As MMO players we all take on the role of a character, to a certain extent, within the online world we've chosen as our virtual home from home, but what does that character represent to us, and what does it say about us? Concentrating on the more generic idea of an MMO - a game with various races, classes and professions - and ignoring for now those virtual worlds where your character is simply an avatar, presenting an interface to enable you to interact with others and nothing more (not withstanding the fact that it's fairly easy to draw conclusions about a person when their avatar is a ten foot tall dragon-scaled penis called Cecil), what, if anything, can we tell about the person behind the character when we examine the character itself?
Potentially the first thing we notice when first presented with another character is their sex, and immediately we enter in to interesting territory when trying to establish anything about the player behind the character based on this information. Although a lot of MMOs are RPG based, the role-playing aspect of this is often no more than 'I am playing the role of this class or profession', any need to relate to the character is often limited to the fact that if the character does well the player gets to explore more of the world, and if the character dies the player is set back in achieving this goal. It seems that it is rare for players to relate to their characters as an entity that is alive within the world that they are exploring, to play the role not just of the class they have chosen but of the character as a whole. Thus many male players will pick female characters; since the need to relate any more than superficially to the character is dismissed, the deciding factor often comes down to 'if I have to stare at the back of my character for hours on end, which arse is going to be most easy on the eye'. Female players seem to pick male characters less often, and this could be because women tend to relate emotionally to people and objects much more naturally than men do, and therefore playing a female character comes more easily as they can relate to it on a deeper level, in such a way as female to female friendships are often closer than their male to male counterpart.
If we know the sex of the player behind the character - we will try to avoid knowledge of the player when initially examining an area of character choice - does the choice of playing a character of the opposite sex indicate anything to us about the player? There have been many and varied studies on such behaviour, but the general conclusion would probably have to be 'not really' (I'm sure Freud would disagree). Most male players who pick a female character do so for 'aesthetic' reasons, and female players who pick a male character often do so because they wish to be assumed to be male, to avoid the still sadly prevalent and unfair (although, again, drastically improving for the better) image of female gamers as being less capable than their male counterparts. The more disconcerting trend is the opposite of the last example, where a male player plays a female character in order to aid their attempt to convince other players - specifically male players - that they are female player; often such meta-gaming is a harmless attempt to gain an advantage, usually gifts of items and help, from those members of the player community who are more susceptible to the scantily clad female form...
Another very interesting and contrasting area, but one that I couldn't speculate on, is that of gay players. Do the general trends with the gay player population follow the trends that seem apparent in the straight community, or do they differ? Polar opposite? A mix? Too varied to even attempt a generalisation? It would be interesting to know.
So it would seem that it's hard to establish much from the sex of the character alone; with female gamers still being proportionally in the minority compared to male gamers, even though their numbers are growing in leaps and bounds, the chances of a male character being played by anything other than a male are slim, whereas it might be suggested that a female character could equally likely be played by a male or female, if not still favouring the player being male. When you meet a new player for the first time, do you draw any inference from their character's sex? Does it affect your view of that player in any way? Consider it next time you meet a new player, it would be interesting to hear people's opinions and experiences.
Ok, so a character's sex isn't necessarily a great indicator of the player behind the veil, what about character race?
Things start to get a little more interesting with the introduction of character race into the equation. There are several things that can affect the choice of race in an MMO, and some of these choices may allow us to begin to develop the picture of the player behind the character, such that it becomes a little less blurred. It seems prudent to discuss the various factors that combine into the creation of a character separately and to then discuss them in combination with one another, but in discussing the choice of race of a character it is hard to entirely ignore the effect class distribution has on this area.
It would seem fair to say that in general most players will determine their character first and foremost on class, then race and then sex. In discussing them in the reverse order, we try to demonstrate how the least important choice seems also to give us the least information about the player, but that in combination with the other choices it will develop into a more important indicator than it was when considered in isolation.
Many MMO games try to encourage racial diversity by restricting the selection of some classes to only a few of the available races, and thus a large part of race selection boils down to whether your chosen class is available to that race. However, there are other factors that will affect the choice of race, some being more telling about the player than others. Racial-specific abilities in most MMOs tend not to divulge much about the player's decision in choosing that race, they are often minor niceties which are often overlooked by most players for the more important reason for racial choice: appearance. The appearance (and associated background, if any) of a race is probably the big deciding factor for a player facing the choice of what to play, and it can probably give us some insight into that player and the general player population in general.
Still to come: conclusion of racial choice; class choice; class development; names and affiliations...