Gender stereotypes inflect discussions about character choice in World of Warcraft (WoW), an online multiplayer video game. We interviewed 47 players, 33 males and 14 females, about why they chose their characters. We found the stereotypes contained a grain of truth as stereotypes often do, but that they mask interesting dimensions of gender in character choice.
After swimming through a narrow, twisting drain clogged with vegetation, five virtual characters emerge to enter a dungeon known as the Steamvault—a series of damp, marshy rooms beneath a vast reservoir. The group encounters and slays sorcerers, sirens, bog lords, and leper gnomes, as well as their dangerous masters Hydromancer Thespia, Mekgineer Steamrigger, and Warlord Kalithresh. The fantasy characters are a druid who shifts to the form of a bear to battle the monsters, a mage, a warlock, a rogue, and a priest who heals the characters as their health wanes.
The people behind these fantasy characters are part of the growing population of players of “massively multiplayer online games,” or MMOGs. Players create and control an animated character that moves through a 3D virtual world, meeting and playing with the characters of other players. We have been studying World of Warcraft (WoW), a popular multiplayer game, with eight million players in China, North America, Europe, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Play takes place in a medieval fantasy world based on Tolkien’s novels. Players may join “guilds” of players with whom they socialize and play.
This paper is a small exploration into social life in World of Warcraft. We focus on gender, examining the reasons why males and females choose different character types. We seek to answer these questions: what kinds of characters do males and females choose? Are they the same or different? Why do males and females choose the characters they do? To answer these questions, we interviewed players whose real life (RL) gender we knew.
We were provoked to conduct this research by common stereotypes about character choice in World of Warcraft:
Females like supportive roles, especially healing.
Males like to battle monsters up close and females like to stand back.
Females choose “squishy” cloth wearing characters while males like strong armor.
These stereotypes reflect conventional gender roles (see Ducheneaut, et al., 2006). The cleavage into male and female, so ready to hand as a cultural resource, reinforces gender divisions without seeking to examine the complexities and nuances of gendered social activity. Our research suggests that the stereotypes obscure important aspects of play: variability in male character choices, some commonalities in male and female choices, and changes over time in female choices.
Reliable data on gender ratio in World of Warcraft, from a census or random sample, are unavailable. Yee’s selfreport data, collected on websites outside the game, indicate about 21 percent female players (Yee, 2005). Our guess is that the number is probably somewhat higher — closer to 25 percent because female players may be less likely to perform ancillary activities such as going to external Web sites to report on their play activity. Whatever the precise numbers, females are a significant minority in World of Warcraft. They are not invisible statistical outliers but a healthy presence in the game. As Taylor (2006) argued, we should not delete female presence in games just because there are fewer female players.
We conducted interviews with players that included questions on character choice. The interviews took place in a variety of settings: face to face, online through chat or instant messaging, and using voice chat. All interviews were recorded. The audiotaped interviews were transcribed.
The interview data were interpreted and augmented with participantobservation fieldwork. Both authors created multiple characters and belong to guilds. The first author has been a player since March, 2006. The second author has been conducting immersive fieldwork including interviews, observations, and analysis of chatlogs and Web sites since December 2005 (Nardi and Harris, 2006; Nardi, et al., 2007).
We interviewed 47 players: 33 males and 14 females. We knew the real life gender of the players because either we interviewed them facetoface or had heard their voices. Where text chat or instant messaging were used we had heard the player in voice chat on previous occasions. Player names in this paper are fictitious. Where chat transcripts are used in quotes, spelling and punctuation are unchanged.
There are three choices players make upon creating a character in World of Warcraft: race, class, and gender. Race and gender determine how a character looks. Class determines the abilities the character has. The focus in this paper is on class, i.e., what the character can do. While looks are important, the central experience of participating in the game hinges on how the player uses the character’s abilities .
