Online gamers seek escape in personas of the opposite sex but often encounter stereotypes.
In her flowing crimson cape, thigh-high leather boots and metal-studded red leather bustier, Cardinal is a bow-and-arrow-toting femme fatale.
But not only is Cardinal not real -- she's a character in the popular computer game "Ultima Online" -- she's not really female. Cardinal is the alter-ego of Kenn Gold, a 33-year-old former Army sergeant with thorny green-and-black tattoos covering both of his muscular arms.
As one of the thousands of online gamers who play characters of the opposite gender, Gold created Cardinal as a tactical move: Female characters generally get treated better in the male-dominated world of virtual adventuring. Yet he was unprepared for the shock of seeing the world through a woman's eyes.
"I can't even begin to tell you how funny it is to watch guys trip all over themselves and be dumb," Gold said. "It's very amusing to see them try to be really sophisticated and cool, when they're turning out to be just the opposite."
Changing genders has long been a piece of online role-playing games -- part juvenile mischievousness, part theatrical posing and part psychological release. But as the genre explodes -- online games now attract hundreds of thousands of players -- it's prompted a blossoming of cross-gender experimentation and created sexually amorphous virtual worlds that some revel in and others curse.
Men find they must constantly brush off unwanted advances, and their female characters are not taken as seriously. But they also find it easier to chat with other players and escape the relentless competition among male characters.
The story is the same for women who play men to avoid cheesy pick-up lines. They discover that moving among predominantly male groups involves participating in constant one-upmanship. And as their male characters move up the ranks, they fear losing the respect of other players if their true gender is discovered.
Online adventures are one of the fastest-growing segments of the computer game market, with titles such as "EverQuest," "Asheron's Call" and "Ultima Online." And it's not just kids with nothing better to do. Teachers, nurses, construction workers and accountants create alter-egos and join with others to explore virtual realms and slay imaginary beasts.
In "EverQuest," the most popular of the games with more than 360,000 subscribers, players spend an average of 20 hours a week online. Players call it "EverCrack" because it's so addictive. Much of the allure is the ability to put mundane daily life aside and pretend to be something they're not -- an elf, a woodsman, a knight.
The ultimate challenge: to be another gender. Although some gamers swap genders to explore their own sexuality -- a tiny fraction are cross-dressers in real life -- the vast majority do it as a test of skill.
"There's a long history of this as a performance genre," said Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "There is Glenda Jackson who plays Hamlet. Dustin Hoffman played Tootsie. It's a great challenge, a way to show virtuosity."
Virtual Experience Can Have Real Ramifications
Encouraging the make-believe are online avatars -- the graphic representation of a player's character. Scantily clad females are impossibly thin and full-bosomed. Males are muscular and rendered in heroic proportions. As a result, the contrast between avatar and player can be striking, even when gamers are playing their own gender.
In "EverQuest," only 20% of subscribers are female, but 40% of avatars are. Even accounting for the number of women who play male characters, that amounts to roughly half the female characters in "EverQuest" being played by men such as Gold.
This might be fun and games, but as any serious player of such adventures will attest, online experiences -- with their power to make people laugh, cry or become angry -- can have real-life consequences.
"It certainly makes you more aware of how men treat women," said Raph Koster, 29, who has played a female character for years in an early online text-based game, "LegendMUD." "You're more aware that there are a lot of gendered interactions that we don't recognize as such. It makes you think more about what you're saying and how you're sending subtle messages without being aware of it."
For instance, "if you're a female character, just something as innocent as smiling might get read wrong." And if a male character tries to help a female character, it's assumed he wants something. Often, he does.
Mark Wight, a 28-year-old heavy-equipment operator from Ramona, Calif., said he wanted to hook his female character, Cytarack, into a hunting group so she could gain experience and advance in the game.
"There was this one guy who traveled halfway across the game's virtual continent to hunt with her, but it seemed he was more interested in other things," Wight said, explaining that some players engage in online "cybersex" with each other -- basically a modern twist on phone sex in which acts are described in real-time chat. "I don't play her anymore because people get other ideas. Many adults play because they're looking for somebody on the other side."
In his Mission Viejo apartment, Gold jockeys two computers as he maneuvers Cardinal around "Ultima Online's" virtual realm. He chain smokes Camels, surrounded by stacks of "X-Men" comic books and an exhaustive collection of "Star Trek" video tapes.
In the Army, Gold commanded a Black Hawk helicopter maintenance crew. These days, he's a graduate student in English at Cal State Fullerton, where he teaches freshman composition.
