I have complained previously about the injection of banal meat-world activities into computer games which occurs in MMORPGs, particularly the need to “work” to make money and items. I play computer games to escape from my ordinary reality, not to go to work after I have finished work, so the importance of “grinding” and trading in games like World of Warcraft gives me the shits (a little). Obviously it’s good from a technical point of view that the designers have set up whole functioning economies, and it’s good that you can make and buy specialist stuff. I also accept that trade in one’s creative efforts is a fundamental part of human interaction, and that is largely what MMORPGs are all about. But it also seems like a kind of seedy under-achievement, that the best these teams of super-creative designers could come up with was real life.

So it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that another of the real world’s great mundanities – sexism – has crept into these games. via Terra Nova, I discovered this claim that Age of Conan has penalised the combat ability of female characters (“by accident” of course). Discussion of this sexism at Terra Nova, incidentally, has been strangely muted, with a wierd example of men giving birth as some kind of counter-factual. The topic reminded me of an experience my good friend Ms. B (in Amsterdam) had while playing WoW. Her Warlock went on a quest to gain a new and powerful demon pet, and came back with this stupid succubus in high heels and a bikini. Ms. B’s reaction to this creature was quite visceral – she almost physically shuddered every time it cracked its whip and snickered. If a game could sexually harass a female player without actually pinching her arse, this is the way a game would do it. Sure, we know most players of these games are probably men but that doesn’t mean we have to reproduce the boys’ club rules quite so explicitly, do we? 

In real role-playing, of course, this stuff doesn’t happen so much. Sure the artwork in the games is universally pretty seedy, but generally (Tunnels and Trolls perhaps being a notable exception) there is no representation of inequality in the game rules, which in fact go out of their way to state that there is no barrier to women playing any role. In all my years of playing I have only ever seen one or two instances where the players try to recreate sexist ideas within the game, even though pulp and high fantasy are essentially very sexist milieux. And to the best of my knowledge I’ve never seen any sexual harassment of players, or attempts at belittling sexualisation. 

It’s another one of the great achievements of MMORPGs, I suppose, that they have created this kind of rush to the bottom, as if the only way the designers could envisage an online community is if it reproduces the basic structures of our real lives. I suppose it’s inevitable, but as always I would have hoped for better.

(Terra Nova also has an interesting discussion of whether or not the MMORPG EVE is going to be affected by the credit crunch currently enveloping its real-world company, which is Icelandic).