There are nine classes in World of Warcraft: warrior, priest, rogue, mage, warlock, hunter, druid, paladin, and shaman. The classes complement one another. Each class has unique abilities. Many game activities require multiple players (see Nardi and Harris, 2006). The best groups have a mix of classes. This may explain why although some classes are more popular than others, there is low variance in class choice:
Table 1: Character Choice by Percentage of Total Character Population
Class Percentage of Total Character Population Druid 8% Shaman 8% Priest 9% Warlock 10% Paladin 10% Mage 12% Warrior 13% Rogue 13% Hunter 17%
We briefly explain each class so that readers can make sense of the interview responses and analysis in the next section. WoW Players will recognize that these descriptions are simplifications, but they capture the essentials for our purposes. We discuss each class’s basic abilities, its armor, and some terms needed to understand game play.
The concept of play in World of Warcraft (and similar games) is that players undertake mini-games called “quests” in which they defeat monsters. The quest narrative may involve fetching documents, collecting a certain number of tokens, or battling a particularly strong monster. While the game can be “soloed,” or played alone, some minigames require more than one player. Players often “quest” together as it is more entertaining.
The division of labor among the classes is as follows. Some characters attract the attention of the monsters and are equipped to absorb the “damage” they mete out. Some classes heal players who are taking damage. Other classes “deal damage,” that is, bring down the monsters with their weapons and spells. In addition, each class has unique abilities useful to other classes. For example, rogues can open locked boxes and priests cast a spell that temporarily strengthens all classes.
Warriors wear heavy “plate” metal armor to defend against attacks. They keep other players safe by attracting the attention of the monsters and directing damage to themselves. This is the role of the “tank” — to keep the monster busy so that other less protected classes can battle it to defeat. Warrior is a “melee” class, i.e., one that directly engages the monster up close.
A Level 50 Dwarf Warrior.
Priests have an altogether different function; they heal the characters as their health is diminished by attacks. They wear the lightest armor cloth and have little protection. Priests rely on the tank to keep the monsters occupied and away from them.
A Level 70 Night Elf Priest.
Rogues deal damage with fast, powerful weapons. They can become invisible, stealthing around monsters, getting close enough to attack them unawares. The rogue is also a thief, with the ability to pick pockets and locks. Rogues wear leather which is more protective than cloth but still renders them somewhat vulnerable. Rogue is a melee class.
A Level 20 Gnome Rogue.
Mages also deal damage. They use powerful spells rather than weapons. A mage’s spells can stop monsters in their tracks (turning them into sheep, pigs, or turtles for several seconds). Mages wear cloth. They are a “ranged” class, casting spells standing well away (“at range”) from the monsters.
A Level 60 Human Mage.
The warlock is another clothwearing, ranged, spell casting damage dealer. They have unique abilities such as teleporting players across the game geography. They can cast spells to call up “minions” or companions who perform specialized tasks for them.
A Level 67 Undead Warlock.
Hunters travel with a pet who deals damage and may do some tanking. Using ranged weapons such as bows and guns, the hunter can fight from the greatest distance of any class. Hunters deal significant damage and have useful abilities such as setting traps.
A Level 35 Orc Hunter (with pet).
Druids are a “hybrid” class with healing, damage, and tanking abilities. They “shapeshift” to different forms: the cat stealths and does damage, the bear tanks, the normal form heals. Druids wear cloth or leather.
A Level 60 Night Elf Druid.
Paladins are another hybrid class. They wear stronger armor than druids. They have the ability to resurrect players and cast powerful beneficial temporary spells.
A Level 26 Blood Elf Paladin.
Shamans are similar to paladins. They have special spells called totems that add to the abilities of an entire group as well as diminishing the abilities of monsters.
A Level 60 Tauren Shaman.
Our sample consisted of the following classes by real life gender:
Table 2: Player Class Choice Class Real Life Male Players Real Life Female Players Total Players Druid 4 3 7 Mage 2 3 5 Priest 3 3 6 Warrior 5 1 6 Rogue 5 2 7 Hunter 4 0 4 Warlock 5 1 6 Paladin 3 0 3 Shaman 2 1 3 Total 33 14 47
The interview results are summarized as follows:
- Males and females often gave the same reasons for class choice between and within classes.
- Males and females often chose the same classes (druid, mage, priest).
