The Transfer of Stereotypes and Prejudice

It is easy to think of the fantasy worlds offered by MMORPGs to be an escape from real world constraints, prejudices and stereotypes.

The things that affect me emotionally are not the small moments, but the epiphanies I occasionally have about how virtual worlds allow for a greater expression of human hope and potential... how people can play, be free to express various aspects of themselves, and form amazing, supportive communities. I get emotional when I think about the people who don't have anyone in RL, are the victims of RL prejudices, members of conformist communities, or in other ways can't find meaning in their real lives. I find that sad, but then am happy that they at least have some place where they feel they can belong, are accepted and needed. [CoH, F, 35]

The problem is that the more we look, the more we find that many of our real world constraints and stereotypes follow us into MMORPGs. For example, female avatars are often harassed by male players.

The funniest experiment about 'not being me' was to play a female character. Strange how players were nice with me. They start conversations without reasons, gave me items, money or time. Some even died to save me. I guess a lot of MMORPG players are single men, that's why. [M, AO, 34]

I never realized how irritating it can be to have to put up with unwanted advances. [EQ, M, 38]

Of course, the exaggerated female anatomy and skimpy clothing merely serve to encourage objectifying female bodies. More intriguing is that even in a world where male and female bodies are functionally equivalent, male avatars are valued higher in external markets such as eBay than female avatars of the same level and with comparable gear.


Another player comments on how video game culture and anonymity culminate in MMORPGs to create an atmosphere of homophobia.

Really the only negative aspects in games to me, other than game play/system/developer issues, has been the atmosphere of homophobia. As a gay man it seems the computer and computer game cultures fosters a sense of hatred towards homosexuals. From the casual use of the term gay as a common put down to a handful of nasty instances of harassment by griefers and even discrimination from game companies that caused me to cancel their service. [CoH, M, 31]

Others comment on how cultural identities and stereotypes have impacted their game-play experience.

I'm an American living in Japan, and because of the time zone differences, my husband and I belong to a big Asian guild in EQ. As a result, I've experienced some really nasty, prejudiced reactions from people who see my guild tag and assume I can't speak English. There are a lot of very negative attitudes about Asian guilds in English-speaking countries--most of them based simply on stereotypes and ignorance. Participating on EQ message boards and communities, I have often ended up very embarrassed at how rude and thoughtless Americans can be. It's a terrible feeling when you see someone from your country say that all Asians are 'faggy slant-eyed wankers,' for example. [EQ, F, 35]

In FFXI there was this "uber leet" syndrome the majority of the Japanese players had. Where they considered every American as a noob, because Japanese had been playing FFXI for a year and Americans just got it. Now in general, that's somewhat true, most of the Americans(Non-Japanese) are noobs, but the few of us who weren't were still being discriminated against for being American.

In FFXI They even helped the Japanese find out whose American and who is not. When it first came out, the translator translated things from Japanese to English, or vice versa, without any notice that someone was using the translator, but then they added a patch that put brackets around the translated words, so they could tell if your American (Using Translator). I respect and like the Japanese Culture, but that game felt like it was trying to make me be racist or something. It pissed me off to have to wait 2+ hours just to try getting into an xp team because the majority of the Japanese didn't want to team with Americans. [excerpted from an FFXI forum]


These narratives on cultural identity are particularly provocative because the stereotypes are being carried into a world where real world nations do not exist. In fact, what becomes clear is that MMORPGs are an arena in which real world prejudices, stereotypes and conflicts play out. The following narrative on a 9/11 memorial in Ultima Online highlights just how real our virtual conflicts can be.

I live in the United States, and play on an Ultima Online 'shard' located there. On the first anniversary of 9/11, a player who apparently was in the military in the real world created a United States flag from 'fabric' on a particular bridge going into the main city of Ultima, 'Britain.'

As the various players saw the flag a strange thing began to happen. Some disgruntled players surfaced and began to deface this flag, verbally abusing the ones who created the flag and those who stood by watching. They seemed to be systematically changing the patterns and colors into what began to look like the Palestinian flag. In opposition, highly offended American players, several of whom claimed certain military affiliations, began to systematically change the colors back in the attempt to restore the graphic of the American flag. Game Masters were called, but as the topic was so very emotional and nationalistic, they wound up wiping their hands of it and pretty much leaving things to the players and the intense emotions of the day.

There were sharp exchanges, threats, and challenges to 'go to Fel' (for pvp) to resolve the issues from several groups. What followed was what I later referred to as 'The Battle of Britain Bridge.' After a few initial verbal scuffles, a silent but intense competition began with several players doggedly dying 'fabric' and laying down either a pattern of orange/green/white, or red/white/blue flags onto this bridge area.

The battle went on for hours, lasting all night by my time zone. One man, who said he was a US Marine in the real world, laid down US colors into a flag pattern for nearly 8 hours straight with the assistance of a couple of others. I watched this 'battle' for hours, giving a small bit of assistance from my convictions to 'my side' of the issue, but mainly watching the fascinating effect of real world conflicts spilling over into a virtual reality where all of us are grouped together and unaware of our 'real' identities.

I was truly overwhelmed after being a part of this unique battle and spent several days very emotionally affected by the conflict between the Americans trying to give a memorial to the fallen, and those who opposed the United States and openly celebrated the attacks made against the United States. I became intensely aware of the global nature of the online community from this point on. I have also never again felt 'safe' in this virtual world and am always now very aware that while this is a game, it is also very much a human reality, and that someone who may be what I would consider a dangerous enemy to my country may be right beside me killing dragons in Ultima Online. [UO, F, 46]

Virtual worlds do not free us from real world stereotypes and prejudices. Instead, our stereotypes and cultural identities seem to follow us even into worlds that are entirely woven from fantasy. In a world where we can be who we are not, do we learn from the prejudice and discriminations we experience, or does it merely serve to perpetuate and encourage existing stereotypes and prejudice?