I read an interesting article recently on the Iron Realms website, regarding gender roles in MMORPGs. As a female gamer, and someone who plays a free MMORPG in particular, I was interested!
The article points out that men and women often play MMORPGs differently, or for different reasons: men are on average more likely to be interested in competition and individual victory, but women are on average more interested to be interested in socialization and communal achievement. For those individuals who don't fall under that category for their own gender, they will still be affected by the stereotyped expectations of the players around them, who think of "tanks" as guys and "healers" as girls.
A member of the serpent class (and a kickass woman) fighting a magi. Artwork by player Mattias of Achaea.
What was almost as interesting, to me, as the article itself, was the comments. In other discussions of MMORPGs (and in my own experience playing them), I've heard a lot of complaints from female gamers who feel like games are really very much made for men and marginalize women--women's roles are to be healers, damsels in distress, or sex objects. And they have problems with other players too: I've quite a few stories from women who try to join raiding groups only to be sexually harassed, or condescended to because it's assumed they won't be any good.
I knew one woman who played male characters to avoid negative treatment, but when she joined a group coordinating by voice she'd get sexually harassed as soon as they heard her voice and realized she was a girl...so she had to get software to alter her voice! Obviously, the vast majority of gamer guys do not act that way! But a small number who do can be enough to drive some women away from gaming altogether.
But in the comments on this article, numerous players from Achaea and other text MUDs, male and female alike, all chimed in to say they don't really feel that bias is a problem in these games. And that's my experience too--the mud games I've played have an atmosphere that makes me as a woman feel very comfortable playing, and I've never had people treat me in rude or creepy ways just because my character is female. This is obviously only anecdotal evidence at this point, but from my limited experience I do get the sense that MUDs are more likely to be friendly and comfortable environments for women than the average graphical MMORPG.
Part of this is may be due to the text medium. Someone's gender is much less salient when you mostly interact with them by their name (and the fantasy names people use are often ambiguous as to gender), not by a picture. And when you do look at them, each individual gets to describe how he or she looks--so you don't have a situation where all the female characters have stripper boobs and are wearing almost nothing. A woman sends a sexual message with her character's appearance only if she deliberately chooses to.
It was also suggested in the article that MUDs like Achaea might just be more appealing on average to women, because they have more set up to enable deep, substantial roleplay, the formation of lasting friendships and social ties, and nurturing roles other than just being the healer in a raiding group. Women even hold the majority of leadership roles in Achaea's major player-run organizations, I think. But of course there are plenty of women who just play to kick some butt, which is also awesome!
I certainly wouldn't want to scare women away from MMORPGs because of the possibility of meeting the odd sexist jerk, but the higher number of powerful female leaders and the lower prevalence of discrimination or harassment are definitely things that have contributed to my love of MUDs like Achaea. And hey, if it's true that we women are more likely to be drawn to MUDs, that's good for you guys too, right? :P