- Females chose warriors, rogues, hunters, and warlocks less often.
- Female character choice may extend to less played classes (warrior, rogue, hunter, warlock) as females gain game experience.
- Males and females sometimes chose a particular class for personal, idiosyncratic reasons.
Let’s begin with a class that seems to attract both males and females — druids. Male and female players liked the versatility of this class, with its ability to heal and fight. Natalie explained why she made a druid: “They are amazing at everything right now with almost no drawback except you can’t change armor in combat. They actually do surprisingly good feral [damage], are the best fiveman tanks right now, and can heal extremely well.” Jeremiah said, “I like hybrids, anything that can heal itself and do damage.” Elias said, “I thought if you carried the right gear, you could be a tank and a healer.” Peggy, however, emphasized healing which was “super important” to her.
More idiosyncratic answers came from Rosa and Noah. Rosa reflected on the larger context of druids and why she liked them: “[They were] more appreciative of women and mother nature and letting everyone be who they are.” Noah commented, “I thought I was totally going to be a werewolf, like in Diablo 2” (another game). So while a common reason for both males and females to choose druid was the ability to both fight and heal, some players offered unique personal reasons for their choices.
Mage is another class that appeals to males and females. Male and female players emphasized that they liked the high damage of the class. Myrna had tried a paladin and found healing boring. “I want the dps [damage dealing]” she said. Matthew liked the combination of power and safety: “I like the fact that I dont have to be right next to the bad guy to start hitting him [and] thus risk dying myself.”
Let’s turn now to the most stereotypically female class: priest. With their supportive healing function, priests may be seen as feminine. Male players often create a female priest (Ducheneaut, et al., 2006). However, the reasons for choosing the priest class did not vary across gender. Both male and female players said they liked to help others and provide value to a team. Wanda commented, “[The priest’s] healing incorporations make me useful.” Catherine said, “Being a priest makes it easy to survive and everybody wants you on their team.” John said, “Priests are cool because they have a strong team dynamic with other characters since they can heal them and make them stronger, and teams are important to me.” Bill said, “With the priest I like the idea of being able to keep myself alive, and being able to help others, and it’s easy to get into groups and raids with the servers I play on.”
The most stereotypically male class is warrior. Most players create a male warrior character. Jude said, “I picked warrior so I could beat stuff down.” Paul said, “I like the warrior because when I’m backed up by a healer I can smash faces in PvP  and together we become an unstoppable force.”
However, other warriors gave prosaic, practical reasons for their choices: “You need two things in every team — a tank and a healer — and my friend rolled a priest,” said Pablo. Pablo chose warrior to complement his friend’s character. This is not to say that he might not have enjoyed “smashing faces,” but he offered a patently social reason for choosing his class. In fact, Pablo’s reason looks very much like priestly reasons for class choice. Even the most gendermarked classes — warrior and priest — may be chosen by male and female players for identical reasons.
Nonetheless, real life female warriors are rarely encountered in World of Warcraft. Cindy, who played WoW with her husband, was the only female in our sample who played warrior. She explained: “I chose a warrior to be the exact opposite of my priest, to do damage.”
Perhaps the premier damage class is rogue. Much like warriors, RL female rogues are rarely encountered in WoW. The two RL female rogues in our sample, Cressy and Jacquii, were experienced gamers and played with family. Cressy played with her brother and cousin, and was coached by them. When asked (in game chat) why she chose rogue she said, “well, for one reason, no one in my family (well between my brother and cousin) chose a rogue.” She went on to explain that “my main reason is because when i looked up WoW rogues i saw that they can stealth and steal.” She said she enjoyed playing rogue because “theyre awesome! they kill real fast.” Cressy first offered the team argument (so she could complement the classes her brother and cousin played) and then gave another answer regarding roguish abilities that appealed to her — stealth and stealing. Over time, she came to relish the way rogues “kill real fast.”
Jacquii had played Everquest (another MMOG) before moving to World of Warcraft. In the following exchange in chat we discuss her choice to play rogue. (We are communicating with “whisper” or onetoone chat.)
