame discrimination reported were instances of guilds requiring a certain sex (such as a witches' guild only allowing women).

  2. Have you ever played a character of the opposite sex, and if so, why?

    All of the men who responded affirmed that they had tried playing female characters, if only briefly. Fewer than half of the women who responded had tried playing male characters.

  3. Did you find you were treated differently while playing a character of the opposite sex? If so, please elaborate.

    Men who had played female characters generally noticed that questions they posed to other players were answered quicker, that they received more assistance in the form of money and other help, and tended to be attacked less often. One man, however, reported instances of increased agression. He wrote, "Some male characters are more interested in female characters...As well, some male characters are more aggressive to female characters."

    Not enough women who had played male characters responded to form a "general result". One woman who responded enjoyed playing a male simply because she "tended not to get random people I don't know calling me 'babe'."

    Another woman reported a difference in other players' attitudes toward her agressive attitude:

    "...no one blinked an eye when I took my male character killing mindlessly, but when my female character made a comment on an NPC child's comments right before I killed it, several male characters told me I was "seriously disturbed", and "some kind of butch chick"."

  4. Was playing a character of the opposite sex what you expected? Did you like/dislike/not care at all about the experience?

    Most of the men who had cross-played responded that the experience was what they had predicted, although in general they had been negatively surprised by the amount of flirting aimed in their direction. One man replied:

    "Within a couple of hours of starting a character, even without having written a description, I had male players being affectionate and hitting on me...No, it was not what I had expected at all. I have to say that I was a bit freaked out by the experience actually. After a few days of playing, I stopped logging the character in."

    The women who had cross-played also responded that it was what they had predicted. One woman claimed that it was "great fun", and another "loved...being extravagantly chivalrous to female characters. In a way, I loved doing all the things girls wish guys would do."

  5. Have you been hit on randomly because you have a masculine/feminine sounding name?

    Most of the responders of both sexes responded to having been hit on, regardless of name. Those with sexually ambiguous names noted that they had picked androgynous names specifically because they did not imply a sex.

  6. How do you respond to people who randomly hit on you?

    Most of the responders answered that they usually replied politely, then put the flirters on ignore or informed liaisons if the behavior did not stop. Some players replied that they were flattered when other players flirted with them, while others replied that they usually instituted some form of revenge.

  7. Does it freak you out when you discover you've been wrong about someone's sex? (I.e., you thought they were (IRL) female when really they are male.)

  8. Does it freak you out when you discover someone's thought *you* were of the opposite sex?

    The answers to these questions tended to be quite disparate. Some responders replied that they are only upset when they had been wrong about another player's sex when trust had been involved, others feel embarrassed, and others admit to being flat-out "freaked out". When it is their own sex that has been mistaken, the same variety occurs. One male player claimed being mistaken for a (RL) woman made him happy, because it meant he was role playing well. Some admitted to being annoyed, while others answered that it amused them greatly. One woman replied, "i think its histerical, and usually play with their minds more ;) like swapping pronounes thru the convo and stuff ;) excellent fun ;)" [sic]. A male player sent this anecdote: "I did have one guy ask me to marry him, because he thought I was a female. When I told him I was male, he retracted his proposal. I was hurt and dissapointed [sic]...I had already picked out a gown and everything."

  9. Do you have any other comments on relations between the sexes online?

    The responders raised various issues but did not comment in-depth: how homosexuality is responded to, the severity of punishment for sexual harrassment, love relationships starting online, and overexcited couples becoming intimate in public places. Certainly a forum like a mud that allows for all sorts of anonymity has the ability to raise countless issues dealing with sexuality like gender roles (expectations of agression and passivity, the experiences of cross-playing), love and friendship, and harrassment and rape.

I was at first disappointed that no easy answers were supplied with the answers to this survey. I had expected experiences to be vaguely similar for all women and all men. However, since representatives of so many different cultures join the online world it is only natural that people will have different experiences. Individuality is more likely to spring forward in an environment where social roles are reduced or even eliminated, letting men and women alike stretch the boundaries of expectations.