About half of the women you see in World of Warcraft are actually played by men. Nick Yee's Daedalus Project came up with this number last July, and anecdotally, it seems about right. But, take a step back into the real world and ask yourself: Why is it so common? How would you explain to your grandparents why so many guys - given a free and clear choice of either gender - choose to pretend they're girls?
Some say certain classes and races, and the avatars Blizzard designed, work better as women than as men. Others give the "nice butt" defense, arguing if you're going to stare at a rear end all the way up to level 60, it might as well be a woman's. But I don't buy that; I have to believe any serious gamer would rather roleplay their characters than ogle them. Your avatar is your interface to the game, the vessel other players speak with, tend to and fight alongside, and I can't imagine making one just to leer at it.
I'm also speaking from experience. See, I enjoy playing a girl.
I tell people I have two characters in World of Warcraft, a (macho) undead Warlock and a (pretty, but no-nonsense) female human Paladin. I like to say I just happen to play the Paladin more often, or I made her a woman because of the Joan of Arc thing. But the truth is, I play the female character far, far more often. The Warlock's pretty much a beard. And while I'm putting my cards on the table, I'll tell you, more often than not, I play female characters in the privacy of single-player RPGs, as well.
I'm not saying I'm especially gifted at thinking or acting like a woman. Here's how I impersonate a girl in Warcraft: I chat more legibly, but capitalize less often. I don't say things like, "Oh duude, I was pwned - that suxored." And one time, I spent a whole night of my gaming time looking around for the right shirt to match my hair. But that's about it.
Of course, most roleplaying games avoid any distinctions between the sexes. In combat, skills, spellcraft and every other piece of gameplay, women and men have the same experiences and the same brains and muscles. We've come a long way from Ultima II, where male characters got a +5 Strength bonus while women got +10 Charisma, but we've also lost any sense that gender would impact your life. In the real world, women are shaped by experiences I can't imagine: Even if I felt like throwing on a dress and trying to pass as the other sex, I wouldn't have one clue about how to do it. For all our assurances that men and women have the same talents and potential, treating them exactly the same feels like ducking an issue, rather than leveling a playing field. So, you'd think an MMOG would find some way to tap into this, to set the sexes apart even as much as dwarves and gnomes. But, the differences are largely cosmetic.
As I psychoanalyze myself, I'd have to say my first reason for switching gender isn't to become a woman, but to not be myself. When I roleplay as a guy, I start with the way I see myself and project that into a 60-foot-tall caricature - and it never comes out the way I want. I keep asking myself: Am I the noble hero? A backstabbing thief? An insecure wisecracker? Do I want to be an alpha male, and if not, does that make me a wimp? Some people roleplay to learn about themselves, but personally, I want to take a break from myself - and playing a girl puts me in far more neutral territory.
Also, with so many guys - especially teenage guys - clogging MMOGs, it's refreshing to switch gender. Many people who play as girls report other players, both male and female, become more approachable and friendlier around women - even when you don't factor in the flirting. That suits me; I'm more comfortable in the middle of a group, helping the stragglers or making suggestions to the leader. In real life, I've worked as a project manager; PMs communicate and moderate, and even when they set the course, they do it by consensus. Traditionally, that management style is associated with women.