To Jacquii: why did you choose rogue?
Jacquii whispers: It chose me ;) I played a hunter first then tried casters waasnt too happy so then tried rogue as I did play a good one in everquest
Jacquii whispers: fell in love ;)
To Jacquii: fell in love with rogue eh? so why didnt you like casters?
Jacquii whispers: dont like being so squishy and I lov being in the middle of the fight
Jacquii whispers: and I can take !@#$ down easy on rogue
After experiencing many characters, Jacquii decided that rogue was her favorite. Like Cressy, she enjoyed the speed with which she could bring down monsters. Jacquii met her husband in Everquest (“omg we had a story line that was a book!”) and continued to play with him, just as Cindy played with her husband and Cressy with her brother and cousin. While our data are too sparse for generalization, the experiences of Cindy, Cressy, and Jacquii suggest that females may move to damage classes on the front lines after they have tried other classes and if they play with family. Further research would be needed to discover why these factors play a role (if they do). We emphasize that character choices may change as female players gain experience in the game.
What about RL male rogues? Byron also liked the idea of stealthing: “I picked rogues because they were the most difficult class [due to their stealth abilities] and you have to be behind the person to make your daggers useful.” Alejandro emphasized damage: “The rogue I play because you can kill things repetitively and do a lot of damage, and you have ways to get out of fights if you are in too much trouble.” Kevin said, “Rogues are fun. They top the damage meters in raids. You have to be sneaky to get your kills. However if you are stealthed and get the jump on a cloth class you likely can rip them to shreds in record time.” Duncan chose a rogue for team value: “Rogue would fill a role that my guild needed.”
There were no RL female hunters in our sample, and, as far as we can determine, they are rarely played by females. Joshua liked his hunter because, “I like fighting from a distance. You are never the first target, not like a warrior. I never wanted to die. The whole sniper thing too, like, from on a hill, is sweet.” Mohinder pointed to the power of hunters: “They aren’t a hybrid class, the only thing they can do is kill shit.” Moses gave the team answer: “I like hunter because of all the hunter’s utility and usefulness in a group. It’s great, they have a pet, [damage], and traps, plus range.”
Warlocks are a powerful spell casting class. The female warlock, Serena, in our sample liked the power and magic associated with warlocks — it seemed the most fantasylike character to her. “In real life, you can’t have magic so I wanted that in the game when I played,” she said. She played with her cousin and friends. Sean also liked “the cool magic spells.” Terrence liked the variety of magic spells and power: “Warlocks have a lot of variety. Plus they are extremely powerful for damage.” Hugo liked the damage and was also needed to fill out a team. He said, “[Warlocks] were lacking among my friends so they wanted me to be it. It’s all about the numbers — damage numbers. Watch my screen.” In this facetoface interview, Hugo then attacked some monsters, showing his warlock’s high damage numbers.
Warlocks are often the highest damage dealers in PvP. (Serena usually topped the charts when she PvPed.) Two male players mentioned PvP as a reason for choosing warlock. Jimmy said “They do great [damage] in PvP.” Hogan commented, “I would get pwnd [defeated] in PvP by [warlocks].” So Hogan decided to create a warlock of his own to gain that power for himself in PvP play.
Paladins, chosen only by males in our sample, were seen as extremely powerful although they also have the ability to heal. Billy said, “I saw a video of a naked paladin beating a fully geared warrior. I wanted that power. I just love it.” In this context, “naked” meant that the paladin was not wearing armor. That he could still beat a warrior, the class with some of the strongest armor in the game, made an impression on Billy. Arnold noted that paladins have the power of a warrior but can also heal; he thought of the paladin as “a warrior who could heal.”
Shamans are similar to paladins in that they can heal but also wear strong armor. Male shamans also emphasized power: “Shaman feels powerful,” and “They are the best, they have the most power.” Our female shaman, Rose, discussed healing power and resistance to damage: “Natures guardian, earth shield, natures swiftness, and chain heal are all very unique abilities and borderline overpowered. I like the extra armor and it does save wipes [where all characters in a group die]. You can take some damage with natures guardian and [good] armor, so it makes things easier for your tank.” Rose saw the shaman as powerful and related this power to team needs.
