I read an interesting blog post the other day from Emily Taylor, a game designer for EverQuest II, about population ratios. More pointedly, the post talked about the ratio of male to female NPCs in Champions Online, and how female characters seemed highly underrepresented for no discernible purpose. She asks at the end, "I wonder how many other games suffer a similar bias, and nobody's even noticed?"
Curious, I flipped out a pen and paper, and took a run around Dalaran in World of Warcraft. Surely a city of erudite mages in one of the world's most popular MMO would have a fair balance of men and women, correct? After a count of every NPC in both Horde and Alliance areas, as well as the sewers - although I'm sure I missed one or two of the roaming flavor NPCs - the count wasn't entirely disappointing. The NPC population of Dalaran is over 250, and of that, 60% are male, 40% are female. While vendors and service men and women (NPCs like trainers, innkeepers, bankers) were pretty even for the small single city sample, there were more male guards than female (40 to 24). The real number discrepancy came with "flavor" NPCs, the NPCs that are there for quests, to lend story, or simply to add a little life by wandering around the city. For those NPCs, the count was a ridiculous 41 male to 14 female.
What do those numbers mean? Ultimately, not much of anything. Sure, 10% off the 50/50 mark isn't representative of a real population, but it's still a small sample size that would like be balanced out the more areas you counted in the game. And if you count all of the male blood elves as female, as many players would love to do, the population balance swings far in the other direction. Walking around the city, you don't feel surrounded by one gender or another - the numbers only come after deep scrutiny, and the only noticeable place that women are absent is outside of Violet Hold. How many people truly care that those eight guards are all men?
There's context to be had, too. It doesn't take an hour of counting NPCs to tell any player of Lord of the Rings Online that the majority of the NPC population in Bree is male, but that's the world of Tolkien. The dwarven race is completely bereft of females in order to reflect that only a third or less of the race is female. Although players can play male or female of any class and non-dwarven race, Tolkien's written world was one of strict morals, where the elves that we have come to associate with lasciviousness from other fantasy worlds would not be caught dead having pre-marital sex, much less be homosexual.
I'm not denying that there are issues with gender ratios in many MMOs, and it would take a lot of time to count and research just how bad the gap is for each game alone, much less to look at the genre as a whole. Gender isn't the only thing that sees a bias, however: so does race. Certainly many MMOs do not reflect a real world cross-section of races, but it seems like even when humans are represented in an online game, shades of white are the greater, and sometimes only, option. Just like the numbers above, the skin color count is often not representative of a real world population. There's no excuse for developers to not offer a variety of shades of melanin, unless the game is based on historical accuracy (such as a game based around the Three Kingdoms era in China.)
There is, of course, a line of sensibility that exists when discussing the matters of equal opportunity in a virtual world. A game with 95% male guards, for instance, has questions to answer - but a game with 60% male guards is not radically out of line. It's like the tired argument that women need to look more realistic in MMOs, while when realistic options are presented, women stick with what looks "sexy." These are, after all, virtual worlds - completely outside any realm of reality. No one's picketing about there being too many blood elves in Dalaran, or too many hobbits in Hobbiton. Game developers aren't obligated to dissect their NPC populations into representative demographic pie charts.
Would we even want them to? Our games, our virtual worlds, allow us to escape the every day. To inject a sense of reality in them - to face the real issues of racism, sexism, and bigotry that live outside our doors - not only sucks the fun out of the game; it risks introducing apathy. And yet there are organizations, like the Council of Europe, who want to encourage online games to promote human rights and equality. While this is a great idea for games aimed at minors, it brings to question whether a game produced by a secular market should attempt to teach moral values - a question that can be addressed another week.
Adults, however, which make up the bulk of MMO gamers (especially the bulk of paying ones) don't need to be schooled in the ways of the world. An online game isn't going to teach us to respect people that are different than we are, nor is it going to accurately reflect our real world via graphical avatar representation. It doesn't need to.
The MMO community, each virtual world, already reflects a diverse selection of individuals, coming from all parts of the world. Behind each avatar, there's a unique story. A game's community can be made of any religion, gender, sexuality, race, nationality, and style of dress that chooses to come to it. We play alongside people who often we don't even know, and we don't care. Sure, there are a few bigoted individuals and groups out there who disallow players from certain real-life backgrounds or situations to join their cliques, but for every one of them, there are thousands who play beside another, blind to the face behind.
Prejudice simply can't be stopped everywhere, but to say that online gaming promotes or tolerates a bigoted environment is a great misjudgment. The argument that the ratio of male to female, or light to dark skinned, NPCs is a reflection of a bigoted environment is one made on superficial pretenses, and denies the very nature of online gaming itself. We are gamers, and no ratio of hobbits to man will reflect our true diversity.