At this moment, however, he is Cardinal, a spell-casting huntress on horseback with a mane of pink hair, leather gloves and black tights.
Gold confesses that he has another female character -- this one in "EverQuest" -- whom he declines to name because no one knows she is played by a man. His character is a longtime member of a "guild," a band of players who agree to play together.
Many of his band would be upset, explained Gold, who spends about 35 hours each week playing "EverQuest" and "Ultima Online." "They'd feel they couldn't trust me anymore. I'd be ostracized. These are guys who think they're worldly, and it scares them to think that there are women they're interested in who may actually be guys."
The deception cuts both ways. Louise, a 44-year-old Sacramento house painter who declined to give her last name, plays a male character and is the leader of her "EverQuest" guild. She said she fears that if the members of her guild were to discover not only her gender but her age, she would lose their respect.
"Some of them are teenage boys," Louise said. "I don't think they'd take it too well. There's a belief that women can't be aggressive. But that's not true at all. I love to be aggressive. It gives me a real adrenaline rush."
In daily life, though, she is shy. It is only when she slips into a role-playing mode that Louise says she can fully express her aggressive nature without fear of being belittled.
But because online relationships can be as intense as their real-world counterparts, there is the potential to wreak psychological havoc.
Emboldened Under Veil of Online Anonymity
Gold five years ago attended an online wedding involving two characters in a game called "Meridian 59." Once the vows were exchanged, the bride declared that she was actually a man and that the two had had cybersex, humiliating the groom in front of their virtual guests. It was all a revenge plot the "bride" had devised because the groom had killed another of the player's characters months earlier in the game.
What makes such behavior possible, of course, is the anonymous nature of the Web. Online players are less accountable for their words and, therefore, less inhibited with their expressions.
"The Internet makes you bolder," said Rick Hall, a game producer at Origin Systems, the company that created "Ultima Online." "If you're the type of guy who wouldn't approach a girl in real life, you can do it online. And if you get shot down, who cares."
Similarly, anonymity gives people the freedom to emphasize a particular personality trait or mood they would stifle in real life. Many players maintain a stable of characters they can pull out to match their mood.
Geoffrey Zatkin, a senior game designer for the company that wrote "EverQuest," rotates between three characters -- a male fencer, a male rogue and a female druid. Each represents a facet of his identity. The fencer is witty, the rogue aloof and the druid outgoing. Zatkin plays the female character when feeling chatty.
For Ramin Shokrizade, playing female characters allows him to escape the competitiveness that pervades the male culture.
"Among power gamers, it gets to be very competitive," said Shokrizade, 35, an exercise trainer and math and science tutor in Palm Desert who says he plays online role-playing games an average of 80 hours a week. "If you're female, they don't do that with you. I enjoy chatting with other players and helping people out. I've been a track coach for 15 years, so I'm used to helping people. This is just a way of practicing what I know."
Still, Shokrizade was surprised at how differently he was treated as a female character.
"It was strange," he said. "If you don't mind being in a supportive role, life is a lot easier for you. You're not expected to be in a leadership role."
Players who wish to escape gender constraints online ironically find themselves in a medium that, if anything, reinforces sexual stereotypes.
"Females tend to get in groups faster, but we get harassed," said Aaron Harvey, a 26-year-old freelance Web designer from Ventura who plays a female gnome in "EverQuest." "People are constantly trying to pick us up. I've been offered [more powerful weaponry] for cybersex, which I turn down rather quickly."
Often, players who gender-swap online are reluctant to talk about their reasons.
"It's not something you would talk about or be proud of," said Pavel Curtis, who developed a well-known text-based online community called LambdaMOO when he was a researcher at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. "Society doesn't see it as a healthy form of experimentation. At best, it's seen as duplicitous. At worst, it's sick and perverted."
Such strongly held views underscore how important gender identity is to people -- even online, where physical appearances are not supposed to matter.
"We tailor our actions based on who we think we're talking to," said Amy Bruckman, assistant professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. "Because these factors shape our interactions, we're often uncomfortable when we don't know these cues on age, race and gender."
As a result, much effort goes into spotting fakes. The clues cited by players are telling indications of how people perceive gender. Bruckman recalled a time when she tried to pass as a male character but was instantly pegged as an impostor. How? "It was just my style of speaking. I used long sentences with lots of adjectives, which is seen as stereotypic of females," Bruckman said.
"Everybody, it seems, needs to know," Koster said. "It's like a void that needs to be filled, and it's deeply ingrained in our culture. There's this notion that the Internet will give us this utopia where gender, age and race don't matter. The idea that we'll all be disembodied floating lights just ain't gonna happen."