Having examined player reasons for choosing each character class, we will consider issues of gender across class.
Gender similarity in class choice
Males and females often chose their class for the same reason. For priest, druid, and mage — the classes popular with males and females — males and females gave similar answers about class choice. Priests were needed for teams. Mages had high damage. Druids were balanced. The single most common reason for class choice across all classes was to be valuable to a team.
Gender differences in class choice
We found that females were less likely to play the melee classes of rogue and warrior, i.e., those that move directly up to the monster and attack. In this case the stereotype seems to reflect reality. Or does it? We also found that the class that stands furthest away from the monsters is the most popular class (warcraftrealms.com) and is a class chosen by males and not females. Many male players apparently like to position themselves in relative safety. (A male mage also noted that he preferred the rear position.) Males are supposed to prefer melee, but hunters are as removed from melee as possible. It appears that melee is far from a universally masculine preference.
No female in our sample mentioned standing away from the monsters as a reason for class choice. But Joshua said, “I like fighting from a distance. You are never the first target, not like a warrior. I never wanted to die.”
Cloth wearing and femininity seem to go together in the repertoire of WoW stereotypes (see Ducheneaut, et al., 2006). However, cloth wearing warlocks were not favored by female players. And clothwearing mages and priests were chosen by both males and females. The flowing feminine robes of the male mage do, however, provoke humor. The incongruity of the (male) power and feminine clothes inspired a satirical player video “Big Blue Dress.” The vocal of an original song laments the sorry state of affairs faced by male mages, asking why “A man of my stature should have to wear a dress” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vqO7zEWu0W0).
Healing is seen as stereotypically feminine. However this stereotype is undermined by the common choice of females to play mage, a damage class. Shamans and paladins also do quite a lot of healing but they appear to be generally played by males.
Nothing to do with gender
Many answers to our questions on class choice were idiosyncratic, purely personal answers. For example, Juan chose warrior because, “My druid was a blacksmith and I wanted someone who could use freakin’ mail, that’s what it came down to.”
A bias in our study is that most of the players we spoke with enjoyed playing with others. There is a segment of the player population that prefers soloing (although these players may have ingame friends with whom they chat and sometimes collaborate). These players may choose characters that are easy to solo such as hunters and rogues. More research is needed to understand how many players are soloing and why they chose their classes. For our purposes, we observe that the ability to solo a class may determine class choice and is unrelated to out of game gender roles.
Our female warrior, warlock, and rogues chose their “nontraditional” classes after playing other classes. They had gaming experience. They played with friends of family. Jacquii was a class captain in her guild. Serena was a competitive player who excelled at her class. It seems likely that as females gain experience in games such as World of Warcraft, their class choices may converge with those of males. In other words, there will be less gender variability in class choice than now appears to be the case. More research is needed on how players experiment with different classes and how they settle on the particular characters that become their favorites.
Gender, Identity, and Class Choice
Does choosing to play a particular class reflect something fundamental about a player’s identity? Our findings suggest that one key reason for class choice is practical and social: the need to fulfill a role in a team. We may look to Adam Smith (2003) for inspiration here; the division of labor is as important in a multiplayer game as in any human activity which cannot attain a goal without specialized roles. It appears that many players, male and female, bring a common identity from real life to the game, that of “team player.”
On the other hand, the ability to “smash faces,” or the wish to find magic in the game, as Serena expressed, suggest the adoption of fantasy identities that fulfill desires to explore identities and activities not possible in real life. World of Warcraft, and other role playing games, combine the need to meet the demands of a complex human activity requiring a division of labor with the opportunity to craft an imaginary identity outside the bounds of everyday reality.
In imagining new identities, we found that some male players invoked “power” as a theme in class choice and used graphic language such as “rip them to shreds” in discussing their powers. Females were more likely express enthusiasm over healing, magic, or special abilities such as stealth. The female rogues emphasized efficiency in bringing down monsters, and did not use the graphic language of some male players. More research is needed to understand the relationship between identities brought to the game from real life and the possibilities for exploring fantasy identities ingame.
We analyzed the reasons players chose character classes. Despite a small sample, our interview data reveal interesting patterns that provide a first look at gender and character choice in World of Warcraft. A larger randomized sample is needed to define these patterns more precisely.
Our study found that some character classes in World of Warcraft appealed to both males and females. Some classes appealed more to males. Females may move into these classes as they become more experienced gamers. Males played a greater variety of classes from the outset. This may reflect their greater experience with games in general, although more research is needed to investigate this possibility.
The single most common reason for class choice was to fulfill a role in a team. In this regard, males and females were alike, weighing the social aspects of the game heavily in their choices. Future research is needed to look more closely at players who form teams for “arena” play, a particular kind of contest within the game, as well as guilds and teams that form for battleground play (another specialized contest). Such research may open questions about personal identity and character choice vs social cohesion and character choice.
Future research with a larger, more randomized sample is required to deepen understanding of male and female play in games such as World of Warcraft. Our study showed that common stereotypes mask important ways in which male and female players are alike, ways in which some male players conform to aspects of the female stereotypes, and possibilities for female players to expand class choices as they gain experience in the game. Our research will continue to look at the real people behind the fantasy characters behind the gender stereotypes as we analyze gender relations in the growing population of players of massively multiplayer online games.
About the authors
Nicholas DiGiuseppe has a BS in Information and Computer Science from the University of California, Irvine. He is striving to gain a PhD in the same field, and his interests include protocol fuzzing, testing, and the impact of games on technology and those playing them.
Bonnie Nardi is a professor in the Department of Informatics in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine. She is interested in social life on the Internet. Her latest book, Acting with Technology: Activity Theory and Interaction Design, coauthored with Victor Kaptelinin, was published by MIT Press in 2006. Excerpts from this book can be found in First Mondays April 2007 issue at http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_4/kaptelinin/.
We would like to thank Silvia Lindtner, Stella Ly, Sylvie Noel, and Linda Polin for helpful comments on an earlier draft of the paper. Dave Elfving, Stella Ly, and Linda Polin and generously sent pictures of their characters (the rest were collected from various sources).
1. Yee (2005) reported that females in his sample nearly always chose female characters while males chose female characters about 23 percent of the time. Every class has both male and female characters so choosing a particular class does not limit choice of gender.
2. In PvP or “player vs player” play, players attack the characters of other players, not just the computer monsters. There are restrictions on when PvP is permissible. It is a challenging mode of game play as human players are (usually) more intelligent than computer characters.
N. Ducheneaut, N. Yee, E. Nickell, E. and R. Moore, 2006. Building an MMO With Mass Appeal: A Look at Gameplay in World of Warcraft, Games and Culture, volume 1, pp. 281317. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1555412006292613
B. Nardi, S. Ly, and J. Harris, 2007. Learning Conversations in World of Warcraft, Proceedings of the HICSS Conference, at http://www.darrouzet-nardi.net/bonnie/pdf/Nardi-HICSS.pdf, accessed 28 April 2007.
B. Nardi and J. Harris, 2006. Strangers and friends: Collaborative play in World of Warcraft, Proceedings of the Conference on Computersupported Cooperative Work (November), at http://www.darrouzet-nardi.net/bonnie/pdf/fp199-Nardi.pdf, accessed 28 April 2007.
A. Smith, 2003. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York: Bantam Classics..
T.L. Taylor, 2006. Play between worlds: Exploring online game culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
N. Yee, 2005. WoW GenderBending, at http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/001369.php, accessed 28 April 2007.
Paper received 6 April 2007; revised 19 April 2007; accepted 23 April 2007.
Copyright ©2007, First Monday.
Copyright ©2007, Nicholas DiGiuseppe and Bonnie Nardi.
Real Genders Choose Fantasy Characters: Class Choice in World of Warcraft by Nicholas DiGiuseppe and Bonnie Nardi
First Monday, volume 12, number 5 (May 2007),
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.